Quickie Summary: Highway 52 connects central Wisconsin’s primary city with the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and towns like Antigo and Lily before terminating just northwest of Wabeno. It’s not a straight shot by any means; Highway 52 does more zig-zagging than a politician at a hostile press conference. On the Wausau end, the tallest structure is the 241-foot, 11-story First Wausau Tower; on the Wabeno end, it’s the 22-foot high Larry the Logroller statue. The many trees along the route typically vary between those two heights!
The Drive (Southwest to Northeast): Highway 52 begins on the west side of Wausau (pop. 39,106), the dominant metro city in central Wisconsin, in the shadow of Rib Mountain and quite to close to the center of both the Northern and Western Hemispheres of the earth (we know how to pump stuff up.) Wausau is the center of a “primary statistical area” according to the U.S. Census that includes all of Marathon County and brings in nearby cities like Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids, and Merrill. It’s the 141st largest metro area in the country with about 308,000 people (by comparison, Milwaukee takes in most of SE Wisconsin and is ranked 33rd with 2.07 million, while Madison is 69th with 844,000 people, taking in Janesville, Beloit, and Baraboo.)
Wausau has been known far and wide for insurance, as Employers Insurance of Wausau – which became Wausau Insurance Companies – ran national ads that many remember today, especially with the music and focus on the “Wausau” name on an old Milwaukee Road railroad depot. The company was taken over by Liberty Mutual in 1999; they retired the Wausau name ten years later. Grrrr.
Wausau. As in insurance.
The city is also known for American ginseng; while Wisconsin cultivates close to 95% of the ginseng grown in the U.S., much of it is grown in Marathon County. You can see the artificial shade covers over ginseng fields all over the area. But with forests nearby and a big river providing power for sawmills, it was the lumber industry – and then paper production – that really got Wausau going early on; it’s still a big chunk of the economy here. Wausau is the largest city along the Wisconsin River, which runs right through the center and downtown areas. In general, the older part of the city is to the east of the river and newer areas are to the west.
Along with the river, the primary topographic feature in Wausau is Rib Mountain (elevation peak: 1,924 feet), which towers above the local terrain by almost 800 feet. Rib Mountain hosts the Granite Peak Ski Area, which opened way back in 1937 and was thus one of the first ski areas in North America. With a vertical drop of 700 feet, it’s the third tallest ski area in the Midwest and the tallest in Wisconsin. Granite Peak features 74 runs and lots of night skiing; lights from the runs on Rib Mountain can be seen for miles on clear, cold winter nights – ad there are plenty of them in Wausau.
Highway 52 begins almost in the shadow of Rib Mountain on the sprawling west side of town at an interchange connection to Highway 29, an east-west expressway all the way from Green Bay west to Chippewa Falls – it bypasses most of Wausau via U.S. 51. Highway 52 forms a short connector amidst big-box stores and new developments with the U.S. 51 freeway, the major north-south artery in the state. Interchange reconstruction just finished only a few years ago and, well, it’s pretty huge for these parts. It’s also the last time you’ll see a high-speed divided highway along the entire path of Highway 52.
As Stewart Street, Highway 52 heads deeper into the city, passing schools and homes before reaching the campus of UW-Marathon County, a two-year campus. You may notice the historic marker along the street, revealing this location as the site of the first teachers’ training school in Wisconsin. Classes began in 1899 and helped usher in better contacts and broader knowledge for people who were traditionally well “out of the loop” in an era where communications were slower and access to schooling was much more difficult in remote areas.
Wausau – Downtown & the River District
Heading into downtown and over the Wisconsin River, Highway 52 becomes one-way eastbound and circles around Wausau Center, a downtown shopping mall that opened in 1983. Just south of the mall is the River District, a revitalized area using older buildings and newer ones designed like the older buildings for condos, apartments, shops, and entertainment. The adjacent 400 Block is a recently redeveloped location for summertime outdoor concerts.
The Wisconsin Woodchucks, part of the Northwoods League (a league of top college baseball players, quite a few of whom end up in Major League Baseball) play at Athletic Park on Wausau’s north side. The Class “A” Wausau Timbers played here from 1975 to 1990 before they relocated to Kane County, Illinois; the Woodchucks came along in 1994. The ballpark, originally constructed in 1936, has a capacity of 3,850 and is surrounded by a cool stone wall that extends all the way round the facility. Athletic Park sits at Wausau Avenue & 5th Street, right where Highway 52 westbound turns from west to south to head into downtown. Eastbound 52 is one block east of the park; you can find the ballpark by turning left at Wausau Avenue. You can check out the park and loop back on the side streets back to 6th Street northbound, where you can re-join Highway 52 heading east.
*** Breweries Alert ***
Wausau is home to two commercial breweries – so far. Red Eye Brewing Company is located right along Highway 52/Business U.S. 51 on the east side of downtown Wausau, part of the road’s northbound “wraparound” of downtown as 6th Street. Red Eye brews a number of beers on-site and is at the forefront of using energy sources like solar power to run their brewery and restaurant. South of downtown just to the east of Business U.S. 51, you’ll find Bull Falls Brewery, which takes its name from a real falls along the Wisconsin River as it winds through town. Their popular beers, often canned, can be enjoyed in their tap room on Thomas Street. Tours are also available. The Great Dane, a Madison-based brewpub, also has a Wausau location near Highway 52’s western end close to the junctions of U.S. 51 and Highway 29.
Heading northeast out of Wausau on Highway 52, check out what may locals call the “Oil Barn,” an old farm filled with old-school signs from gas stations and oil companies – many of which recall places cars and trucks would stop to refuel, refresh, or just get a ton of bugs off their windshields.
