Drive north on Highway 51 from Madison and you will eventually hit a special spot just past Highway 8 where the freeway drops down to a two-lane road. The “Freeway Ends” sign says it all. You have made it to the Wisconsin Northwoods; the land of lakes, pines, off-grid cabins, and small towns.
Over the years of traveling up north, I have learned that the Northwoods is more than a place on the map: it’s a feeling. A way of life, if you will. As much as the area is known for its great fishing, trail systems, supper clubs with gangster history, and lake life; perhaps more importantly, it’s about the good memories of slower days held by so many Midwestern’s. “If you know, you know”, I heard a local friend explain to a first-time northern traveler. You just have to experience it. And, in my opinion, it must be explored in every season to fully appreciate all the Northwoods has to offer.
Manitowish Waters has become my go-to spot to escape for an iconic Northwoods experience. It’s an easy 4-hour road trip from my home near the Madison area. I always stay at Alderwood Resort, a set of old-fashioned cabins and one large home on the shores of Alder Lake, part of the Manitowish Chain of 10 Lakes. The cabins are only available in three seasons, so my friends and I stayed in The Brick House for our latest week-long winter adventure.
Many people travel up north in the height of summer, but the locals will attest to winter being just as good. Manitowish Waters has an endless amount of winter activities that are easily accessible for locals and travelers alike. Whether you’re a regular outdoor adventurer or a new explorer, there is something for you to enjoy up north.
Here are my top 5 activities from our winter getaway:
Our friend Chris, owner of River’s Edge Outfitters, hooked us up with fat tire bikes and met us out at Winman Trails, a network of trails located on 1,300 acres of land in Winchester, WI. We cruised the mountain bike trails over rolling hills and through red pine forests. Chris was an amazing trail guide and made us feel super confident while riding through snow for the first time. I was exhausted by the end of our 2-hour ride, in the best way possible. There is nothing quite like flying down a windy trail through tall pines. Back at Alderwood, we cozied up by the fire with a hot toddy to end the day. I highly recommend giving it a try!
Another expedition with gear from River’s Edge Outfitters! One of the best parts about returning to Manitowish Waters season after season has been becoming friends with the locals. People in these small northern towns are so friendly. The owners of Alderwood Resort and Bartlings Cranberry Co have taken us along on many adventures; cocktail hour in a cranberry bog, a cranberry farm and processing tour, and drinks at a local tavern, just to name a few. This winter, we added snowshoeing to a tiny off-grid cabin to the list, complete with old-fashioned’s in our thermoses and good conversations around a bonfire. Although their land is private, there are lots of public trails in the area. Check out Winman Trails or North Lakeland Trails. Both have warming huts that are open to the public as well.
The drive from Manitowish Waters to Bayfield is just under two hours. Hiking the shores of Lake Superior in wintertime was high on my bucket list, so we set out on a daytrip to hike Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. We left early and stopped in Ashland for road trip snacks and yummy baked goods from Ashland Bakery. The next stop was Houghton Falls State Natural Area in Washburn to hike through Echo Dells, a sandstone gorge featuring impressive rock cliffs, caves, and small waterfalls. The path continued through the woods featuring a variety of pines, hemlock, and birch trees, ending on the shore of icy Lake Superior with iconic views of snowy cliffs and ice fishermen in the distance. Once in Bayfield, we grabbed coffee and some cool souvenirs from Wonderstate Coffee, then hopped onto the ferry to Madeline Island where we drove through the snow and explored Big Bay State Park. Walking through downtown Bayfield felt like living in a movie, and watching the ferry crash through the ice of Lake Superior, I couldn’t help but feel like we were traveling to the ends of the earth. On the way home, we stopped in Ironwood, MI to hunt for some antique treasures at Dan’s Antiques, then onward to Cold Iron Brewing to refill our growler from last year. What a day full of good coffee, quaint lakeside towns, hiking along cliffs, and good memories with good friends. A trip to Bayfield is a must!
I have wanted to try skiing for so long, and the Northwoods was the perfect place to finally do it! We glided through the woods at North Lakeland Discovery Center where there are plenty of trails for beginners like me. You can rent ski gear from River’s Edge Outfitters and they will even deliver and pick it up for you. It took a while for me to catch onto the rhythm, but I can say that I was hooked immediately. What’s not to like about skiing through the woods, right? Now I know why people look forward to snowfall.
You cannot go on a trip to the Northwoods with visiting a true and authentic supper club! We purposely plan our trip around eating the fish fry on Friday. We always love visiting Little Bohemia in Manitowish Waters, but this time we ventured out to Minocqua to the highly recommended Norwood Pines. We did a little shopping in downtown Minocqua in the afternoon, picked up some souvenirs at Sallet’s Outfitters, swung into Northern Waters Distillery, then headed to the edge of town for an old fashioned and fish fry in the pines. Norwood Pines is the complete supper club experience: wood paneling, a cozy fireplace, and all-you-can-eat fish fry. Don’t be surprised to see snowmobiling gear hanging on the coat rack this time of year. I’m adding Norwood Pines to my list of favorite supper clubs for its ambience and friendly service.
After our week of adventures, I can say with certainty that my appreciation for winter has increased dramatically. I’m proud of us for getting out of our comfort zones and trying new things. Having outdoor activities that you enjoy changes your outlook on this often underrated season. Now I understand why so many people look forward to a winter escape as much as summer. Our days were a perfect mix of work, rest, and play, and I’m feeling especially thankful for these slower paced days at the lake.
Before leaving town, we grabbed drinks at my favorite lakeside coffee shop, Dixies’s Coffeehouse. As I sipped my chai latte, my friends and I dreamed about our next trip north. Our rule: do not leave the Northwoods without planning your next trip.
I hope this inspires you to jump out of your comfort zone and embark on a winter adventure. I think it will leave you with a greater appreciation for these snowy, cold days and the possibilities that await in the great Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Morgann McCoy is the owner, designer, and seamstress behind A Well Worn Story, a sewing studio in southern Wisconsin creating handcrafted leather and wax canvas bags inspired by adventure
www.wellwornstory.com | @awellwornstory | Oregon, WI