Western terminus: Burnett County, at the Minnesota state line west of Danbury
Eastern terminus: Iron County, at the Michigan state line in Hurley
Mileage: about 140 miles
Counties along the way: Burnett, Washburn, Sawyer, Ashland, Iron
Sample towns along the way: Danbury, Minong, Hayward, Mellen, Hurley
Bypass alternates at: none
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 77 slices across northwestern Wisconsin, the uppermost state highway to span the state from Minnesota to Michigan (only U.S. Highway 2 is further north.) From the lake-filled forests around Danbury past the beef jerky capital of Minong, through the Hayward area to the crazy bars and skiing resorts around Hurley, Highway 77 provides a nice drive while it takes you on part of the Great Divide National Scenic Highway.
The Wisconsin Highway 77 Road Trip
The Drive (West to East): Highway 77 begins on the St. Croix River, right where Minnesota Highway 48 ends and Wisconsin begins. Several miles in (going through the Town of Swiss on the way), you reach unincorporated Danbury (pop. 172). Danbury is often referred to locally as the “Last stop to the border”, since Minnesota is just to the west. The Yellow River runs through town and provides beautiful views, just like the nearby St. Croix. You can stop and rent a canoe at Pardun’s Canoe Rental & Shuttle Service (7595 Main Street/Hwy 77, 715-656-7881) to get the view from the water and get a little exercise. As its name implies, they’ll shuttle you to and fro. If you prefer some gambling, the St. Croix Casino Danbury (30222 State Road 35/77, 800-238-8946) is right there for you at the downtown crossroads.
Above: Cool signs always add interest to a road trip. The sign like a chainsaw, about two miles east of the state line, seems pretty unique to us; meanwhile, the neon supermarket sign looks like it’s weathered Danbury’s climate for many decades. It’s right near the intersection of Highways 77 and 35.
In Danbury, the “downtown crossroads” refers to the junction of Highway 77 and Highway 35. Worth a stop just south of Danbury, however, is the Forte Folle Avoine Historical Park (715-866-8890). A living history site covering 80 acres, the Park abuts the Yellow River and features reconstructed fur trade posts located on the actual sites where they were originally operating 200 years ago. A large Visitor Center (constructed of logs, of course), a research library, outdoor amphitheater, hiking and cross-country ski trails and an 1887 schoolhouse all beckon. You can reach the Park by following Highway 35 south for about three miles and then turning west on County U. The signs should guide you from there.
Highway 77 follows Highway 35 northeast briefly before turning east again and sprinting across the wilderness. Threading past some lakes and getting into Washburn County, there’s a lot of zigging and zagging – and deer crossing signs. Finally, you cross U.S. Highway 53 and enter a place where they like to “mess with Sasquatch.”
I’m referring, of course, to Minong (pop. 531), home of Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, available at stores and just about every gas station convenience store in the Northern Hemisphere. Jack Link started selling beef jerky after being unhappy with what he found at stores during an afternoon hunt. His great-grandfather’s old recipes were unearthed, he started making and selling his jerky to small shops in and around Minong, and to make a long story short, today Jack Link’s sells jerky nationwide from their Link Snacks, Inc. plant and World Headquarters, clearly visible near Highway 77 and U.S. 53. They’ve expanded from simply beef jerky to include steak nuggets, chicken fajita “tender cuts”, organic products, and even something called “Lil’ Chub”, a short, plump sausage (those with sophomoric senses of humor can stop snickering now… including me.) It’s a true American success story that only a vegan could hate.
In the “downtown” area, several taverns cater to the locals and passersby coming through by car, snowmobile, bike or ski. You gotta love a place named Fluffy’s, which is anything but. The Longbranch Saloon looks like the definition of “saloon”.
Aside from this gargantuan dried meat-making facility, Minong is small and unassuming. Highway 77 runs through the downtown, which features several bars including Fluffy’s (an interesting name for a bar) and Longbranch Saloon & Eatery, which just looks interesting. Pop inside and I guarantee people will stop what they’re doing and turn around. Friendly people, though. The Wild Rivers Trail cuts right through Minong, too… so if you’re biking, ATVing, cross-country skiing, etc., feel free to load up on beef jerky here.
