More than trees: Seven special things about the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

Keith Uhlig
Green Bay Press-Gazette
The Jones Springs Management Area in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Townsend features prime backpacking campsites along Fanny Lake.

Drink refreshing glacial spring water straight from the ground. Get lost on rustic tree-lined roads. Submerse yourself in the wilderness, or in a quiet lake.

The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest isn't just one thing, it's many things. And if you're in the Northwoods, the forest is never far away. Maybe its constant presence leads at least some of us to take it all for granted.

Chequamegon-Nicolet is about a whole lot more than trees. It's about parks, camping with friends, checking out the landscape from a fire tower. It's about eating a hamburger or taking in a Friday fish fry at a historic lodge.

Here are seven facts and attractions that make Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest special, and how it is a key component in making Wisconsin special.

Just how huge is the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest?

It's big! According to , the sprawling forest is more than 1.5 million acres across 11 counties.

Put in perspective, Wisconsin is 35 million acres and the Chequamegon-Nicolet comprises about 4.2% of the state. About 16 million acres of Wisconsin are forested, according to the Department of Natural Resources, Chequamegon-Nicolet is just over 9% of that area.

The forest could completely cover the country's smallest state of Rhode Island, which is 988,700 acres — leaving 838,700 acres to sprawl into neighboring Connecticut.

There is camping everywhere in the forest

There are more than available within the forest. These offer a variety of experiences, from modern sites that offer amenities such as power and water to as primitive as you want to get. There are that cater to backpackers. And — primitive camping in non-campground areas — is allowed on all national forest land, using "leave no trace" practices.

A man hikes with a young girl on his back on the trail up to St. Peter's Dome in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest on Oct. 8, 2019.

There are trails, trails and more trails. Roads, too.

There are more than . Significant portions of the (which bisects the state and is about 1,200 miles long) and the the North Country National Scenic Trail (which stretches 4,800 miles across eight northern states) run through the forest.

The also runs through the forest. It's a multi-use trail which allows all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and horses. Hikers and cyclists are welcome, too, but the trail isn't recommended for pedal bikes because conditions can be soft or rough.

Mountain bikers have . The Washburn Ranger District alone has several options, including the , and the .

Some other statistics regarding trails and roads in the forest: There are 9,000 miles of roads, about 300 miles of developed ATV trails and more than 800 miles of snowmobile trails.

RELATED: Historic Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest park reopened after being closed for 10 years

It's 130 steps to the top of the Mountain Fire Lookout Tower in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Oconto County.

You can climb a historic fire lookout tower

Located about 2 1/2 miles north of Mountain, just off of Forest Road 2106/Old Highway 32, the to take in views of the surrounding landscape. It was built in 1935 by Forest Service and Civilian Conservation Corps workers, and restored in 2015 and 2016 thanks to financial help from the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation and area businesses and organizations. Once part of an extensive network of similar towers across the region, the Mountain Fire Lookout Tower is the only one where visitors can go to the top.

RELATED: These Wisconsin fire towers are still standing on public land, and you can climb at least one

The historic Round Lake logging dam is the only known dam of its kind in the country.

Check out a one-of-a-kind logging dam

There is a unique and historic logging dam in the Round Lake Recreation Area of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, east of Fifield. In northern Wisconsin's lumber boom of the late 1800s, it was common for loggers to build dams on rivers to help control the water flows. In the spring, loggers would open these dams so that reams of logs could better float down rivers to lumber mills.

The dam at Round Lake was built in 1876 by William T. Price logging crews, according to National Forest documents. The dam was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, and was renovated in 1995. These kinds of logging dams were once plentiful in logging areas across the country. Today, there is no record of any existing in the country except for the one at Round Lake.

A group of visitors learn more about the Smith Rapids covered bridge, one of two covered bridges in the state. The Smith-Rapids bridge is located in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest's Park Falls district.

Find an Instagrammable covered bridge crossing the Flambeau River

One of two covered bridges remaining in Wisconsin, the is located near the entrance of the Smith Rapids Recreation Area, located 12 1/2 miles east of Fifield on State 70, then north on Forest Road 148 about two miles. Built in 1991, the structure is a unique feature in the National Forest and a popular place for people to take pictures.

RELATED: Celebrate Smokey Bear's birthday in Rhinelander with historic Smokey illustrations

Get food at the Mondeaux Dam Lodge and water from a nearby glacial spring

Eat a burger or get a Friday fish fry at another historic structure, the located on the Mondeaux Dam Recreation Area, near the Spearhead Point Campground. Nol Marschke is the concessionaire on the property, which means he runs an eatery in the lodge, but the Forest Service owns the structure and property.

He takes pride in offering hamburgers with fresh, hand-ground meat and Friday fish fry made with haddock and walleye. Hours are noon to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. More information can be found on the lodge .

Marschke won the contract to run the restaurant in early 2022, shortly after the lodge was renovated and restored, keeping it's historic value. The lodge was originally built by workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938.

The recreation area also features an unusual glacial spring, which is located about a half-mile south of the lodge on Park Road. People can drink the cool water from the spring. "It runs constantly from the ground," Marschke said, referring to the spring water, "and it's amazing."

Keith Uhlig is a regional features reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin based in Wausau. Contact him at 715-845-0651 or kuhlig@gannett.com. Follow him at @UhligK on X, formerly Twitter, and Instagram or on Facebook.