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Ride the Highlands
Wisconsin’s Northern Highland American Legion State Park offers a multitude of recreational activities, but biking is king on the Bearskin State Trail
Looking for a quiet weekend of camping, fishing, swimming, or perhaps a day riding your bike? Look to the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest (NHAL). Within the forest’s boundaries you will find a multitude of campsites, picnic areas, hiking trails, water sports (fishing, tubing and skiing) and wildlife-watching opportunities.
Scattered throughout NHAL’s 222,000 acres of landscape, and along the 257 miles of waterways—903 lakes, plus rivers and streams—are 1053 campsites, including group camping, backpacking and canoe sites. The site accommodations range from designated wilderness, with fire pits and latrines (13), to sites with flush toilets and showers (349). Many sites can be reserved in advance.
Fishermen will find all warm-water species ready to do battle, as well as some very fine trout habitat. Canoeists can paddle leisurely on any of the lakes and rivers. Hikers have some 35 miles of designated trails, plus unlimited walking space throughout the woods, fields and marshes, and on the old logging roads. Birders and wildlife photographers would not be wasting their time if they spent a few hours—especially early and late in the day—at the Powell Marsh Wildlife Area located in the northwest corner of the forest.
Bikers will love it here, too! The Bearskin State Trail is 18 miles, one-way, of relatively flat, compacted crushed stone. The bike trail travels along miles of small creeks and through varied semi-wilderness, rarely coming close to a road.
What is now the Bearskin State Trail was originally built in the late 1880s as a railroad bed, used to ship lumber to southern markets. When the line ceased to exist, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recognized the potential for recreational opportunities and recommended the state purchase the property, which it did in 1973. By 1977 the trail was in full use by bike riders.
This last fall, my wife and I decided it would be a good time to combine camping with a little biking. We chose the Bearskin State Trail because we could camp in one of the most beautiful areas of our state. Our camp was at the Indian Mounds area of NHAL, located on Tomahawk Lake, less than 10 miles from the northern trailhead. After setting up camp at a beautiful wooded site, with our own private beach, we took a short bike ride to activate our muscles and pick up firewood. A supper of soup, a cup of tea, a campfire, sunset, and an evening of loon calls ended the day.
Rising with the sun the following morning, we prepared for our ride with a light breakfast. It didn’t take long to drive to the trailhead, which is well-marked and begins at the west end of the parking lot in a little park, with the crossing of a portion of Minocqua Lake on the first of many wooden trestles we traversed before the day was done. Our goal was to ride the northern half, then do the southern half the next day. This would allow ample time to enjoy the trail and all its amenities.
We passed several private residences, some resorts and a business or two, but mostly we traveled through the woods—pine, oak, maple, birch and aspen. The trail borders lakes and small ponds, streams and creeks with tag alder, and tamarack/berry/sedge marshes and bogs.
At the halfway point, we used the restrooms, refilled our water bottles and enjoyed the view of South Blue Lake from one of the many picnic tables placed along the trail. We had made such good time, and the ride was going so well, that we decided to continue. The southern half belongs to creeks and springs, trout and chubs, and all the beautiful wetlands that go with them. (Next time, I will pack my fly rod.)
The trail crosses its namesake Bearskin Creek nine times. Every mile along the way is clicked off with a post telling you how far you have traveled. Every road crossing is also named, and along the way there are orange “site number” signs. These identify historical places and/or events. A small book that can be purchased at the ranger station identifies these interesting locations.
POINTS OF INTEREST
One of the highlights of the trip was an observation deck overlooking a large wetland formed by Bearskin Creek. Crossing to the deck, we watched trout and chubs feeding in the water below. The countryside through which the trail leads is full of sights and sounds. We saw a doe perk her ears and stare as she hesitated before disappearing into the alder; a bugling elk startled us when we paralleled a game farm. Ducks quacked and grabbled, and sandhill cranes rattled their eerie cry.
We found asters and bergamot, and even some white water lilies blooming. Chipmunks, with their antenna-like tails high in the air, and gophers, their tails trailing horizontally, scurried across the trail continuously. Squirrels— gray, red and even black—crossed the path. Blue jays, robins, chickadees and little brown warblers with yellow rumps fluttered above. We even saw an eagle during our visit.
Before we knew it, we had ridden the entire trail both ways, all 36-plus miles. Our day ended back at our camp with a swim in the cool, clear water of Lake Tomahawk. We’d begun the cool morning in sweatshirts and pants but ended the day in swimsuits. Finally, after another hot meal and cup of tea in front of a crackling campfire, we were treated to a repeat performance of loon calls to finish the evening.
BEFORE YOU GO
Information and maps for the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest can be obtained by writing to: Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, 8770 Hwy J, Woodruff, WI 54568; by calling 715/356-5211; or check out the forest’s website (
). Reservations can be made over the phone or online.
In addition to whatever gear your favorite activity requires—be it fishing, hiking, canoeing or biking—be sure you have your camera and binoculars. If you plan on biking, a small guidebook, The History and Guide to the Bearskin State Park Trail, can be obtained (for just $1) from the Department of Natural Resources, Trout Lake Forestry Headquarters, 4125 Highway M, Boulder Junction, WI 54512.