Winter's Playground

Hayward, in the heart of Wisconsin’s north woods, hosts America’s greatest ski race—a showcase for its lumberjack past and luxurious present

We weren’t expecting champagne. Not so close to the giant muskellunge housing the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. Not in a town where the local celebrity is a lumberjack who recently rolled logs in a commercial, dressed as the Kool-Aid Man. Not in a part of Wisconsin once so infested with brothels and bars that train conductors called out its stop as “Hurley, Hayward, and hell!”

But there we were, my girlfriend and I, imbibing bubbly amid sleek antiques at the McCormick House bed and breakfast, a former lumberman’s mansion. There are a handful of B&Bs here, if you throw in the rustically elegant Spider Lake Lodge a half-hour away, and none rent rooms by the hour. We sipped, we ate cookies, we sang songs by the fire. And none were about lumberjacks.

Hayward’s famously rough edges began to be sanded down in the 1970s, when a local founded the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race, carving a 54-kilometer trail through the woods like a sporty Paul Bunyan. It’s now one of the world’s premier ski marathons, held every February and attracting about 10,000 skiers and their cowbell-shaking supporters. The rest of the year, the trail is open to anyone. My girlfriend and I drove to a trailhead where a fire crackled in the warming house and locals zipped around in Spandex. The Birkie isn’t hard per se, just long—longer if you stop to admire the scenery at every turn. And why not? These are the north woods of legend—of big men and bigger trees—a Tyrolean fantasy of frosted pines and chalet-like taverns.

Lake homes are replacing cabins, retirees are displacing hell-raisers. But traditions linger. One night, we devoured upscale comfort food at Fiddlehead, plucking a bottle of syrah from a wine cellar that would have preoccupied a logging team for weeks. Then we hit the Moccasin Bar, where beer is served in canning jars and the eggs are as pickled as some patrons. The walls are lined with dice-throwing chipmunks and card-playing raccoons—created decades ago by an enterprising taxidermist named Red. We drank Leinenkugel’s and thought how heavenly it was—here in hell.



McCormick House, $149–$199 per night, includes breakfast and wine, 715-934-3339,; Hollyberry Inn Bed & Breakfast, $119–$149 per night, the suite includes a Jacuzzi and gas fireplace, 715-934-4004,; Pavilion Guest House, $125-$145, offers swank suites, 715-634-6035,


Fiddlehead, classy comfort food, 715-634-6035,; Angry Minnow, brewpub with a tasty Friday fish fry, 715-934-3055,; Turk’s Inn, 1934 supper club with character to spare, 715-634-2597


Ski. Ski some more. Trailheads for the American Birkebeiner (held February 26, if you want to watch) are right in Hayward and short drives away. Maps available at, rental skis at New Moon Ski & Bike ( Shopping on Hayward’s Main Street ranges from art and antiques to scented-candle fare. Find live music on the weekends at the Pavilion ( and Park Theater (

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