10 must-do Wisconsin summer activities

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Kayaking in the Apostle Islands. — Photos: Travel Wisconsin

Summer is here, and except for heat, humidity, mosquitoes, wood ticks and road construction, this is Wisconsin’s best time of year. What would make it better still are these 10 essential Badger State activities:

Kayak the Apostle Islands 

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a part of the U.S. National Park System, is just north of charming Bayfield on Lake Superior’s southern shore. It is a 21-island chain featuring rocky outcroppings that have been carved by water over thousands of years into ridges, terraces and sea caves. The ideal way to explore this otherworldly setting is by kayak. Rent one or bring your own and create your own tour.

When you’re done kayaking, take the Bayfield ferry to Madeleine Island, the only permanently occupied Apostle island. Rent a bicycle once you land in LaPointe and spend an afternoon exploring the back roads, forests and beaches in one of the state’s most unique destinations.

Indulge your ‘up north’ spirit in Minocqua 

Wisconsinites love to spend part of their summers “up north,” and few places have the plethora of supper clubs, pine forests and picturesque lakes as the Minocqua area. The region, which includes Arbor Vitae, Woodruff, Lake Tomahawk and Manitowish Waters, is flush with small lakes, coves, inlets and beaches perfect for boating, swimming, fishing, drowsing in the sun and all those other “up north” activities that remove the day-to-day stress and put your soul at ease.

Drive the Great River Road 

History and nature blend against the backdrop of the Mississippi River along Highway 35, also known as Wisconsin’s Great River Road, which flanks the muddy river 250 miles from Prescott in the north to Kieler in the south. The 33 communities along the way exude small-town charm and feature interesting attractions. Many stop by La Crosse Queen Cruises and board modern-day replicas of old-fashioned paddlewheel boats that ply the Mississippi. Visit the Dickeyville Grotto, a kitschy Catholic shrine made of junk glass and concrete, and Villa Louis, the museum and national historical landmark in Prairie du Chien. You never know what you’ll find around the next turn.

Explore the Driftless Area

The Great River Road forms the western edge of the Driftless Area, a region in southwestern Wisconsin that wasn’t scoured flat by retreating glaciers millenia ago. The landscape is noted for its deep valleys, rocky outcroppings and steep, heavily forested hillsides. Residents from organic farmers to Amish artisans to architect Frank Lloyd Wright have called the region home, and history and culture coalesce in one of Wisconsin’s least familiar, yet most photographic regions.

Canoe the lower Wisconsin River

The Wisconsin River, the state’s longest, stretches 430 miles south from the pine forests at the Upper Michigan border diagonally across the state. But the southernmost 93 miles, stretching from Prairie du Sac to the Mississippi, is rife with sand bars, making it largely un-navigable — except for canoes and flat-bottomed crafts. Start south of the Prairie du Sac dam and paddle past the nude beach at Mazomanie, under the bridges at Spring Green and all the way to the Mississippi if you like. On the way, camp out on a sand bar, picnic and go for a swim. 

Visit Madison’s Capitol Square

In addition to being Wisconsin’s most emblematic building, the State Capitol and its surrounding square are home to a variety of summer activities. The square hosts the state’s largest farmers market every Saturday morning until October. Wednesday nights through early August, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square series entertains 30,000 picnickers with light classics. And there’s also Art Fair on the Square in July, Taste of Madison in August, and other festivities taking place in the shadow of the state’s most historic structure, which offers tours daily.

Take in a festival or six in Milwaukee

From ethnic and music festivals to weekly concerts and street fairs, the Cream City explodes each summer with color, music, food, laughter and scores of people celebrating almost every weekend of the season. Almost 40 years ago, the late Mayor Henry Maier declared Milwaukee the “City of Festivals” and the population has done its best to live up to that boast. Few cities its size are as festive and vibrant as Milwaukee in the summer.

Swing an ax with the lumberjacks in Hayward

Logging was one of the industries that helped establish Wisconsin, and starting in 1960, it’s been celebrated at the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward. Scheduled this year for July 24–26, the Sawyer County event is one of those rare state folk festivals that has gained a national reputation and attracted international participation. Hayward is also home to the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and its giant muskie — have your picture taken standing in its mouth.

Tour lighthouses and pick cherries in Door County

Other than the kitschy Wisconsin Dells, Door County is Wisconsin’s best-known tourist mecca. All summer, the narrow peninsula that separates Lake Michigan from Green Bay bustles with visitors. Pick the region’s tart Montmorency cherries, browse shops and galleries, enjoy the beaches and visit the 12 lighthouses that dot the county. 

Make your own Wisconsin memory

Wisconsin is one of America’s best-kept secrets. Whether your tastes run toward rural bike trails and small town cafes, beautifully restored opera houses and breathtaking natural scenes, metropolitan areas bustling with people or pristine wildernesses rustling with wildlife, Wisconsin offers you memorable moments at every turn in the road or bend in the river. The best Wisconsin vacation memory is the one you make for yourself, and it’s time to get started.