Hiking a woodland trail during the autumn season is enchanting. It’s even more special when that trail circumnavigates a beautiful lake.
With all of the hundreds of lakes in the Northwoods, you may expect more lake trails, but only a handful allow a hiker to truly make it all the way around, viewing the lake from all angles and coming around full circle.
Most lake trails don’t go around the very edge of the water; in fact, since trees and shrubs along the shoreline usually grow very full branches out over the open space, sometimes trails can be hidden behind thick cover, allowing hikers just a peek now and then of the water.
But often, such a charmingly-framed view can be even more spectacular. The combination of sky and clouds reflecting off the water, far shorelines changing as you make your way around the lake, and the sometimes challenging terrain of a shoreline make for a satisfying hike.
Dog owners can rest assured that their four-legged friends will have plenty of opportunities for a swim on a lake trail. In warm weather, human hikers can also cool off, if the spirit moves them.
Most of the trails listed here are in the Northern Highlands American Legion State Forest, maintained by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. A trail pass is not required for hiking, so get out and enjoy! For more maps and trail descriptions, visit the DNR website, dnr.wi.gov.
Hanson Lake Trail, Rhinelander
First established by and for mountain bikers, the rugged trail around Hanson Lake provides stunning views of this small, clear lake adjacent to the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport. There are several places to park where a short walk will bring you to the lake, but the easiest place to go is to the public boat landing. Drive north out of downtown Rhinelander on Davenport Street, crossing Hwy. 47, and continue on until the road passes behind the U.S. Forest Service building. Go straight on to where it becomes a gravel road that winds around and down a steep slope to the boat landing. There are several places to park above the landing.
No actual map of the trails is available, but making your way through the maze of trails is fun; there’s no way to get lost when you’re going around a lake! One portion of the trail goes up out of sight of the water, but it’s simple to keep the direction in mind and find the way around.
A wonderful beach is located on the trail, as well as several very nice fishing spots. At one point, the trail goes along the airport fence; planes are sometimes landing or taking off, which can be somewhat noisy.
Distance all the way around the lake is about 3.5 miles and the terrain is challenging. Good shoes are a must for this trail.
Shannon Lake Trail, Saint Germain
Another bike trail that lends itself well to a nice hike is this gem which offers a number of loops that vary in length. The loop that circumnavigates Shannon Lake is just 2.5 miles long and parking is at the boat launch off Found Lake Road, just a few miles northeast of Saint Germain.
One fan of this trail says it’s just the right distance for a nice walk, and although the trail is never very steep, there is a nice viewpoint on a hill. The water is crystal clear, she says. When the weather is warm, it’s perfect for a dip after a hike.
McNaughton Lake Trail, McNaughton
This lovely trail system actually goes around three different lakes, although it rarely goes close enough for tantalizing views. The longest loop goes around Lake McNaughton and has a wonderful shoreline boardwalk. On a sunny day, it’s a perfect spot to sit on the nearby bench and take in the view or wade along in the water looking for minnows and frogs.
A short, one-mile loop goes around tiny Hawk Lake and includes a scenic canoe launch and beach with a bench nearby. Fans of this trail have admitted this has become their favorite place to swim.
Helen Lake is truly hidden away from hikers, but for a short path that leads to a breathtaking view of this secret spot. Soaking in the ambiance of this peaceful lake, one can imagine what the Northwoods looked like hundreds of years ago.
Parking for the McNaughton trails is located on Kildeer Road off Hwy. 47 between Rhinelander and Lake Tomahawk. A good trail map is displayed on a kiosk at the parking lot.
Escanaba Trail, Boulder Junction
For the more ambitious hiker, this trail system offers perhaps the most beautiful lake hiking in the area. A figure 8 winds around Escanaba Lake and nearby Palette Lake, and touches on Lost Canoe Lake and the smaller Spruce and Mystery lakes.
The terrain is rolling and can get steep at times, rambling through evergreen and hardwood forests, along ridge lines and through wetland valleys. If you don’t want to do a long hike, you can still get a good taste of the area by taking the 2.5-mile loop that skirts the shorelines of both big lakes.
To find the trailhead, take Cty. M from Hwy. 51 (just north of Woodruff), then turn right on Nebish Road, a few miles to the signed parking lot.
Fallison Lake Trail, Sayner
The beautiful scenery on this hike, and the variety of trail loops between 0.5 and 2.5 miles, make Fallison Lake a must-visit. Terrain is fairly hilly and sometimes steep, but the views of the lake are stunning.
One fan of this trail belongs to a group of family and friends who have made this hike an annual event for several decades. They hike around together, stopping now and then to admire the views and call for loons.
Boardwalks and woodland stairs are included on this trail that winds its way through hemlock forests, bogs and mixed woodland. The trailhead is located on Cty. N between Hwy. 51 and Sayner, near the Crystal Lake campground.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce™ and Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond™ magazines.