Rhinelander: a Secret Gem in Wisconsin’s Northwoods

Imagine Mother Nature’s playground, and that is what you’ll find in Rhinelander, WI. Filled with forests, lakes, and fresh air, the Northwoods area offers fun for all ages.

Sunset over a lake
Photo credit: Ken and Kerri Schmidt (thank you!)

The Northwoods of Wisconsin attracts vacationers who camp, rent cabins, or own a cottage as their second home. Minocqua is a popular tourist town to our north. Rhinelander is not a tourist trap, although it certainly does have a lot to offer.

Since I live where others vacation, I thought I’d tell you about Rhinelander.  For the most part, the Northwoods brings me joy. The spring months when winter seems to just not want to end are the times when I like to go on vacation somewhere else!

Although I enjoy the slow-paced life at home, I enjoy vacationing in larger cities – something different from home. I recently wrote about our vacation in France. Paris is the polar opposite of Rhinelander.

If you live in a bigger city and are looking for a quiet, small town where you can be surrounded by nature and wildlife, you should read on because Rhinelander is just that. Maybe this northern Wisconsin destination is a place you’d like to enjoy your next vacation.

Rhinelander is the perfect balance between relaxation and fun. You can find a quiet place in nature to sit or walk, and have some time to reconnect with your inner self. Then you can hit the lake or snow (depending on the season) and have a blast! Of course there’s good eats and drinks to complete your day.

I’ll give you my tips for places to shop and dine, and what you can do as you “play” during the various seasons. The opinions are my own and based on my personal experience.

Home of the Hodag

Before I jump into the things to do and places to go, I need to explain the Hodag because you’ll see it a lot. Many business names include “Hodag” and the mascot for the public school system is the Hodag.

Widely known is the Hodag Countryfest held every July since 1978. An estimated 30,000-50,000 people attend the 4-day country music festival each year, and some camping in the festival grounds for 9 days.

So what is this Hodag thing? In short, it’s a legendary and mysterious beast whose origins go back well over a century. As the story goes, the Hodag was first seen by lumberjacks, and today it still gets blamed for missing  items such as keys, hats, and sunglasses.

Hodag in Rhinelander

Although you’ll see artistically decorated Hodags throughout the city, many Rhinelander people stop by the giant Hodag located by Chamber of Commerce building for the unique photo op.

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Where in the World is Rhinelander, WI?

Rhinelander is in the more northern part of north central Wisconsin in the United States. It’s close enough for anyone to easily make the drive from:

  • Illinois (5 1/2 hours from Chicago)
  • Minnesota (4 hours from Minneapolis)
  • Iowa (7 hours from Des Moines)
  • Ohio (10 hour drive from Columbus)
  • Anywhere in Wisconsin (2 1/2 hours from Green Bay, 3 1/2 from Milwaukee, and a good 3 hours from the Madison area).

Things you won’t find in Rhinelander, WI

Before I tell you what you’ll find in Rhinelander, it’s what you won’t find that attracts people to this area known as the Northwoods.

  • Traffic – rarely are there more than two cars at a stop sign.
  • A skyscraper skyline – no buildings are higher than two stories other than the court house.
  • Paid Parking – there’s plenty of parking and it’s all free.
  • Shopping malls – there are charming specialty stores in addition to a couple box stores.
  • Large crowds – except at a few special events.
  • Crime – it’s not crime-free but there’s a very low crime rate.

The point is, there is no big city hustle and bustle in Rhinelander. Rather, it’s a slower-paced small town where you can easily strike that wonderful balance of fun and relaxation.

If a slower pace of life brings you joy, Rhinelander might be for you.

Kayaker, snowbilers, and a deer

Four Seasons of Play in Rhinelander

Whatever time of the year you visit Rhinelander,  check out the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce calendar of events.

1 – Summer in Rhinelander

Feet up relaxing by the lake

In a word…water. If you have a boat, kayak, or swimming fins, bring them with you.

Don’t have your own equipment? No problem. Rentals are available for all “toys” from pontoon boats to kayaks.

Summer is my favorite season. I always say that summer is the reason I live in the Northwoods! The lakes provide beauty like no other. Be sure to bring the fixings for smores because most likely wherever you  stay will have a fire pit – it’s part of being up north!

Popular Summer Activities


All the area lakes have good fishing. Species range from small fish like blue gills, crappies, and other pan fish, to larger species such as bass, walleye, northern, and musky.

Most cabin rentals provide a row boat. There are some public areas for fishing, too. See below for boat rental options.

Man holding bass fish

Swimming/Boating/Water Sports:

If your resort doesn’t have a private swimming area, there are two public swimming areas where you can  have fun or relax. Both have picnic areas with tables and grills.