East from Minong, you’ll blaze through a remote paradise into Sawyer County before hooking up with Highway 27 and heading into Hayward.
Hayward (pop. 2,129) is one of northwestern Wisconsin’s most popular vacation destinations, being located amidst a vast array of lakes with some of the country’s best fishing, forest in every direction, and a knack for hosting a series of participatory events. Hayward also lays claim to the hotly-contested title of “Golf Capital of Wisconsin.”
Like many Wisconsin towns, there are a lot of good eats and drinks all over the place. Those familiar with Famous Dave’s locations around the country might be interested to know that it all started in Hayward. Famous Dave of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Tribe opened the first Famous Dave’s here in 1994, serving up barbeque on garbage can lids (yes, the portions can get huge) and their award-winning bread pudding with praline sauce. Sadly, the original location here burned in 2014. While the now Minnetonka, MN-based chain lives on, “Famous” Dave Anderson, the original founder, is in the process of opening a new restaurant in Hayward called Jimmie’s Old Southern Smokehouse BBQ. Yes, we’ll get up there and try it!
Brewery Alert. Along U.S. 63 less than a mile southwest of Highway 77 lies an old brick building that simply says “Brewpub” on the side… at least that’s the only part you can see from the street. Inside is the Angry Minnow Restaurant & Brewery (10440 Florida Ave./U.S. 63, 715-934-3055). The building itself was constructed in 1889 and once housed a sawmill operations office; today, it’s probably the nicest restaurant in Hayward, with rich, dark wood and brick everywhere. The oval-shaped bar and iron chandeliers help create a cozy, warm atmosphere. The food is terrific (try the Black Pepper Seared Tuna appetizer) and the craft beers are quite good. More on the Angry Minnow’s beers will be discussed when we finish creating our beer and brewpub section of the State Trunk Tour website.
Lumberjack Championships, Birkie Skiing and the World’s Biggest Musky. Hayward does it up in every season. The annual Lumberjack World Championships hold events in Hayward, so expect lots of axes, saws and flannel. Scheer’s Lumberjack Shows are highly recommended. Watch lumberjacks “speed climb” up trees, throw axes (not at you, don’t worry), and perform things like logrolling and canoe jousting. Can you get more up North than this?? In February, Hayward hosts the American Birkebeiner, an annual cross-country skiing race from Cable (30 miles away via the trails) to the “main street” block in Hayward, just off U.S. 63 several blocks southwest of where it intersects with Highway 77. About 9,000 skiers participate every year. About 2,500 bikers head through the wilderness every year in the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival; it’s one of the most popular off-road bicycling events in the nation. And trust me, when you wander into town doing the State Trunk Tour on that weekend, the hotels are full and/or pricier than normal. So watch the Events calendar here carefully! The National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame (715-634-4440) is probably the most consistently visible (100,000 vistors per year) attraction, thanks to the World’s Largest Muskie. Standing 143 feet long and 41 feet tall, the muskie holds names of world record-holders in fishing across the world. You can check out the names and climb the steps to show yourself from the muskie’s mouth, 4 stories off the ground. It’s a popular place to get your picture taken… how can one resist??
From Hayward, it’s once again miles and miles of natural beauty and little of anything man-made. On the eastern edge of the area, you’ll spot Club 77 (12695 Wisconsin 77, 715-462-3712), a supper club/bar that’s popular with both locals and the post-Birkie crowd coming in from points all over. Moving on, it’s 47 miles from Hayward to the next State Trunk Tour route (13), through the Chequamegon National Forest, with only little Clam Lake in between. Clam Lake is the “Elk Capital of Wisconsin”, mainly due to a successful reintroduction program that began with 25 elk in 1995; those numbers are now over 175.
The 29-mile stretch from County A in Sawyer County to Highway 13 near Glidden is known as the Great Divide National Scenic Highway, designated as such by the U.S. Forest Service. The “divide” they’re talking about is the watershed boundary between the Great Lakes (emptying into the Atlantic Ocean) and the Mississippi River (emptying into the Gulf of Mexico), which runs just north of Highway 77 for most of the ride. The tall pines and dense forest of the North Woods envelopes you the entire way. Upon reaching Highway 13, you turn northward and actually cross the “Great Divide” on your 13-mile journey into Mellen.
