4×4 Roadtrip ‘Up North’

TOOL KIT AND MOTOR OIL? Check. Dangerously optimistic sense of adventure? Check! It was a July morning when we piled into an antique Jeep Commando and pointed its dinner table size hood north.

Our objective was the untouched timberland of Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and a little-known track that traverses its interior. My family of four — two boys, wife, and I — were in search of a classic summer weekend in the woods.

We’d get there not by highways but something called the Trans-Wisconsin Adventure Trail. The 611-mile route starts at Wisconsin’s southern border and ends at Lake Superior.

Along the way the Trans-Wisconsin snakes through the state’s most beautiful and remote wilderness, including our destination in the Chequamegon-Nicolet Forest.

With descriptions like “the most underutilized wilderness area in the Midwest” and the place to “get away from it all” the massive National Forest would give us pristine woods, lakes, streams, and waterfalls.

We’d fish, hike, swim, tent out at night, roast marshmallows, and soak it all in — a classic family camping trip Up North.

Then there was the challenges of the Trans-Wisconsin Adventure route, and my old Jeep. Our 1973 Jeep Commando, a constant work-in-progress, hasn’t always been an adventure-worthy vehicle.

Old, worn and rusted parts have been replaced and updated by the dozens. On a rig this classic, anything could happen, but the time seemed right to go for it.

Plus, I had new tires. The idea for this trip began weeks before when BFGoodrich offered the Gear Junkie staff a set of its All-Terrain T/A KO tires.

A set of new tires on my old Jeep would be a big step toward getting the vehicle ready for off-road ventures. Coincidently, several Jeep enthusiasts I knew had recommended this exact tire set, the All-Terrain T/A KO, for my vehicle. I happily volunteered to test them out.

Day one of our trip started with a drive from Minneapolis to the tiny town of Winter, Wis., near the southern border of the National Forest. From Winter, we drove off-pavement and into a network of fire roads that twist and turn through big timber forests, past bogs, over creeks and rivers, and around countless pristine lakes.

Most of the Trans-Wisconsin Adventure Trail is gravel, each mile in its own unique variety of conditions. Sometimes the roads were smooth and grated, other times rocky and rutted. Some of the route consisted of long forgotten and broken pavement in the deep woods.

Our biggest challenges were keeping the Jeep running well all weekend, and not becoming lost. If the trail got gnarly, we had 4-wheel drive and plenty of traction via the generous lugs on those 33-inch BFGoodrich tires.

While the designated Trans-Wisconsin Adventure Trail itself didn’t turn out to be too challenging for my Jeep, the thousands of off-route options could take you into the wild and out of your comfort zone fast.

Several times I bellowed, “Hang onto something,” and then gunned the motor as we clawed over fallen trees or bounced out of gullies. Reactions from the family ranged from hands cupped over mouths and mild expletives, to whoops of delight and laughter. We still talk about those tense moments as the vehicle bumped along and skidded on the trail.

After a day of bouncing and jarring we were ready for some relaxation at our landing point for the day, Lake Namakagon. The body of water is legendary for fishing, and we got a tent site for $14, including a vehicle pass.

If you’re looking for a quiet, idyllic Up North experience, this place will do nicely. We had a doe and spotted fawn feeding yards from our site for several hours. And our young sons caught “sunnies” off the dock until rain showers chased us back to camp.

DAY TWO: Heavy overnight rain had threatened to soak us, but we all awoke dry and happy to be in the woods. A breakfast of camp stove pancakes and sausage filled our bellies before we packed up and rolled out of camp.

Since we unanimously agreed that the unnamed trail offshoots were more fun, we committed to explore. Overnight rains left massive puddles that at times licked at the running boards and threw water over the windshield. Now we were having some 4×4 fun!

When we came across a large fallen tree in the road, we did our civic duty and pulled it out of the way with the truck. The Jeep engine revved as we pulled the trunk to the side.

At one intersection, I overshot the turn and nearly put us into a deep ditch. The boys locked the hubs and we employed 4-wheel drive. That and all the newly-acquired tire traction narrowly save our hides. It was, embarrassingly, the most intense off-road moment of the trip.

After hours in the woods, a decent meal sounded amazing. We motored into civilization for a break and hit the Delta Diner in its tiny namesake town of Delta, Wis. Put this foodie oasis on your list of to-do’s if you pass anywhere nearby.

My moist corn cake topped with over-easy eggs and creamy chorizo sauce was at least as good as my wife’s Brussels sprouts omelet with bacon, leeks and asiago cheese! You can also get a quality cup of coffee here. Plan to wait for a seat, because this small place is well-known and bustling.

Trail riding is great stuff with miles of beautiful, empty forests, wildlife and unknown vistas around every corner. But after the food we were ready for a different kind of fun and ventured about 25 miles off-route in search of a cool place to take a dip.

Morgan Falls is in the middle of nowhere, but we highly recommend it. This little falls is secluded and gorgeous. Passing through thick groves of cedar on the hike in, one of my boys exclaimed, “Dad, this is Narnia woods!”

Morgan Falls is a creek that cascades diagonally across a cliff face and pools into the valley below. It was chilly but refreshing and the kind of spot you wish you could stay all day.

Unfortunately, we could not. Our trip was nearing its end and we had 250 miles to get home and back to the real world.

We’ve only been home for a few days, but the siren song of Up North summertime adventure is already calling again.

T.C. Worley is a contributing editor. “4×4 Roadtrip ‘Up North'” is a part of an adventure series; see our first story in the series, “Climbing A Giant: Ascent Of Mount Adams.”