Take a Hike in the Northwoods

Tips and Guides

By Kathy Cutforth, Correspondent

The Northwoods offers a variety of hiking trails to suit every taste, from easy walking paths to backwoods hiking requiring a map and compass. Fall can be an especially beautiful time to take a hike. Track the changing colors at the Wisconsin Department of Tourism’s Fall Color Report.

I’ve compiled a rather comprehensive list, including tips for ensuring a safe trip. I hope you enjoy!

For an overview of hiking trails in the region, here are links for Northwoods county and tourism websites:

Feel free to email me if I missed your favorite Northwoods county.

Most hiking trails are on public land, and one in every six acres in Wisconsin is owned by a government entity. Public lands are interspersed with privately owned tracts and trails. It is best to not go off the trail unless you are experienced and prepared to hike in a wilderness area. Don’t be surprised to find an unhappy property owner if you accidentally trespass on private property.

Hiking is usually free, but parking, biking, or other uses may require permits, and pets are not always welcome.

Check the rules for a trail before you go, and practice good hiking etiquette.


The Northwoods covers a lot of territory, and surprisingly, there isn’t a one-stop website for hiking trails in the region. The following search tips are geared specifically for the Northwoods, but these sites work for any location in the United States. These tips can be useful to narrow down options or to find new hiking destinations.

1) General Overview of Area Trails – Google Maps
To search for tourist attractions, click on the “Attractions” tab on top of the map. This will show hiking trails, parks and other places of interest. This map has layers, accessed by a thumbnail in the lower left corner, which can show terrain or satellite view. Restaurants and museums can be found under separate tabs.

Normally Google Maps is more interested in showing commercial locations than hiking trails, but there is a way around that. Simply type in “Google Maps hiking” into your web browser followed by the desired location. For the Northwoods, type “Northern WI”.

For hiking trails in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, type “Upper MI”, Michigan.

After selecting on a trail, a brief description, photo and user reviews will pop up. User reviews can contain helpful tips and Google links to local websites for more information beneath the reviews. This feature can save a lot of time and direct you to the best source of information for a particular trail. Google results may include some trails that are open to the public but on private land, which are not always included on other sites.

For example, the Holmboe Conifer Forest is located on land privately held by the Northwoods Land Trust. This trail is hidden on the outskirts of Rhinelander, and the trailhead is located behind Riverview Hall, a former nursing home turned into a commercial and housing complex. There is no sign to the trail from the street, but Google Maps pinpoints the trailhead. Without such a map, even a local can have a hard time finding it.

Once you pick a location, downloading driving directions is easy. You can also zoom in to see local access roads and take a screenshot of a detailed map to the trailhead. This is highly recommended for locations that are new to you. Signage on-site can be damaged, obscured by vegetation or not easily seen from the road.

Using Google Maps to find hiking trails has the capacity to plan and save your hikes, create your own routes, measure trail length and more.

2) Best Bets for Hiking and Biking – Traillink.com
This is the website for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. These trails are converted old railroad rights-of-way operated by a patchwork of private and public organizations all across the country. The trails are generally flat, broad, well-marked and maintained. Further, they are often shared with bikes, have at least portions that are handicapped accessible, are usually stroller-friendly, and link up with other amenities.

This site also has an excellent shortcut to regional hiking trails that, although it is labeled for Eagle River, actually covers a good portion of the Northwoods, including the Bearskin Trail, the Heart of Vilas County (paved) Trail and the State Line Trail. Free registration is required for viewing and printing trail maps. Advanced functionality and a phone app are available for a fee but are limited to Rails-to-Trails routes only.

3) Most Comprehensive Trail Maps – AllTrails.com
AllTrails.com is the granddaddy of interactive map websites, covering hiking, biking and running trails all over the world with various search functions by location, attractions and suitability. On the home page, you can search by city, park or trail name. View the Wisconsin hiking trails map. Once on the larger interactive map, you can search area trails by various characteristics, or click on an area of interest and zoom in to see more, including descriptions, ratings, trail maps, reviews and other functions.

Just about any trail imaginable is on this website, including all major National Trails operated by the U.S. Park Service. The Northwoods has two big ones: the North Country Trail and the Ice Age Trail. Every trail map has a cross-section that shows hills, grades or slopes of different parts of the trail. This in combination with reviews will help determine the realistic skill level required for the trail.

Superior Falls hiking trail near Ironwood, Michigan is rated “easy” and is less than a mile long. However, referencing the map and cross-section reveals the first stretch of the hike can prove very difficult for some, with up to a 24% grade slope. Reviewers note that this stretch of the hike is rocky, steep and slippery.

AllTrails is free to use, but registration is required to save lists of trail maps and to download the mobile app for on-route navigation. A fee is required for membership that includes greater functionality, offsite maps, off-route notifications, 3-D maps, and other features.

Safe hiking requires more preparation than just a pair of good shoes, and a little research can save you from wasting your time, getting lost or worse.

As the weather can be unpredictable, it is recommended to dress in layers. Pack a light jacket, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Bug spray is a defense against mosquitoes and ticks, along with proper clothing. Water, snacks, a jackknife, spare socks, a first-aid kit and a space blanket can be tossed into a daypack and can be real lifesavers in an emergency.

Be safe, know your limitations and plan accordingly. If you’re traveling alone, notify a buddy of your trip and expected return time, especially if you’re going off-grid.

It can be surprisingly easy to get lost, even on a short trail. There are apps that can assist you, but cell service in the Northwoods can be spotty even while in town. Maps and a GPS device will come in handy, especially in the backwoods. An old-fashioned topographical map works and is a good backup in unfamiliar territory.

I hope you enjoy the outdoors!


Kathy Cutforth was a freelancer for four years prior to joining NorthwoodsNews.com as a correspondent.

She earned a degree in urban planning from the University of Cincinnati, and then served as a journalist and photographer in the U.S. Army. She later received certificates in web and graphic design, and has freelanced for a variety of organizations.

Kathy’s husband is also a journalist and a veteran. They traveled the world together before landing here in the Northwoods, within hailing distance of her hometown of Marquette, Michigan.