  • Hodag Park on Boom Lake: a large park along with a sandy beach area. This is the location of Hodag water ski shows on Sunday and Wednesday evenings at 7pm (late June thru mid-August). There’s also a large boat landing.  Directions.
  • Buck Lake is a small, beautiful, crystal clear lake with a sandy beach. No motor boats are allowed. Directions.

Summer water sport on the lake

For boating, I am partial to the Boom Lake/Wisconsin River for boating because there’s enough water area to boat all day, as well as family-friendly bar & grills to stop for a drinks and eats.

However, there are many other beautiful lakes to relax on a pontoon or to go water skiing or tubing. Of course if your rental or resort is on a lake, that will likely be the best choice for you.

If you don’t have a boat to bring along, there are a few options.

  • Some rental resorts offer an option to rent a boat from the resort.
  • Shoeder’s RV & Marine rents pontoon, fishing, and speed boats. They deliver and make it very convenient.
  • Mel’s Trading Post rents stand-up paddle boards and kayaks.

Lady in kayak


Connect with Nature and get a little exercise all at the same time. Although there are plenty of country roads to bike or walk around, you may also enjoy these trails:

  • Bearskin State Trail – This trail is 26.5 miles and you’ll likely see plenty of wildlife. The trail has a solid crushed gravel base for ease of walking and biking.  More info and directions.
  • Buck Lake: There are two trails that go through the woods. One trail is .8 mile and the other 1.25 miles.  There is also a disc golf course, and as mentioned above, a beautiful swimming beach. Directions.

Can’t bring your bike? No problem. Rent a bike at Mel’s Trading Post.


There are two 18-hole public golf courses in the Rhinelander area, both with beautiful scenic views:

Guy golfing in wooded area of golf course


Lots of people have ATVs and there are plenty of trails and ATV-approved roads. Check out the Hodag 4-Wheelers ATV-UTV Club website for maps and other info.

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2 – Fall in Rhinelander

Red leafWith all the trees, the fall foliage is the main attraction. Taking walks and enjoying the fresh air and nature galore is always relaxing.

Many of the summer activities are even better in fall, such as hiking, biking, fishing, and ATVing. Plus, there are some very unique community events that take place during the fall (see the Chamber’s calendar of events above.)

Walking with crunching of leaves beneath your feet while inhaling the distinct autumn smell and seeing the beautiful colors of nature is sure to touch your soul. Do you know about Nature’s Amazing Health Benefits?

3 – Winter in Rhinelander


I enjoy winter…. for the first month. We tend to get a lot of snow, and it doesn’t melt until spring because the temperatures generally stay below freezing. I do admit that the snow is beautiful, and it is refreshing to bundle up and get outside when the weather isn’t too cold.

Popular Winter Activities


Snowmobiling is a big sport up here and there’s usually plenty of snow. The Hodag Sno-Trails Club has trail maps and other info.

Snow Shoeing and Cross-Country Skiing:

We like to just tootle around the area we live in, but there are also some great public trails. ExploringRhinelander.com has a listing of winter trails along with directions.

Ice Fishing:

Bring your ice shanty or just a bucket to sit on! According to Wikipedia, “There are 428 named lakes in Oneida County, Wisconsin, along with 701 with no names.” So finding a place to fish will be easy.

Even though winter isn’t my favorite season, I still like to focus on attracting joy. Here’s my tips with Little Ways to Make Winter More Fun.

4 – Spring in Rhinelander

I hate to be a spoil-sport, but I don’t find spring to be the most pleasant time of year. We often have a blizzard in March or April, a time of year when we just want some warmth from the sun! Snowmobiling trails are closed and the ice is not yet fully melted on the lakes.

However, there are a few surprise nice days some years, and then it’s glorious to get out for a walk.

I might refer you to the shopping tips below for a spring time activity!

Dining in Rhinelander, WI

There are very few chain restaurants, and our selection of privately owned eateries are growing!

I have too many favorites to mention them all, so browse the Chamber’s list of area restaurants. Here are a few of my recommendations:

  • CTs Deli – healthy and delicious Chicago-style deli with the best Bloody Mary in town and tap craft beers. Sit inside, in their new atrium, or enjoy nice weather in outdoor seating.
  • Rhinelander Pub & Cafe – a long ago established supper club that serves consistent good breakfast, lunch, and dinners. In their Taproom they serve 24 craft beers. If you’re a martini kind of person, the Pub is the place to get one.

