“Cable is one of Wisconsin’s best trail towns”
Chelsey Lewis, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published June 7, 2018
I went to the Cable area expecting to find a quintessential Northwoods town with plenty of outdoor activities, thanks to its proximity to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
I left with arms covered in mosquito bites, bruised legs and a new favorite trail town in Wisconsin.
“It’s an envious place to live for folks that love to get out there and just be where the trails are,” said Ron Bergin, the executive director of the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association, known as CAMBA.
CAMBA builds and maintains a network of more than 300 miles of mountain bike routes in the area. The trails aren’t just some of the best in Wisconsin, they’re among the best in the country. The International Mountain Bicycling Association has designated them as a bronze-level Ride Center, a prestigious designation that “recognizes the pinnacle of mountain biking communities” — not bad for a state without any actual mountains.
For skiers, there’s the legendary Birkebeiner Trail, which plays host to North America’s largest cross-country ski race every February. The 100-kilometer system is open to hiking and biking in warm-weather months.
The national forest offers plenty of trails as well, from short nature trail loops to segments of the North Country Trail, which winds through two wilderness areas in the forest.
For paddlers and anglers, there’s the Namekagon River, part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. There are also the hundreds of lakes in the national forest and surrounding counties.
Those lakes were long the primary draw for visitors and second-home owners, but Bergin said the trails have become a major attraction now, too.
“Mountain biking has really come into its own as a bona fide activity around here,” he said. “We’re in a fortunate location to have the trails and the public land. … And not just the bike trails – we have a lot of cross-country ski trails, and a lot of people run on the trails.”
Cable, population 825, serves as a base for exploring it all. This southern Bayfield County community feels a little like a ski bum town — or as close as Wisconsin has to a ski bum town, with fewer unemployed hipsters and more extremely fit retirees.
“The other aspect is it becomes a desirable retirement community for active people that come here, and there are more things going on every day of the week than you can imagine,” Bergin said.
All that’s missing for true trail town cred is a craft brewery. But The Rivers Eatery is close enough. Stone-fired pizza is served up alongside a stellar lineup of local brews. A bicycle and a canoe hang from the ceiling. Racing bibs line one wall; jerseys line another. Toned, middle-age men in Eddie Bauer button-ups belly up to the bar, where REI models work the taps and the pizza oven.
Cable isn’t just a prime spot for retiring or owning a summer lake cottage — it’s a great getaway for anyone who likes to be active outside.
A Northwoods lodge with a touch of the Old World
My travel dart took me just east of Cable to Namakagon, a small town on Lake Namakagon in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
“The forests here are far more populated with wildlife than people,” the town website proclaims.
Traveling through the national forest along Highway 77, the Great Divide National Forest Scenic Byway, signs warn of elk crossings. Clam Lake, east of Namakagon, is where the state first reintroduced 25 elk in 1995. Today the population has grown enough for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to hold a managed elk hunt this fall.
I didn’t see any elk as I missed my turn in Clam Lake and then cut through the forest back north to Namakagon along Forest Road 203, a Wisconsin Rustic Road.
I did stumble on a trailhead for the CAMBA trails. But with rain in the forecast and the trails still wet from morning showers, I continued to home for the next two days: Garmisch USA.
The resort is an interesting mix of Old World and classic Northwoods, with log walls, stone fireplaces and taxidermy inside and German-influenced touches outside, including turrets and gingerbread motifs. There’s even a castle available for rent.
The resort, which has rooms in the main lodge plus private cabins, was built on Lake Namakagon in 1927 by Chicagoan Jacob Loeb. It changed hands a few times over the ensuing decades before Middleton residents Dennis and Kathy Howard took ownership in 2004.
The resort takes full advantage of its location on the picturesque lake, with many cabins and rooms boasting views from wrap-around porches and walls of windows. The dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows that offer views of the setting sun in the evening. Boats from kayaks to pontoons are available for rent to tool around the relatively undeveloped lake.
Rooms in the main lodge are comfortable, while cabins are perfect for larger family getaways. Pets are even permitted in most cabins.
Wild mosquito country
It’s unusual for me to not to be camping if I’m in the middle of a forest, but I was thankful for four walls and a warm shower after my adventures the next day.
Rain was possible again, so I put biking aside and laced up my hiking boots for a foray into the forest.
One of the best spots for that in the area is along the North Country Trail. This national scenic trail stretches for 4,600 miles from North Dakota to New York, including for 200 miles through northwestern Wisconsin.
North of Namakagon, the trail passes through two wilderness areas: Porcupine Lake and Rainbow Lake. I had already traversed the former as part of a backpacking trip a few years ago, so I headed north to Rainbow Lake.
Backpacking the North Country Trail
Like all wilderness areas, the 6,583-acre Rainbow Lake Wilderness is not open to motorized vehicles or equipment of any kind, even bicycles. That leaves a quiet tract of forest trafficked only by foot power.
Foot power and mosquitoes of the carry-you-away variety. The six miles of the North Country Trail that traverses the wilderness area pass a handful of remote lakes and boggy areas — prime breeding ground for the biting bugs, which still managed to find my skin through long sleeves, a head net and a layer of DEET.
