Paul & Babe at the Vilas County Historical Society Museum

Vilas County Historical Society Museum

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Billing itself as “The Northwoods the Way It Was,” the Vilas County Historical Society Museum on the south end of Sayner along Highway 155 chronicles the history of Vilas County and its communities. It’s pretty easy to find, with a large statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox out front.

The Vilas County Museum holds over 7,500 square feet of exhibits, displays, and artifacts. You’ll find a “Pioneer Room,” with antique housewares, stoves, clothes, and other sundry items that were part of early settlers’ days. There are also doll collections, native wildlife mounts, lures, boats, outboard motors, and Jim Froelich’s African Safari mounts.

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Carl Eliason’s original snowmobile, which started it all.




Sayner is where the snowmobile was invented. Along with an impressive collection of the sleds you can check out the original machine built by Carl Eliason in 1924 that secured the first official patent for the snowmobile.

The Vilas County Museum is open seasonally, generally Memorial Day through the end of September. From late May to mid-June, the hours are 10am – 2pm, seven days a week. From mid-June 16 through the end of September, the hours are 10am-4pm – also seven days a week.

Admission to the museum is $3 for persons aged 10 and up. Kids 9 and under are free.

The Vilas County Historical Society Museum is right along Highway 155, about six miles north of Highway 70 in St. Germain. The Snowmobile Hall of Fame & Museum is in nearby St. Germain along 70 if you want to make it a “two-fer” day.

Vilas County Historical Society Museum Address:

2889 Highway 155
Sayner, WI 54560
(715) 542-3388
Website




Snowmobile Hall of Fame & Museum

stgermain_snowhofsignThe Snowmobile Hall of Fame and Museum on St. Germain’s west side along Wisconsin Highway 70 preserves and showcases the rich and exciting history of snowmobiling at both the recreational and competitive levels through the operation of a museum, hall of fame and library for the sport. You’ll find it on the west side of St. Germain along Highway 70 in Vilas County – which itself offers hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails and lays claim to “Birthplace of the Snowmobile.” In this beautiful North Woods venue, a record number of championship sleds are on display.

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The Warning Gallery recently 5,000 feet of exhibit space, part of the beautiful 20-acre Snowmobile Hall of Fame campus nestled in the tall pines on St. Germain’s west side. When traveling down Highway 70 from east or west, you will know you have arrived when you get to the “s” curves (“s” as in sleds!)

Stop in and see historic race sleds, trophies, clothing and the Ramstad Photo Collection. View racing videos in the theater and check out the gift shop, with great gifts and ideas for the race and recreational snowmobile enthusiast.

Championship sleds on display include oval, enduro, hill-climb, cross country, water-cross, snow-cross & drag sleds raced by championship drivers such as Karpik, Wicht, Musselman, Coltom, Hayes, Elsner, Solem, Bernat, Frandsen, Nelson, Bender, Maki, Hibbert, Morgan and Vincent.

The Snowmobile Hall of Fame is along Highway 70 about one mile west of the Highway 155 junction in St. Germain and seven miles east of U.S. 51 near Arbor Vitae.

Snowmobile Hall of Fame & Museum Address:

8481 West Highway 70 (at Sled World Blvd.)
St. Germain, WI 54558
715-542-4463
Website




Highway 155 Jct sign

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STH-155“Seven miles of St. Germain, Sayner, and Snowmobiles”

Quickie Summary: Highway 155 is a short, 7-mile connector route from Highway 70 in St. Germain to Sayner and Star Lake area. Along this short ride, the snowmobile was invented, you’ll find museums, shopping, and a tavern with a petting farm – and plenty of people head back and forth for summer and winter fun.

Wisconsin Highway 155 Drive (South to North)

Highway 155 starts at Highway 70 in St. Germain, right near the where the Snowmobile Hall of Fame & Museum is located.

