Hiking the North Country Trail Penokee to Beaver Lake

Brunsweiler River on the NCT
The North Country Trail is one of only eleven National Scenic Trails in the United States. Its overall 4600-mile route lays down a 200-mile passage through Wisconsin in Iron, Ashland, Bayfield, and Douglas counties. This trail offers Wisconsin’s most premiere backpacking experience as it threads through deep wilderness with waypoints at some of Wisconsin’s most photogenic scenic highlights. A long section of the trail passes through the Nicolet-Chequamegon National Forest.

I’ve broken down the Chequamegon section into routes that can be achieved in weekend backpacking trips, and this article will review the section between Penokee Trailhead and Beaver Lake Campground. My hiking party covered this 12-mile section over three days with two nights camped along the trail. This section lacks major scenic destinations, but it is nonetheless an adventurous section that makes for a great long weekend outing. It could surely be hiked in a single day point-to-point, but we enjoyed breaking it into easier hikes which accommodated driving days from southern Wisconsin and allowed us to enjoy the scenery and dispersed camping rather than push for the athletic accomplishment of a punishing day hike.

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Crossing Trout Brook
This unnamed brook flowing from English Lake has a huge bridge over it, and we stopped to filter water here at the beginning of Day 2

There is a variety of rolling thunder that sounds so foreboding, so otherworldly, so verbose that the mind wants to believe that it hears a freight train or the dumping of house sized rocks down a steel chute in some unseen quarry. But, in a forest where the nearest paved road is in the next county there are no freight trains or quarries to blame for such a noise. Our new friend Dean assured us several times in his Minnesota accent, “Ohhh ya, that’s thunder. For sure that’s thunder.”

We were standing in an abandoned campground, getting to know each other, exchanging pleasantries, but each of us had our necks craned with our three sets of eyeballs fixed on the darkening clouds overhead. We were brought together by my failure to find a comfortable circle of ground to make a campsite. I believe the search had begun 4-miles earlier. But each spot I inspected was too crowded with trees, too low, too close to a river, too far from a water source, too strewn with jagged rocks, too sloped, too exposed, too close to the trail, too far from the trail … Exhausting! Choosing a site is easy in good weather, and so damned difficult when everyone that you’ve met on the trail in a day (all 5 of them) were gleeful to announce the forecast of a really big storm to come.

And so, here we were, at the goldilocks of campsites, a former National Forest campground, on a flattened length of clear ground elevated eight feet above a still lake rimmed with autumn trees that crackled with golden and red hues. So long as a forest ranger didn’t find us here it was ideal, and so was the timing.

The straps of my pack were cutting into my rib cage where they had worn a pair of tender spots and I was ready to unload as soon as we made the decision to stop looking along the trail for a dispersed site and agreed to at least see the abandoned campground – I knew that ‘to see’ meant that we would be staying. When we arrived, we found a hiker had already taken up residence. His green Nemo tent telegraphed the idea that he was a hiker anyways. I felt obligated to introduce myself, and gleefully report the forecast, since we’d be sharing this favored spot with him.

To my curiosity, he was not a hiker as he pointed to his bike rigged with panniers. My mind searched a mental catalogue of trails in the Chequamegon and could not find a bike trail or even a reasonable bike route anywhere near here.

Here. That’s an interesting idea in a national forest. I’m not sure exactly where here even is. I know we were beside Lake Three near the Mineral Lake Natural Area about three miles east of Beaver Lake and North of Big Stump Intersection - yes, there's an intersection with a big stump in the middle of it and that really is the name of that intersection. But, these sorts of landmarks are mostly meaningless to anyone who would ask. I tried in vain to answer the question from colleagues of where exactly I’d be spending the weekend and I was lost for a description. Somewhere between Mellen and um … Drummond – might be Mellen or Marengo or Foster Junction. Yeah, Okay, you don’t know those towns either ... In the green blob on a map of Wisconsin that takes up the space between Wausau and the Lake Superior shore … two hours into that green blob and down 15 miles of unsigned unpaved forest roads that each have multiple names depending on your map of choice and then off to the right and that is where here is. Here has no cell service. Here has no houses, park shelters, or structures. Here has no welcome desk, no restaurants, no WIFI to need a password for, no tornado siren, no fallout shelter, and if trees fall across the road between here and there then here is where you will stay ... unless you travel with a a 36" chain saw in your trunk ... and I'm beginning to think more seriously about making that a habit.