But bugs are to be expected in forest this dense, and the reward for enduring the pests was miles of trail with no other humans or signs of development in sight.
The trail from Reynard Lake Road to the Anderson Grade is an easy hike, well maintained and, even after rains the night before, mostly mud-free. The Anderson Grade, a trail that follows an old narrow-gage railroad line that ran west to east across the wilderness, is a good turnaround point for a 4.4-mile roundtrip hike. Rainbow Lake is another mile after the grade, but the trail after that point is more prone to flooding and muddy spots.
The old railroad line that ran along the grade was used to haul logs harvested on the land. It’s a good reminder that these trees, no matter how dense they seem, are mostly of the second-growth variety. The Civilian Conservation Corps replanted much of the forest in the ’30s. Signs noting locations of CCC camps are scattered throughout the forest.
According to the North Country Trail Association’s Chequamegon Chapter, there are unofficial campsites on the lakes in the wilderness area. It would be a gorgeous spot for a backpacking trip, but fall would be preferable to avoid most of the bugs and flooding, and the mixed hardwoods undoubtedly put on a dazzling show.
Any time of year is optimal to visit Delta Diner, just north of the wilderness on County Highway H in Delta. The refurbished 1940s diner is a must-stop anytime I’m within 30 miles, its menu of diner items with a twist the perfect post-adventure meal.
If the forecast had been better, I would have brought my kayak for a paddle on the Namekagon River. Instead, I settled for a shoreline visit to its headwaters at a dam on Lake Namakagon.
The river stretches for 101 miles from that lake to its confluence with the St. Croix River in Burnett County. It’s part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and was one of the original eight rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.
The river is a prime spot for kayaking, canoeing and fishing, with primitive campsites scattered along its undeveloped banks. Near its headwaters, the river can be rocky and difficult to navigate during times of low water, so the National Park Service recommends paddling stretches closer to Hayward, especially later in the summer.
In Trego, Jack’s Canoe Rental rents canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and tubes for floating down the river.
Mountain biking bliss
By my third day in Namakagon, the rain had finally held off long enough for the trails to dry out. I drove a short distance to that CAMBA trailhead I had passed on my way in.
The trailhead provided access to the Patsy Lake Trail, an 8- or 14.8-mile loop rated as intermediate. The trail is everything you could ask for in an off-road bike trail: narrow singletrack that winds, dips and climbs past small lakes, mixed hardwoods and conifers. It’s a testament to how well the trails are built that less than 24 hours after it had rained, they were almost completely dry.
Riders weave through the Chequamegon National Forest on the CAMBA trail system. (Photo: Cable Area Chamber of Commerce)
While the Patsy Lake Trail is officially rated as intermediate, it’s on the beginner side of that, with few technical obstacles.
Bergin considers it among his favorites, along with the Seeley Pass trail and one known as Flow Mama.
Flow Mama is a flow trail or flow country trail, a trail characterized by down- and uphill sections, curved berms and other features that allow for a flowy, rollercoaster-like ride.
“Those are really fun — they’re fast-riding, not as technical,” Bergin said.
The Patsy Lake Trail has a number of flowy segments, and the deeper I got into my 8-mile ride, the more I laid off the brakes and let my bike do most of the work. It’s a thrill to move through the forest at a higher rate of speed on two wheels, and the bruises from the couple of jolts I took were worth it.
The Patsy Lake Trail is an IMBA EPIC trail, a prestigious designation awarded to trails that “are what many mountain bikers live for and make travel plans around: immersive rides that are technically and physically challenging, beautiful to behold and worthy of celebration.”
I’d consider myself a beginner mountain biker, and the trail was the perfect difficulty level for my abilities. The route finishes by following a logging road back to the trailhead, a good cool-down from the leg-pumping singletrack sections.
The duo cities of Hayward and Cable have become the epicenter of biking in the Midwest. (Photo: Cable Area Chamber of Commerce)
Bergin said the organization has been working to add more beginner trails to the system. One manifestation of that is the new Gateway Trail, a project CAMBA is working on with the Hayward Area Memorial Hospital on some of its forested land. About 1.5 miles of the beginner-level trail are complete, with the goal of creating 6 total miles.
The forest’s old logging roads, plus the area’s ski trails, are the backbone of the CAMBA system. In 1993, a group got together to start mapping and marking the trails. Later CAMBA began developing more singletrack trails, and today the system includes more than 300 miles of off-road bike routes in five clusters from Bayfield to Hayward. Each cluster has 25 to 40 miles of trails.
“People can do just long day rides, or come here for several days and never have to repeat a trail,” Bergin said, adding that bikepacking has become more popular, with people spending multiple days out in the forest riding the trails and camping along the way.
Two hours of riding was more than enough for my out-of-mountain-biking-shape legs, although I was sad I didn’t have the stamina or time to tackle more of the trails.
But now at least I have a good reason to plan another trip to one of the state’s best trail towns.