23 Rustic Roads for Fall Drives in Wisconsin
Last Updated: 10/20/2016
By Jeniece Smith
Just to be a part of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Rustic Roads Program, a route has to have “unusual or outstanding natural beauty,” so you can’t go wrong with any of the state’s whopping 117 rustic roads. View the DOT's interactive Rustic Roads Guide.
These specially designated backroads criss-cross 59 of the state’s 72 counties, providing a quiet, scenic alternative to the highway for trekking across the state. Some gravel, some paved, they range in length from less than a mile to nearly 40!
Beautiful any time of year, these backroads are some of Wisconsin’s best spots for fall color, with history and hidden gems tucked along each crest and curve. Bikers can claim a Rustic Roads Motorcycle Tour patch for driving at least 10 of the roads, which also are popular for driving tours, cycling or just strolling.
Check out 23 of our favorite drives (and just as many nearby bonus routes), categorized into four regions within the state.
Rustic Roads 26 and 64 – La Crosse County
Scenery and heritage intersect on the 5.3-mile Rustic Road 26, which offers a panorama of the Mississippi River and a wildlife refuge on Goose Island, and passes by a hundred-year-old root cellar and 1854 mill. Rustic Road 64 is just to the north near the Mississippi and only 2.7 miles, but connects to the McGilvray Road walking trail through the Van Loon Wildlife Area, popular for its seven unique bowstring-arch bridges.
Bonus routes: Rustic Roads 55 and 56 directly to the south in Vernon County pass near Wildcat Mountain State Park and offer excellent fall foliage views. The unpaved 5-mile Rustic Road 91 loops between Highway 54 and the Black River in Trempealeau County to the north, while Jackson County to the west offers a 12.3-mile route through the Black River State Forest along Rustic Road 54.
The 7.5-mile Rustic Road 66 near Wisconsin’s southwestern corner takes you up and down several backroads in the unglaciated “Driftless Area” and boasts amazing fall colors. Don’t miss the tin shacks and other evidence of an abandoned lead mine off Kennedy Road.
Bonus routes: Routes in neighboring Grant County include the 10.1-mile Rustic Road 70 through the Platte River Valley and the 3.4-mile Rustic Road 99, the program’s only designated route directly along the Mississippi. Just to the north, the 3.7-mile Rustic Road 75 traces the mid-1800s “Welsh Settlement” in Iowa County.
Rustic Road 49 – Sauk and Columbia counties
Most of this paved 9.8-mile route travels through protected natural lands and hugs the south shore of the Wisconsin River, lined by marshes, prairie grasses and trees.
Bonus routes: Another picturesque route in Sauk County, the 8.6-mile Rustic Road 21 passes through stands of oak, maple, hickory and basswood and near Natural Bridge State Park, the earliest documented site in the upper Midwest where primitive humans sought shelter. Or, check out Rustic Road 110 in Columbia County, a 5.9-mile route famous for its fall foliage.
Rustic Roads 10, 86 and 115 – Waukesha County
Three separate rustic roads combine for 12.7 miles of scenic driving through the lakes and hills of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest’s Southern Unit, with access to hiking trails including the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Stop and climb the 45-tower at Lapham Peak to take in autumn colors from the highest point in Waukesha County.
Rustic Roads 33 and 52 – Washington County
As you snake through the curves and ridges of Rustic Road 33’s 12.1-mile route through farmlands and along Lowe Lake, you’ll see the spires of Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary peeking above the treetops. If you’re up for a trek, visit the basilica and climb the 192-foot tower for breathtaking views of fall color as far as the eye can see from the highest point in southeastern Wisconsin!
Keeping with the lofty theme, Rustic Road 52 in Washington and Ozaukee counties travels 6.7 miles through the woods, past historic farmsteads and along ridges offering panoramic views of the countryside. A highlight is the Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area, one of Wisconsin’s biggest and most biologically diverse wetlands.
Bonus route: For more wetlands and wildlife, head over to Rustic Road 106 in neighboring Dodge County, which travels 7.2 miles alongside Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, one of America’s largest freshwater marshes.
Rustic Roads 27, 90 and 94 – Green County
Green County’s cluster of rustic roads showcase the area’s rolling countryside, cheese and mining history, and Native American heritage.
A tunnel of 300-year-old oak trees form a russet and gold tunnel with maple, hickory and basswood along the 3.2-mile local favorite Rustic Road 90. You’ll see the scars of old “badger holes” from lead mining on the 4.6-mile Rustic Road 94, as well as one of three old cheese factories that once operated along the route still standing as a residence.