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The Snowmobile Hall of Fame & Museum is just west of town; meanwhile, Highway 155 heads to the birthplace of the snowmobile, going north from Highway 70 and St. Germain. It starts at the intersection with Highway 70, which includes this directory of the town:

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Highway 155 Northbound start in winter

Highway 155 begins at Highway 70 in St. Germain; 70 curves west to Arbor Vitae, 155 forges north to Sayner.

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Highway 155’s start in winter (above) and summer (below.)

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Tall trees frame almost the entire length of Highway 155.

Highway 155 winds through the North Woods, intersecting more snowmobile trails and wildlife crossings than other roads for the brief but pretty drive. Access to Big Saint Germain Lake and Lost Lake is available via side roads. This whole area is part of the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, which covers nearly 223,000 acres of Wisconsin’s North Woods.

Shortly after the junction with County C, you head into the other town for Highway 155, Sayner (pop. 207). Sayner combines itself with adjacent Star Lake to offer plenty of recreational opportunities, along with some nice attractions.

On the south side of Sayner you’ll find sled history and more in the Vilas County Museum, run by the Vilas County Historical Society. A 7,500-square foot trip back in time, the museum offers a look back at the County’s history with a big salute to its most famous invention: the snowmobile. Carl Eliason secured the patent for his creation in 1924, and his original sled is on display in a room filled with hundreds of other snowmobile models that have been developed since. Antique exhibits, photographs, and other historic items are on display. You can’t miss the building: it’s fronted by a large statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Inventor of the snowmobile Carl Eliason originally called his creation a “motor toboggan.”

 

Also on the south side of Sayner along Highway 155 by the County C junction, you’ll Weber’s Wildlife (715-542-3781), which is a tavern – and also a petting farm during the warmer months. They’ve been laying claim to the “finest nite club this side of Sayner” since 1945. The animals you can pet are more recent.

Into Sayner along Highway 155, you’ll find Eliason Hardware, It’s a hardware store – owned by Carl Eliason’s grandson – that also commemorates the motor toboggan invention by displaying numerous early models in rotation. You’ll also find a historic marker for the invention there.

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Find hardware and motor toboggans from the 1920s & 30s in Eliason’s in Sayner along Highway 155.

sayner_greenweaverdressSayner’s tiny downtown strip marks the northern edge of Highway 155. Bars and restaurants like the tasty Sayner Pub and Danny’s offer up grub and refreshments while boutique stores like Traditions and GreenWeavers offer clothes and home items you may not expect to find in such a small burg. Like this women’s dress – with the logo from the band “Styx” on it (see right) that we stumbled across. Alas, it wasn’t my size.

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Several snowmobile trails cross in Sayner, either part of or connecting to some 600 miles of maintained trails in Vilas County alone. Sleds are welcomed to town under this arch on one trail, reminding them they’re in their machine’s birthplace.

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Highway 155 comes to an end at the north edge of downtown Sayner, not connecting to any other state highway but instead at a county road: County N, which connects west to U.S. 51 and east to Star Lake. Plum Lake, an eight mile-long example of why the lakes up here are extra beautiful, is just to the north and hosts a variety of resorts along its shores. It’s where Camp Highlands, one of the nation’s oldest summer camps, was founded in 1904. The Plum Ski-ters Waterski Club performs regular shows at Plum Lake Statehouse Point Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7p.m. during the summer season.

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Along Plum Lake just east of Sayner, you’ll also find the Plum Lake Golf Course; founded in 1912, it’s the oldest 9-hole golf course in Wisconsin. More recently, it’s also been voted the best 9-hole golf course in the state. It’s open to the public for golf. The clubhouse reveals beautiful views of both greens and Plum Lake, and to sit in the breezeway on a warm summer day is to truly, happily, get away from it all.

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So there you go: seven miles of St. Germain to Sayner, with snowmobiles as the main theme. It’s a brief but pleasant drive connecting two North Woods communities that offer plenty of outdoor recreation and everything from museums to golf to shopping to a petting zoo – at a tavern. Check out Wisconsin Highway 155 next time you’re up North!