Mellen (pop. 935), Highway 13 splits off toward Ashland and Highway 77 shoots northeast toward Hurley. Mellen itself sports a charming city hall building, constructed the same year the largest tannery in North America opened here (1896). It would be seven more years before the telephone would come to town. Mellen peaked in population around 1920 when it had almost 2,000 people, but in 1922 the tannery closed and since then it’s been a small, pleasant burg that considers itself the Gateway to Copper Falls (a short drive up Highway 13 and then 169). Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man was filmed here in 1962, when the town welcomed the likes of Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy. Today, it welcomes recreational seekers of all kinds… but you can also catch a movie here if you want.
From Mellen, it’s back to the wilderness, with some great views thrown in as you navigate the Gogebic Range, which features a series of high points and ridges marking the final drop toward Lake Superior, less than 15 miles away. At Upton, watch for Upton Town Park, where you can catch the 18-foot Upson Falls on the Potato River, a nice little waterfall where one can camp, picnic, and have physiological reactions to hearing the water running.
Further east, through Iron Belt – remember, mining has been historically HUGE around here – you reach the City of Montreal (pop. 771, a bit smaller than its Canadian counterpart.) Named for the Montreal Mining Company, the town was home to numerous mine workers, many of whom rented the early versions of pre-fabricated homes in a program started by the company in 1918. Several of those homes live on today in the Montreal Company Location Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. For waterfall lovers, a 15-foot waterfall – Gile Falls – is accessible from town via Kokogan and Gile Falls Streets. A snowmobile bridge crosses the falls at the top; just more evidence this area is “Big Snow Country.”
Beyond Montreal, you approach the Montreal River and the infamous city of Hurley (pop. 1,818). The county seat of Iron County, Hurley has a reputation from its wild days as a prime headquarters for lumberjacks who would race into town on weekends to spend their paychecks on booze and women, maybe food if there was time. Highway 77 in town is Silver Street, once home to a long line of speakeasies, saloons and sundry sinister situations. Much lore has been told about Hurley… much of it true.
Downtown Hurley has a series of interesting buildings and scenes. Silver Street, which is Highway 77, is the main downtown drag and includes the former Hurley National Bank (now a bar), decorative street banner designs giving a hint of the town’s history, and more.
Hurley is the Wisconsin counterpart to Ironwood, Michigan, and together the two towns host tens of thousands of snow skiiers, snowmobilers, ATV riders and outdoor enthusiasts every year. The annual Pumpkin Run ATV Rally is held in October in Hurley, and a Guinness world record was set in 2005 when 687 participants took part in the Largest ATV Parade ever. The Red Light Snowmobile Rally also takes place in mid-December, marking the “first ride of the season.”
Highway 77 crosses U.S. Highway 51 (which ends just one mile north at U.S. 2, 1,286 miles from its start in Laplace, Louisiana) as Silver Street, past the aforementioned bars and entertainment venues, and ends just as it began: crossing a river – this time the narrow Montreal – into another state – this time, Michigan. The rail line running along the Wisconsin side of the Montreal River received a new paint job a few years back, with an orange color that livens up the landscape and murals depicting the history of the area’s mining and lumbering industries.
Highway 77’s unassuming eastern end – looking westward at its beginning – is at the crossing of the Montreal River between Ironwood, Michigan and Hurley, Wisconsin. In Hurley, Highway 77 is Silver Street and many stories have been told about activities along its path dating back to the 19th century.
Just beyond the end: the World’s Largest Corkscrew
Some places in Vienna, Austria and Bangkok, Thailand may beg to differ, but Hurley, Wisconsin lays claim to the World’s Largest Corkscrew. You can find it by heading north from Highway 77 on U.S. 51 briefly before heading west on U.S. 2, less than one mile. It’s right in front of – fittingly enough – a liquor store.
Clocking in around 140 miles, it’s a great cross-section of Wisconsin’s northwest.
Can connect immediately to: Minnesota Highway 48
Can connect nearby to: Highway 35, about 3 miles east
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 51
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 2, about 1.5 miles north