When the Deep South is home base, travel to the Wisconsin Northwoods opens up vast new experiences. In the Fall, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom checked out one Wisconsin county with a dozen communities. Deep-snow winter would be another adventure.

Changes on chains of lakes in Wisconsin Northwoods mean fewer handsome boathouses.

Fancy boathouses match the people houses on Wisconsin Northwoods lakes. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom.

Expect the Unexpected at Wisconsin Northwoods

Autumn leaves failed as my reason to travel to the Wisconsin Northwoods in late September. Nothing wrong with the leafy color wheel. But I couldn’t stay focused on gold, red, orange and green because of other unexpected pleasures.

Water dominated my activities, as did the woods, in ways richer than the leaf palette I sought. I wonder if that happens on leaf peeping road trips in New England too? Any experiences to share?

Here’s a bit of what the top of Wisconsin presented me with:

  • Chains of lakes, connected in intriguing ways for all kinds of exploring
  • Forests to hike, telling stories of glacial movements and human endeavors
  • Generations of lodge owners, families sharing history in beloved places
  • Twelve communities, each with a distinct personality – pride of place
  • Supper Clubs and fresh walleye, cranberries harvested here, sandwiches grilled with superb cheeses

Lakes in Chains Ease From One To Another

Those chains of lakes are no small matter since this county named Vilas boasts 1,300 of them. Simply studying the map is a puzzle of watery links and connections: good brain exercise to plan a vacation.

Muse about Native Americans and trappers traveling this area, lake to lake, and then consider which guide to hire for your fishing excursion. Great big muskies are the goal, and tough to hook.

Grand era of boating still evident in the Wisconsin Northwoods. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

In Wisconsin Northwoods, sometimes boats live better than people. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

I went in search of old boathouses instead. Found 50.

TravelingMom Tip: Book a Friday all-afternoon boathouse tour in the community named Eagle River. Per person $20. Spirited commentary. Add in lunches for $10 per person.

Boathouses suggest stories of the people living within these chains of lakes, and there will be no more. Original boathouses are grand architectural structures.

New boat storage sites look industrial, efficient but not grand. When capturing the stories of enthusiastic guide Gary Fawcett, get insider info from one of the builders—his wife’s grandfather. (Fawcett also serves on the Board of Directors of the excellent Northwoods Children’s Museum in Eagle River.)

This is a history tour, with three to four hours to relax on the water. That’s Northwoods Wisconsin immersion.

Which Hike To Choose in the Northwoods?

Woods are everywhere in Vilas County on the top of Wisconsin. Residents have their favorite trails within those 16 million acres throughout the state.

The forests are not solid, but rather mosaics, a patchwork of habitats forming patterns across the landscape. That started being clear to me driving north from the Green Bay airport.

If you go in the winter, ask about the snowshoe and snowmobile trails in Vilas County because they’re groomed, locally loved, and often connect from tavern to tavern.

For autumn hiking, I know three good ones. Hundreds more exist.

Colors designate trails as well as autumn leaves in the forests of Wisconsin Northwoods.

Maps and tree blazes guide hikers through the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

VAN VLIET HEMLOCKS In Georgia where I live, hemlocks are suffering and dying. Finding a forest full of them with eight clearly defined trails in Wisconsin delivered joy to me. 416 acres to be precise and five miles of trails.

Yellow birch, sugar maple and basswood grow here too, and chimney swifts love to make homes in the yellow birches that create space for the little birds by rotting from the inside out.

Technology intersects with nature in these woods with a phone app connecting with Google Earth. It didn’t help with my feeble attempts at pishing to call the local birds.

Listen to the local folks because they'll point out the fragrances of theWisconsin Northwoods. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Listen to the local folks because they’ll point out the fragrances of the Northwoods. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Never knew until hiking here – ambling along on well-groomed trails –that hemlock trees fueled the leather industry: all the bark of one tree required for tanning one hide. This forest fed tanneries in Milwaukee up to World War I.

Now I think differently about my leather shoes and purses.