CONNECTIONS
South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 70
Can connect nearby to: U.S. 51, about 8 miles west; Highway 17, about 8 miles east; U.S. 45/Highway 32, about 9 miles east

North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: County Highway N in Sayner
Can connect nearby to: U.S. 51, about ten miles west

 

Highway 17 in Phelps on a State Trunk Tour

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STH-017“Angling up through Snowmobile Country and the North Woods”

WisMap17Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 17 is a connector road between up North vacation and recreation hotspots, connecting U.S. 51 travelers to Rhinelander, Eagle River, and many of the myriad lakes in Vilas County. If you’ve ever camped, fished, snowmobiled or hung out in a lakeside vacation home in the North Woods, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve used Highway 17.

The Wisconsin Highway 17 Road Trip

The Drive (South to North): Although it starts on the outskirts of the town today at the interchange with U.S. 51 and Highway 64, prior to the late 1980s Highway 17 used to start in Merrill at the former U.S. 51 before the freeway was built. And since we don’t like to bypass towns on the State Trunk Tour unless we’re in a hurry, we’ll start at the former terminus.

Merrill

Highway 17’s historical beginning is at the junction of County Highways K (the original U.S. 51) and G (the original Highway 17, also known as 14th Street). This is just north of downtown Merrill (pop. 9,364), which you can check out by going south on County K (Center Ave.) to 1st Street (Highway 64). Merrill lies along the Wisconsin River, “the hardest working river in the world.”

Merrill was originally called Jenny Bull Falls when it was founded in 1843. It was changed to Merrill in 1881 in honor of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad’s general manager, S.S. Merrill (yes, it sounds more like a boat, but he actually managed the railroad.) During this decade of Merrill’s history, they became a leader in Wisconsin for the number of those newfangled telephones put into operation, named its first mayor, cranked out a boatload of lumber – 150 million board feet of lumber and 86 million shingles in 1892 alone – and even introduced some transit.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Merrill was one of the first cities in the U.S. to make use of electric streetcars, introducing them in 1890.

Downtown Merrill is accessed via County K or Highway 64; it’s 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 by the river features a prominent clock tower.

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Merrill City Hall opened in 1889; in 1977, they became apartments. We hope since they’ve been updated to not include 70s decor, such as shag rugs.

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The Lincoln County Courthouse in downtown Merrill. The tall clock tower keeps people on time throughout the center of town.

Along Highways 64 on the west side of Merrill right at the junction with Highway 107, 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.

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Built in 1904, this stone arch bridge carries Highway 64 over the Prairie River in Merrill, right by Highway 107. This is on the west side of town; Highway 17 begins on the east side.

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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.

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The T.B. Scott Free Library moved into this Prairie-style structure in 1911, where it continues to serve Merrill and other north central Wisconsin residents.

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The “River Rat”, who spent all day riding logs down the river making sure as much lumber as possible made its way to the mills. Beavers were likely a natural enemy.

Commune with nature and get beautiful views of the Wisconsin River in Council Grounds State Park., on the northwest side of Merrill via Highway 107. 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.)

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Cirrus clouds reflect nicely in the gentle waters of the Wisconsin River at Council Grounds State Park, just north of Merrill along Highway 107. Highway 17 begins a few miles to the east in Merrill.

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Hectic day? Try this instead.

Okay – NOW we’re off on Highway 17!

 

From Merrill, Highway 17 makes a beeline northeast across the woods and farms of Lincoln County, past small hamlets like Gleason (where the 1983 horror flick The Devonsville Terror was filmed) and Parrish, part of a quick swing inside Langlade County before ducking into Oneida County for – in most cases – less than a minute. Then you’re in Lincoln County again, then back into Oneida County. You dizzy yet?

Finally, you reach the next city along Highway 17, which is all about the Hodag…and more.

