Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads program is the finest in the country

Hazy light peeks through fall colors along Wisconsin Rustic Rod R77 in Sturgeon Bay
Photo by Cassandra Raymond / Courtesy Wisconsin Dept. Transportation

Off County Highway C in Taylor County, south of Timm’s Hill – the highest point in Wisconsin – is a little brown and yellow sign indicating a special road, one of 123 in the state. R1 the sign reads, the state’s very first rustic road.

Rustic Road 1 stretches for five miles between Hwy. 102 and County D north of Rib Lake, through beautiful, forested land and two pretty lakes.

Designated in 1975, the gravel road exemplifies the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation program whose goal is to preserve lightly traveled roads that have outstanding natural or historical features for the enjoyment of not only motorists but also cyclists and hikers.

The rural roads provide a chance to slow down and truly see the Wisconsin countryside which is not possible from fast-paced state and interstate highways. Ranging in length from 2 to 30 miles, most of the roads connect with major highways on both ends, making them short scenic detours throughout the state. According to Liat Bonneville, WisDot Rustic Road coordinator, other states have similar programs, but none on the scale of Wisconsin’s.

The program was the brainchild of former Racine County Highway Commissioner Earl Skagen who would pass quiet, scenic roads on his way to work. In 1970 he decided that they were worth saving, “for future generations to travel in a peaceful, unhurried setting”. He created the term “rustic road” and said they should have maintenance guidelines to preserve the natural and rustic characteristics.

The program was born as Assembly Bill 658 in December 1973 which defined the process for designating a road and established a state-level Rustic Roads board. It described a set of qualifications for the road, the most important being having outstanding natural features and agricultural vistas. A local municipality must pass a resolution and apply to the Board for designation of a road. The board sends two members to review the proposed road and reports to the Board before it votes on the road.

Excerpts from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article of 3 Oct 2021