Central and Northern Wisconsin is loaded with super great and untapped areas to bikepack. Over time, Shane Hitz has explored many areas of this region by bike and put together numerous routes that pass through many areas that can only be explored by bike. They go through some of his favorite small towns with great places to eat and fantastic camping opportunities.
Contributed by: Shane Hitz
The Nicolet National Forest is just a small portion of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Established in the early 1930s the entire system encompasses 1.5 million acres with the Nicolet portion taking up over 661,000 acres. The forest is packed full of large hardwood trees and groves of tall white pines with the occasional swamps containing white cedars. Roads twisting and turning, following the paths of rivers and streams are a constant site with lakes scattered throughout.
The Tour de Nicolet is a 365 mile route that is full of rich history while traveling through quintessential small northwoods communities. Prior to the 1930s the forest was heavily logged and burned over. Starting in 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps played a key role in the reforestation including construction of buildings, bridges, and fire towers as well as replanting the forest. You will see numerous CCC sites, structures, and trees planted so many years ago throughout the ride. Not only will you notice the history of the CCC camps you will also notice the logging history throughout the route. Most of the time is spent within the national forest with the occasional rustic gravel path in the county forests of Langlade, Oconto, Marinette, and Forest. The history of how the county acquired those lands is interesting. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s settlers either logged it and left the land or sold the land to settlers promising the unsuspecting newcomers a fertile land. When they tried to farm it their crops didn’t grow as well as they were led to believe because the deforestation left the land so stripped of all its minerals so they ended up abandoning it, leaving unpaid taxes.
Luckily this activity was eventually recognized as harmful and steps were taken to right the wrong. We now have a lush green wonderland to explore and connect with nature. So when you see a large old growth tree that escaped being cut down or the CCC signs or rows of tall pine trees, appreciate the small things that are actually really great things that we are lucky enough to have and enjoy. Midride, take your shoes off and wade into that stream. Jump into that lake. Feel the earth on your bare feet. Filter some ice cold spring water. Reconnect with the forest.
Classic northwoods towns featuring quintessential bars and supper clubs that scream Wisconsin. Grab an Old Fashioned and fish fry on a Friday night or prime rib on Saturday.
The fun and flowy hills of Augustyn Springs are a blast to ride and feature some unique points of interest most locals don’t even know about such as HillBilly Hilton, an underground bunker you won’t soon forget and Crotch Vegas, a fantastic cache of soda and candy in the middle of nowhere.
White Lake railroad museum is a restored depot and inside the depot you will find artifacts and displays showcasing White Lake’s rich railroad, farming, logging and lumber industry.
12 miles of old school single track on three different organizations' trail systems, Nicolet Roche, Strong Falls, and Otter springs. The route uses the most direct line through so adding more singletrack to your adventure is an option. Additionally there is 12 miles of singletrack, Jack Lake, at the starting location of the route.
The 2019 derecho which impacted 130,000 acres of the National Forest. Efforts to clean up are still ongoing but you will notice the aftermath particularly starting at Humble Hill and the five miles after. The land is now clear of most trees as far as you can see, which makes unique vantage points throughout the steep rolling hills riddled with baby-head rocks. This area also has some very unique camp spots ranging from a \unique naturally cool crystal clear spring to a camp spot high up on a hill with fantastic views perfect for stargazing.
Mountain Firetower is a unique opportunity to climb an historic fire tower and view the landscape in the cab 100 feet in the air just as the firespotters did years ago. There are 14 fire towers still remaining in the national forest, this being the only one where the public is welcome to climb.
Butler Rock viewpoint as well as the infamous sand roads around Butler Rock
The old fish hatchery and waterfall
Thunder Mountain State Natural Area with its amazing viewpoint up top of its bedrock outcrops. The red oak and white oak trees hold their color late in the fall making this a fantastic spot to see fall colors late in the year.
Big Rock overlook. Very few people know about this place and fewer have taken the hike back there but it offers amazing views.
Artesian well at Chipmunk Rapids
Wisconsin's highest cul-de-sac
The logging museum in Wabeno along with all the other historical buildings including a library which still operates. Wabeno has a proud history in the logging industry
The abundance of wildlife. I’ve seen up to four bears in a single day. In addition to bears, some of the other animals I frequently see are whitetail deer, badgers, bobcats, wolves, and porcupines. Of the many bird species in the area the loon is the most unique with its calls in the mornings and evenings. There are two loons on each lake and you will undoubtedly hear these calls each evening especially if you camp on a lake. The loons are a special part of each trip.
