By Jim Force, special to Wausau Pilot & Review

Driving along a highway, you see the brown and yellow sign: Rustic Road, number 116.

You turn onto it and over the next couple of miles, you motor over hills, around bends, observing autumn colors, snowy landscapes, wooded stands of birch and maple, rock outcroppings, small farms. It’s a delicious little side trip.

There are 122 Rustic Roads in Wisconsin, in 61 counties, covering almost 740 miles. But there are none in Marathon County. Why not? Could there be? Where would they be located?

I spoke about this with our county highway commissioner, Jim Griesbach.

“I’ve been contacted by private parties and municipalities over the years, but nothing has come of it,” he said, of local rustic roads initiatives.

“The road by the Eau Claire Dells would be ideal, but a rustic road needs to be at least two miles long and we don’t have a two-mile-long stretch there,” Griesbach said.

Qualifying roads are also limited to a 45 mile per hour speed limit. Griesbach suggests that could be an obstacle since potential roads might be routes to work for residents who wouldn’t like the restriction.

Road rules.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which administers the program, a rustic road can be any continuous route comprised of multiple roadways. It can be paved or gravel or blacktop. In addition to being at least two miles long, it must connect to major roads at both ends. No dead-ends. The road should feature interesting landscapes, geological formations, rural scenes, or historic features that set it apart from other roads.

It can’t be scheduled for major improvements. Any existing development shall be compatible with the surroundings and not detract from the unspoiled character and visual impact of the road area. Rules and standards are at:

To be sure, many of the roads and highways in Marathon County are straight and flat, the result of Congressional action way back in 1785 stipulating that new lands in the Midwest would be surveyed in a grid pattern of six-mile squares, each square to be further subdivided into 36 sections. The geometric effect is heightened by highways 29 and 39-51 which slice through the county, neatly dividing it into four quarters.

On the other hand, the numerous road trips we’ve taken around the area during the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed some very pretty routes—many that are two miles long or more.

A rural scene in Marathon County. Photo: Jim Force

Take a look.

The Ice Age trail winds through the eastern half of Marathon County, following the glacial ridges that stretch from north to south. If you take the time, you’ll find lots of less-traveled roads that bounce over small glacial hills, through fields strewn with rocks and boulders, past wooded lots, corn fields, ginseng farms, small lakes, and streams. On one trip, we marveled at the perfectly shaped alfalfa roll-ups dotting the golden fields at dusk. On another we stared down a couple of whitetails before they bolted for cover.

Or head west from Wausau, up on the high ground toward Marathon and Athens. The roads yield spectacular views of classic farmsteads, barns and silos silhouetted against a big blue sky, peaceful herds of grazing Holsteins or Jerseys, Rib Mountain pushing its broad shoulder up on the horizon.

In winter, these farm scenes are red and grey and black against the white snow—postcards.

North of County U, the Town of Maine offers delightful views from its folded terrain. Look to the east and gaze at the forested ridges in the distance along the Wisconsin River.

Follow roads along the Eau Claire, Rib and Plover Rivers. Stop, roll down the window and listen to them gurgle.

Wisconsin’s rustic roads offer a glimpse into the state’s natural magic. Photo: Jim Force

The process.

The Wisconsin Rustic Road program is 45 years old and is entirely locally driven.

No state or governmental agency designates these delightful drives. The Wisconsin DOT’s rustic roads coordinator Liat Bonneville explains that potential roads are proposed by the county, city, village or township having jurisdiction over them.

“The community resolution  is passed at an open session of the governmental bodies in which the proposed rustic road is located, and property owners can weigh-in,” Bonneville said.

If the resolution passes, the application goes to the rustic roads board who reviews the proposed route and make the final decision.

Bonneville says there are no active petitions at the present time.

“They tend to come along in waves,” she said.

She notes a designated rustic road doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in traffic, but that rustic roads can add to an area’s attractiveness to visitors.

One of Wisconsin’s many rustic roads. Photo: Jim Force

Other roads.

These picturesque byways are all around us.

In Lincoln County, rustic road 78 follows Tesch Road in the New Wood area northwest of Merrill.

In Shawano County, County M from Wittenberg to Tigerton is Rustic Road 47. In Portage County, you drop south off U.S. Hwy. 10 at Otto Road and you’re on rustic road 17. 

Clark County is home to Roads 73 and 78

Will we ever have a rustic road in Marathon County? Maybe you know of one that should be nominated.

It’s really up to us.