Bonus route: You’ll spot five 1800s farmhouses along the short-but-sweet Rustic Road 81, a 2.9-mile former farm supply route that is now designated as a bike path.
Rustic Roads 62 and 105 – Price County
Although the 2-mile Rustic Road 62 “is short in distance, it is long in aesthetic quality,” as the Wisconsin DOT puts it. This paved route is the only access to the highest point in the state, Timms Hill County Park, and an observation tower offers sweeping views of orange, gold and red treetops.
Rustic Road 105 loops off Highway 70 for a 13-mile jaunt through the massive Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Your favorite part may be driving through the Smith Rapids Covered Bridge over the meandering South Fork of the Flambeau River.
Bonus routes: In adjacent counties, you’ll find two of Wisconsin’s landmark rustic roads, its hundredth and its first. The 13.5-mile Rustic Road 100 to the north in Iron County follows the Flambeau Trail once used by Native Americans along a smattering of lakes and plentiful fields of wildflowers. To the south in Taylor County and just a few miles from Timms Hill, Rustic Road 1 traces hills and valleys carved by a glacier 12,000 years ago.
If you want more time behind the wheel in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, try the 25-mile Rustic Road 111 bordering Ashland and Sawyer counties, a fall color favorite for its diversity of hardwood trees, or Rustic Road 95 in Bayfield and Sawyer counties, a 16.4-mile route that connects to the Lynch Creek State Wildlife Area and its popular wildlife-viewing platform.
Polk County’s rustic roads are short but numerous at a half-dozen, the second-highest tally among Wisconsin’s counties. The longest route, the 5.2-mile Rustic Road 28, crosses the Apple River in a county park and passes forests, farmland, and old churches and cemeteries. Both between two and three miles in length, Rustic Roads 41 and 93 to the north and south offer similarly enchanting views with a tree canopy overhead, while Rustic Road 67 – shared with neighboring Barron County – travels 4.6 miles through woods, wetlands and fields of wildflowers.
Bonus routes: Directly south, St. Croix County offers four more rustic roads, including one that hedges Willow River State Park – named for one of Wisconsin’s grandest waterfalls – the three-mile Rustic Road 13. Further south in Pierce County, the 4.3-mile Rustic Road 51 is near a replica of the log cabin that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder to write “Little House in the Big Woods.”
Four more rustic roads ranging from 1.2 to 8 miles to the north in Burnett County – 15, 79, 80 and 98 – border the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, intersect the popular Gandy Dancer State Trail and other hiking paths, or pass along woodlands, waterways and prairies.
Rustic Road 32 cuts through county and state parklands and clocks in at 37 miles, making it Wisconsin’s longest rustic road! You’ll see a variety of hardwoods offering an array of fall colors, gorgeous vistas of the Thunder and Peshtigo rivers, rugged rock outcrops and plenty of wildlife.
If you stop at Goodman County Park or McClintock County Park in the first half of the journey, you’ll be rewarded with views of two falls that helped give Marinette County its “Waterfall Capital of Wisconsin” title: Strong Falls and McClintock Falls. The 3,000-acre Governor Thompson State Park and 9,000-acre Peshtigo River State Forest offer limitless recreation toward the end of the route.
Or, if you favor another long drive, check out the 32.5-mile Rustic Road 74 through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Two more rustic roads in this region that travel through the splendor of this national forest are Rustic Road 34 in neighboring Forest County and Rustic Road 113 further to the west in Oconto County.
On the 11.7-mile Rustic Road 60, you’ll wind through the Northern Highland/American Legion State Forest’s dense stands of hardwood and evergreens, between sparkling Northwoods lakes, and past a long-ago logging camp and old saw mill.
Bonus routes: More wild backroads are to the south in neighboring Oneida County. The 9.6-mile Rustic Road 58 passes through more scenic Northwoods lakes and forestland and crosses the Bearskin State Trail, while the 4.5-mile Rustic Road 59 winds through the wilderness and alongside cabins built by the area’s first homesteaders.
The highlight of this 14-mile drive is the rolling farmland, with autumn-splashed wooded hills as a backdrop, but this agricultural tour has plenty of color of its own! Shawano County hails itself as Wisconsin’s barn quilt capital, and for good reason – you’ll see more than 300 of these vibrant squares decorating the area’s well-preserved barns.
Bonus routes: To the south, Waupaca County has a trio of short rustic roads clustered together. The 4.1-mile Rustic Road 57 parallels the Ice Age National Scenic Trail alongside deep ravines and a large apple orchard, while the connecting 3.6-mile Rustic Road 23 and 2.7-mile Rustic Road 24 cross charming stone bridges over the Crystal River near Hartman Creek State Park.