To Minocqua on two wheels

(First published in the August 30, 2018 issue of City Pages)

The Hiawatha and Bearskin trails make for an easy bicycle adventure


A sign on the trail as you enter Oneida County.

Many of you probably think of Minocqua as a resort town that many Chicagoans consider their playground. But you can take a totally different approach to it, literally.

Drive up to Tomahawk, park the car, and hop on your bikes for a scenic, quiet trip up north via the Hiawatha and Bearskin bike trails. The head of the southern Hiawatha trail starts at Sara Park (900 W. Somo Ave., Tomahawk). Be warned, the trailhead is actually a little hard to find. Although the official website says it starts at Sara Park, it’s technically slightly northwest of the park and intersects with W. Somo Avenue.


You simply MUST stop at The Windmill for ice cream – you need that fuel for the rest of the ride.

After riding the trails for about four miles, the first must-stop place on the adventure looms obvious: The Windmill ice cream shop (1972 County Road L), marked by its, well, big windmill. This might be the least expensive ice cream shop in all of Wisconsin and serves delicious Chocolate Shoppe ice cream. I remember buying a giant one-scoop waffle cone there for like $2 once. The prices have gone up a bit since then but they’re still reasonable for way too much ice cream.

After a few more miles on the Hiawatha, you come to the on road section that connects this newer trail to the long-established Bearskin. Just follow the signs that direct you to the start of the Bearskin. Now only 18 miles to Minocqua.

About halfway to Minocqua you will come across a rest stop at South Blue Lake with water so clear and blue its hard to believe it exists in Wisconsin. You’ll see it on your left.

But maybe the coolest experience of riding the Bearskin comes at the end. You know you’re close to Minocqua because pedestrians and other bicyclists appear more frequently. There’s a moment when the trail transitions from forest and gravel to a wooden bridge traversing Minocqua Lake. It’s like emerging from the jungle to civilization, with boaters and jet skis on the water, folks walking the bridge and the bustle of the island city in the background. It always makes me smile.


The wooden bridges are numerous and traverse great scenic areas.

The trail drops you right into downtown Minocqua. You could park your bikes and walk to the many destinations here, or continue riding through town to get to some of the ones a bit farther on. (Tip: You could always meet friends or family who prefer to drive up. A trip my family used to make would see some of us dropped off at the trail head by other family members, who we would meet at the end of the trail.)

• The Island Cafe (314 Oneida St.): The food is to die for, whether it’s their Greek scramble or their lox and rye sandwich for lunch. It’s an exceptionally good greasy spoon and always worth a stop.

• Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty (8653 Hwy. 51 N.): It’s an experience. The place is enormous, and serves an all you can eat breakfast, lunch or dinner, all tasty. The decor is like every 1800s-era lumberjack had a yard sale, jam-packed with saws, snowshoes and the like. The food is simple, tasty, and if you go for breakfast, expect to wait in line.

• Minocqua Brewing Company (238 Lakeshore Dr.): The food is solid, and the view of Minocqua Lake is stunning. Also, good company. I’ve never sat at the bar and not met someone quirky and fascinating, including Dancing Dan, one of two people I met one night with dancing in their name. You can’t make this stuff up.

• Otto’s Beer and Brat Garden (509 Oneida St.): Minocqua has a great night life, and here you’ll find live music and probably bump into Wausau-area acquaintances.

• Kobe Sushi (519 Oneida St): I’m a sushi snob, but the sushi here is decent at this quiet little restaurant run by a couple who used to run a restaurant in Wausau.

• Great Northern Coffee Traders (215 Front St.): It’s spacious, filled with art, has good Wi-Fi, and not only has good coffee, but a pretty affordable breakfast (seriously, their most expensive breakfast sandwich is $4). On one trip, I loaded up before heading back to Tomahawk. Note that it closes at 3 pm.

You might think of this trip as a summer thing, as for sure it is. But fall and spring are great times to make this trip. The temperature is cooler and more comfortable, you’ll see fall colors or hear spring frogs, and no bugs.

This fall, consider making a stop at the annual Beef-a-Rama, this year on Saturday, Sept. 29.Minocqua is packed in this huge block party with live music, people dressed in cow costumes, a craft show and beef to eat. Lots of beef.

Road trip for eats

Speaking of Beef-a-Rama, here are a few of the many other foodie festivals around the state, per the staff of Discover Wisconsin

Warrens Cranberry Festival, Warrens

Sept. 28–30, 2018

This is the world’s largest cranberry festival, and it’s kind of a big deal. Warrens is in the heart of cranberry country (did you know Wisconsin harvests more than 60% of the country’s cranberries?), and the festival draws in more than 120,000 visitors each year. You’ll find everything from cranberry marsh tours to cranberry cream puffs, plus plenty of shopping. It’s about an hour and 45 minutes from Wausau.

Bayfield Apple Festival, Bayfield

Oct. 5–7, 2018

Celebrating the area’s agricultural heritage and autumn harvest, this fall festival was named one of the 10 Best Fall Harvest Festivals in the nation by USA Today. The Lake Superior town celebrates the season with orchard and winery tours, fine arts and crafts, local foods, live music, and an apple peeling contest. About three-and-a-half hours from Wausau.

Vino Fest, Tomah

Sept. 1–2, 2018

For many Wisconsinites, weekends are spent traveling from corner to corner of the state touring vineyards and tasting wines, and as Wisconsin’s winery scene grows in popularity, Vino Fest is born. This Tomah festival is entering its first year and will bring Wisconsin’s many vineyards together and celebrate all things wine. While there are so many things to love about this brand-new festival, here are some worth mentioning:

Wine Tasting— The event provides a sampling of wines from Wisconsin wineries, and then allows you to purchase a glass of your favorite wine at The Chateau, or bottles of wine at the Wine Cellar.

The Chateau— Kick back and relax in The Chateau, where you can enjoy a glass of wine from one of the state’s many vineyards, and cheese samples from award-winning cheesemakers across the state.

Corks n’ Creations— How about wine-inspired crafts? Check out or purchase artists’ creations, including jewelry, photography, woodwork, and paintings.

Moscato Music Stage— With a glass of wine in-hand, hear acoustic, contemporary and jazz music playing in the background. Performances include a Dean Martin tribute, Memphis soul, a funky retro take on Michael Jackson, Prince, Justin Timberlake, and more).

ChocolateFest, Burlington

May 24-27, 2019

Burlington is known as Chocolate City, USA (the city itself has even been known to smell like chocolate), so where else would you find a festival dedicated to chocolate? Enjoy an entire weekend of fun and games, rides, cooking demonstrations, and plenty of chocolate. As an added bonus, Burlington breaks up the winter months with Hot ChocolateFest, Jan. 18-20, 2019.