So, here is where we set up a campsite near a rusted old fire ring that hasn’t held a fire in six years. We setup quickly, quick enough to even gather a night’s worth of firewood before the thunder began to roll. Me and my hiking partner had invited Dean over for our evening fire and he joined us if not for the fire which we hadn’t lit then for some conversation.

Dean had spent a career sorting packages for UPS and then one day after 35 years called it quits, retired young with a small pension, but enough to buy all the gear he could pack onto his bike and he rode off down his driveway in Minneapolis without looking back and without a forward heading. He just biked away. And, eventually he stopped for a break and talked to a passerby who told him to go check out some neat place, and indeed Dean pedaled to that neat place where he found another person who told him to go to another place. And so on, and so forth. Somewhere along the way he must have ran into someone who told him to check out a random little campground at Beaver Lake deep in the Chequamegon and when he arrived found its 10 sites were taken so he biked up the road till he found an idyllic little lake with an abandoned campground on its shore. And, this is how he came to be talking to us beneath a grove of trees that began to sway violently in every direction.

Dean had just been pondering aloud how strange it is that people feel safe in their tents when they are merely a few microns of fabric pegged to the ground with stakes that weigh less than a paperclip - just when we both gazed skyward together and realized that we doomed to be soaked. Dean abruptly departed for the shelter of his tent. And, I jumped into mine.

Left with nothing to do I folded my air mat in three and pushed all of my gear up against one wall of my tent which made for a comfortable recliner and pulled out my phone to see if I could grab just a moment of signal. And sure enough, the bars jumped up to 4G and then disappeared again. But that moment was just long enough to download an emergency alert. “Tornado Warning, Seek immediate shelter.”

I tried shouting this news to my hiking partner who was slung into a hammock only a few feet from my tent, but the rain was now pounding down and we couldn’t hear each other. After a long sigh, I found my raingear and wiggled into it, and leapt out of the tent. “Anne, there’s a tornado warning!”

We agreed to try for shelter in a pit toilet structure at the far end of the old campground and we found it unlocked and refreshingly clean. There we sheltered till the time expired on the tornado warning and the rain and thunder calmed. But the rain continued in spurts, enough to cancel an evening fire. So, I retired at 8pm and predicted aloud that I’d be up and roaming at 2am.

2AM came and I was wide awake. A great horned owl called to its mate. I took an evening stroll through the abandoned campground with its eerie remnants of pleasures past, the signs for ‘reservable sites’ poking out of the ground like gravestones amongst the leaves that stirred in the winds of a crisp cold front. I found my way down to the boat ramp and crouched down humbled beneath the star strewn sky that reflected off the glassy surface of Lake Three. This moment of peace, stillness, and awe was made all the more sacred by the ferociousness of the storm that had preceded it. I am not a stargazer and I can only point to one constellation. But this moment sitting beside the mirror-like midnight lake where there was no overhead or lower boundary between me and infinity had made the entire trip worth every step and stumble. I floated in the universe.

Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe says that the eternal is in reflections - where we accept two separate entities while knowing the source of both is from one, a visible proof of the singular truth of duality. There is a universe in the stars above, and from where I stood a universe of stars below my feet. From the point-of-view of the living, death is a reflection of life, but life could just as easily be a reflection of death. This is where the mind wanders at 2am beside a lake in a place with no wireless service.

Dreams seem to have that reflective quality of our waking life, believable but distorted at the edges. What had been turbulent dreams during the storm had turned to dreams of enchantment. I woke the next morning to a crisp autumn morning and set fire to a stash of kindling I kept dry in the vestibule of my tent. A warm fire, a steamy cup of coffee, a dewy crisp morning with colored leaves dropping like snowflakes, and formations of geese overhead making the journey south; this is the very essence of Autumn.

It seems that the season had changed that very night. Two days prior we were driving through blinding rain on the five-hour drive north. When we arrived at the Penokee trailhead the rain gave up and a dense warm blanket of fog fell into the forest lending a sweaty, moody, and summer-like feeling to the beginning of our hike. The fog obscured the views from Penokee overlook, which I hear are fantastic, but I cannot confirm. We moved on into the darkening forest and made our three-mile trek to the Penokee Shelter, which despite the fog was easy to find as the trail passes through it … nearly.

The Penokee shelter looks like a woodshed with three sides enclosed. But when backpacking, such a structure is like happening on a four-star resort. There’s a dry place to sit and a metal fire ring. I'll give it three stars as it wasn’t near a water source, did not have a latrine nearby, and offered no WIFI. But my tent fit inside it and there are healthy hemlocks all around it which supported my friend’s hammock shelter. Hemlocks for Hammocks, 2020.

