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Outdoor rec a top tourism draw in North Central Wisconsin

Area’s trails, waterways and forests offer plenty to do

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February 5, 2024

NORTH CENTRAL WISCONSIN – The North Central Wisconsin region is a long way from Norway, but the two places have something in common –“friluftsliv,” which in Norwegian means embracing nature and the outdoors without disturbing it.

With the Wisconsin River flowing through it and home to countless other lakes and rivers, as well as hundreds of miles of forests and undisturbed natural places, outdoor recreation is an integral part of North Central Wisconsin – whether it’s attracting visitors or people deciding to make the area their home.

Tim White – executive director of the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention & Visitors Bureau, which represents the communities of Wausau, Rib Mountain, Schofield and Weston – said “here, it’s all about getting outside.”

“There’s a saying, ‘there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing choices,’” he said. “It’s all about engaging with the terrain, whether you’re skiing in the winter or mountain biking in the summer.”

Home to Rib Mountain and its Granite Peak skiing area, White said the Wausau area is a four-season playground from hiking and biking in the summer to downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter.

Sara Brish, executive director of the Stevens Point Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said further down the Wisconsin River, outdoor trails, including the 27-mile Green Circle Trail, are major draws.

“For biking or hiking, the Green Circle Trail is our strongest asset,” she said. “It’s a fairly flat trail perfect for all ages and abilities,” she said.

Brush said there are places along the way, such as the Stevens Point Sculpture Park, that also draw visitors.

“Due to the trail’s popularity, there are several businesses near the trail where people can enjoy ice cream or grab something to eat or drink,” she said.

A few statistics

Outdoor recreation means more than getting fresh air.

In 2022, Wisconsin’s outdoor recreation industry contributed a record-breaking $9.8 billion to the state’s gross domestic product.

The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account reported it was 6.8% higher than the previous record, which was set in 2021.

White said a recent survey found 56% of Wausau visitors participate in outdoor rec activities while 65% of local residents are active outside.

Outdoor recreation, he said, plays a role in business development, too.

“We’re talking about Wausau being your ‘basecamp’ to exploration,” he said. “There is a lot to do here, but we are also close to other activities. There are plans to develop our mountain biking more, creating a trail between Rib Mountain and Nine Mile County Forest.”

A multitude of opportunities

The Wisconsin River cuts a path through much of North Central Wisconsin with hundreds of rivers and lakes feeding into it, which White said creates numerous opportunities for recreation, including fishing, kayaking and boating.

In Wausau, he said, one of those activities includes whitewater kayaking with a course going through the city’s downtown.

The course is a side channel of the Wisconsin River below the dam in downtown Wausau.

White said one weekend a month, a recreational release is done from the dam to create the rapids.

Brish said the Stevens Point Area Convention & Visitors Bureau surveyed what the area’s most popular draws were – the Green Circle Trail came in first, followed by activities around the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) and the award-winning SentryWorld Golf Course, which hosted the 2023 U.S. Senior Open Golf Championship. 

“The course is a definite draw and brings people from all over to Stevens Point,” she said.   

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a National Scenic Trail stretching 1,200 miles in the State of Wisconsin, including several North Central counties including Waushara, Waupaca, Marathon, Langlade, Lincoln, Taylor and Portage.

Brish said a newly redone section recently opened in the eastern part of Portage County. 

“Since it’s been updated, that five-mile segment is popular with visitors,” she said.

Putting down roots

With plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities, White and Brish agree – North Central Wisconsin is more than a place to visit – it is also a place to call home.

With technology allowing some professionals to work anywhere, White said some are rethinking their options.

“I have several stories of people relocating here because of the lifestyle and the affordability,” he said.

For example, he said, a couple moved from the Washington, D.C. area to Wausau because of the husband’s love of curling.

“They were looking for someplace to live and discovered we had eight sheets of curling ice at our curling club, so they moved here,” White, who moved to Wausau a few years ago after living and working in the Chicago area for 20 years, said.

Another couple from Oregon moved to the area, White said, because of its affordability and its wide range of outdoor activities.

He said the woman’s parents and a sister-in-law followed them to Wausau after visiting and falling in love with the place as well.

Brish said proximity to outdoor recreation activities is a definite attraction for would-be residents. She credited faculty and students from UWSP’s College of Natural Resources for creating recreational opportunities and preserving natural landscapes.

“There is a strong connection between the university and city, and those involved with the program have made sure our area is preserved so our natural areas can prosper for the next generation,” she said.

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