The New Familiar: Riding Wisconsin’s Tour de Nicolet Bikepacking Route

Located in a commonly overlooked corner of the United States, there is a place with endless gravel roads and trails. A region with an incredibly vast network that can be linked through systems of singletrack and small towns. A land where flowing water and spring-fed lakes abound. With prime fall color promised, Josh Uhl makes a last-minute trip to the lesser-known ATB paradise that is Wisconsin to ride the 360-mile Tour de Nicolet and reconnect with the place he found bikes to begin with…

The Nicolet National Forest covers 664,822 acres of northeastern Wisconsin and shares the area with the Chequamegon National Forest. Together they cover more than 1.5 million acres of land. In the early 1900s the area was heavily logged and in danger of not recovering. It wasn’t until the 1930s, when the National Forest designation was first established, that this region was revitalized by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), giving way to the vast public lands standing there today.

I grew up here. Well, not quite. I grew up in southeastern Wisconsin in the suburbs of Milwaukee. On the weekends, however, my family’s cabin just outside of the Nicolet National Forest was an oasis. It was here that I felt most comfortable. It was here where, in hindsight, my love for the outdoors was born; spending endless time outside, exploring and learning from the woods and lakes that characterize the area. Since making my way west, I became and have remained enthralled with the mountains of Colorado. For the past 12 years, my focus has been toward the mountains and I’ve lost touch with my roots in the Northwoods.

In that timeframe I found my passion for bikes and wilderness. It has only been recently that I’ve felt a desire to reconnect with the area where I grew up. I realized that I’d developed the perspective that the things I love about Colorado are unavailable in the northern Midwest—year-round biking, outdoor-oriented communities and bikepacking. On this trip I’d be proven that all that and more is indeed available in the Northwoods.

In October, I was gearing up and getting ready to travel down to The DangerBird bikepacking event in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It would be my first time attending this gathering of like-minded bikepacking-focused folks. But, as autumn settled over the mountains, I felt the itch to go to the lush, colorful and dense forest of the Great Lakes region, not south to the desert. For many, the desert is a special place, a place of personal restoration and peace. A spiritual place, even. I do enjoy time in the desert, but it’s never provided me with those things. For me that place is the Midwest.

So, even as I prepared to head south into the heat of the Chihuahuan Desert, I wondered if there was a way for me to go bikepacking in my place of restoration and peace. I found my way onto the Bikepacking Roots website, knowing they had published a couple routes near Lake Superior. I wondered if there was anything published near where I grew up. As I zoomed in on the map I saw a loop in the northeastern corner of Wisconsin. As I inspected closer, the Tour De Nicolet route came into view.

I immediately began zooming in and inspecting the different sections of the route. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the route starts literally just down the road from my family’s cabin. I couldn’t believe the TdN went directly by this formative place from my youth. With excitement building, I began looking for flights. I had already taken the time off work. As I combed for cheap flights I found round-trip tickets for similar money as what the gas would cost me for the lengthy drive to and from Las Cruces. It was decided: I was going to Wisconsin to ride the Tour De Nicolet, replacing my trip to the desert with a trip to the Nicolet National Forest.

Shane Hitz, the route developer, writes in his description; “The forest is packed full of large hardwood trees and groves of tall white pines with the occasional swamps containing white cedars. Roads twisting and turning, following the paths of rivers and streams are a constant sight with lakes scattered throughout.” It sounded magical to me. Heading there in mid October meant I would hopefully catch the end of the fall colors. I messaged Shane on Instagram about my plans and he was excited for me to come out. He took the time to chat with me on the phone about the route, answer my questions and share some about his passion for building a strong bikepacking community in the area.

His dedication to riding, scouting routes and hosting events was eye-opening to me. This activity I love so much is thriving in the Northwoods and growing every year. I unfortunately wouldn’t be able to ride with Shane on this trip; ironically, he was headed to Las Cruces for the DangerBird. But I already know that I’ll be back many more times. As I write this Shane has already extended sharing more routes that he’s working on in the area. (If you want to hear more about what Shane is up to, listen to the Bikes Or Death Podcast Episode #125.)

