Northwoods Reconciliation: Snowmobiling Around Cable, Wisconsin

With wide, sweeping trails that take riders over a particularly dynamic landscape, the area north of Hayward, Wisconsin, near the town of Cable has long been a year-around vacation destination. Its ties to snowmobiling history run deep, but that’s not the main reason for our visit there last winter.

Instead, the Cable area was one of the few Upper Midwestern locations that had snow in 2011-12. Yes, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan had a patch, but that was under attack on a daily basis by thousands of snowmobilers who were packed atop one another in the tiny hotel rooms and cabins around Lake Gogebic. We spent some enjoyable time there ourselves, but when we heard Cable had snow? Well, we hardly got boots on both feet before we were outside loading sleds.

Going to the Cable-Hayward area was like a return to our snowmobiling roots. In the 1980s and ’90s in particular, it seemed to be the center of the snowmobiling universe. We remember ending our days inside the spacious tavern at the Lakewoods Resort on Lake Namakagon. On weekend nights, it was always packed, and always friendly. Riders from near and far rubbed shoulders and swapped stories with snowmobile factory officials, dealership owners and others in the industry. Looking out the huge picture windows, one could see an almost constant stream of headlights funneling down into the southwest bay of the lake and up onto the snow-covered lawn at the Lakewoods.

Some bad snow years in the early 2000s took the Cable area off the radar for many snowmobilers, who now seem increasingly destined for the U.P. But our ride last February reminded us of why this area became such a snowmobiling Mecca in the first place. The more than 500 miles of fabulous trails in the immediate area, the fascinating landscape, the great places to stay, eat and drink — it’s all still there.

Several snowmobile trails cross some of the hundreds of glacier-formed lakes that decorate the Cable-Hayward region.
Several snowmobile trails cross some of the hundreds of glacier-formed lakes that decorate the Cable-Hayward region.

Chasing Snow, Finding Paradise

“You know what? From right here going north, the snow is actually very good,” the guy who answered the phone at Hayward Powersports reported.

“Yeah, we’ve had good riding here for awhile. A couple that just came back from an all-day ride told me it was great,” said the lady at the Lakewoods’ switchboard, “but it’s supposed to get up into the 60s this weekend, so you’d better come quickly.”

It took about 3 minutes to line up two partners in crime, and one said we could stay at his in-laws’ lake place so no reservations were needed. “We’ll meet at the Snow Goer office at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow,” I commanded.  “We’ll be riding by 9 a.m.”

By sunrise, we were already headed north and east, but it didn’t look encouraging: It didn’t even get below freezing overnight in Minneapolis, and our destination was a mere 140 miles away. Brown grounds and rising temperatures dominated the landscape during our drive. “They promised us snow,” I mumbled, “I hope they weren’t lying to us.” The ground got white north of Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, but it was just a couple inches of crust — hardly what we were looking for.

Soon we were unloading sleds at Greg’s in-law’s cabin near Birchwood. The trails were icy and thin, but generally snow-covered at first as we wound through the woods and past cranberry bogs in the general direction of Hayward, but they got worse for awhile north of Stone Lake. Rocks and bare spots along roadsides had us searching for trails that crossed lakes.

During lunch at the Trails End Resort on the shores of the picturesque Lac Courte Oreilles, a friendly bartender encouraged us to keep pushing north. “We’ve actually had a pretty good season here, but not everybody knows we’ve had snow,” she said. “It’s getting pretty late [in the season] now, though, but you’ll hit the good stuff northeast of Hayward.” My buddy Steve worried about his hyfax while Greg fretted about his carbides; I just hoped I hadn’t dragged my friends on an expensive wild goose, er, snow chase.

Something magical occurred when we crossed Highway 77 near Hayward Powersports, however. Suddenly, the snowbanks beside the trail were three feet tall, the trails were neon white and groomed wide and smooth, and the landscape got more rugged and interesting. This was the snowmobiling paradise we sought, and the trails were even better than we remembered.

