Scenic Drive through Northern Wisconsin | Midwest Living

Scenic Drive through Northern Wisconsin

An autumn tour reveals tree-lined main streets, solitary beaches, and sunsets that splash pink and orange across the horizon.

Views Forever Changing

Woods and water surround you as you travel across northeast Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula and along Lake Superior. Late August brings cooler breezes and first hints of fall color to interior forests, along with apples ripening in area orchards. Thanks to the tempering lake breezes, autumn takes its time arriving and lingers on the lakeshore.

From the community of Ashland, the largest in this region, small towns and villages settled beside wild lakes and rivers reflect their fur-trading, lumbering and fishing heritage. Along tree-lined main streets, residents direct you to local historical museums and host tradition-rich festivals. Byways and highways lead into the woodsy wilderness of 860,000-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, where Ojibwas and Sioux once hunted.

As the route gently curves around the peninsula's Lake Superior shore, views are forever changing. You pass through postage-stamp-sized towns with intriguing names such as Port Wing and Cornucopia. Take time to walk solitary beaches and marvel at sunsets that splash pink and orange across the horizon.

At the peninsula's tip, Bayfield, a New England-like village that rolls down the hills to Lake Superior, is the gateway to the 22 Apostle Islands offshore. Intriguing shops, fine restaurants and historic inns warmly welcome visitors to this town, a tradition for generations of vacationers.

Wisconsin map


Ashland's Victorian-style brownstone buildings recall the days when this bustling, small city beside Chequamegon Bay was a busy shipping and lumber center.

During the late 1800s, Ashland's Hotel Chequamegon ruled the lakefront social scene with chamber concerts, polite lawn croquet games and distinguished guests such as Mark Twain. Twice rising from the ashes, the white-frame hotel was completely rebuilt in 1986 in the style of grand 19th-century Great Lakes hotels. Rooms are standard motel-style, but Victorian-style antiques fill the lobby and attentive service is the sort for which another former guest, John D. Rockefeller, would have tipped generously.

Beaches and parks line the neighboring shore. Pleasure crafts bob in waters offshore. Prentice Park, on Ashland's west edge, is a 100-acre migrating stop and nesting grounds for waterfowl.

Stop by the chamber of commerce for a map of area waterfalls. Just west of town, hands-on exhibits at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center chronicle area history and geology.

Drive 20 miles west on US-2.

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

Head south on Forest-234 to reach the Wanoka Lake Campground, one of many in the hills and ravines of this 860,000-acre north-woods preserve. Scenic drives crisscross the national forest, and four trail systems wind through its interior, including 60 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail. You also can hike into two rarely-visited wilderness areas within the forest at Porcupine and Rainbow lakes. Both areas are home to deer, bears, foxes, and beavers.

Continue west 15 miles on US-2.


The Brule River, a great spot for canoeing or fishing, runs through this small town on its way north to Lake Superior. Stop and fish at turnoffs on County-H north of town. Stock up on bait, tackle and groceries along a three-quarter-mile strip of gas stations, stores and canoe liveries along US-2. You can rent a canoe here and follow the river's northern course all the way to Lake Superior. Signs of civilization soon disappear as you paddle your way through deep forests.

Drive 27 miles north and east on County-H/State-13. Along the way, the location where the Brule River empties into Lake Superior is worth a photo stop.

Port Wing

White-frame buildings jauntily trimmed in dark green surround a small park with a gazebo in this little Lake Superior town. Follow the main street a mile north to the marina, with its cluster of charter fishing boats. Mid-afternoon, you can watch commercial fishing boats head back to the docks, loaded with freshly-caught herring, chubs, and other lake fish.

Four miles west of Port Wing along State-13, a small park with picnic tables makes a great spot to view freighters that ply Lake Superior's waters. Stretches of sandy shore beg to be strolled. Perch on a favorite driftwood log to watch the sunset (after 9:00 p.m. in summer). The fiery-red ball descends slowly into the big lake.

Drive 7 miles northeast on State-13.


The tiny town of Herbster includes only a couple of taverns and restaurants. The spectacular lake view draws visitors to this little community. You also can fish in the Cranberry River and drive the scenic Lenawee Rustic Road south of town.

Drive 8 miles east on State-13.


Wisconsin's northernmost village affectionately calls itself "Corny." It's a one-general-store kind of place, distinguished by its onion-domed St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church. Quaint little shops come and go in the harbor area, and the neighboring beach is perfect for a picnic. Nearby sandy beaches entice sunbathers and castle builders.

Continue 18 miles east. Then, drive 3 miles south on State-13.


Shops and galleries cluster along the lakefront and the main street that leads from the docks of this small, New England-like town. Bayfield was built on hillsides that roll down to Lake Superior. Painters, potters and other artisans display their creations alongside boutiques, gift shops, and fashionable clothing stores. Stop in outfitters' shops for information about kayaking and other treks to the nearby Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Restaurants specialize in fresh lake fish, along with sautéed whitefish livers, a local delicacy.

Up the hills overlooking the Apostle Islands, some of the Victorian mansions you see have been converted to bed and breakfasts. A wide porch wraps halfway around the 1892 Queen Anne-style Old Rittenhouse Inn, a vacationers' favorite. Watch the car ferry chug back and forth to Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands, two and half miles across the bay. Sightseeing cruises also depart from the marina.

Three miles south of town along State-13, the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua plays all summer. Area residents perform musicals about local history. Sometimes called the "Carnegie Hall of tent shows," the Chautauqua also stages concerts, comedy shows and light musicals.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Cradled in Lake Superior's always-chilly waters, 21 of the 22 Apostle Islands and a narrow strip of the Bayfield Peninsula make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. On the remote islands, green ridges and forests stretch down to curving, solitary beaches. Forests for hiking and camping draw visitors ashore, where they also can explore ruins of old fishing camps and brownstone quarries.

Sailboaters favor this national lakeshore for its steady winds and protected waters. Lighthouses still stand watch on six of the Apostle Islands. Rangers and volunteers lead lighthouse tours during the summer months.

Along the shores of some of the islands, breezes echo through vaulted chambers and passageways of sea caves that kayakers love to explore. When the lake is calm, you're bound to see these crafts around Devils Island.

The national lakeshore visitors center in Bayfield provides a good introduction to the area. The islands, which you can reach by excursion boats or your own craft, range from more developed Stockton, with evening campfire programs, to wilder Outer Island.

Board the car-and-passenger ferry in Bayfield for the 2-and-a-half-mile trip to Madeline Island.

Madeline Island

The ferry from Bayfield takes just 20 minutes to reach the largest and best known of the Apostle Islands (not part of the national lakeshore). From the dock at La Pointe, the 14-mile-long island's only community, you can stroll to restaurants and shops, and past historic homes and churches. Exhibits in the Madeline Island Historical Museum recount early fur-trading days.

Buses provide guided tours beyond La Pointe. You also can rent bikes and mopeds or drive your own car. Swimmers head for the mile-long beach at 2,350-acre Big Bay State Park and Campgrounds. Big Bay Lagoon, almost entirely within the park, draws canoeists and anglers.

After you return to Bayfield, drive 12 miles south on State-13.


Boat ramps and beaches dot the shoreline of this busy resort community, anchored on each end by parks that make great picnic spots. Learn about early logging families at the Washburn Historical Museum and Cultural Center, housed in a refurbished brownstone bank building.

Drive 8 miles south on State-13 and three miles east on US-2 back to Ashland.


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