Bar & Grills:

  • Pine Harbor – a small bar and grill with a beautiful view on the Wisconsin River. Try their Friday  fish fry. Chat with the friendly locals and take your drink outside to the sandy beach area.
  • Pat’s Tavern  & Grill – sit outside in their downtown beer garden on a nice day and enjoy their awesome burgers or their popular tacos on Wednesdays.
  • Bucketheads Sports Bar & Grill – watch your favorite game and enjoy a great salad, hamburger, quesadilla, or one of the many other items on their menu.

Specialty Shopping in Rhinelander, WI

When you need to take a break from the winter snow or summer water sports, you can browse around some charming shops, and why not enjoy lunch and a beverage at a local establishment.

Downtown Rhinelander, WI

Downtown Rhinelander:

Brown Street (often referred to as main street) in downtown Rhinelander has lots of fun shops. Some of my personal favorites are:

  • Denim and Leather Exchange – a great consignment shop. It has something for everyone, including an excellent selection of Harley Davidson clothing.
  • Bath and Body Creations Inspired by Jan – my go-to shop for chemical-free lotions, hair products, soaps, essential oils, and much, much more.
  • Trisha’s Treasures – from jewelry to unique clothing to home decor… no woman will leave empty handed!
  • Latitudes – a good selection of unique clothing that you won’t find at department stores.
  • Rhinelander Brewery – Rhinelander Brewing company not only sells beer, they also have a gift shop with branded apparel and beer paraphernalia. Have a beer while you shop!

Other Interesting Shops Throughout Town:

  • Briar House – not only can you get unique jewelry, home decor, and  clothing, you can also get a delicious latte or the like. Lots of fun stuff located at 634 S Keenan St.
  • Nativity of Our Lord Thrift Store – they have two locations for fun browsing: 436 N Brown St. and their location at 4293 River Rd. is very large and has everything you can imagine.
  • The Hodag Store – from bobbleheads to clothing and everything in between! Located at 538 Lincoln St.
  • Turn of the Century – the gift shop at Holiday Acres Resort on Lake Thompson. Find unique women’s clothing and accessories. Open mid May to mid October. Located at 4060 S Shore Dr.
  • Hodag Farmers’ Market – An open-air market held Saturday mornings (Memorial weekend to the 3rd weekend of October) at Pioneer Park.
  • Golden Harvest – a fantastic natural and organic food store. Also serves sandwiches and has a salad bar. Their bakery items are delicious. Located at 3215 County Rd G.

Where to Stay in the Rhinelander Area

Rhinelander-Resorts.com has a thorough listing of all the area resorts and hotels. You should also search on vrbo.com and airbnb.com for individual home rentals.

I Call It Home

Full confession, there was a time when I was quite upset about moving up to the northwoods – home of the Hodag. I felt like shopping meant I had to drive a good hour to Wausau, the only restaurant choice was a dumpy bar, and I missed my hometown friends immensely.

You can read more about our move to Rhinelander. Just know that over the 16 years of our life in the northwoods, I now have a true appreciation for the area. Sure, there are still things I miss about living in the city, but I’ve learned to appreciate the generally slower and more relaxed way of life.

The wildlife and nature in my backyard brings me incredible joy. Watching a newborn fawn go from being  unable to walk into a doe is incredible. The deer are our neighborhood pets! And walking out my door and into the woods is simply incredibly serene. A walk in nature is healing and lifts my mood.

Here’s a video I made of the nature and wildlife right here in Rhinelander – come up and see it for yourself!

If you do decide to visit Rhinelander, I hope you leave in a more relaxed, happier state of mind.

So tell me, is Rhinelander, WI  your cup of tea? Drop me a comment and let me know if the Northwoods sounds enticing to you, or if you prefer a different type of vacation. Or, if you live in Rhinelander or have spent some time here in the past, what do you think of the area? I’d love to hear from you.

Beautiful sunset over a lake with ducks swimming

6 Replies to “Rhinelander: a Secret Gem in Wisconsin’s Northwoods”

  1. Hi Ellen, great article! I always enjoy my trips to Rhinelander but they’ve been few and far between. It seems the town has grown a lot since I was last there several years ago. I want to check out all the cute shops! Time for me to head up north soon.

    1. You’re right, there have been several small businesses that opened in the last several years. Come on up to the Northwoods again soon!

  2. Thank you Ellen for promoting Rhinelander! It ‘is’ truly a gem and have enjoyed living here since 1989.

    1. Hi Kathy, it’s my pleasure. We are lucky to live in an area that has no shortage of natural beauty. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Hi Ellen,thanks for writing about Rhinelander.I have many wonderful memories of living in the northwoods.marlene

    1. You were a player in making the northwoods “home” for me. Clique friend forever!💙

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