When most people think of Wisconsin, five things generally come to mind: beer, milk, cheese, the Packers, and Culver’s (if you are from the Midwest). These thoughts are usually accompanied by images of flat farmland extending into oblivion.
Although much of Wisconsin’s lower half does indeed fit that description, its upper half is a whole different beast. North of Highway 8, wilderness reigns supreme. In fact, Northern Wisconsin was one of two unsettled areas east of the Mississippi by 1890, and it retains much of that character to this day. Large, dense stands of pine, aspen, birch, and hemlock coat the hilly, lake-ridden terrain. As for the fauna, bald eagles, deer, beaver, plenty of fish, and black bears are the name of the game. In fact, Wisconsin has the highest concentration of black bears in the United States, including Alaska.
In the middle of this wilderness lies Chequamegon (she-wa-me-gon)-Nicolet National Forest. At 1.5 million acres, the only larger National Forest east of the Mississippi River is Virginia’s George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. With its many lakes, beautiful views, and hilly topography, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest has carved out its place as one of the premiere recreation destinations in the Midwest, and mountain biking is no exception. Whether you’re looking for a stop on your next road trip or are looking for a place to spend your vacation, this glimpse into what Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest has to offer should be enough to get you started!
The 7 best mountain bike trails in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
Rock Lake Epic
The Rock Lake IMBA Epic is the epitome of Northwoods mountain biking and is a standout ride within the massive CAMBA trail system. Traversing 30 miles of fairly technical, undulating terrain, this route will bring you past several wilderness lakes and challenge your upper body stamina. Expect to be smiling ear to ear as the trail’s balance between technical and flowy elements sends you carving fast turns one minute and picking your way through rock gardens the next.
Easily one of the best areas east of the Rockies. – Eric Foltz
…this trail required more upper body strength and lower speed tech skills than I anticipated. It had an old school feel and could really make you pay in certain areas. I enjoyed the challenge though and it was pretty well laid out (thankful for a dropper!). – cspargen
The Nicolet Roche
The Nicolet Roche provides variety that is unparalleled in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Throughout the 20-mile length of the ride, rock and root-filled singletrack, steep and swooping ridge-top riding, rowdy descents, and opportunities to boost massive boulders are served up on a silver platter. Bon appetit!
This is a premier MTB facility in Wisconsin. All done by a group of dedicated cyclists. EPIC. No shit. It is an unbelievable system. World class, almost. – Gike
Although the Seeley Pass trail was initially meant to connect two portions of the CAMBA trail system just outside the Forest, it has built a reputation among riders as a standalone trail in its own right. Expect flowy, banked corners and fast, machine-cut trail to shred. If that’s not enough to get you stoked, try the Gravity Cavity pictured above. Its rhythm is so addicting you’ll never want it to end.
The Seeley Pass trail is a flow trail with banks and berms to allow for some fast flowing riding. It has two optional gravity sections that really let you get your roller coaster fix. This is Disney Land on Dirt. – Scott Anderson
One word. FUN!!! -Martin Irmiter
Otter Springs Singletrack
Located literally feet outside the Forest boundaries, Otter Springs is quickly developing into one of the best trails on the east side of Chequamegon-Nicolet. A variety of features including jumps, berms, and rock gardens coupled with a noticeable amount of elevation change (for Wisconsin) makes this a great option for gravity-oriented riders. With a little ingenuity, riders can be railing rad lines here in no time.
A good start to what will be a pretty sweet system of trails. Machine built, has a fun mix of challenge and flow. – Kyle Lewis
Newman Springs Trail
Although this is technically a doubletrack trail, the steep grades, isolated feel, and beautiful scenery of the Newman Springs Trail make it worth visiting during any season. If you’re lucky you’ll run into birds on the lake or a black bear rooting around in the woods. Just make sure to hold on tight as you fly up and down hillsides.
The Esker Trail to Treasure’s Trace
Located between the Cable and Namakagon Clusters of the CAMBA trail system, the route from the Esker Trail to Treasure’s Trace supplies riders with a variety of trail types, plenty of overlooks, and a tour of some of Wisconsin’s many glacial features. Whether you’re picking your way over rocks on the Esker Trail, railing berms on Danky Dank, or blasting through the flow of Treasure’s Trace, you won’t be able to wipe the perma-grin off your face!
