Rustic Roads Ride
by Gary Charpentier
Twin Cities riders have a long-running love affair with Wisconsin. Besides the well-known Alphabet Roads, it seems that there is another treasure across the border that many riders here don’t know of, and it is one that I have only recently discovered. They are called the “Rustic Roads”. The Wisconsin DOT started this program way back in 1973 to preserve what was left of Wisconsin’s historic and scenic country roads for the enjoyment of tourists and locals, whether hiking, biking, or motoring on two or four wheels. The roads are designated with an “R-” prefix, followed by a number which relates to the order in which they were adopted. Many of them are paved in part, but most are either dirt or gravel as they were back when they were originally laid down.
The first Rustic Road I ever experienced was R-51, which lies south of Maiden Rock in Pierce County. This was the road featured in BRD #1, where Jud Jones’ girlfriend, Shelly, and her daughter, Ashley, showed me how to blast through water crossings without a care in the world. Since that day, I have ridden R-51 many times and on the last trip I hit the first crossing so hard that the water nearly blew my feet off the pegs! That was also the trip where I learned the difference between the terms “waterproof” and “water-resistant” as applied to footwear.
Now, after that excursion I decided to find out more about these Rustic Roads, and to do so, I consulted my old friend Google. To my delight, they had a map of all of them right there on the Wisconsin DOT webite.
There are 98 Rustic Roads, located all over WI. I decided to sample the ones closest to the Twin Cities for this article and I picked nine located in Polk, St. Croix, and Pierce counties. I’d depart from home on a Saturday morning and not return with Frog Wing until Saturday evening.
The little maps which accompany the descriptions on the WDOT website are pretty sketchy and I had to refer to my faithful DeLorme’s Gazetteer and Mapquest in order to string them all together. I will make my exact route available to anyone who writes or emails the magazine with a request.
Saturday morning I departed home at 7am on my first foray into these wonderful scenic byways. I crossed the river on I-94 into Hudson and proceeded north onto R-13. Rustic Road 13 is a paved road called Trout Brook Rd., accessible off of St. Croix County Road A. It twists and turns through hilly terrain across the Willow River, but you have to keep your speed down because it is very popular with the bicycle crowd and the lycra-clad trotters. There was no room on the shoulders to safely park the bike for photo-ops. All of the dirt roads branching off it were posted as private drives by modern-day Land Barons who immigrated there from the `Cities. Too bad, really, because some of those looked awfully fun.
After that, I headed north on WI-35 to the town of Luck, where I found R-93. This is otherwise known as Chippewa Trail and is a beautiful stretch of gravel road skirting Butternut Lake. Gorgeous old-growth forest forms a cathedral over the road as you negotiate hills and turns for almost three miles to County Road GG. I was completely alone on this road and stopped at a couple of points to take photos of scenery before continuing on to R-28.
Rustic Road 28 is a fairly straight paved-and-gravel road also known as Mains Crossing. It is just north of Amery, and south of Highway 8. It crosses the Apple River at one point and there are several old buildings which I passed too quickly to identify. I really should have gone slower, but I was trying to make time because I was going to meet Mark Foster for lunch so he could accompany me on his trusty Iron-Butt Trans Alp for the rest of the ride. We finally met up on Hwy 8 in the little town of Range, in front of a restaurant called El Coco.
Now, I’ve got to take a moment to describe this exquisite little Cuban and Mexican Restaurant in the middle of nowhere… Idelio Benitez started this place up a couple years ago and he tells me business is pretty good. No wonder, because the extensive menu consists of home-made delicacies from both Mexico and the Forbidden Island of Fidel Castro. I had the beef fajitas, and they were among the best I’ve ever tasted. The beans and rice which accompanied the meal were better than any I’ve tasted in the `Cities, obviously intended as an integral part of the meal, rather than a disposable afterthought. Mark had the two taco plate, and he was similarly impressed. Before the entree arrived, we shared unique flour-tortilla chips along with two grades of home-made salsa. The first was a standard medium with large chunks of tomato, onion, peppers and cilantro. I requested a hot salsa which arrived shortly. This was a well-blended concoction of peppers, onions, garlic and a bit of tomato, and was absolutely delicious. All this was served by a delightful lady named Terry Fischer, who introduced us to Idelio and informed us that anyone who arrived on a motorcycle through the end of October would receive a 15% discount. Listen, this is worth the trip all by itself. Go!
So, after lunch, we went in search of R-67, to the east of Turtle Lake. It was beautiful, as are all these roads, but having Mark on my tail changed the whole dynamic of the trip. I wasn’t thinking of photo-ops anymore. The camera in my top-box was forgotten. Instead, I was concerned with speed and cornering technique just like back when we used to roadrace. Try as I might, I just can’t shake that old cafe racer instinct. We noticed a few neat old buildings in passing, but soon we were on our way south towards R-3 and R-4, where the informal super-motard took place. We tail-chased down the paved R-3, turned onto County Road E and then W, and then roosted all the way up the gravel R-4. What a blast! We liked it so much, we did it again. Sliding sideways through some of the gravel corners, I thought for a moment about the rocks and roost I was slinging at Mark. It was a very short moment, because then I was thinking what would happen if I let him pass me! So we finished that second lap and then regrouped on Highway 12 to decide what to do next. I had to get home for my nephew’s birthday celebration and Mark had things to attend to as well. We missed R-92 and R-51 down in Pierce County, but I will definitely hit those before the season is over.
The whole point of this exercise was to find out if these Rustic Roads qualify as a destination unto themselves. The answer to that is an unqualified YES! You have technical challenges and incredible scenery, little towns with interesting restaurants, and the added bonus that the cops are gone watching the squids out on the Alphabets. If you ride a dual-sport or even a standard, (remember them?) and are not afraid of gravel roads, you have got to check these out.