Rhinelander

Of course, we’re talking about Rhinelander (pop. 7,798), the Oneida County seat and metropolitan center of everything north of Wausau. The two cities even split the television market up here, with WJFW-TV (Channel 12) serving as the NBC affiliate for northern Wisconsin. Rhinelander is where NFL player Jason Doering, five-time PGA golf champion Dan Forsman, playwright Dan Wasserman, entertainment reporter Steve Kmetko and 2002 Miss Teen USA winner Vanessa Semrow, the only Wisconsinite to win the pageant, all came from. College coaching legend John Heisman, namesake of the Heisman Trophy, is buried in Rhinelander – because that’s where his wife was born.

Highway 17’s Rhinelander Bypass vs. City Route

Highway 17 traditionally ran right through downtown Rhinelander. In 2004, the 3.25 mile “Rhinelander Bypass” opened, carrying Highway 17 officially around the city to the south and then east (U.S. 8 and Highway 47 were re-routed onto the bypass as well.) You can follow it, but that kind of defeats the purpose of checking out the towns along the way unless you want a tour of big-box store parking lots. On the State Trunk Tour, we try to follow the original city routes!

So how do you do that? When Highway 17 officially turns onto the bypass, go straight, which is Boyce Street. Follow that to Kemp (the former U.S. 8) and turn right. About 1/2 mile down, turn left onto Arbutus Street, which curves onto Pelham. At Rhinelander City Hall, angle onto Stevens Street, which takes you through downtown and leads you back to today’s Highway 17 on the northeast edge.

Rhinelander was originally called Pelican Rapids, but changed the name when the city was chartered to salute Frederic Rhinelander, who was president of the main railroad at the time. By 1882, the railroad was extended to the city from Monico (which Highway 47 touches on later) and lumber mills went crazy, exporting wood and wood products. Lumber today still plays a big role in Rhinelander’s economy.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
WJFW-TV, Rhinelander’s Channel 12, is the NBC affiliate for northern Wisconsin. When a plane crash took out its original tower in 1968, the rebuilt tower was the 7th tallest structure in the world and was the first in the U.S. built exclusively for color TV transmission. When it was sold in 1979 to Seaway Communications, it was the first VHF commercial TV station owned by minority interests.

An original Rhinelander beer label. Could it be brewed again soon in downtown Rhinelander?

The city also became a brewery town back in 1882, when Rhinelander Beer was introduced. The brewery pioneered and patented the 7-ounce “shorty” bottle and grew to become one of the more influential local breweries in the country. They closed in 1967, but the brands continued to be brewed under contract in Monroe, where the Huber (now Minhas Brewery) kept cranking it out. In 2009, the brands were brought back to Rhinelander when Jyoti Auluck became president of the “new” Rhinelander Brewing Company. They are in the process of bringing back the original formulas and labels to their brands and plan to build a new brewery in Rhinelander. Some of the brands, including the original Rhinelander beer, are now available in various bar and store locations around Wisconsin and upper Michigan. We’ll definitely do more research on this!

Following the traditional Highway 17 through Rhinelander involves jogging a bit from Boyce to Kemp Street (the original U.S. 8) and then heading left on Arbutus, which becomes Pelham Street. At Rhinelander City Hall in a triangular intersection, angle left onto Stevens Street. That’s when you’re officially into the downtown area. As the Oneida County Seat, Rhinelander’s downtown includes the beautiful Oneida County Courthouse, with its Tiffany glass dome serving as a visible landmark through the town. A host of local shops, bars and restaurants and sporting goods stores are ready to serve the healthy numbers of tourists who hang out in Rhinelander; many use the city as a launching point for taking in the recreational opportunities that abound across all seasons.

The stately Oneida County Courthouse, with its Tiffany glass dome, dominates in downtown Rhinelander.