Mount Ashwabay Cluster
CAMBA’s newest cluster, Mount Ashwabay, adds some of its best descents and views to the system. Although the system technically lies between Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and Lake Superior, it is easily accessible from the Forest’s northern campgrounds and features a flowy feeling very similar to the other CAMBA trails. Just make sure to focus on the trail and not the mesmerizing views of America’s biggest lake.
The most FUN trail system we have ridden in WI area. We are traveling the country riding all the IMBA EPICs and this was an absolute BLAST of a trail. – manreet
5 Best off-the-bike activities in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
Kayak or Canoe
Because the National Forest is filled to the brim with thousands of lakes, boating in general has naturally become part of the “Up North” culture. Even the French fur trappers who traversed the region during the 1600s and 1700s used canoes to explore. There are plenty of places to rent kayaks and canoes throughout the Forest (including some campgrounds), and sometimes a day on the water is just what the doctor ordered after a hard ride.
Hike the North Country or Ice Age Trail
If water sports aren’t your thing and you want even more time in the great northern backwoods, that’s okay. With portions of both the 1,200 mile Ice Age Trail and the 4,600 mile North Country Trail inside its borders, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is in the elite group of national forests that house portions of two national scenic trails. Both run along gentle ridges and pristine lakes teeming with wildlife. Adventure awaits!
The Great Divide National Scenic Byway
The Great Divide National Scenic Byway crosses a portion of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest between Hayward and Glidden.
Something that few would expect is nestled among Northern Wisconsin’s swamps and forests: a fairly large continental divide. This divide, the Laurentian Divide, separates water flowing down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico from water going through the Great Lakes and out the Saint Lawrence Seaway. While you straddle the divide, this grand drive will take you out into the wilderness of the Northwoods without so much as a footstep.
Just like with boating, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s lakes and streams make it an exceptional place to fish. According to the Forest Service, 50 different species, including bass, pike, trout, and walleye naturally occur in the area. Additionally, trout can be found in almost three quarters of the area’s streams. There is so much fishing to be had that the Forest’s fishing page literally says “It’s raining fish.” So if you want to have a quiet, serene day away from it all, grab your fishing pole and cast a line.
Rafting the Wolf or Peshtigo River
Does fishing or kayaking sound too leisurely? The sheer thrill of navigating the ledges and rapids of the Wolf and Peshtigo Rivers in the eastern part of the Forest should get your blood pumping! For guidance down the treacherous class three and four rapids, book a trip with a rafting company like Shotgun Eddy’s that will be happy to show you the way.
The 5 Best Campgrounds in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
Located north of the CAMBA trails, Two Lakes Campground is fully decked out for an amazing family getaway in the woods with all the comforts of home. Electricity, a boat ramp, a picnic area, grills, a fishing pier, and canoe rentals are just a few of the things the Forest Service has provided. Sounds a perfect spot to squeeze in a ride between lazy days on the lake!
On the other end of the spectrum from Two Lakes lies Moose Lake, an isolated campground south of the CAMBA trails. Weary bikers can enjoy a dip in the lake after a long day in the saddle or sit around the campfire on the lookout for elk, eagles, and loons.
For those venturing into the eastern end of the Forest, Richardson Lake Campground offers beautiful sites, great fishing, and a convenient location.
Because of its central location, Twin Lakes is an ideal base camp for exploring the entire forest. The nearby Round Lake Non-Motorized Area also provides campers with a peaceful, secluded spot for an evening hike.
Although currently closed due to damage caused by a windstorm that ravaged the area in 2016, Birch Grove Campground, a beautiful spot nestled in the northernmost portion of the Forest, should be repaired soon. This quiet 16-site campground provides visitors great fishing and proximity to the Valhalla trail network.
Bike Shops near Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest
New Moon Ski & Bike Shop
Hayward’s New Moon Ski & Bike Shop is conveniently located right outside the CAMBA trail system, making it a good choice for grabbing a tube or a replacement part.
Chequamegon Adventure Company
The Chequamegon Adventure Company serves as a one-stop shop for playing in Northern Wisconsin. Located in the center of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, they’ll be happy to deck you out with a Cannondale for exploring the area by bike or a kayak for touring by paddle.
Bay City Cycles
Located north of the Forest near the shore of Lake Superior in Ashland, Bay City Cycles offers all the supplies you might need to keep your bike in working order during your Northwoods adventure.
Your Turn: Did we miss any Chequamegon-Nicolet classics? Be sure to share your favorites in the comments below!