Rhinelander's most famous resident, the mythical hodag, can be spotted around town.

Rhinelander's most famous resident, the mythical hodag, can be spotted around town. Photo By Jerry Luterman

Rhinelander is much more than its famous hodag

Forest, lakes and a storied history provide much to do

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For a creature long ago exposed as a clever hoax at the hand of the famous prankster Eugene Shepard, Rhinelander’s iconic hodag has had remarkable staying power. It is the mascot of the city’s high school, the name of a pleasant riverside park, the face of a country music festival – and it has more than 2,000 Facebook friends.

In 1893, Shepard produced the first photo of the mythical lumber-era beast, said to have “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur and a long tail with spears at the end.” In his picture trickery, Shepard hoped to draw attention to his struggling forested hometown, and the ploy is still working today. First-timers to Rhinelander often head to the visitor center just off Business Highway 8 to rub the oversized fiberglass hodag’s nose or take a keepsake photo.

That aside, there are many attractions in Rhinelander and surrounding Oneida County that raise no such nervous skepticism. With more than 1,100 lakes, thousands of acres of public forest, miles of hiking trails, wonderful golf courses and storied history to share, there is much to savor in the area Shepard hoped to put on the map.

Start with the city’s piney roots. Established as a sawmill town in 1882 to serve a logging company, the city was first called Pelican Rapids until the Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western Railroad reached town and the name was changed to honor company president F. W. Rhinelander. Rich stands of pine and hardwoods made the city a logging and supply center until the last log drive on the Pelican River in 1923.

That era is nicely documented at the Rhinelander Logging Museum (Pioneer Park, S. Oneida Avenue), which recreates a lumber camp to give visitors a feel for the days when a mountain of sawdust was proof of accomplishment.

Open Memorial Day through Labor Day, the museum complex also features railroad artifacts, including the lumber industry’s narrow-gauge “Five Spot” locomotive.

Located in Oneida County – which boasts of more than 1,000 lakes – Rhinelander is a hub for boating, fishing, canoeing and kayaking. If you are in town without your own watercraft, take a Wisconsin River Cruise (Highway 8 and Highway 47). Sightseeing and sunset dinner cruises run Memorial Day through mid-October.

Landlubbers shouldn’t feel left out, though. Like a number of other northern communities, the Rhinelander area is working to increase the number of bike trails. Cyclists can check out the Oneida County Biking and Water Trails Council’s efforts to learn where to ride.

Just north of Rhinelander, the Northern Highland–American Legion State Forest is a haven for hiking, wildlife watching, snowmobiling, camping and fishing.

On the southern edge of Rhinelander near the confluence of the Pelican and Wisconsin rivers, the 32-acre Holmboe Conifer Forest, a project of the Northwoods Land Trust, features walking trails and boardwalks through a remnant of the type of forest that once dominated northern Wisconsin.

Rhinelander is also home to one of the north’s finest 18-hole golf courses. Northwood Golf Club (3131 Golf Course Road, just off Highway 8), cut from property once owned by the Wausau Paper Company, will test your mettle and accuracy. On the grounds of this top-rated course, though, you might try to enjoy the ride and ignore the score. Nearby Harshaw is home to the 18-hole Pinewood Country Club (9000 Pinewood Valley Road).

The Oneida County Courthouse (1 S. Oneida Ave.) is a should-see for its famed Tiffany glass dome. The courthouse celebrated its centennial in 2008 and is one of the city’s most noted historic buildings.

One of Rhinelander’s signature summer events is the Hodag Country Festival, held every July. Camping is available on the grounds.

Lodging choices in Rhinelander run from modern name-brand motels to locally owned resorts, as well as numerous campgrounds. Holiday Acres (4060 S. Shore Parkway) on Lake Thompson has guest rooms, cottages with fireplaces, an indoor pool and a restaurant where jazz is often played.

For traditional fare, try Joe’s Pasty Shop (123 Randall Ave.), where owners Larry and Jessica Lapachin serve the hot miner’s meal that originated in Cornwall, England. Joe’s menu includes the popular Cornish pasty with rutabaga, but a hungry tourist can also find other varieties like chicken cordon bleu and Reuben pasties.

More information on lodging, dining and area events can be found at rhinelanderchamber.com, oneidacountywi.com or by calling (715) 365-7464. And for more lore and legend about you-know-who and to prep for your Rhinelander arrival, visit hodagsightings.com.

Dennis McCann, a frequent contributor to Wisconsin Trails, lives in Bayfield.

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