The North Woods town of Minocqua is nearly an island, surrounded by Lake Minocqua on all sides save for a small isthmus.

The North Woods town of Minocqua is nearly an island, surrounded by Lake Minocqua on all sides save for a small isthmus. Photo By Russ Kuepper

Minocqua is a pine-scented retreat in the North Woods

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There's an invisible line that separates the rest of Wisconsin from up north, that geographically ambiguous place that holds a special spot in the memories of many Wisconsinites.

For me, it was always marked by the first appearance of ruler-perfect rows of pine trees, a sign that we were close to my aunt and uncle's cabin tucked deep in the woods in Oneida County.

The precise destination doesn't matter. Up north is really an overall sense of place, derived from the soul-stirring smell of those pines, the slap, slap, slap of water against a pier, and the eerily comforting call of the loon.

These calls of nature have beckoned visitors to Wisconsin's North Woods for centuries.

And while towns like Eagle River, Boulder Junction and Hayward offer their own slice of up north life, it's the island city of Minocqua that has become something of a booming burg for North Woods tourists.

Located on a small spit of land nearly entirely surrounded by water, Minocqua was once a resting spot for American Indians traveling between the Wisconsin and Flambeau rivers. The city's name is derived from the Ojibwe word nin-oco-qua, meaning noon or midday. Presidents like Dwight D. Eisenhower and movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor found solace here. I've more than once heard people refer to it as "God's Country."

Minocqua's population of just over 4,000 soars in the summer, when vacationers head for summer cottages and modern resorts on the thousands of lakes in the area. And while the shiny stamp of tourism has made its mark on the city — try driving through downtown on a summer weekend and you'll see what I mean — the area still retains its North Woods charm, offering plenty of opportunities for exploring those pines in peace.

What to do

Covering 225,000 acres in Oneida, Vilas and Iron counties, the sprawling Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, like most of the North Woods, was decimated by logging in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But trees stand tall here once again, thanks to planting efforts that began with the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Hike through white pines and a large hemlock glade on the 1.5-mile Raven Nature Trail, accessible on Woodruff Road off Highway 47, just east of Minocqua. (715) 542-3923, dnr.wi.gov/topic/stateforests/nhal.

It wouldn't be a trip to the North Woods without some time on the water. Rent a pontoon boat from Minocqua Pontoon Cruises ($225/day), and spend a sunny afternoon cruising around Lake Minocqua or the larger Tomahawk Lake to the south. (715) 892-7777, minocquapontooncruises.com.

If silent sports are more your style, rent a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard from Minocqua's Chequamegon Adventure Co., 8576 Highway 51, for an up-close look at the historic boathouses on Lake Minocqua or some quiet time on one of the other 3,200 lakes in Vilas and Oneida counties. (715) 356-1618, chequamegonadventurecompany.com.

Watch expert skiers glide and jump across Lake Minocqua at a Min-Aqua Bats show, held at the Aqua Bowl on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 7 p.m. from mid-June through mid-August. The Min-Aqua Bats have been performing on the lake since the '50s and are all volunteers, so drop some money in the bucket to show your gratitude when it's passed around at the show. (715) 356-4549, min-aquabats.com.

The 18-mile Bearskin State Trail is perfect for a summer bike ride, stretching along a former railroad corridor from Minocqua south to Harshaw. Highlights of the crushed gravel trail include crossing a number of old railroad trestles and a long bridge over Lake Minocqua. Note that riders 16 and older need a state trail pass to bike the trail.

Belly up to the bar at Little Bohemia Lodge, just north of Minocqua on Highway 51 in Manitowish Waters, and don't be alarmed by the bullet holes. The restaurant/lodge was the site of an infamous shootout between the FBI and John Dillinger and his fellow gangsters in 1934, immortalized in the 2009 film "Public Enemies." You can still see bullet holes in the walls, some shattered windows, and more in an exhibit in the still-working restaurant. (715) 543-8800, littlebohemialodge.com.

Where to eat

Tucked off Highway 51 south of Minocqua in the tiny town of Hazelhurst, Jacobi's, 9820 Cedar Falls Road, serves up supper-club-like fare in a quaint pink house. The family restaurant — pictures of the newest addition are proudly displayed on the bar — serves up steaks, seafood, pasta and twice-baked potatoes that rival my mother's (that's a compliment). Arrive early on a Friday or Saturday — or make reservations — to avoid a wait. (715) 356-5591, jacobisofhazelhurst.com.

