Rock Lake Epic Loop
After Monday’s fast 18-mile ride I was feeling a little anxious about riding the roughly 30-mile Rock Lake epic loop. Looking at a map which showed trail ratings, this ride promised to be much more challenging.
The Rock Lake loop is officially an IMBA Epic route that strings together some of the most technical trails in the system, while leading riders around scenic, remote lakes and through dense hardwood forests. This loop is popular with riders thanks to its Epic status and is a great choice if you only have time for a single ride. However, this isn’t a good ride for beginners, as it does include advanced and expert rated sections.
I rolled up to the Rock Lake trailhead with Scott, Jack, and David at around 9am, dodging the lone brown sawhorse that was trying its best to close off the parking lot due to the federal government shutdown. The air was crisp and cool but the sun seemed to ignite the yellow leaves above us; after just a few minutes of riding I would be stashing my arm warmers. I had forgotten my gloves back at the cabin and by the end of the ride the inside of my thumb would be rubbed raw–but I would still finish with a huge smile on my face.
Scott was easily the fastest rider in our group and since he had ridden the loop many times before, he led off the front–and promptly took us down the wrong trail. It’s an easy mistake to make with multiple trails crossing near the trailhead, and fortunately Scott recognized the error and got us back on the right track. We would stay on the advanced-rated Rock Lake Trail for the first few miles of our ride.
The Rock Lake Trail is what many mountain bikers consider “old school” since it was laid out in the days before machine cuts–and even before mountain bikes themselves. We rattled over the narrow, rocky trail while still maintaining our momentum through the dips and climbs. The great thing about mountain biking in northern Wisconsin is you never have to climb very long before coasting down the next descent.
The CAMBA trails are built in an area that was shaped by glaciers millions of years ago. As the glaciers retreated, they left behind layers of crushed rock, rolling hills, and kettles–basically huge divots in the ground–many of which are now filled with crystal clear lake water.
At the 4.5-mile mark, we reached the Hildebrand Lake loop, which is one of the few double black diamond-rated (expert) trails in the decidedly cross-country system. The trails were challenging to be sure, with larger rocks, steeper climbs, and narrower tread than what we had ridden until that point. This was easily my favorite part of the entire Rock Lake Epic in part because of the challenge, but also thanks to the beautiful scenery. At this point the forest marches right up to the shoreline of three tiny lakes, and I caught brief glimpses of each through the trees. I felt like an explorer, the first human to discover these virtually inaccessible bodies of water.
The Hildebrand Lake loop itself was only 2.5 miles, and we quickly regained the Rock Lake Trail for a bit before turning right onto a beginner-friendly trail called the Glacier Trail. Next we turned right onto the Patsy Lake Trail, following the helpful “Epic” signs tacked to posts at various intersections. Even with the signs, I’m glad we had a map–and a guide–to help keep us on track!
The group was running a bit behind schedule thanks to my insistence on taking pictures every five minutes, so we decided to skip the Patsy Lake trail extension that would have taken us by the Wilson Lake Trailhead. James, my host for the trip, would be meeting us at the Namakagon Town Hall trailhead soon with a delicious picnic lunch.
From Patsy Lake, the epic route sticks to beginner and intermediate-rated trails, including the Namakagon Trail which was fast and, dare I say it again, flowy. We made great time and rolled into the Namakagon Town Hall parking lot where there was a sunny picnic table for us to enjoy our gourmet sandwiches from the Ideal Market.
By this point we had ridden 17.5 miles, but we still had another 7.5 miles of advanced to expert-rated trail to ride. Admittedly, I was tired and didn’t have much of an appetite but I knew I needed all the fuel I could stomach to finish strong. Scott had to get back to work soon, so we were back on the trail quickly and powered up the initial climb out of the parking lot.
By the end of the Namakagon Trail I was feeling much better and the energy from our lunch was starting to kick in. We tackled the back side of the Rock Lake Trail with gusto, and I was proud to have cleaned the entire stretch, including Volkswagen Rock. At the crossing with Rock Lake Road, we stopped to chat about the trails with a middle-aged woman who had recently started mountain biking.
I knew we were getting near the end of our ride so like a horse on its way back to the barn, I picked up the pace to see if I could leave Jack and David behind. I pushed my legs until they felt like rocks, concentrating on pinning every turn and floating over every rock garden in sight. The last stretch was challenging and fun and before I knew it, we were back in the parking lot. This was definitely one of those rides that starts and ends strong, and it left me wanting more.
I drove back to my cabin at Lake Owen resort and popped open a New Glarus Spotted Cow cream ale, a beer that’s only available in Wisconsin and easily my new favorite micro-brew. Beer in hand, looking out at the fall colors reflecting off the lake, this was the perfect way to end the day.
Driving country road M between Cable and Namakagon in the darkness on the first night of my trip, I imagined this must be what it’s like to travel in Alaska. Seemingly endless stretches of soulless, blackened highway were punctuated every few miles with a lone streetlight over a tiny diner parking lot. I was startled when a group of deer appeared in my headlights, frozen in the middle of the road as my rental car came to a quick halt.
Although remote, Cable is an excellent vacation destination located only about 4 hours from Minneapolis and less than 2 hours from Duluth, MN. Many of the weekend mountain bikers you’ll find on the CAMBA trails are actually from the Twin Cities, drawn to the excellent singletrack and the beauty of lake country. During my visit in October, much of the tourist flow was restricted to the weekends for the apple festivals and leaf-strewn Sunday drive, leaving the trails virtually empty during the week.
Outside of the town of Hayward to the south, you won’t find a single fast food restaurant or even a stoplight in CAMBA country. That’s ok: the restaurants you will find are great local spots with plenty of character. In Cable, the Rivers Eatery is a popular pizza and beer spot with a unique “pay it forward” chalkboard painted on the wall behind the bar. Anyone can buy a beer or pizza for a friend to pick up the next time they stop in. For example, one entry was from a rider who wanted to thank the (unknown) guy who helped him fix a mechanical out on the trail. Another patron even bought a beer for Gary Fisher, and I remarked that someone needed to tell Gary because I was sure he would come up to claim his drink. As it turned out, he already had–and there was a photo on the bar to prove it.
Beyond burgers and beer there are several great restaurants serving fresh, local ingredients, including the Rookery where I tried the Walleye with an amazing mango salsa. The Brick House is a great spot for grabbing coffee, and I saw a steady stream of customers there while enjoying my chorizo breakfast burrito one morning.
There are a number of cabins and small inns located along the shores of the many lakes in the Cable area. I stayed in a cabin at Lake Owen resort, which is a great spot for a family vacation, or even a group of guys who want to ride hard all day and relax on the lake in the evening. Lakewoods Resort in Namakagon offers various accommodations, plus a restaurant and car-free access to the Rock Lake epic trailhead.
Unfortunately this was going to be a short trip for me–I would have to catch a flight back to Atlanta the next day after riding the Makwa and Hatchery Creek trails in the morning. But I had already decided I would be back again.
Stay tuned for Part 3.