Here’s some history you probably didn’t know: the first comprehensive rural zoning ordinance in the U.S. took place right here in Oneida County. Adopted in 1933, we tried to read the rest of it but it was kind of snowy that day.

hodag2_300The Hodag.
Yes, you’ve probably heard, Rhinelander is Hodag Country. So what is a Hodag? According to folklore, the Hodag was first seen in 1893 and had “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end.” Advanced by Eugene Shepard, who was known for pranks, the beast became something of legend when the “remains” of one was released to area newspapers. Later, he claimed to have overpowered a live Hodag using chloroform and brought it with him to the 1896 Oneida County Fair. Curious onlookers came from all over to examine the animal, which Shepard worked up and attached wires to, for the occasional tugging to make the creature move…sending audiences running. Apparently, it seemed pretty real: scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. announced they would be coming to Rhinelander to examine this Hodag creature…essentially forcing Shepard to admit it was a hoax.

Nevertheless, the Hodag came an indelible part of Rhinelander’s local lore. The Hodag is the high school mascot, the city’s official symbol, is commemorated with sculptures around town and even lends its name to the local country music festival, which draws some pretty big names (Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Neal McCoy, Kellie Pickler and, in its inception in 1978, good ol’ Freddy Fender. Anybody up for a round of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights“?)
You can find the biggest Hodag statue right next to the Rhinelander Visitors’ Center, along Kemp Street (the traditional U.S. 8) on the southwest side of town, just off the bypass.

Downtown Rhinelander is where the old Highway 17 (Stevens Street), U.S. 8 and Highway 47 all came together. The downtown area is still pretty vibrant, since Rhinelander is a major center for commerce and recreation in the North Woods. For shops, bars and restaurants, Brown Street is the main strip, one block west of Stevens in the downtown area. There’s even a 24-hour drive-through McDonald’s (rare for this part of the state) and plenty of sites to see, including:
– The Rhinelander Logging Museum (334 N. Pelham Street, 715-369-5004), a complex featuring a replica of an 1870s lumber camp, the original Soo Line Depot (built in 1892, in service until 1989), an extensive model railroad display in the basement and an outdoors display of early logging equipment, a narrow-gauge locomotive and steam-powered “snow snakes”. What’s a snow snake? Well, that’s why you have to road trip and discover stuff. For more, visit their website.
ArtStart! (68 S. Stevens Street) an arts and cultural center that established itself in 2011 inside the historic Federal Building – which they bought for $1 from the feds (no wonder the government is broke!). As of our last trip, they were still getting things together, so check out their Facebook page to keep up with the latest developments.
– For outdoor adventurers, Mel’s Trading Post (105 S. Brown Street, 715-362-5800) has been outfitting residents and visitors alike since 1946.
– If you need to catch the game or imbibe in some bar food and sandwiches, Bucketheads Sports Bar & Grill (46 N. Brown Street, 715-369-5333) is a good stop. Check out the sweet potato fries and brewery equipment in the front.
– For fancier fare, check out the White Stag Inn (7141 State Highway 17N, 715-272-1057), a little north of town via Highway 17, closer to Sugar Camp…look for the – creatively enough – white stag out front.
– Since the State Trunk Tour is a big fan of pasties, we have to recommend Joe’s Pasty Shop (123 Randall Avenue, 715-369-1224) . Opened in 2004, it’s a sister shop to the original Joe’s up in Ironwood, Michigan. Tasty!

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The ride on Highway 17 north from Rhinelander takes you through the best of Wisconsin’s North Woods on your way to Eagle River. The only settlement to speak of is the tiny burg of Sugar Camp, a town spread along Indian Lake that actually does host a number of camps. After a snowfall, the clingy snow that stays on the tree branches makes for a beautiful drive, especially when the sun emerges afterwards.