Just before packing up the next morning we were visited by two hikers, the first to tell us of the impending storm forecast. It was hard to take the forecast seriously as the day warmed and the sky cleared. We found our water source not long after departing at a new bridge over a nameless branch of Trout Brook.

On the trail again we struggled through mud traps and uphill-swamps. The trail is indeed quite hilly with random rock formations protruding from the forest floor. The trail climbs between stream valleys up to rocky highlands covered in thick hardwood forests. One of these rocky tops led to an overlook of the forest where we got our first overview of the color changing forest from above.

The trail crossed a winding forest road a few times. As we approached Hanson Road we crossed through a wonderful area of grassy opens. I made a mental note that this would be an excellent place for dispersed camping. I had wanted to explore the area around Brunsweiler River to find a dispersed site, but it turned out that there is thick pine forest and swampy and rocky terrain along the Brunsweiler and in the Beaver Dam lake area – and it would be difficult to establish a site there. This is the preamble to how we ended up at the abandoned campground huddled in a pit toilet structure during a tornado warning.

There was little ground for us to cover the day after the storm to reach our second car parked at Beaver Lake. Our weekend of hiking was not supposed to end at Beaver Lake, just the backpacking portion. We intended to stay another night at Beaver Lake and branch out to scenic vistas from there. But we took a drive up to Ashland for a pizza lunch and cell service. Unfortunately, we learned that a terrible storm was forecast for that evening as well with hail and 80mph winds. Alas, our last day of exploring the Chequamegon came to an end and we decided to pack up and head for home a day early.

It was a sad unceremonious end to our weekend. But our hike had been a success and I will let my photos tell the story of what we saw along the way.

As we drove away towards Mellen we passed a solo bike tourist along the winding County Highway GG. It was Dean. That morning we had told him of two free campsites positioned on top of waterfalls in the Douglas County Forest along the newest section of the North Country Trail between Wren Falls and Foster Falls. Our weekend adventure was done, but as I write this, he continues exploring the Northland, biking from obscure place to obscure place based on the stories of strangers. I will likely have to endure in the labor market 20 more years before I come to know such total freedom. For now, I enjoy a taste of it from time to time on a few weekends each each year.

Lake Three
Lake Three

North Country National Scenic Trail - Penokee Trailhead to Beaver Lake

1357 AMSL
1583 AMSL
800 FT




Directions and Trail Map

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Address for your GPS: Penokee Mountain Trail, Highway GG Morse WI
| coordinates: 46.314372, -90.718234 |

From Milwaukee 5.5 Hours
From Madison 5 Hours
From Green Bay 4 Hours
From Wausau 2.5 Hours
From Minneapolis 3.5 Hours
From Chicago 6.5 Hours


Penokee Trailhead
Penokee Trailhead off Highway GG outside Mellen

Penokee Overlook
The Penokee Overlook Trail is a side trail from the trailhead parking lot and not part of the NCT

Penokee Overlook
The Penokee Overlook is easy to get to on a short trail and has grand views when it isn't foggy

Along the North Country Trail
The Chequamegon Forest is moody in the fog

Penokee Shelter
The Penokee Overlook is clean and dry with a grill and fire ring

Penokee Shelter
The Penokee Shelter is set in a grove of Hemlocks that are good for rigging a hammock 

Along the North Country Trail
The North Country Trail near Trout Brook crossing

Woodpecker High Rise
Woodpecker High Rise along the trail

Along the North Country Trail
Another moody day in the autumn forest

Overlook along the North Country Trail
Approaching a bald rock overlook of the forest

Overlook along the North Country Trail
The Overlook is pretty awesome in the fall and the sun was starting to break through on Day 2

Along the North Country Trail
Lots of swampy areas along this trail

Along the North Country Trail
The bridge over Brunsweiler River is a great place for a long break. Possible Dispersed Camping on the Southwest bank

Brunsweiler River
Wow, What a scene from the bridge over the Brunsweiler River

Along the North Country Trail
The Area Before Beaver Dam Lake Road is prime for Dispersed Camping. We Should have stopped here.

Lake Three
Approaching the Dam on Lake Three

Camping along the North Country Trail
This abandoned campground is where we set up just an hour before a big storm and tornado warning
Camping along the North Country Trail
Abandoned Campground along the NCT
Crossing Spring Brook
Bridge Crossing Spring Brook near Lake Three. Good place for water filtering.
Beaver Lake Side Trail
Oddly, I didn't photograph Beaver Lake Campground, But, it's only a short side trail from the NCT.

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