As my plans changed and I prepared to head northeast I debated the gear to bring and bike to ride. I almost always have an ongoing bike build project. I’m always on the hunt for parts and interesting frames. In many ways I see bike as art—visual art and performance art. I had recently completed a 26er project that I thought fit the bill perfectly for this trip: a mid 2000’s Soma Groove Mountain bike, one of the last rim brake mountain bikes Soma made. I came across the frame at the local outdoor consignment store, Boulder Sports Recycler, and knew I had my next project.

Being a big fan of the moto style setup with lots of rise on the bars and an upright riding position, I wanted this build to channel the same style. I have always admired the builds and parts that Matias Stridsland puts out and his work definitely inspired the build on this one. For the Soma Groove frame, which included a green King Headset, I ordered a Surly Troll fork. Upon its arrival I striped all the paint down to the bare metal, the goal being a rust patina that forms its own character over time. This process was incredibly arduous given the thickness of Surly’s paint and clearcoat.

I quickly hunted down a Surly Rabbit Hole 26” wheel on Craigslist, and I was off to the races. Being a bike mechanic has its perks for these kinds of projects. I was able to source the rest of the parts pretty quickly, like the new Shimano XT rear hub and Alex Adventurer rim that I laced up with silver spokes. Sticking with my moto/bmx/Stridalsand inspiration, I wrapped the rims in Maxxis Holy Roller 26×2.4s. Running tubes filled with sealant is underrated.

I always start these projects with a “parts bin” mindset, but then the shiny parts beckon to me and I cannot resist their call. I found myself ordering a new set of Mone Meal Replacement Bars and a Thompson 7/8th stem. Funny enough I justified this purchase by replacing my meals with the cheap stuff for two weeks. I was also lucky to score a mint set of Coda 175 mm square taper cranks. The 36t Stridsland 94BCD chainring I purchased over a year ago finally found its home. Finishing the build with a 19T King cog from my library.

This ratio, surprisingly, provided the illusive magic gear in this frame with vertical dropouts. I completed the build with a set of XT V-brakes in the back and a BB7 with a 180 mm rotor in the front. Put on some Avid speed dial levers paired with Vans waffle grips and this bike was ready. The thing rides like a dream, it’s light and snappy, poppy and jibby. It’ll wheelie all day and jump off of anything. Even on singletrack it held a crisp line and kept me very entertained for the weeks leading up to my trip.

The time came to pack up my bike and chuck it onto a plane to Milwaukee. Not long after landing I was headed north. I arrived at my family’s cabin the evening before I planned to depart, with the official start of the route only being a few miles down the road. I pulled parts and gear out of the massive duffle bag that I’d crammed the bike into for the flight out, assembled the bike and weighed it down with all of my warm and wet weather gear. The forecast for the following five days was grim: highs barely touching 45 degrees and rain every day.

The sun broke through the clouds on a crisp and humid morning. I set off to the smell of fallen leaves and humidity condensing on the inside of my glasses. The vibrant collection of smells, colors and sounds stimulated my brain in a way that gave me energy. The nerves of starting a multi-day ride alone in the woods subsided as I turned off the pavement and onto an immaculate gravel road. I got a few hours of riding in before the rain came. Smooth gravel turned to rougher dirt, and then two-track. The terrain flowing up and down, in and out of clearings formed from logging.

The season change was palpable, the wildlife bustling about the woods, preparing for the winter to come. In the first 70 miles, I had the pleasure of observing countless white-tailed deer, black squirrels, bald eagles and ruffled grouse. Those grouse always came out of nowhere and startled me every time. At one point I came around a downhill corner and scared up a porcupine, just minding its own business. I felt bad for interrupting this critter’s morning so abruptly, but was pleased to see one of my favorite woodland dwellers.

Then the rain came. I am used to the rain in the mountains, I know how to manage moisture, and what I can get away with. However, here—in a humid climate—I began to feel utterly inexperienced. It rained on me for seven hours on my first day, soaking through all of my clothes leaving with little to no hope of them drying out. I wanted to quit, I wanted to be warm and dry. I typically have a hard time on solo trips for the first day or so. Going in and out of joy and dred. I know this about myself and mentally I can move past it.