Off into the wild blue yonder of rural Marathon County, Highway 52 zigs and zags through beautiful farmland and rolling hills. Just northeast of the city, shortly before tiny Nutterville, you cross the 45th parallel, marking the (theoretical) halfway point between the North Pole and the Equator.
Up for some rougher terrain, rugged rocks, and scenic waterfalls? Just past Hagerty, follow County Y south near Aniwa and check out the Dells of the Eau Claire River Park, which offers all of that and more. We’ve jumped off rocks towering over the water and landed in the cool waters of the Eau Claire River tens of feet below. It’s a worthy stop, especially for hiking and camping.
Approaching Aniwa you’ll see a short road to the Motorama Auto Museum, the largest auto museum in Wisconsin. Over 400 models – focusing on the unique, rare, and aesthetic – are on display across five acres in both indoor and outdoor settings. A walk through the “boneyard” on their boardwalk offers a look at rusting yet beautiful mid-20th century makes and models. Motorama is open May-October, Tuesday through Saturday 9am-5pm. You’ll probably notice the signs pointing the way.
About one mile past Motorama, Highway 52 enters Shawano County just briefly enough to meet up with U.S. 45. It joins this major north-south route for the ride north into Langlade County, a meetup with Highway 47 coming in from the Menomonee Reservation, and into the second largest town along Highway 52.
That would be Antigo (pop. 8,234), seat of Langlade County. Wisconsin’s state soil since 1983 is the Antigo Silt Loam soil, named, of course after the city. Antigo bustled with sawmills 100 years ago and today still hosts a series of industries dealing with lumber, as well as farming, food production, shoes, fertilizer and steel and aluminum products. It’s a popular stop for tourists on their way to points north and east in the North Woods, so expect a full variety of restaurants and stores, including a Super Wal-Mart.
Antigo is home to the Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association. It’s also where John Bradley, one of the Navy corpsmen who took part in the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima in World War II, came from; his son, James Bradley, became a best-selling author of books like Flags of Our Fathers, Flyboys: A True Story of Courage and The Imperial Cruise. You know that older Menard’s guy that annoyed you in commercials for years? His name is Ray Szmanda and he retired to Antigo. His great-nephew Eric Szmanda portrays Greg Sanders on CSI, although he grew up in Milwaukee. But we digress…back to Antigo.
Highway 52 runs through Antigo with U.S. 45 and Highway 47; Highway 64 also joins on the north side of town, as it now runs on somewhat of a bypass. But Antigo’s main points of interest are right along the road we’re on, including the main downtown crossroads and the Langlade County Fairgrounds. The railroad was important to Antigo, especially because of its logging industry. Along with Highways 45/47/52 just south of downtown, you’ll find the Langlade County Historical Museum & Railroad Park, which includes historic artifacts inside a 1905-built Carnegie Library (pictured below), a classic 1800s cabin, and an original 1900 stream locomotive that is on full display. All are available for tours.
Highway 52 heads east from Antigo with Highway 64 for about three miles before breaking northeasterly again for more zig-zagging through Langlade County. Lots of woods, curves, and farms with everything from dairy cows to buffalo line the roadway, making for a pleasant drive.
You reach County roads B and S, which of course makes for a fun sign, and then head towards Lily, a small town along the Wolf River. There, Highway 52 intersects Highway 55.
Highway 52 comes to an end around a corner where it meets with Highway 32, just northwest of Wabeno (pop. 1,264). Interestingly, the town got its name from a tornado that blew through back in 1880; the Native Americans named the 1/2-mile to 1-mile wide strip of fallen timber “Waubeno”, meaning “the coming of the winds” or “the opening”. Waubeno grew up, like many towns up here, as a lumber town. By 1905, five sawmills cranked out 35 million board-feet of lumber annually, a trend that lasted several decades until mills shut down during the Great Depression. Much of the local economy moved to farming, with some tourism now mixed in. Wabeno also won the award for “Wisconsin’s best-tasting water” in 2003, and has been bottling and selling it ever since.
Wabeno’s most notable landmark is Larry the Logroller, a 22-foot high fiberglass symbol of the town’s logging history. Similar to a Paul Bunyan statue, Larry brandishes a logging tool as opposed to an ax. He stands guard over a city park along the north branch of the Oconto River, which also holds the Wabeno Logging Museum and a 1901 Phoenix Log Hauler, a steam engine locomotive that, while not active, still works if somehow needed.
Another charmer is Waubeno’s Public Library, essentially a log cabin originally built by Chicago & Northwestern Railroad in 1897 for use as a land office. Under town ownership since 1923, it remains a library built of logs – one look, you KNOW you’re up North. It’s the only remaining log cabin library in Wisconsin.
Another indication you’re up here is the extensive network of snowmobile trails; the Lumberjack Memorial Snowmobile Trails consist of a network of over 100 miles of groomed snowmobile trails organized by Lumberjack Memorial Trails, Inc., which formed out of five separate clubs that united in 1974. Their website tracks the condition of each trail and provides information on pit stops and more. Wabeno and Laona are at the heart of this trail network.
So really, at either end of Highway 52 there is plenty to see, do, and enjoy; it’s just different things. Tour State “Trunk” Highway 52 and enjoy!
Can connect immediately to: Highway 29, U.S. 51
Can connect nearby to: I-39, about 3 miles south (concurrent with U.S. 51)
Can connect immediately to: Highway 32
Can connect nearby to: U.S. 8, about 8 miles north