I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hurried through Wisconsin on my way to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to visit my sister. My intent was always to get there as quickly as possible, at best an eight-hour drive with only short stops for fuel and food. For years, as I headed north from Illinois and sped by the small towns and farms, I promised myself that next time I would add a day and get off the highway.
When I finally did take that detour, I discovered Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads.
The Rustic Roads belong to a program that honors the American tradition of a leisurely car trip—the purpose of which is simply to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Reminiscent of a Sunday drive—when families piled in the car, rolled down the windows, and took off to see the sights—Wisconsin has made a deliberate effort to sustain its less-traveled routes. “It’s a unique state and local partnership with a preservation focus that continues to grow,” says Liat Bonneville, Rustic Roads coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT).
The Wisconsin State Legislature established the Rustic Road system in 1973. 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.
The roads are all marked with brown and yellow signs, each identified with the letter “R” and a number. With 122 Rustic Roads scattered across 61 counties, covering more than 740 miles, they’re easy to find and explore. The signs indicate that there’s something special to see, and each drive has a story to share.
A leisurely drive
Not just any byway can be designated as a Rustic Road, Bonneville explains. A local government, community, or individual can apply if proper qualifications are met: The road must have exceptional natural features, such as native vegetation and wildlife, a rugged terrain, scenic open vistas, or agricultural views. The road must have public access and not be scheduled for any major improvements that would change its present qualities. It can be dirt, gravel, or paved, and one or two lanes, but it must be at least two miles long.
The maximum speed limit is 45 mph—but during my drives, it never exceeded 35 mph. You can’t get lost or stranded on a Rustic Road; it must be a loop or connected to a major highway at both ends. Hikers and cyclists are welcome, too. Motorcyclists who travel more than 10 roads can even earn special awards from the Wisconsin DOT.
I didn’t know any of this when I saw the first Rustic Road sign on my way to Racine in southeast Wisconsin. I had a ticket for a tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright building there, and was worried I’d be late. I briefly wondered what a Rustic Road was, but hurried on. Then I saw another sign, and another, and decided to return. There had to be something to this.
No sooner had I started down R-12, in Walworth County, than I had to stop to let a Sandhill Crane cross the road. On other roads, I saw flocks of wild turkeys, small herds of deer, and several red foxes. Wolf packs and elk sightings are not uncommon on Rustic Roads in northern Wisconsin. As I kept driving, I realized just how long it had been since I‘d truly taken in my surroundings. Red barns on stone foundations looked idyllic. Wildflowers lined the roads. Acres of corn followed the gentle slopes of the land.
Rustic Roads can get curvy, but with very little traffic, there’s less stress. It’s fun to take a turn, never knowing what will be around the bend. From woods and marshes to tree tunnels and steep downward drives, the Rustic Road system has something for everyone—pull over, get out, and take it all in.
I stopped at a small cemetery in Lyons filled with old, beautifully-carved headstones. They were dark and weathered, but clearly extravagant memorials from another era. Before highways bypassed this town, the cemetery would have been on a main road. I wondered how many people stop to visit the graves today.
There’s history on the Rustic Roads, too. Each road has its own web page at the Wisconsin DOT website, with a map and descriptions of what to see on the road.
Some of the roads follow their original lines, including Flambeau Trail (R-100), a route that served Native Americans at the northern Wisconsin border. Some have structures that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, like the 1858 cobblestone Franklyn Hazelo House on R-25 in Racine County. There’s a park on R-5 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.
Bonneville is fortunate; she’s able to visit Rustic Roads as part of her job. She also includes them on her personal trips. “We’re not supposed to have favorites,” she says. “But I recently toured R-51 in Maiden Rock and it was like exploring an enchanted forest.”
Rustic Roads are open all year and according to Kristina LeVan, senior communications specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, there is no bad time to visit. “Fall is the most popular season,” she says. “But I think winter is special, because you can see more wildlife when the leaves are off the trees.”
“I recently toured R-51 in Maiden Rock and it was like exploring an enchanted forest.”
Local governments are responsible for maintaining their roads during winter, “with consideration for safety and drivability,” Bonneville says. She adds that usually all but one of the roads are accessible in winter.
The roads are popular with antique car and motorcycle clubs, as well as those organizing rides for charity. Musician Lou Shields—originally from Madison, Wisconsin—was so inspired by a Rustic Road that he wrote a song about it.
The sights and stories I encounter along the road may seem small, but they’re significant and memorable to those who enjoy a good drive. Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads prove that sometimes, the journey really is the destination.
If you go
To learn more about Rustic Roads, visit the Wisconsin DOT website to find an interactive or PDF map, including a checklist to help you keep track of how many roads you travel. Each road is listed on its own page, with a description of the type of road, how many miles it is, and what to look for during your drive.