Park for free at Jack Lake. This is a safe place to park. The campground host lives on the property adjacent to the parking.
75% gravel with 12 miles of singletrack and rugged two track sections not to be taken lightly. Add more singletrack at each of the three trail systems if that's your thing.
Gravel bike with 44’s are a fine choice but if you have 2.5’s or bigger it will decrease hike-a-bike in the sand sections
There are a few sections of the route that have a good distance between nice dispersed camping POI’s so plan mileage carefully unless you don’t mind the full-on dispersed experience.
These forest roads are actively logged. Expect logging at some point when doing the route and give the loggers the right of way and plenty of space.
If you want to come up the day before, camp at Jack Lake but make reservations early as this is a popular campground. Another option is to camp at High Lake dispersed sites a couple miles south on the Jack Lake Firelane. These sites are generally open with few people using them even on a weekend. Hotel options in Antigo 20 minutes from Jack Lake, or if flying in, Wausau, which is close to Central Wisconsin Airport, has an abundance of hotels and dining options.
Bears, wolves, and chipmunks. Black bears are pretty common in this area, chances are pretty good that you will see one. They are afraid of humans and will run as soon as they see you. Hopefully you get a chance to see one. Just hang your food at night. Wolves are also common but less likely to see. Last year I saw a white wolf on this route, which was pretty special. Chipmunks are on this list because special care needs to be taken with your food so that they don’t chew a hole in your bags when at camp.
I have POI’s at most sites that I know of and like. Some of my favorites are dispersed but there are a number of National Forest campgrounds with 20 or so sites and all the basic amenities like pit toilets and water from well pumps. I put very detailed information to help you plan your route.
Langlade County has free dispersed camping. To reduce environmental impacts, up to six tents in a group are allowed.
Nicolet National Forest allows dispersed camping. Other than my POI’s, camp on the other side of the gates blocking motor vehicles from using those old logging roads. These locations make great spots as they are flat and easy to set a tent up.
Food & Water
I always bring some snacks to have throughout the day and a couple meals in case a restaurant is closed but the route has so many great places to eat, most days of the week you should be fine.
The best places to eat are White Lake Market, Weatherby Supperclub, Waubee Lodge, Roadhouse 139, and Johnnies Resort. These places are all a must stop if they are open and I usually plan my route around these places.
Stop at Ruby May’s in Summit Lake before your ride
This route contains some of the best rivers and springs in the northwoods. The lakes here are spring fed as opposed to seepage lakes. This makes the water clear instead of a stained look from minerals in the water. An excellent example of this type of lake is Jack Lake at the starting point of the route. Bring a water filter to pull some crystal clear water from these amazing places.
Most campgrounds on the route have well pumps that you can get water from when in between towns.
I generally ride the route counter-clockwise but it really doesn’t make a difference in difficulty which way you go.
There are ample opportunities to cut off mileage however this comes at a cost. You will miss some fantastic POI’s. If you can live without some of them, go for it.
SoNic (Southern Nicolet Condensed Version)
SoNic is the southern portion of the Tour de Nicolet route. Over the years the Tour de Nicolet has been the inspiration of some great routes such as the Pickerel Buck40 and the original SoNic. This is because the southern portion of the Nicolet has some of my favorite areas. From the remote Langlade County forest roads to the baby-head rock-filled roads and natural springs near Nicolet Roche this area is packed with adventure. The terrain is more varied, consisting of more hills on the west side to large sections of sand roads on the east side.The updated version 1.2 includes the Humble Hill section, previously closed due to 2019 storm clean up. If you choose this version you will still experience some of the best of the Nicolet National Forest but in a condensed 225 mile version. VIEW THE ROUTE.
Shane Hitz is an adventure cyclist, route designer, and race director. You can read more about his adventures on his website. He is also the race director for the IRONBULL Red Granite Grinder, a gravel bike race in the Wausau, Wisconsin area.
Disclaimer: If you choose to ride this route, you do so at your own risk. You are 100% responsible for being prepared for all conditions and making sure that biking these routes is legal. Before riding, check local weather, road conditions, closures, and property ownership. Obey all traffic laws and follow land use restrictions. Do not ride these routes without proper safety equipment and navigational tools. The accuracy of these routes cannot be guaranteed neither can we guarantee that these routes are on public property. TheNxrth.com and its contributors are in no way liable for the personal injury or damage to property that may result from cycling this route or any other routes on this website.