By Katie Vaughn
Up North. Is there a part of Wisconsin that feels closer to our hearts? Maybe you summered here as a kid, or you migrate to the northwoods now with your family, spending your days boating and waterskiing on pristine lakes. Or perhaps you steal away in the winter, for ice fishing, cross-country skiing or snowmobiling adventures.
The extreme seasons are terrific times to head up north, but autumn might be the most beautiful of all, and Minocqua is an ideal spot to center a getaway.
Surrounded by lakes and pine and hardwood forests, Minocqua boasts a small, strollable downtown filled with shops and restaurants. But on a nice fall day when the air is crisp and the sun is shining, let's not start there.
Rather, begin the day on the Bearskin State Trail, an eighteen-mile path that was used as a railroad line from 1888 to 1972 to transport white pine logs. Named for the Bearskin Creek it follows, the trail has since been transformed into a crushed red granite pathway that's great for walking and biking. The Bearskin starts in Harshaw and winds its way north past lakes, marshes, fields and forests.
In October, you might glimpse whitetail deer, beavers, migrating ducks, ruffed grouse in the morning, an occasional flock of wild turkeys and maybe even a bear on a hike, says Todd Hintz, a ranger with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. And from mid to late September until early October, fall color is at its peak, with tree leaves turning golden, orange and scarlet before dropping to the ground (visit Travel Wisconsin's Fall Color Report to see when trees are at their most vibrant).
No matter where you pick up the Bearskin Trail, you'll appreciate that it ends right in the heart of downtown Minocqua. After a few miles of biking or hiking, you might be in the mood for a brew and, lucky for you, the Minocqua Brewing Company is steps away. Set alongside Torpy Park and its Lake Minocqua beach, the brewery and restaurant serves up seven craft ales and lagers, including an IPA, Hefeweizen, wild rice lager and a changing seasonal brew. Make your choice at the long wood bar, or settle in at a table and consider adding on a burger, sandwich or pub-style appetizer.
If you find yourself in Minocqua on a Friday evening, stroll down Oneida Street till you reach a brown and white German-style building. This is Polecat & Lace, a family-run restaurant featuring a great Friday-night fish fry (do not pass up the beer-cheese soup that comes with dinner), traditional cocktails like brandy old fashioneds, and a cozy atmosphere with dark wood booths and tables. It's a downtown taste of the northwoods' supper club tradition—and a hearty end to a day of autumn adventure.
Katie Vaughn is managing editor of Madison Magazine.