Eagle River

After Highway 17 comes in from Rhinelander and joins Highway 70, you get into Eagle River (pop. 1,443), one of Wisconsin’s most popular vacation towns. It’s nicknamed the “Snowmobiling Capital of the World“, and competitions are held here throughout the winter months. Extensive trails stretch for miles from the town and around the multitude of lakes in the area. In warmer months, boating is very popular on these lakes… so many area lakes (28), in fact, that the Eagle River/Three Lakes Chain compose the largest number of interconnected lakes in the world. These lakes are frozen a good chunk of the year, obviously, and on the weekend closest to New Years’, area firefighters and volunteers cut 3,000 foot-thick blocks of ice from nearby Silver Lake to build the Ice Palace. The Ice Palace has been constructed almost annually since the 1920s and usually stands about 20 feet high, lit up at night with a multitude of colors. Tourists are welcome to check it out and take pictures; just don’t build a fire nearby or chip off any ice for your beverage.

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In a five-day period, thousands of pounds of ice find their way from a nearby lake to become part of an annual tradition, the Eagle River Ice Castle. It often lasts for 60-90 days, depending on temperature, sunlight, and how many people breathe warm air onto it.

eagleriverwelcomewinter_800Snowmobiling Capital of the World

Okay, back to this snowmobiling thing. Home of the annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby, Eagle River’s Derby Track hosted its first race on February 9, 1964 – about 40 years after Carl Eliason of nearby Sayner invented the first model that was comparable to today’s snowmobiles (and, that evening, The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show). The races since have drawn participants and spectators from far and wide – tens of thousands, regardless of the weather. The races are held in mid-January, meaning it can be sunny and near 40, the typical cold of 6 above zero, or wind chills of -50 – as it was in 1994. There’s plenty of room to watch around the track, and luxury boxes are even available. Additional races and attractions have been added over the years; you can read a pretty comprehensive history right here. Eagle River averages 53 inches of snowfall each year – nothing too crazy, especially when areas closer to Lake Superior average over 100. But with hundreds of miles of trails and the invention of the snowmobile having taken place in the area, this is the epicenter of the sport. Bottom line, this is a place to road trip to in the midst of winter’s grasp!

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Racers line up for the oval. Straightaway speeds can reach 100mph. Are there are no seat belts.

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Snocross is awesome to watch, including at night. They can really get some air!

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The rarely-seen Derby Track in summer. A lot less action.

Highway 70 through town is also joined by U.S. 45 and Highway 32. Restaurants and motels line the route, and Wall Street – one block north through the heart of town – is where most of the action is. Lining the Wall are shops, confectioneries, bars, restaurants and the Vilas Theater, a five-screen cinema that dates back many decades.

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Along Wall Street, Eagle River’s main street.

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Two scoops from the Country Store in downtown Eagle River.

Just down is the Country Store, a confectionery with numerous fudge choices, candy, chocolates and ice cream where a “scoop” is half the size of Rhode Island. Plenty of other treats are available too, whether it’s 20 below or 95 above outside.

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The local fishing contingent features its own two cents on available t-shirts.

 

Eagle River is named after the – you guessed it – Eagle River, which flows out of the Chain O’Lakes and into the Wisconsin River. The Wisconsin’s source in Lac Vieux Desert is only about 15 miles north along the Wisconsin-Michigan border, and it’s still pretty small as it flows past Eagle River. Of course, it gains significant size and strength as it flows nearly 400 miles and drops over 1,000 feet on its way to the Mississippi!

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An eagle statue for Eagle River is right by the old railroad station at the west end of downtown. It looks cool during the day, but more soaring and dramatic with the light at night.

Heading north out of Eagle River, Highway 17 branches off from Highways 32 & 45 a few miles north of town. From there, Highway 17 dives deep into the forest, winding through Nicolet National Forest property and past more lakes before reaching tiny Phelps.

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CONNECTIONS
South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. 51, Highway 64
Can connect nearby to: Highway 29, about 12 miles south; Highway 52, also about 12 miles south

North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Federal Forest Highway 16 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Can connect nearby to: County roads in Vilas County; also Highway 32 & U.S. 45, about 20 miles southwest