“From hilly farmland to hugging the Wisconsin River”
Quick Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 107 is a connector route that runs from Highway 153 just west of Mosinee to Merrill, where it then runs along the Wisconsin River from Highway 64 in Merrill to the old U.S. 51 stretch leading into Tomahawk. This a very popular motorcycle drive, especially during fall colors. Along the way you have a view of Rib Mountain, tributes to “river rats” in Merrill, historic sights, a lovely state park, and a twisting drive along the “hardest working river in the world.”
Wisconsin Highway 107 Road Trip
The Drive (South to North): Highway 107 begins fairly nondescript on its southern end, along Highway 153 between Mosinee and Holder in Marathon County. It runs primarily through open farmland and rolling hills in these parts, and is straight as an arrow for a while.
The farmland here is fertile, and ginseng is particularly significant in this area; over 95% of the ginseng grown in the U.S. comes from Wisconsin, and most of that comes from Marathon County.
To the east, Rib Mountain towers on the horizon. Peaking at 1,924 feet, Rib Mountain is the second-highest natural point in Wisconsin and leads in “prominence” – the difference from peak height to average surrounding terrain – at about 760 feet. Rib Mountain is the site of Granite Peak Ski Area, one of the first ski areas in the nation – it opened in 1937. The tower towering on top of Rib Mountain rises an additional 400-plus feet and broadcasts 95.5 WIFC, one of the longest continuously-running Top 40 stations in country… which is one reason that signal booms over 100 miles in every direction.
After nine miles from its start, Highway 107 descends into Marathon City (pop. 1,524) – literally. There’s a decent drop in elevation heading into town from the south, leading from the hills to the Rib River running through downtown. Named after the Battle of Marathon in Greece (as is the county), the village’s origins date back to 1856 when a group of German immigrants centered in Pittsburgh decided central Wisconsin offered better opportunity. The village incorporated in 1884, three years after their first brewery, the Marathon City Brewing Company, began operations; they lasted until 1966. Another longtime business, the Menzner Lumber & Supply Company, started in 1894 and still operates in town. Highway 107 is Main Street through town, lined by small shops and restaurants.
On the north end of Marathon City, you meet an interchange with the Highway 29 freeway, with connects Chippewa Falls to the west and Wausau to the east – only ten miles away, which is one reason Marathon City serves increasingly as a bedroom community for people who work in Wausau.
Continuing north through Marathon County, it gets even hillier and you go through tiny settlements like Little Chicago, supposedly named after a bar that ignored the rules during Prohibition days. For much of the 15-mile stretch north of Marathon City, you get some great views of farmland and the landscape typical of the hilly area west of Wausau. After a slight jog along County FF at the Marathon-Lincoln County line, Highway 107 heads north into Lincoln County towards the county seat.
Highway 64 comes in from points west and joins 107 for the ride. It’s worth nothing that while you crossed the 45th parallel about 4 miles north of Highway 29, the “true” halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole is at 45°8’45.7″ and you cross THAT during the combined 64/107 stretch heading north before turning due east. There’s no marker there, but there should be!
After a big bend eastward, the Wisconsin River shows up to the north side of the road; both 64 & 107 head into the largest town along Highway 107: Merrill (pop. 9,661), which started as a logging town known as Jenny Bull Falls. This locale provided yet another opportunity along the “hardest-working river in the world” to build a dam, a sawmill, and soon enough, a tavern. Merrill certainly has had its share of sawmills on the river; in 1892 alone, they produced 150 million board feet of lumber and 86 million shingles. The Wisconsin and Prairie Rivers converge here; there are plenty of bridges. Highways 107 & 64 hugs the Wisconsin River’s bank before crossing it in two small sections approaching downtown.
Downtown Merrill is accessed via Highway 64 continuing east, which is worth checking out. A pair of one-way streets mark Highway 64’s run through the heart of town, which features two beautiful government buildings: the original Merrill City Hall and the Lincoln County Courthouse. Merrill City Hall sits where Highway 64 forks into one-way streets downtown; completed in 1889, this Queen Anne-style structure held city offices until 1977. Today, it’s one of the most beautiful apartment buildings in northern Wisconsin. The Lincoln County Courthouse, along Highway 64 and Business (a.k.a. the original route of) U.S. 51 by the river, features a prominent clock tower.
Those are all east of the Highway 107 turnoff; right where Highways 64 & 107 split, you’ll find a beautiful triple arch bridge crossing, constructed in 1904, crossing the Prairie River right before it merges with the Wisconsin. Several sights are here as part of a city park. First is the bridge itself, whose striking design must be appreciated from the river level below.
Next is the T.B. Scott Free Library, which originally opened in 1889 inside City Hall but moved to its current “Prairie style” building in 1911. It was one of the first “traveling libraries” in the state and the first to offer English classes for immigrants, which they started back in 1905. In between the bridge and the library, a quirky statue known as the “River Rat” pays tribute to the loggers who rode logs and helped ensure the wood cut down in forests upstream made it safely to the mills downstream… often by riding on the logs themselves.
