Do you remember when it was really easy to just kick back, relax and unwind? Well, these vacation destinations offer you a range of options for chilling out this summer. (June 2007)
Photo by Bill Banaszewski.
It's summertime, and the livin' is -- well, not quite as easy as it used to be. Nowadays, most households need two jobs just to keep the wolf from the door. Gas prices got so crazy last year that now we think two bucks and change for a gallon is a bargain. Then there are the kids with soccer practice or music lessons. We're a much busier world than we used to be.
Well, it's time for you to kick back, relax and unwind with a good old-fashioned family vacation. Regardless of your budget or how much time you can take away from work and other commitments, there are plenty of options when it comes to picking a getaway.
Weekend destinations offering a change of scenery and change of pace are less than a two-hour drive from anywhere in Wisconsin. And if you have the time and the money, you can plan a longer trip, both in time and distance.
Here is a look at some vacation destinations offering a range of options, one of which could be the ticket for your family to chill out. Of course, this includes you, so there will be plenty of fishing involved!
MISSISSIPPI RIVER ADVENTURES
Wisconsin's "West Coast" offers dozens of family vacation opportunities, ranging from inexpensive camping trips in one of several state parks along the Mississippi River to a posh outing on a houseboat that rivals a classy resort for comfort. You can also rent bikes or bring your own to pedal the Great River Bike Trail that follows an abandoned railroad grade along the river.
Huck's Houseboat Vacations
If you have never spent a night on a houseboat, you owe it to yourself and your family to give this ultimate river adventure a try.
Several outfitters offer houseboat rentals, so you can make an overnight trip or spend a leisurely week or more motoring up and down the river. Sleep on the boat, or pull up on a sandbar, build a bonfire and pitch a tent.
I celebrated my birthday several years ago with my son Jon and some friends on a cruise with Huck's Houseboat Vacations in La Crosse County. Huck's boats are a far cry from the rickety raft with which his namesake plied the river in Mark Twain's adventure, but we all felt a little like the fictional Huck Finn as we navigated the wing dams, locks and buoys from La Crosse to Trempealeau and back. We stopped for lunch at the historic Trempealeau Hotel, then soaked in the hot tub on the upper deck as Huck himself steered us back downriver to La Crosse.
Huck's staff conducts on-water training for first-time houseboaters, then turns you loose to enjoy the river. Motor upriver or downriver, and stop at the waterfront towns of Winona, Fountain City, Trempealeau and Stoddard. You can stop to fish when the mood strikes you. Or, when safely anchored on a sandbar, you can slide down the onboard waterslide into the river to cool off on a hot summer day.
We slept six comfortably aboard the 62-foot Presidential model, which can handle several more people with ease. The 84-foot Trump model sleeps 14. If you share the rental among your guests, even a weeklong excursion becomes an affordable trip.
Contact: Huck's Houseboat Vacations, (920) 625-3142 or Hucks.com.
Great Alma Fishing Float
If a houseboat adventure is out of range of your budget, you can still enjoy the river's great fishing and fun by camping along the river and spending a day or two on the Great Alma Fishing Float in Buffalo County.
The Alma Fishing Float is anchored just below Lock & Dam No. 4. A ferry shuttles anglers to and from the float from a dock in Alma. The float itself consists of a number of rafts securely connected together and buoyed by pontoons. A railing provides a measure of safety and a handy place to secure a rod holder. There are benches, restrooms, a bait and tackle shop, and a café that serves lunch and breakfast. You can rent tackle and have your fish cleaned for a small fee. And you can even rent a room right on the float and fish all night if you desire. Something is always biting here, and you could catch a nice mess of crappies, bluegills and white bass, or a meal or two of walleyes, saugers or catfish.
You can camp a few miles downriver at Merrick State Park, which is located on 322 acres with 67 campsites, 15 electric sites, showers, a handicapped-accessible picnic area, campsites and more. Many campsites have river access, so you can bring a boat or fish right from shore. The park also has three miles of hiking trails, canoe rentals, two boat launches and a nature center that offers seasonal naturalist programs.
Contacts: Alma Fishing Float, (608) 685-3786, or online at AlmaFishingFloat.com; Merrick State Park, (608) 687-4936, or Dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks.
CASTLE ROCK FLOWAGE
One of two large flowages on the Wisconsin River in central Wisconsin, Castle Rock offers a variety of fishing opportunities and much more.
Buckhorn State Park -- located on the peninsula where the flowage's two arms meet -- has a beach, group and backpacking campsites, hiking and nature trails, and summer programs for kids.
