Step into the Enchanting World of Rhinelander, Wisconsin’s Lakes and Legends

Explore Rhinelander as a family seeks the mythical Hodag, enjoying the town's history, community, and serene lake settings.

My youngest son, Michael, and I recently visited Rhinelander, Wisconsin, a sweet little North Woods town. 

Our visit wasn’t a leisurely one, although it could have been. Rhinelander is a peaceful lake town that many people have found respite in for centuries. 

Our trip was different. 

We were visiting Rhinelander in search of a terrifying mythical beast of the following description…

  • Abstract: Detailed analysis of the Hodag (Cryptida hodagiensis), a mythical creature from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, including morphology, habitat, and cultural significance.
  • Holotype: Folklore representation from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, first reported in 1893 by Eugene Shepard.
  • Diagnosis: Described as having a frog-like head, grinning elephant-like face, spiky scales, red eyes, and sharp horns; equipped with thick legs and massive claws.
  • Description: Size around 7 feet long and 30 inches tall, dark green to black with white tusks and claws, large frog-like head with sharp teeth, and tough spiked skin.
  • Habitat: Inhabits dense forests and swamps around Rhinelander, prefers secluded areas.
  • Behavior: Solitary, nocturnal, feeds on various animals, known for terrifying and outwitting humans.

Scary, right?

Getting to Rhinelander

Rhinelander, Wisconsin with Kids
Photo credit: Steffy McCourt

To begin with, Michael and I flew into Green Bay from Detroit. The flight over Lake Michigan was turbulent. Initially soaring smoothly through a powder blue sky, the light outside suddenly extinguished. Michael and I looked at each other as the plane began to shake and groan. 

“Is this normal,” he asked, looking up at me.

“Of course,” I whispered, palms sweating, “It’s just windy.”

Luckily, the flight from Detroit to Green Bay was very short, and before the flight attendants could even begin thinking about collecting our trash, we were descending. 

We rented a small but mighty car that was also good on gas—a Kia Soul. Perfect for saving money and also for hunting Hodags. 

The drive from Green Bay to Rhinelander takes a little over two hours. 

The weather had cleared, and the sun was illuminating the sprawling Wisconsin countryside as our little car took us north into the woods. 

Where to stay

Rhinelander, Wisconsin with Kids
Photo credit: Steffy McCourt

We stayed on Lake George at Merry Dale, a family-run resort, in a small two-bedroom cabin called Point View. 

Point View felt very much like I had always imagined the grandmother’s house in Little Red Riding Hood would have felt. It was tiny, not fussy, with absolutely everything that one might need to feel comfortable and just a bit more—like the woodburning fireplace and hand-sewn curtains. 

We had to drive through a fairly dense forest to get to the cabin, and so when night fell, we could hear not only the lake lapping at the shore but also all of the nocturnal forest critters waking up.

Merry Dale has five cabins, each with two to three bedrooms. All cabins have kitchens and bathrooms. 

There is a little sandy beach with plastic chaise chairs for lounging lakeside. Because the shore has a southern exposure, that little beach is sunny all day long. 

Merry Dale loves families. There are plenty of play spaces for kids that include toys or swingsets. 

Lake George is a hot spot for fisherpeople or anglers. Merry Dale will happily encourage the sport by loaning out canoes, kayaks, or motors. 

One evening, I was making dinner inside when Michael ran into the cabin, eyes wide, “Mom, I heard a coyote!”

Because we aren’t afraid of much, I took him back outside to where he had been fishing. 

“Let’s listen to make sure it wasn’t a Hodag, Mikey,” I whispered.

We sat on a rock and looked at the glassy lake reflecting the darkening trees and listened. Then we heard it.

The distinctive cry not of a coyote, but of a loon.

What to do

Rhinelander, Wisconsin with kids
Photo credit: Steffy McCourt

Our visit to Rhinelander strategically fell on the same date as the annual Hodag Heritage Festival. The festival takes place in mid-May in a large public park called Pioneer. 

In this small town, it’s hard to miss.

Just follow the people and the music.

As directed by a volunteer, we parked our car in a grassy spot alongside maybe 50 others and made our way to the pancake breakfast.

Holding our paper plates, which were loaded with hot pancakes, maple syrup, and sausage links, we scanned the tables, looking for a couple of open spots. 

I heard someone calling our names before I saw them. Our Merry Dale Resort friends were waving us over. 

In less than 24 hours, Mikey and I had already found friends in Rhinelander. I think that it is important for visitors to know about this. In Rhinelander, it is impossible to exist without making quick friends. 

We ate breakfast, talked about the cabin, and then, of course, we talked about the hodag. 

Had they ever seen one?

Not a real one. Not yet, at least.

Where did they think we could find one?

Here, at the festival, to be sure.

Rhinelander, Wisconsin with Kids
Photo credit: Steffy McCourt

As if on cue, an older gentleman with a mustache and straw boater hat took the stage. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he bellowed, “Please direct your attention to the wooden box at the foot of the stage.”

At the foot of the stage was a giant wooden box, maybe 5 feet long and 4 feet tall. Small holes in the rough wood expelled steam. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, inside of this box is a Hodag. We will open this box and reveal a live Hodag for the first time in history. You have five minutes to make your way to the stage.”

The children squealed and ran to the stage, including Mikey and his new friends from Merry Dale.

I followed them. 

Smiling, stifling laughter, I watched as the man in the boater hat weaved together a story that had his young audience on the edges of their seats. 

You should have seen their disappointment when he had to let them down. 

“It is just too dangerous to let the Hodag out right now,” he decreed.

At that moment, there was a certain four-year-old boy up front who I’m sure had become more fearsome than the actual Hodag. 

Determined to find a Hodag, Mikey and I made our way to the Pioneer Park Historical Complex (PPHC). PPHC is home to the oldest logging museum in the country and a climbable outdoor logging train exhibit, as well as a permanent Hodag Exhibit. 

At this exhibit, we learned about the history of the Hodag. 

In 1896, a local prankster named Eugene Shepard claimed to have caught a never-before-seen beast in the woods. He called it a Hodag.

News spread quickly.

Soon, the story of this North Woods beast was everywhere. 

It became bigger than the man who invented the story. 

Eventually when Washington DC sent someone to check out the situation, Shepard has to admit that the story was just a prank. 

There wasn’t a Hodag.

But, if you ask anybody in Rhinelander, the Hodag is very much alive. 

While Mikey and I didn’t lay eyes on an actual Hodag, we did walk away feeling like we understood the Hodag. 

The Hodag isn’t a beast, it’s the spirit of the people of Rhinelander. It’s in their playful nature. It’s in their awe and appreciation of the beautiful setting- the deep woods and the gorgeous lakes. It’s in their community that is solidified by a desire to share its goodness. You can taste it in a Friday Night Fish Fry. You can hear it in the yodeling of a dreamy loon. You can see it in the smile of one of the town’s people who is just a “How’s it going?” away from being your next best friend. 


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Steffy McCourt
Steffy McCourt
Steffy McCourt brings over 15 years of experience in education, parenting, and travel writing for esteemed publications like We Are Teachers and LA Family Travel. Recognized for her commitment to advancing literacy and writing skills, Steffy is honored to be a Fellow of the National Writing Project. She collaborates with educators nationwide to enhance teaching practices and empower student writers.

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