Wisconsin’s Penokee Mountains may be a shadow of their former selves-they once rivaled the present-day Alps-but these rugged hills within sight of Lake Superior still manage to inspire awe. Clad in timber, furrowed by whitewater rivers, and sprawling across 100 square miles of public forest, the Penokees may be the state’s best-kept secret.
This is snow country and many trails, like the Penokee Mountains Hiking Trail west of Mellen, are laid out in a series of loops with cross-country skiers in mind. Loops of 2, 3, and 5 miles can be combined into a hike that courses over granite ledges and down narrow chasms, all the while sheltered by a hemlock forest. Or hook up with a 40-mile section of the North Country Trail and follow it as far as your legs are willing. Fish for trout, search for agates, or take a dip in any of the lakes and streams along the way.
My favorite spot is east of Wren Falls on a section of the North Country Trail near Upson Lake. As in much of the Penokees, wildlife is abundant here, the views stretch across unbroken timber, and silence presses in from every side. In spring, this area gleams white with snowy trillium, making it an unforgettable sight.
Upson Lake is also the staging ground for a number of other hikes, including a 1-mile sidetrack to Corrigan’s Lookout, a granite knob that offers one of the biggest and best views in Wisconsin, if not the entire Midwest. From the lookout, the North Country Trail travels east 12 miles, climbing up, down, and around rocky formations that rise like otherworldly monoliths, including the geological wonder Balanced Rock. Below Whitecap Mountain, you’ll connect with the 19-mile Uller Trail, which travels the most remote and rugged part of the Penokees. By combining the Uller with ski trails and abandoned logging roads, you can plan a hike that will last from a few days to an entire summer.