In typical Wisconsin Northwoods fashion, the trails are very well marked with various signs and even trail maps at most intersections.
In typical Wisconsin Northwoods fashion, the trails are very well marked with various signs and even trail maps at most intersections.

A Rare Find

The Cable area is a rare find not just because it tends to get and hold snow while surrounding areas are brown, it also has a unique landscape. The terrain was dug out about 15,000 years ago by advancing, retreating and then re-advancing glaciers that deposited sediment in some areas and eroded it from others, with a lot of freeze-thaw cycles mixed in. What’s left is an interesting and rare phenomenon called “kame and kettle topography.” The low pockets are called kettles, the higher points between the kettles are referred to as kames. The land was further etched by glacier runoff from what is now Lake Superior, creating a natural meander to the hills due to long-dry streams and rivers.

All of this left a rather dramatic and condensed roll to the land that makes for great trails, and even better sightseeing if you’re willing to slow down and take it all in. At any given moment as you weave along Trails 15, 77, 70 or 8 between Hayward and Cable, you’ll notice the tops of huge trees as the land falls off sharply on your left and the base of other trees as it climbs dramatically on your right, but none of the hills or valleys last long before the forest floor rises and falls again. A dense and ever-changing mix of pine, maple, oak and birch trees were decorated by the deep white base of snow.

Trail 77 heading toward Cable is mostly wide and a lot of fun, with few long straightaways yet few sharp turns — it’s dominated by sweepers and an enjoyable undulating base. That leads to Trail 8, which is a little tighter and had even more of a roller coaster feel — nothing overly tricky, just dynamic. There are very few road crossings on the trails in this part of Wisconsin; it is still very rural and undeveloped.

We soon crossed out of Sawyer County and into Bayfield County and the wondrous Chequamegon National Forest. Our previous blue-sky day was turning cloudy as we rolled into the Lakewoods Resort at mid-afternoon. An extended stop there to soak up the atmosphere and relive some memories put us back on the trails around sunset.

Signs along the trail remind visitors that this is a vacation destination for many different types of outdoor enthusiasts, but there is so much undeveloped land that everybody has their own trails.
Signs along the trail remind visitors that this is a vacation destination for many different types of outdoor enthusiasts, but there is so much undeveloped land that everybody has their own trails.

The Long Ride Home


The tight and twisting Trail 8 took us to Clam Lake, where we grabbed fuel and prepared for a long loop home — the riding was so good, we decided to take the extended route. That led us down Trail 25, which uses much of the famous Dead Horse Trail corridor loved and loathed by ATV riders in the summer for its high level of challenge. Entirely encased in the Chequamegon, it’s a narrow trail with off-camber turns at one moment, and then a blast down a Forest Service Road corridor the next. In typical Wisconsin fashion, the trails were very well marked — every intersection carries signs telling what trails and which establishments were in each direction. Our headlight illuminated a handful of deer along the way. We also spotted one oversized mammal-looking critter, though we’re still not sure exactly what we saw — it was like a slightly oversized and more athletic-looking raccoon, and it moved fast.

Eventually we caught up to the Tuscobia Trail (No. 10), a rail trail that took us all the way back to the Birchwood area to end a long and fun day. Once down to the Tuscobia, we were driving out of the narrow belt of snow again. By the time we got through the towns of Winter and Radisson, it was rough hyfax- and carbide-eating conditions again. We slobbered down a pizza at a neighborhood saloon before calling it a night.

We had planned to make the next day our last Midwestern ride of the season, but Ma’ Nature had different plans. It actually approached 70 degrees F the next day with strong south winds: On our drive back to Minneapolis, the roadsides looked like mini rivers with all of the water from the rapid snowmelt.

Reuniting with the Cable area last winter was like meeting up with an old friend. Except, in this case, when we claimed we’d see each other again soon, we actually meant it.

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