Even before TLC popularized the phrase in modern culture, bicycle advocates have built careers on the metaphor. Since I retired from two decades working in bicycle advocacy, I’ve given up tilting at windmills, but I do have a lot more time to literally chase waterfalls. This route follows the plentiful unimproved forest roads in northern Wisconsin and dips into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to take the rider past 28 waterfalls.
The Stormy Kromer connection is because the iconic hats of the Northwoods are now made in Ironwood, MI. And the owner of the company is an avid cyclist who even sells SK jerseys and cycling caps made by Wisconsin’s own Borah Teamwear down in Coon Valley. The UP has lots of waterfalls and if not for the Toledo Compromise should be part of Wisconsin anyway.
When you work in the bicycle industry, weekends don’t necessarily equate to time off. And with the growth of anywhere, anytime communications of text messages, DMs and email notifications, when I want to “get away” I typically head to the gravel roads somewhere north of Highway 8 where cell service is spotty. Getting away from phone calls, text messages, email and social media help me feel re-energized.
I have been bicycling and hunting along the gravel fire lanes and logging roads of Northern Wisconsin for more years than I like to remember. In those travels, I have often stumbled across a beautiful, but unexpected waterfall. While I like surprises, I realized with some research, I could draw some lines and drop some POIs in RideWithGPS, and plan a Northwoods bikepacking trip that includes a lot of waterfalls.
Some of the falls are well known, others are lesser known and difficult to find. Having the POIs on RWGPS would make the trip a lot more enjoyable and le as Iet people skip a lot of the bushwhacking I put into this route development.
To pinpoint the waterfalls, I relied on my past trips, the websites gowaterfalling.com, Bob Schneider’s waterfallwisconsin.com, and his wonderful printed companion book Wisconsin Waterfalls Travel Guide. If you want to explore other waterfalls, Schneider’s helpful book includes 222 cascades and is the most inclusive and complete Wisconsin guide I could find.
With so many waterfalls and thousands of miles of gravel roads, ATV and mountain bike trails, it took longer than I thought to put together a few route options I felt comfortable sharing. After about 200 hours of research and a dozen reconnaissance bike trips, I have finalized three different, but overlapping, waterfall routes. The first is a big loop that includes 28 waterfalls. The other two are day trips from the same basecamp to create a nice weekend trip in which you only have to set up camp once:
- Wisconsin Northwoods Waterfall Loop – 382 miles
- Wisconsin Waterfall Weekend Day One – 58 miles
- Wisconsin Waterfall Weekend Day Two – 64 miles
The Wisconsin Northwoods Waterfall Loop: This 382 mile or so loop takes you past 25 waterfalls, some larger falls are well known, others are smaller and some are only known to locals and hard to find without a POI. Only about 7% of the route is on paved roads. About 88% is on gravel or sandy forest roads and the remaining miles are on mountain bike or Davement. Davement is a term my friends coined for a connector I found that helps avoid paved roads, but might be too overgrown to actually pedal. These old logging roads and rough ATV/UTV/Snowmobile trails might require you to hike-a-bike, but that is part of the fun of bikepacking.
All the waterfalls are on the northern part of the loop, but the southern segments of the route are still great riding on a variety of gravel roads, two-track and MTB trails with very nice campgrounds. On the dozens of times I have ridden segments of this loop, I have always found an empty campsite without advance reservations. I prefer to travel without a set itinerary. If a campsite was full, I would just go find a dispersed spot in the nearby county of national forest. Those who like to plan can make reservations ahead of time.
I chose to start and end this loop in Cable, WI because I level in nearby Seeley and because they have a free municipal parking lot where you can leave your car or truck, no questions asked. Despite having a population of 263, Cable has a good hardware store, grocery store, book store, coffee shop, three great restaurants and a new fancy bar. Starting in Cable also lets you ride the CAMBA MTB trail sections of the route right at the start when you are fresh. But you could pick anywhere to start and end your ride. Ironwood or Watersmeet might make good alternatives.
Davement is a term my friends coined for a connector I found that helps avoid paved roads but might be too overgrown to actually pedal.
What Bike to Ride
The terrain on these three rides varies from very hilly hard packed gravel to super soft sand. The sandy sections are limited to the Bayfield Peninsula, though. I have ridden those sections on my Fyxation Crusher carbon adventure bike with 40 mm tubeless tires, but let the air down to 10 to 12psi when I hit the sandy sections so I was able to ride. The gravel road bike is ideal for the vast majority of the waterfall route, but it really does struggle in the sand.
While 40 mm to 50 mm tires are doable in the sand and riding a gravel road bike makes for faster going on the majority of the route, I think my Milwaukee Bicycle Company Feral 29er with 2.4” tubeless tires is a better compromise. Again, I drop the air pressure when I hit the sandy stuff and pump them back up once I am on firmer ground. Even a fat bike with 5” tires will still struggle in the sandy sections if it is dry, but a fat bike is overkill for the vast majority of the route. So for me, the 29er is a good compromise, but you can do these routes with whatever bike you have. Don’t let the bike stop you if you want to try.
I typically carry a handful of dehydrated meals and some instant oatmeal with me for the first two days where there is no place to stop, but after that there are enough taverns, restaurants, convenience stores and even grocery stores along the route that I typically don’t cook the rest of the trip. Of course, you could avoid those trips into town if you prefer. Just pack enough bikepacking meals and bring the stove of your choice.
When to go
Because this is mostly gravel, you can go any time of the year. If the MTB trails are closed in the spring or fall because they are too wet, just hop on the parallel gravel roads. If I am forced to choose, though, September and October are ideal as the black flies are less likely to be around and the mosquitos don’t have much oomph anymore. If you want to swim in the falls, go during summer but bring a head net and summer weight loose shirt and pants just in case the black flies are bad. You can’t out-ride them; they will follow you in swarms as you ride. Having a head net and long sleeves is invaluable.
Note that there are lots of ways to shorten any of these routes to better fit your schedule. Also, don’t hesitate to start out on a longer route and then short-cut it back on the road if you get behind schedule or the weather turns bad. I was blessed with few bugs and mostly bluebird days almost all summer in 2019 when I was riding recon, but a few times I took the road back early to avoid a couple of days of severe thunderstorms in the forecast. These trips are all about fun, so why suffer?