Blazing Trails

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Take in the fall colors along Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads

With its trees forming a canopy over the road, Rustic Road 55 in Vernon County is especially beautiful in the fall. (photo courtesy of Jane Carlson)

October has arrived in all its crimson and gold glory, and it’s time to take this show on the road. Rather, it’s time to take in this show on the road.

There’s nothing like a journey through the fall foliage to brighten up a day, and Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads program provides a perfect path—122 of them, to be exact. Marked with distinctive brown and gold signs, these lightly traveled roads span almost 740 miles through 61 counties, with many of them criss-crossing electric co-op country.

Each Rustic Road is unique, with some passing through towering hardwood trees, others winding around bodies of water, and others crossing through fields of wildflowers. Navigable by car, motorcycle, bike, or foot, some Rustic Roads are paved, while others have a dirt or gravel surface. All are at least two miles long, allowing for a full, rejuvenating immersion into Wisconsin’s colorful autumn scenery.

The very first officially designated Rustic Road in the state, dedicated in 1975, is in Taylor County. (photo courtesy of Christine A. Barkley)

Peak Leaf-Peeping Time

The key factor determining just how bright your Rustic Road trip will be is weather.

“The ideal conditions that would ordinarily lead to the best colors are warm afternoons and cool, but not freezing, nights,” said Scott Rowe, lead meteorologist with the U.S. National Weather Service. Although now based in California, Rowe knows Wisconsin falls well, having grown up in the Driftless Area on Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative lines.

Moisture is another factor in determining the timing of peak fall foliage. The best leaf colors appear when the soil has been adequately moist throughout the year. A late spring, or a summer drought, can delay the color. A warm fall, on the other hand, can decrease the intensity of the color and trigger an early leaf drop.

Fun Features

Rustic Road 51 in Pierce County winds through a woods and crosses a trout stream. This road is located just east of the Wisconsin Great River Road, also a beautiful fall journey. (photo courtesy of Eleanor M. McEntee)

All the varying factors accounting for fall foliage pretty much guarantee that no two autumns are ever the same, and that even the most carefully planned itinerary may still miss the mark for optimal color viewing. But that hardly matters—October is beautiful all the way through, and so are the state’s Rustic Roads.

Established in 1973 by the Wisconsin Legislature, the Rustic Roads program was created to help preserve the state’s remaining scenic, remote rural roads. According to the Department of Transportation, to qualify for the program, a road must have “outstanding natural features” along its border; it must be lightly traveled, with local access; and it cannot be scheduled for major improvements that would change the road’s rustic characteristics.

Beyond those broad similarities, the roads are as diverse as the geography they cross, from the pine stands up north to the unglaciated area’s hills and valleys. Many of the Rustic Roads pass key natural landmarks, places of historical significance, and other points of interest, potentially turning even the shortest drive into a full afternoon’s outing.

Shades of gold are reflected in the Red Cedar River south of Menomonie along Rustic Road 89. This route also passes by the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a miniature canyon with a small waterfall. (photo courtesy of Vicki Buritt)

For example, in Price County, Rustic Road 62 offers the only motorized access to Timm’s Hill County Park, the highest elevated point in the state. Once there, you can climb an observation tower for a spectacular 30-mile view over the colorful vista, down to Bass Lake at the bottom of the hill. The park also has amenities such as picnic tables and nine miles of wooded, multi-use trails.

Timm’s Hill County Park can also be accessed by way of Rustic Road 1 in Taylor County, which crosses Timm’s Hill National Trail. This trail connects to the National Ice Age Trail and leads to the observation tower.

What makes the leaves change color?

Leaves change color in the fall mainly in response to the decrease of daily sunlight as the days shorten. The production of sugars in the leaves, a process known as photosynthesis, begins to slow down in response to the decreasing sunlight. This leads to a reduction of clorophyll, the pigment that gives leaves their green color. When chlorophyll is reduced, it unmasks other pigments that are present in the leaves, which account for the changing colors. (Source: U.S. Forest Service)

It’s hard to beat the towering trees of Jackson County for beautiful fall colors. Rustic Road 54 in Jackson County crosses through the Black River State Forest, with a mix of hardwood stands and pine trees. (photo courtesy of Kerry G. Hill)

Another beautiful elevated view awaits along Rustic Road 113 in Oconto County. This road passes through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and provides access to the Nicolet State Trail, which meanders along a railroad corridor through the forest. This road also takes you to the historic Mountain Fire Lookout Tour, built as a Wisconsin Civilian Conservation Corps project in 1935. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this is the only fire tower left in Wisconsin that is open to the general public for climbing, offering a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding fall colors.

History abounds throughout the Rustic Roads system. Travel along Rustic Road 69 in Columbia County and you’ll find the historic Indian Agency House, built in 1932 for U.S. Indian Agent John H. Kinzie, and now operating as a museum.

Rustic Road 62 takes you to Wisconsin’s highest elevated point, Timm’s Hill, 1,951 feet above sea level. (photo courtesy of Marcia Last)

Rustic Road 66 in Lafayette County takes you back in time to about the 1840s, when lead mining ruled in this part of the state. An abandoned lead mine along with relics of this past industry, such as tin shacks, rusted ore buckets, and piles of tailings, are visible from the road.

Some of Wisconsin’s agricultural history is on display along Rustic Road 56 in Vernon County. Among the Amish farms and log cabins along this road is one of Vernon County’s famous round barns (see Round About in Vernon County, October 2019 WECN). This road also leads to Wildcat Mountain State Park, with its 21 miles of scenic hiking trails and picnic areas.

Whichever Rustic Road you choose to take, things will surely seem much brighter at the end of it, especially in the fall.—Mary Erickson

For more information about Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads program, including a map, visit wisconsindot.gov/Pages/travel/road/rustic-roads/; call
(608) 267-3614; or email WIRusticRoads@dot.wi.gov. In addition, feel free to send a note to our office, 222 West Washington Ave., Suite 680, Madison, WI 53703, about this or any other story and we will send additional information to you.

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