But with this weather, it was hard to stay on the positive side. My saving grace was the route itself. Traveling through dense forest is a unique experience, it keeps you focused on the trail ahead with the lush canopy of colors overhead and the wet leaves under tread. Shane made this route to highlight the area in the best possible way. He informed me to not miss any of the waypoints along the route as they give way to beautiful areas: wood and steel bridges across the Wolf River, massive rock outcroppings that provided extended views across the rolling landscape, and flowing roads that go on far past the horizon.

Throughout the National Forest there are designated dispersed camping sites, many of which have metal fire rings and even some with pit toilets—luxurious! The fire rings became my other saving grace. The abundance of birch and hard woods meant making a fire to warm up was a fairly easy task, even in the soaking wet. The Ride With GPS route is well labeled with food stops, and dispersed and forest service camping areas. It made for a quality experience when planning out the day ahead. One of my favorite places along the route was Crotch of the virgin pines.

It’s quite the name and an unexpected oasis in the middle of the woods. Riding along a dirt road you happen upon a pull-off with a commercial refrigerator and picnic table. The fridge is full of snacks and drinks for folks to enjoy on the honor system. I popped it open and grabbed a coke, some Chili Cheese Fritos and a Kit Kat bar. I flipped through the logbook to find that this stop is enjoyed year-round by folks on ATVs, snowmobiles, on foot and by bike. I left my note after enjoying my treats and was back on my way.

Outside of the town of Mountain there is an incredible fire tower with a ladder that you can climb to the top. The view atop the 120 some odd stairs was breathtaking with the fall foliage just past its peak. Looking out far across the valley you can note another high point, Butler Rock. With another 20 miles of pedaling and a short hike I stood on the opposite side looking back across at the Mountain fire tower. A tiny needle on the horizon. This route is full of these special locations. Take, for example, an abandoned fish hatchery featuring a pretty sweet waterfall and old buildings open for exploration.

The small towns where you belly up to the bar and eat a massive double bacon cheeseburger and fries for $7.50. Or breakfast spots like Grandma Sally’s, where grandma Sally herself makes you an unforgettable breakfast. The camping is wonderful, whether it be on a lake or deep in the woods. Sometimes the hills are steeper and longer than they look and the road bed is nothing but sand. This route contains a huge variety of what this area has to offer, but only touches the surface on what all is out there.

Along this route I encountered some wonderful singletrack. I crossed immaculately built trails in areas that are publicly funded and maintained by the county and passionate volunteers. The start/end of this route is at one such network, the Jack Lake trail system. There is a campground and picnic area, a trail head with a bike stand. All in front of 12 miles of trails that are well maintained all summer and groomed for fat biking in the winter.

Many of the two-track that is on this route shares space with UTV and ATV traffic. Even though the noise was interrupting and the fear of getting mowed down was high, I found the other trail users to be courteous and kind. It’s many of the UTV and Snowmobile clubs that help keep these endless dirt two tracks well maintained and a joy to ride a bike on. And, the area is so vast that I didn’t really encounter other folks much.

The Tour De Nicolet puts an area on the map that is largely overlooked for recreation, especially bikepacking. After riding this route, I can surely say, this area is outrageously full of opportunity. The route possibilities are seemingly endless. I am grateful for folks like Shane Hitz who have dedicated much time and passion to this area.

When I spoke with Shane about all of this he shared that his hope is to grow a community of adventure cycling and put the Northwoods on the map, not only as a place for locals, but as a destination for riding and bikepacking. My experience on this route was just as fruitful as the trips I’ve taken out the West. You should go ride your bike here and experience it for yourself.

In comparison to my experience bikepacking in the west, I left feeling a bit like a baby deer, not quite having my feet under me yet. The sensory difference of the place was more than enough to throw my confidence off balance. As for that connection, that restoration and peace I was looking for, I found it but I want more.

My time spent felt short. Booking a trip with flights and timelines always looms over quick hits like this. I never feel fully grounded with a time limit so short. I hope to return for more extended periods of time in the future and continue growing that connection to the land that shaped me.