Adventure-seekers have access to 139,000 acres of Nicolet National Forest land and 43,000 acres of public land full of all types of recreation – from hiking, camping, and paddling to wildlife watching, boating, and fishing. The tough question is: Where will you choose to explore?
Oconto County also has no shortage of local food and entertainment to take advantage of. You’ll find cozy bars, classic supper clubs, hometown diners, and boutiques across all 29 communities that make up the county.
A guide to exploring the best-kept secret in Wisconsin’s Northwoods
“Only 25 feet up and about 30-ish stairs in, I already feel my knees start to shake. A thin layer of sweat begins to form on my brow and my hands grip the steel handrailing tighter with every step I take. One foot in front of the other, I continue the thrilling ascent to the top of the 100-foot-tall Mountain Fire Lookout Tower in Mountain, Wisconsin.
I resist the temptation to peek over the edge to the bottom, but at the same time, I’m pleasantly overwhelmed with awe at the sight of the sprawling Nicolet National Forest surrounding me on all sides.
With just two more sections of stairs left, I’ve got one driving force that’s keeping me going: The beyond-epic view waiting for me at the top.”
– Erica Zazo, an avid adventurer from Chicago, IL
Day 1: Check-in and hike out
After your afternoon arrival, check in at the Waubee Lodge – the perfect basecamp for your Oconto County adventure. This modern yet cabin-inspired lodge on Waubee Lake has 17 suites and 7 cabins and comes with all the amenities. Cabin #6, the lodge’s largest property, boasts floor-to-ceiling front windows, which makes for an amazing sunrise wake-up call. The suites, which are connected to the main lodge and restaurant, each have a private lakeside balcony.
Before dinner, head to the Quartz Hill Trail off State Highway 32 just north of Townsend. This 0.8-mile out-and-back hike is a short and sweet hike with a beautiful view from a quartz rock outcropping at the summit. On your way back to the lodge, opt for a quick pre-dinner drink at Little Tipsy, a bar, and grill with an amazing deck overlooking Townsend Flowage and a prime sunset photo op.
End your night with a pint of New Glarus Spotted Cow and a full menu of casual eats to upscale cuisine. The Waubee burger, slow-roasted prime rib, and homemade soup and salad bar come highly recommended.
View of Deer Island on Wheeler Lake in Lakewood, Wisconsin.
Day 2: Peaks, paddles, and pints
Start your day early, ideally no later than 9 a.m., to pack in a day full of adventure. Stop at Northern Perks Coffee Shop for a grab-and-go coffee (they also have a great gift shop) before getting breakfast at Karla’s Kitchen, a classic hometown diner “Where coffee is always 25 cents.” Pro tip: you’ll need cash for here and at most other diners in the county.
Then head to Butler Rock in Brazeau, Wisconsin, for a 1.3-mile out-and-back hike. You can take an optional pit stop to sightsee at Chute Pond or head straight to the trailhead. The hike to Butler Rock is moderate and totally worth the short but steep incline during the last 0.2 miles to the top. The lookout at the top of Butler Rock of the surrounding Nicolet National Forest is a must-see view.
View from the summit of Bulter Rock.
Before lunch, stop and climb 132 stairs to the top of Mountain Fire Lookout Tower in Mountain, Wisconsin. The view from the top is arguably one of the best views you’ll find in all of Oconto County. From the panoramic lookout, you can see a seemingly endless swath of forest – a full 360 degrees around you. Consider a fall trip here right when foliage color peaks in mid-October.
By 1 p.m., grab lunch at The Lazy Bear bar and grill. They have a mix of regional beers on tap and a full menu of mouthwatering food. The locals recommend their chicken Philly cheesesteak sandwich paired with a housemade bloody mary. Sweet Memories Candy Shop and Yvonne’s Classy Closet are great local stores to stop at on your way through Lakewood, Wisconsin.
Enjoying Woodland Trail Winery on a fall afternoon.
Afternoon adventures can include a beach hangout or casual kayak on the crystal clear water at Wheeler Lake, wine sipping at Woodland Trail Winery, or a combination of both if you’re up for a jam-packed afternoon. For travelers with a kayak, consider paddling out to Deer Island in the middle of Wheeler Lake. The small but beautiful oasis is full of dense hardwoods, native mushrooms, and a secret fire pit (shh…don’t spread the word too much).
Come 5 p.m., and you’ll likely be very hungry. Head to The Olive Pit, just north of Townsend, for their famous olive burger. This place is pretty popular among locals and travelers alike, so get there early to grab a spot.
Natural wood bench in the Cathedral Pines State Natural Area.
Day 3: Hike, then Head to the Bay
Start the day off early with a hike before breakfast at Cathedral Pines in Lakewood. Huge stands of pines tower over you like giants as you walk the intertwined trails through this quiet slice of the Nicolet National Forest. Several benches made of tree trunks also make a perfect place to read a book or meditate in nature.
Around 9 a.m., stop at The Rustic Cup in Mountain, Wisconsin, another no-frills diner with a solid menu of breakfast foods. Their egg-topped hashbrowns with sauteed onions and peppers are a top pick.
Heading into the woods at the Cathedral Pines trailhead.
Post-breakfast, take your final hike along one of Oconto County’s most rugged and challenging trails. The 2.6-mile loop hike up and down Hagar Mountain will surprise you with hidden waterfalls, giant overlooks, and amazing views of the surrounding Hagar Mountain State Natural Area.
End your trip with an hour-long drive East to Oconto, a small town on the edge of the bay of Green Bay. You won’t regret the trip, especially if you stop to enjoy the view of the bay at Breakwater Park & Harbor.
One of many sweeping views along the 2.6-mile Hagar Mountain loop trail.
Grab lunch right off the bay at Oconto Dockside before heading home. They make, quite possibly, the biggest bloody mary you’ll find in the state of Wisconsin. With a summer sausage stick, string cheese, a pickle slice, pickled mushroom, olive, and cheese skewer, and a stack of bite-sized pretzels threaded on the straw, it’s a full meal in one sitting – but totally delicious. It’s also the perfect send-off from an epic 48 hours exploring Oconto County.