America’s Dairyland is known for producing great cheese and beer. But there’s more to the Midwestern state of Wisconsin than meets the eye. This beautiful destination borders two Great Lakes and offers numerous hidden gems just waiting to be explored.
From scenic Elkhart Lake to the striking Apostle Islands, here are some of the Badger State’s most stunning spots.
1. Lake Pepin Region
I’ll start with my very favorite Wisconsin destination, the beautiful Lake Pepin region. Lake Pepin is a natural reservoir situated in the Upper Mississippi River Valley; it forms the widest natural part of the river and part of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
I know the area well, since I grew up just an hour from the lake’s shores, and my family has a lake house there. It is without a doubt my favorite place on the planet, and it’s somewhat off the tourist trail even though it’s just over an hour from the Minneapolis/Saint Paul metropolitan area. Lake Pepin is a fascinating place: Waterskiing was invented there, cute historic river towns dot its pretty shores, and you can visit at any time of the year.
Roadtrippers will love the winding drive along State Highway 35, sometimes called the Great River Road. There’s even an associated wine trail, so vino enthusiasts can get to know the Upper Mississippi River Valley American Viticultural Area.
Foodies should make time for the area as well, since there are some world-class restaurants hidden in the verdant bluffs. One of these noteworthy eateries can be found in Bay City, which rests on Lake Pepin’s northern shoreline. This tiny town of 500 is home to the Chef Shack, where a James Beard-nominated female chef serves up tasty morsels that vary based on the season.
The town of Pepin is home to another must-stop restaurant: Harbor View Cafe. Please note that this spot is open seasonally and does not accept reservations, so prepare to enjoy a wait in the pretty chairs in front of the building. Harbor View is where I have my birthday dinner every year; try the halibut with black butter caper sauce or the delightful garlic roasted chicken.
Agritourism fans should check out Burger Night at Together Farms in Mondovi, just a little inland from the river. This beautiful farm serves up unreal 100 percent grass-fed beef patties and Wisconsin beer in its charming valley location. There’s usually live music, too, along with activities to keep both kids and adults entertained.
Other area activities are fishing, kayaking, boating, swimming, biking, hiking, Nordic skiing, and snowshoeing. No matter the season, there’s always something for active visitors to Wisconsin’s West Coast.
Viroqua is a southern Wisconsin hidden gem. Located just 45 minutes from the lively river town of La Crosse and less than 2 hours from state capital of Madison, this area is home to the most organic farms in the state. More than 200 organic farms call Vernon County home.
This area is a paradise for foodies, and there’s a great restaurant there called the Driftless Cafe. A James Beard-nominated chef calls this spot home. Try the funky Wisconsin Mac & Cheese Sandwich, homemade pasta offerings, or delicious pizza, and be sure to wash it all down with a Spotted Cow, the famed New Glarus cream-style ale that is only available in Wisconsin.
Due to the high concentration of farms, the Viroqua area is an agritourism hot spot. Visitors should consider checking out the town’s farmers market, farm tours, or Vernon Vineyards.
Vernon County is also home to 11 round barns, more than any other county in the nation. The structures provide a scenic backdrop for a drive through the beautiful green pastures of the area.
Viroqua truly blooms during the warmer months, so explore it then for the freshest produce.
3. Door County’s Quiet Side
Door County is a tourist magnet (it’s the seventh-most-visited county in Wisconsin) and one of the prettiest spots in the whole state. But visitors can still discover lesser-known gems even in this heavily trafficked part of the state.
You’ll just need to head to the lake side of the peninsula, or the east side, which locals call the quiet side. The bustling west side (on Green Bay) is home to larger towns with more hotels and restaurants; the east side is much sleepier.
Visitors can experience nature at Whitefish Dunes State Park, The Ridges Sanctuary, or Cave Point County Park; dine on a classic steak at Donny’s Glidden Lodge; and imbibe at The Blue Ox, a kitschy dive bar. Another east-side favorite is the Scandinavian-inspired wooden church at Bjorklunden, the summertime home of the Door Shakespeare performances.
The small town of Jacksonport would be a good base for anyone who wants to enjoy the beauty of the lake side of Door County. Please note that Baileys Harbor is the busiest town on this not-so-busy coast, so it may not be the best place for a quiet Door County getaway.
Door County can be enjoyed all year long, but it’s busiest between Memorial Day and Labor Day. For the quietest experience, visit during the long winter. Door County is about 5 hours by car from Minneapolis and 2 hours from Milwaukee.
4. The Apostle Islands
The picturesque Apostle Islands in Lake Superior certainly deserve some attention.
While the mainland area near the islands is open year-round, a truly unique experience that can only be had in the winter is the hike to the ice caves. These caves are only accessible during certain years, when the ice is thick enough to support visitors walking on it. Midwesterners have likely heard of these ice caves, but they remain largely unknown to those from elsewhere. If possible, visit the Apostle Islands during the winter so that you’ll have a chance to hike to the ice caves.
The shore of Lake Superior is gorgeous during the warmer months, too. During the summer, the high season for tourism to the Apostle Islands, the caves can be enjoyed via kayak or boat tour.
This region is less than 2 hours from Duluth, Minnesota, and less than 4 hours from the Twin Cities.
5. The House On The Rock
Situated just an hour west of Madison, The House on the Rock in Spring Green is a quirky home built on a chimney rock. The house and grounds can take hours to explore, since there are entire gardens and warehouses of items collected by the eccentric founder, Alex Jordan. He originally designed the home as a weekend retreat, but word soon spread about his odd private residence and all that was housed in it.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the structure is the Infinity Room, a long, narrow space suspended over the valley from which visitors can look down at the valley floor 156 feet below.
As far as the aforementioned collections go, take note of the world’s largest carousel and the more than 200 model ships.
The House on the Rock is open seasonally (it's closed January, February, and early March) and is one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful and unusual attractions.
6. Elkhart Lake
As I mentioned before, I grew up in the Midwest and have spent a lot of time at lake resorts in the area. But I had never even heard of Elkhart Lake until I took a fall press trip there. I didn’t know what I was missing -- this beautiful hidden gem deserves so much more than a look.
Not only is Elkhart Lake conveniently located just an hour from Milwaukee, but it is not an oversaturated destination like other popular area spots. There’s a historic race track at Road America, a lovely local dining scene, and of course, that beautiful blue lake. Due to its sandy bottom and glacial roots, this lake, the fourth deepest in Wisconsin, is a stunning turquoise blue color most days. It’s ringed by the pretty, dense Kettle Moraine State Forest and its scenic drive.
Grab a bite to eat at the delicious Lake Street Cafe, sample local brews at SwitchGear, and enjoy all the water sports and recreational activities the area has to offer. Some of my favorites include kayaking, swimming, and hiking the nearby Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
Those looking to pamper themselves should consider a trip to the historic Osthoff Resort, where a luxe spa and cooking school await.
There’s so much to see and do in Wisconsin that is off the beaten path and truly scenic. This is just some of what the state has to offer in terms of hidden beauty.