New route will explore unique landscape in St. Croix River region

Auto Trail to explore intersection of natural and cultural history of Wisconsin’s Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape.




3 minute read

Northwest Sands (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

A collaboration of not-for-profit ecological and historical organizations have been awarded a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant to engage local communities and individuals in creating a tour of the barrens landscape of Northwest Wisconsin. A self guided “auto trail” is being developed as a way to explore both the ecological and historical richness of the region. 

Local engagement meetings are being held throughout the project area to gather insight on the features, places, memories, stories that express the uniqueness, diversity, history, and interest of the Northwest Sands to both residents and visitors. 

“The organizing feature of the auto trail route is utilizing modern roads that most  closely approximate the original St. Paul-to-Bayfield stagecoach route, established  by Henry Rice, St. Paul business person, as a means to promote the development of Bayfield,” explained Brian Finstad, Project Director. “The stage route utilized the ‘sand barrens’ as a travel route; being largely high, dry, and open land; and on the perfect trajectory between the Chequamegon Bay Region and the St. Croix. Prior to the stage line, a Native American footpath existed along this same trajectory since time immemorial.” 

The Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape is one of 16 regions in the state defined by its ecological attributes and management opportunities. The region stretches from the Bayfield Peninsula southwest to St. Croix Falls, WI, covering 1,956 square miles. It is considered ecologically significant as home to the rare Karner Blue Butterfly, Kirtland’s Warbler, and habitat specific Sharp-tailed grouse.

The sands that characterize the barrens result from the glacial and Precambrian geology. The regions rivers, lakes, wetlands and sands are within the ancestral home of the Ojibwe, where indigenous foods like wild rice, cranberries, maple sap and blueberries grow. 

Robert Hanson, Northwest Sands Wildlife Biologist, WDNR has encouraged and supported the project from its inception.

“A participant in this historic tour through the landscape will gain insight into how the land, plants, and animals interacted under a more natural time,” said Hanson, “including how fires would burn altering the landscape into a more open growth form of habitat.”  

The area has deep connections to the history of Wisconsin, including the native foot path from Madeline Island to the Mississippi River, development of the fur trading and logging economy of the Upper Great Lakes, a major transportation route be tween St. Paul and Bayfield from the seventeenth century, and the birthplace of several historic conservation initiatives that impact the region today.  

“The Northwest Sands Auto Tour project has already sparked connections and relationships across various communities, organizations, and disciplines. The project is firmly rooted in the history, culture, ecology, and geology of the region,” said Janet Seymour, Outreach Director, Wisconsin Historical Society. “Each community can share stories and perspectives that connect people and places along the route that crosses the Northwest Sands.” 

The Wisconsin Humanities Council awarded the grant to project collaborators in 2020 with an extension offered due to the impact of the Covid pandemic. The grant is being managed by Friends of the Bird Sanctuary, a non for profit conservation organization with a mission of barrens conservation and education.

Location of historic St. Croix Trail (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

Included in the collaboration are: Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Friends of Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area, Friends of Crex Meadows, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Historical Society, with guidance from UW-Eau Claire Department of Public History, members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and several local historical organizations throughout the region.  

“The joy of the humanities is that they help us see the world from a new perspective” offered Dena Wortzel, Executive Director, Wisconsin Humanities Council. “That’s exactly what this wonderful new auto tour will do, enriching understanding of the diversity of Wisconsin for residents and tourists alike. We’re so pleased to be able to lend support.” 

Those wanting to learn more about the project, including how to share stories, memories, and reflections of Northwest Sands history, ecology, and way of life can contact Brian Finstad (, Jane Anklam (, or Dave Evenson, ( Local Engagement Sessions are being held both live and virtually.


You may republish this article online or in print under our Creative Commons license. You may not edit or shorten the text, you must attribute the article to St. Croix 360 and you must include the author’s name in your republication.

If you have any questions, please email


Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlikeCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike
New route will explore unique landscape in St. Croix River region