For classic brewpub fare, head downtown to Minocqua Brewing Co., 238 Lakeshore Drive. Choose from soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers and more, and don't leave without getting paddled — a tasting flight of the restaurant's brews. (715) 356-2600, minocquabrewingcompany.com.

Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty, 8653 Highway 51, Minocqua, is a classic stop for many vacationing families looking to feed a hungry brood. But for a less-touristy vibe, grab a cup o' joe and breakfast to go at Great Northern Coffee Traders, 215 W. Front St. The small shop also serves warm favorites like apple fritter French toast, crepes, quiche and a variety of breakfast bakes. (715) 358-0475, greatnortherncoffeeshop.com.

The only bad thing about Bad Bones BBQ, 1421 Highway 51 in Arbor Vitae, is having to endure the mouthwatering smell coming from the kitchen while you wait for your food. Half and full slabs of ribs are slow-smoked on a wood-fired cooker and served with your choice of sauce. Or choose from smoky, tender beef brisket or pulled pork. Go ahead and lick your fingers when you're done — it is the North Woods, after all. (715) 358-0200, grabyourpork.com.

I'm still mourning the closing of Bosacki's, a lakeside restaurant that was a summer staple for ice cream stops during our summer vacations when I was a kid. The historic building has experienced some rough times recently as it changed hands a couple of times, but its newest owners — who renamed it The Boathouse — are striving to bring it back to its glory years. The views of Lake Minocqua are still great, the bar is still a thing of beauty, and the live piano player provides a nice ambience. (715) 358-3999, facebook.com/MinocquaBoathouse.

Where to stay

For families, The Waters of Minocqua, 8116 Highway 51, has comfortable, clean rooms decorated in a rustic North Woods motif, a complimentary continental breakfast and a welcome diversion for the kids: an indoor waterpark. For adults, there's an indoor-outdoor hot tub, a two-for-one drink coupon good at the hotel bar, and Starbuck's coffee for sale in the gift shop. (877) 992-8377, thewatersofminocqua.com.

The Pointe Hotel and Suites offers terrific views of Lake Minocqua from studios and one- and two-bedroom suites, each with kitchenettes or full kitchens, and private balconies. A complimentary continental breakfast is available for all guests, who also have access to canoes and kayaks for launch from the resort's 220-foot fishing pier, bicycles, gas grills and a waterfront campfire patio. The resort is just across the bridge from downtown — easily walkable in the summer. (888) 356-4431, thepointeresort.com.

For a more traditional North Woods cabin feel, Black's Cliff Resort rents 13 lakeside cabins on Lower Kaubashine Lake in Hazelhurst. Once a retreat for railroad employees in the early 20th century, the resort was bought by the Black family in 1945 and has been run by the family since. The cabins are clean, comfortable and well-spaced to afford some privacy, and families return year after year to fight over the swinging beds on the cabins' screened-in porches. (715) 356-3018, blackscliff.com.

An all-inclusive resort in the North Woods? That's the case at Coon's Franklin Lodge on Trout Lake in Arbor Vitae. Up in these parts they call it an "American plan," but the theory's the same — rates include lodging and three square meals (but no little-umbrella drinks — BYOB if that's your fancy). The resort has been run by the Coon family since 1892, with traces of its history evident in the rustic log cabins, each with screened-in porches and fireplaces. (715) 385-2700, coonsfranklinlodge.com.

Summer events

More than 30 artists open their studios for a behind-the-scenes look at their craft twice a year during the Northwoods Art Tour, held July 24-25 this summer. From paintings and pottery to photography and fiber, there's something for every artistic interest. See northwoodsarttour.com for details.

In most northern Wisconsin towns, people happily put away their snowshoes at the end of winter. But come June, residents of Lake Tomahawk pull them out again for the town's Snowshoe Baseball league. For more than 50 years players have traipsed around a woodchip-and-sawdust diamond in Lake Tomahawk wearing traditional snowshoes. Games are played on Mondays from June 18 through Aug. 27. See laketomahawkwi.org/?q=node/251.

Getting there

Minocqua is about 250 miles north of Milwaukee via Highways 41 and 51.

More information

For more to see and do in the Minocqua area, call (800) 446-6784 or see minocqua.org.

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