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Explore Up North: Northern Highland American Legion State Forest

Katie Thoresen

While most of the leaves are still on the trees on a mostly sunny Saturday morning, there is a good layer beneath our hiking boots as we start off down the yellow loop at Escanaba Trail System near Boulder Junction.

I brought some companions on this hike. One you’ll likely recognize as Erin Gottsacker.

The other is Piper, a one-year husky with a lot of energy to burn that I picked up for the morning from the Oneida County Humane Society.

The Escanaba Trails are particularly beautiful this time of year. The trails wind through hilly terrain around five kettle lakes.

Right now, the forest is a sea of bright yellows and oranges with the occasional burst of red.

There are four trail loops ranging from just over 2 miles to nearly 8.5 miles.

When there’s no snow on the ground, the trails are open to hikers and bikers. During the winter they’re groomed for cross-country skiing.

Escanaba is one of several maintained hiking systems in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest.

This state forest spans more than 230,000 acres across three counties in the Northwoods.

There are no trail fees for hikers. Bikers and cross-country skiers need a daily or annual trail pass.

You can find maps of each trail system on the Wisconsin DNR's website.

With dozens of the miles of trails that take you through the woods and alongside undeveloped lakes, the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest draws in people near and far.

“We benefit from being right here in the middle of the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest,” said Dina Casso, Executive Director of the Boulder Junction Chamber of Commerce. “If you are looking to view fall colors. You probably couldn’t pick a better place. Within Boulder Junction and even our surrounding areas we have multiple hiking trail systems that really can afford our visitors an up close and personal view of those fall colors.”

Visitors in the fall are primarily looking to hit those trails, but they’re also bringing with them a nice economic boost to the area.

Tourism is a $20 billion industry in Wisconsin with direct visitor spending in 2021 tallied at $12.9 billion.

And while summer is the big season of tourism spending in the Northwoods, autumn is no slouch either.

“Fall has actually been fantastic for us here in Boulder Junction, and while yes, summer is a very popular time to be here. We find that fall tends to attract a lot of visitors as well,” said Casso.

She attributes it to how vibrant the colors get here as well as all the different options to go outside all within close proximity of each other.

“Really, as I say to our visitors that come in, it’s a matter of choosing your own adventure,” said Casso. “Within all of our hiking trail systems or even being out on the water, the options are endless to be able to take advantage of our fall colors.”

Whether it’s someone up for a day trip or a weekend long excursion, that’s people spending money at restaurants, hotels, bike rentals, and gas stations.

All for a chance to experience some of the best of mother nature.

Back out on the trail, Erin and I take a moment to take in the scene at Palette Lake.

The undeveloped shoreline is mostly evergreens with pops of reds and yellows in between.

Two men out on kayaks attempt to reel in some catches.

It’s a picturesque scene made for a postcard.

And a scene that is already changing as the leaves start to fall.

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Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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