Raise your hand if you remember–or have heard of–Sunday drives. Families would pile into the car and set out to…well, just drive. Often, there was no particular destination, just a chance to roll down the windows and see the sights. Ice cream may or may not have been involved, but it wasn’t the reason to set out.
Then came the highways and expressways. Traffic. Congestion. The thrill of simply being able to own an auto faded. The concept of getting into the car just to take a random drive seemed quaint, maybe even a little ridiculous.
Wisconsin saved the “Sunday drive” experience…literally
But, thankfully, one state remembered and has deliberately preserved miles and miles of “Sunday-drive-worthy” routes for anyone with a little time and a longing to literally get off the beaten path. Looking at you, Wisconsin!
The Wisconsin Rustic Roads System was created by the State Legislature in 1973 to “preserve what remains of Wisconsin’s scenic, lightly traveled country roads for the leisurely enjoyment of bikers, hikers and motorists.”
The first Rustic Road, R-1, which opened in 1975 near Rib Lake in northwest Wisconsin, kicked off the program with its five-mile gravel road passing through the 12,000-year-old Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
What does it mean to be a Rustic Road?
Not just any old country lane qualifies to be a Wisconsin Rustic Road. The program is a joint effort between local municipalities and/or citizens, and the Department of Transportation.
In order to earn a brown-and-yellow sign, and be a designated Rustic Road, applicants must adhere to the guidelines:
- have outstanding natural features along its borders such as rugged terrain, native vegetation, native wildlife, or include open areas with agricultural vistas which singly or in combination uniquely set this road apart from other roads.
- be a lightly traveled local access road, one which serves the adjacent property owners and those wishing to travel by auto, bicycle, or hiking for purposes of recreational enjoyment of its rustic features.
- not be scheduled nor anticipated for major improvements which would change its rustic characteristics.
- can be dirt, gravel, or paved, and one or two lanes and have a minimum length of two miles and, where feasible, should provide a closure or loop, or connect to major highways at both ends of the route.
- by law, the speed limit may not exceed 45 mph. Each Rustic Road may also set a lower speed limit, down to 30 mph.
My discoveries on the Rustic Roads
I found the Rustic Roads by happenstance. I was on my way to tour a Frank Lloyd Wright building in Racine, Wisconsin, when I saw the first brown-and-yellow sign. Gave it no thought. Then I saw another…and another. At that point, I decided it was worth finding out what the signs meant.
I saw a sign for R-12 and followed it. Located in Walworth County in Southeastern Wisconsin, it’s a nearly 6-mile paved road. The description: “…panoramic views of lush green hills and valleys. The sharply curin=ving road passes outstanding Kettle Moraine formation, pine and spruce plantations, a tamarack swamp, and ponds. R-12 crosses the White River and passes through the small community of Lyons, with several quaint churches.”
All of this was true. It took me about 30 minutes to travel the six miles. Lyons had a tiny town cemetery with some excellent carved grave markers. Cemeteries always intrigue me, so I pulled over to take a look. Once, this beautiful place would have been easily seen from the “main road.” Now, it’s a small footnote that would be completely bypassed, except it’s on R-12. And I’m glad for that.
I went on to drive five more roads that day. And I intend to return. The Wisconsin DOT guide provides a handy checklist, to keep track of which Rustic Roads you explore.
More than barns and fields…
There ARE a lot of barns, cows, and fields, that’s true. Nothing wrong with some pastoral scenery. But there are also some historic Rustic Roads, too:
- R-100: Follow the Flambeau Trail, the county’s first transportation route serving Native Americans. It’s 13.5 miles, on a paved road.
- R-51: Described as “an enchanted forest,” this 4.1 mile gravel road passes through dense woods and a lovely old church from the late 1800s. Just a few miles south of County CC is a wayside historical marker and a replica of the house where Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up. She wrote about this house in the book Little House in the Big Woods.
- R-39: Up in famous Door County, take a 2.5 mile detour to see rocky lakeshore areas and dense forests. Both the Ridges Sanctuary and Old Lighthouse Point (also called Toft Point) are part of the wildlife and natural areas designated by the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark.
- R-25: A short 2.6 miles, but you can see the 1858 cobblestone home of Franklyn Hazelo, listed on the National Register of History Places.
- R-5: Small (3.1 miles) but jam-packed! Dedicated to Colonel Hans Christian Heg, Wisconsin’s highest ranking officer during the Civil War, who was killed in action while leading a brigade at the Battle of Chickamauga. There is also a museum in the park honoring the heritage of the area’s Norwegian settlers and their contribution to Wisconsin’s development. AND a small log cabin, built in 1837, then moved to the park in 1928.
Ready to go? Here’s what to know!
Wisconsin Rustic Roads are open all year. Each road is maintained by its local government and all are accessible…but if you know Midwest winters, use your common sense. Don’t blame me if you decide to tackle the Rustic Roads after a blizzard, and we never hear from you again.
Fall is the most popular time to visit, of course. I have a special fondness for winter, when the leaves are off and I can see more, including animals. For those of us who are away from open land, it’s exciting to see the natural progression of seasons.
If you’re a motorcyclist, there’s a special Rustic Roads Motorcycle Tour Award Program. Travel at least 10 of these roads and you’ll be eligible for a Rustic Roads Motorcycle Tour patch. Travel on 25 Rustic Roads or more qualifies you for a special state certificate.
Sometimes the journey can also be the destination. These simple sights on country roads may seem small, but they’re significant. To find them on a Rustic Road makes them memorable, and somehow more meaningful. Now, about about a Sunday drive?