By Jeniece Smith
Established in the 1930s as two separate forests and managed together, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest sprawls across an astounding 1.5 million acres, with units across the northwestern and northeastern regions of the state.
Offering just about any recreational activity you can think of, the forest comprises most of the federally protected land in Wisconsin with its dense woodlands and sparkling waterways.
You can hike, bike, horseback ride, ATV or snowmobile, cross-country ski or snowshoe all day without seeing more than just a sliver of the forest’s mammoth 800-mile trail system, with some trails designated for hunting. Or, stay in your car and wind through the wilderness on rustic roads.
Hit the beach at more than two dozen swimming areas, with rivers and lakes for fishing, paddling, zipping along on a boat or waterskiing. Additional offerings include geocaching, letterboxing and even panning for gold!
When you’re ready to turn in, the camping options are just as diverse as the fun, with primitive to modern campgrounds hosting tents and RVs, areas for groups, backpacking sites for seclusion and even cabin rentals.
When you come to play in the Chequamegon-Nicolet, be sure to plan around these can’t-miss sights:
Get a Lookout’s Hundred-Foot Perspective
Until the 1960s, lookouts perched in lofty towers over the treetops were the primary means of detecting forest fires. Today, two of these 100-foot structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1932 remain and are now used by hikers and sightseers seeking panoramic views.
The Mountain Fire Tower is toward the eastern and southernmost half of the forest on the Nicolet side, while the Fifield Fire Tower is further north and west in the Chequamegon unit. Both towers are listed in the state and national registers of historic places.
Feel Small Beneath Towering Old-Growth Trees
Though much of the Chequamegon-Nicolet canopy was restored from logging and planted by the CCC, you can see the oldest (and biggest) trees in the forest within the 18,000-acre-plus Headwaters Wilderness.
Just 16 miles from Eagle River but seemingly a world away, the wilderness offers plentiful hiking, including day and overnight backpacking tracts, along with paddling on Shelp Lake and the Pine River. Designated as one of Wisconsin’s Wild Rivers, the Pine originates within the Headwaters Wilderness, lending this gorgeous swath of land its name.
You can also fish or hunt small game, or simply enjoy viewing the plentiful nature around you.
Lose Yourself in the Wilderness (Without Leaving the Car)
Several routes in Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads Program wind and loop through the Chequamegon-Nicolet.
On the eastern side, the gravel Rustic Road 74 makes a meandering, 32.5-mile circuit between state highways 139 and 101. You’ll cross over the Popple River, another nationally designated “Wild River,” and pass by a 1930s camp for CCC workers. Take it slow, and you’ll be rewarded with views of deer, songbirds and other wildlife. The drive is near a forest campground on 45-acre Morgan Lake.
To the west, the paved and gravel Rustic Road 105 leads on a 13-mile jaunt from and back to State Highway 70. You’ll see an 1876 logging dam and play tag with the rambling South Fork of the Flambeau River and a couple of creek tributaries. The highlight is crossing the Smith Rapids Covered Bridge, one of Wisconsin’s rare remaining covered bridges, which is near an equestrian campground and horseback riding trails.