At the Stone Arch Bridge, Highway 107 makes a major turn to the northwest, heading through “uptown” Merrill. On the edge of town, be sure to check out Council Grounds State Park. This 508-acre park abuts the Wisconsin River on grounds that once held Native American encampments. The dense forests, hiking trails, fishing and hunting opportunities, and campgrounds offer a peaceful and fun place to hang out, along with some beautiful views of the Wisconsin River. In season, you can rent canoes to ply the river and Lake Alexander or launch your boat (just watch out for canoes.)
The stretch of Highway 107 from Merrill to Tomahawk consists of nearly 25 miles of curvy roads and rural beauty, much of it along the meandering shores of the Wisconsin River. There are no sizable towns, just winding road and the relaxing beauty of the trees, the river, and relative serenity (this stretch is popular with motorcycles, so occasionally that serenity turns into the “potato-potato-potato” sound.) A few unique bars dot the roadside here, such as Rock Island Resort, which hosts bands, offers views of the water, provides a boat launch, serves up beverages, and dangles skulls from boats in the parking lot.
Another stop is Bev & Tom’s a few miles further north, built with plenty of small stones to help support the building and the fun inside. This area is heavy with forest, especially down along the river, which is where Highway 107 usually runs. The river here can run fairly shallow; some of the drive-off points you can see the rocks that help create the frequent rapids that characterize this river section.
On one of the high points, you’ll see a marker commemorating Father (Pére) René Menard, an early French missionary and explorer. Born in Paris in 1605, he came to Quebec in 1640 and worked his way to Wisconsin, learning several Native American languages and doing both trade and missionary work with the many tribes in the region. He was lost during the summer of 1661, when he was on his way to assist a group of Hurons. He’s considered the “first missionary in Wisconsin” and while his body was never found, the marker atop Ninemile Hill commemorates the area where he was last seen. His stone roadside marker dates back to 1923, with nice views from the hilltop.
This section of the Wisconsin River is one of the more remote along its 400-mile stretch; despite it being fairly narrow, there’s only one crossing between Merrill and Tomahawk. This crossing is at County E, which connects to some great hunting and fishing grounds to the west, as well as a section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
Past Grandmother Dam, Highway 107 zigzags a bit away from the river briefly to head east and then north across Little Pine Creek, which has plenty of pines nearby and drains a large marshy – a great place for fishing or canoeing. And testing out the effectiveness of insect repellent.
Nearby, horse farms are framed by the background highlands as we approach Tomahawk. At this point, the U.S. 51 freeway parallels just a few miles to the east.
The pickup in residential homes and businesses becomes noticeable as you approach what is technically the end of Highway 107, at County S. Why does a state highway end at a county highway? Because County S was once the mighty U.S. 51, the main backbone highway running up the length of Wisconsin. It runs on the nearby freeway now, but this stretch of S is still designed as “Business” U.S. 51, giving you a sense of its former bigger status. The wide clearance of the highway and larger, shuttered-but-still-cool-looking-in-an-old-school-way gas stations and other structures also indicate this was once a heavily-traveled route.
Just Beyond: Tomahawk
While never “officially” designated into the city, go with the spirit of Highway 107 and continue north via S/former U.S. into Tomahawk (pop. 3,346). Long a big logging town, Tomahawk is nestled into an elbow-shaped bend of the Wisconsin River, with the Spirit and Tomahawk Rivers joining; a dam gave rise to Lake Mohawksin. You probably guessed that Tomahawk is a great fishing town; they have an ongoing status report for fishing and water conditions; but the abundant water also means the town is a center boating – and water skiing. The Kwahamot Water Ski Club has been putting on shows in Tomahawk since 1960 and are one big reason national water ski tournaments occasionally come here. Of course, the water isn’t liquid around here all year, and for cold-weather recreation Tomahawks offers regular updated snowmobile conditions for the multitude of trails leading to and from town. Since autumn is a nice and colorful compromise, mid-September brings the annual Tomahawk Fall Ride, a motorcycle tour of the area that helps raise money for MDA.
You enter the center of town after turning east on Highway 86, which also connects west towards Timms Hill – Wisconsin’s highest point. Running as a boulevard into downtown, Highway 86 is Tomahawk Street and offers plenty of boutiques, antique stores, restaurants, the Tomahawk Cinema, and more. You can connect to the U.S. 51 freeway on the east side of town and get on a fast track to plenty of other locales once you’re done with Tomahawk – and Highway 107 – on this State Trunk Tour!
Can connect immediately to: Highway 153
Can connect nearby to: I-39/U.S. 51, about 9 miles east; Highway 29, about 10 miles north; Highway 97, about 10 miles west
Can connect immediately to: Business U.S. 51
Can connect nearby to: Highway 86, about two miles north; U.S. 51, about two miles east