RIB LAKE — There may be no better time than late September or early October to explore one of our state’s 115 Rustic Roads.
This is when the maples, oaks and elms explode into vibrant color, the air begins to crisp and steam rises from lake surfaces. The changing season signals that winter is closer than the Fourth of July and that Christmas decorations are on sale at the big box retailer.
That’s why we recently ventured north to Rustic Road 1, a 5-mile gravel road off Highway 102 in Taylor County and just a few miles north of Rib Lake. Picturesque it was, deserving of a designation, which it received in the fall of 1975.
We found leaves blanketing the forest floor and discovered the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and another path to Timm’s Hill, the state’s highest point. Summer cabins and year-round homes dot the roadside but not abundantly. We saw signs of beaver, including a dam, and stacks of felled trees from a small logging operation of the humankind.
Rustic Road 1 was the first but is not alone. And depending on the outcome of the Rustic Road board’s fall meeting next month, two more roads could be added to the program that spans 665 miles through 59 of the state’s 72 counties.
Tom Nauman of Madison would be happy to see more additions. He has driven his BMW R1200RT motorcycle on 27 of the state’s Rustic Roads over the past three years but has yet to hit RR 1. In 2013, he knocked off 17 in one day on a trip to Mercer. Had he driven straight to the loon capital in Iron County it would have taken 41/2 hours.
Instead, his side trips off Highway 51 to the Rustic Roads resulted in a more than a 9-hour day on his bike.
“It was a neat experience. I like wandering and seeing stuff,” said Nauman, 39, director of publications for Musicnotes.com. “Rustic Road aren’t really hard to get to. It’s a good-destination kind of thing.”
Nauman, who earned his motorcycle license in 2010, earned a patch from the DOT after driving 10 roads in 2012 in southeastern Wisconsin and a certificate after completing 25 roads. Among his favorites is RR 100 out of Mercer that winds toward the Michigan border.
“It’s curvy, it’s scenic — it’s a lot of fun,” Nauman said. “It’s not a big straight shot. It’s a lot of corners.”
The Rustic Road program was created in 1973 by the State Legislature “to preserve what remains of Wisconsin’s scenic, lightly traveled back roads.” To be approved by the 10-member board, a Rustic Road needs to meet criteria that includes natural features, native vegetation, vistas, speed limits of 45 mph or lower and limited development or improvements.
Roads in the program range from under a mile long to 37 miles in length and are nominated by citizens but typically need the support of local government.
About one-quarter of the roads in the program are gravel. Two members of the board also drive the nominated roads independently before a vote is taken, said Jane Corrola, coordinator of scenic byways and Rustic Roads for the state Department of Transportation.
“It’s not a slam dunk,” Carrola said. “Some get in and some do not.”
The board will vote Nov. 3 on a 2.1-mile stretch of 140th Avenue south of New Richmond in St. Croix County and on a 1.8-mile segment in Waushara County that includes Highway W and Covered Bridge Road.
If approved, they’ll receive the familiar brown and yellow signs that signify Rustic Road status.
Roads remain under the control of local government and are not prohibited from being improved upon. There is a mechanism to repeal a road’s rustic status — but the provision has not yet been used, said Carrola, who has been with the program for more than 20 years.
When she started, the state had 64 Rustic Roads. That number has nearly doubled, thanks to the work of citizens who live on or near the roads.
The DOT receives three or four applications in a typical year and one year added four Rustic Roads to the program.
“It’s because of citizen and local government support,” Carrola said. “There are no quotas.”
The state has more than 113,000 miles of roadway, so clearly there is room for more Rustic Roads.
I’ve never kept track of the Rustic Roads I’ve traveled but two recent roads I hit this year stand out besides RR 1. In July, while traveling to Rewey for a story on their huge fireworks display, I wandered onto RR 75 in Iowa County, a narrow paved road that consisted of a mix of agricultural land and woodland. In early September, we explored RR 60, which is Highway K between Boulder Junction and Star Lake in Vilas County. Features included forest, lakes and a winding roadway. No muskies were to be found that day, however — but I digress.
For some, the Rustic Roads offer a challenge. Mary Arnold, who lives north of Wisconsin Rapids, has been walking the state’s Rustic Roads for more than 20 years. When I called her rural home where she and her husband, Henry, raise vegetables and run a bovine artificial insemination business, Henry told me that his wife was in Germany on vacation with her sister.
Henry said his wife has a goal of walking each of the state’s Rustic Roads.
“I don’t know how many she’s been on, but it’s a lot. It’s better than half, I’m sure,” Arnold said. “The worst roads for her are the ones that are 20 or 30 miles long. I think she’ll keep walking as long as she can.”
Even if Nauman and Mary Arnold are able to complete riding and walking each Rustic Road, it’s likely they never will be done with their goal as more roads will be added in the foreseeable future, said Carrola. The “newest” is RR 115 that connects RR 10 to RR 86 west of Wales near Waterville Lake and near Delafield in Waukesha County.
“I don’t think we have reached a point where there are no more roads to be designated,” Carrola said. “Based on current participation, I would predict it to continue to grow.”