I walked on ridges too, and learned the word esker: a long, winding ridge between two valleys. Considering glacier action 10,000 years ago helped me notice those deep valleys and the signs of an old growth forest.

TravelingMom Tips:

If available, hire a guide by calling the Presque Isle Chamber of Commerce. Or go it alone because trails are clearly marked in a brochure, with blazes on the trees and signage at every intersection.

DISCOVERY CENTER: Twelve miles of trails wind throughout this dynamic citizen science nature center. Plus a boardwalk over a lush bog and an interpretive nature walk with 17 stations.

Colors vary seasonally in the Northwoods forests of Wisconsin.

White birch trees accent autumn leaves in the Wisxonsin Northwoods. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom.

Two naturalists are on staff full time. With a bit of advance planning, travelers can find guided hikes and seminars. I peeked in the modest bunk bed cabins from the 1960s when this was a Youth Conservation Corp facility, and in the luxury rental home. Stay awhile.

Special events at Discovery Center include wolf howling and butterfly tagging. How’s that for contrast? Sandhill crane counts, bird banding, sugar maple tree tapping and more. Much more.

Citizen scientist stations intrigued me as I wandered. Nine platforms connect to scientists at the University of New Hampshire and I entered real time data.

Setting my camera on a small platform to send time-lapse photos, I sffrf to the data on tree growth, shoreline changes, native plant growth. Everybody has the chance.

This was a different experience from my Deep South forest hiking.

PRESQUE ISLE LAKEThis is a quiet choice, easy with little kids and with wheelchairs, scooters and strollers. The trail around the lake is handicap accessible. Picnic tables invite lingering for lunch. Iff you’re lucky, the food truck named Consumption Jct. International East will be serving distinguished soups, salads and wraps.

In Wisconsin Northwoods, the lake in Presque Isle welcomes gentle strolling and fishing.

Plan a little picnic along a lake that’s stroller/wheelchair accessible in Presque Isle. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom.

Gather Stories From Lodge-Owning Families    

Lodging options felt vast and diverse to me in these Wisconsin Northwoods; maybe that’s why I moved around every night. Anonymity is possible but I loved the tales told by third generation proprietors on the edge of these chains of lakes or their bays.

TravelingMom Tip: Too much research might make you crazy. Just trust the diversity. I have firsthand experience with these four but glanced at many groupings of cabins in the woods and on the lakes.

Voss’ Birchwood Lodge: Manitowish Waters

“Everybody has a crazy Aunt Mable but I chose to celebrate her,” says Ruth Gardner, proprietor of a 10-cottage lodge in her family for 106 years. Expect grandma’s china in the formal dining room, and outlandish tales like the one about her mother being born on the train tracks. Six suites are available in the main lodge, with a massive moose head over the fireplace. “Grandfather shot that when he was 18.”

White Birch Village Resort: Boulder Junction

Sunrises, sunsets and starry skies inspire the family owners in this 18-unit resort, and that’s been true since 1942 says Sue Malmgren Altshwager who’s the current generation in charge now with her husband John. “Solitude, peace, quiet abound,” she says. So do easy opportunities to kayak, standup paddleboard, fish and engage with creatures roaming the woods.

Cedaroma Lodge: St. Germain

This lodge is really lakefront cottages, and the sandy beach supported yoga classes my afternoon of checking it out. Stand-up paddleboards are free to borrow, and so are canoes and kayaks, a hydro bike, conventional bicycles and rowboats for fishing.

Northwoods lodging always includes outdoor spaces too.

Invitations to sit and chat abound in the Wisconsin Northwoods. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Lodge at Manitowish Waters

Pine logs formed the furniture in my second floor room for two nights, with a balcony overlooking, of course, a forest. Typical of Vilas County, this Lodge has outdoor seating in the yards and gardens, and easy access to a trail to hike and bike. Breakfast is help yourself, with more than carbs. Unusual feature: spa and hair salon on the property, boutique shops just across the street.

Supper clubs, cranberry harvests and Northwoods cuisine have to find their way into another story, another day.