The Yellow River arm of the flowage has great fishing for white bass, crappies, bluegills, perch and walleyes. Look for panfish near the fish cribs off the state park shoreline, and walleyes in the river channel and near wood structure along both banks. You can also explore the many side channels and inlets by canoe.
Two county parks, numerous boat landings, several marinas, resorts, motels and other services provide everything you will need.
Contacts: Buckhorn State Park, (608) 565-2789 or Dnr.state.wi. us/org/land/parks; Castle Rock-Petenwell Lakes Association, (608) 565-7112 or CastleRockPetenwell.com
Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay is an immense summer playground, with boating, camping, fishing, hiking and much more to offer. Served by the cities of Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield, the bay area has everything a family could want for a chilled-out summer vacation.
Fishing opportunities range from pier-fishing for perch to c
harter fishing for trout and salmon. All three cities have public fishing piers. My favorite is located in Washburn's West End Park. When we lived outside of Washburn years ago, son Jon and I spent many an afternoon catching perch and northerns here.
If you have your own boat, you can work the nearshore waters off Washburn, Barksdale or Ashland for perch, walleyes or smallmouths. Area guides will take you out after the bay's monster smallies with fly or spinning tackle. Several charter boats offer half-day and full-day trips on the lake for salmon, lake trout, brown trout and rainbow trout. Within a half-hour of the bay, dozens of inland trout streams await the serious trouters in your family.
Numerous motels and bed-and-breakfasts serve the area, and there are good restaurants in all three cities. The Madeline Island Ferry can take you to the largest of the Apostle Islands for a change-of-pace meal, camping excursion or round of golf. The biggest off-water attraction, however, is in the big blue tent at the foot of Mt. Ashwabay, where the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua presents headliner entertainment and locally produced shows by Warren Nelson and a very talented troupe of actors and musicians. Riverpants, Showpants, Riding the Wind and Nelson's other shows will knock your socks off.
Contacts: Anglers All, (715) 682-5754; Outdoor Allure, (715) 373-0551 or OutdoorAllure.com; Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-284-9484, or online at VisitAshland.com; Big Top Chautauqua, 1-888-BIG-TENT or BigTop.org.
EAGLE RIVER CHAIN
The Eagle River Chain consists of 28 lakes, 11 of them on the lower chain below Burnt Rollways Dam, and 17 on the upper chain, which is also called the Three Lakes Chain. All of them harbor panfish, walleyes and muskies. The lower chain has more resorts and visitors. The upper chain is quieter and has a greater variety of fishing opportunities. All told, there are about 100 resorts on the two chains and numerous campgrounds as well.
On the upper chain, try Scattering Rice Lake for crappies and muskies. On the lower chain, Yellow Birch, Voyageur, Catfish and Cranberry are good panfish, walleye and muskie lakes. The deep weeds on Eagle -- the deepest lake on the chain -- are a good bet for walleyes and muskies.
Waterskiing, boating and sight-seeing are popular pastimes for visitors here, in addition to the great fishing. The hub city of Eagle River is home to the season-long Vilas County Muskie Marathon and many other tournaments. Festivals, parades, sidewalk sales and golf courses round out the fun.
Contacts: Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-359-6315 or at Eagle-River.com; Eagle Sports Center, (715) 479-8804 or at EagleSportsCenter.com.
Located just south of the city of Waupaca, the Waupaca Chain of Lakes is a string of 22 pearls ranging from two to 115 acres.
These waters are clear, and chock-full of bass, crappies and bluegills. Pleasure boaters throng to the larger lakes on summer weekends, but some of the lakes have a permanent no-wake speed limit. A public landing on Taylor Lake provides access to 15 of the lakes on the lower end of the chain. The upper lakes are accessible to canoes and small boats at a landing on Knight Lake off Knight Lane.
By mid-June, bass have moved out to deep weed edges, but you'll still find bluegills spawning in the shallows, where your kids can catch them on small jigs and plastics or live bait. Later in summer, crappies and bluegills suspend over deep water. Slip-bobbers and small jigs or live-bait rigs will take them. Sunken islands and underwater points also provide fish-holding structure.
The Waupaca area caters to family vacations, with riding stables, golf courses, and canoe and tube rentals on the popular Crystal River.
Contacts: Waupaca Area Chamber of Commerce, 1-888-417-4040, or go to WaupacaaareaChamber.com; Ding's Dock (cottages, boat, canoe and tube rentals), (715) 258-2612 or DingsDock.com.
WOLF RIVER COUNTRY
Just east of Waupaca, the Fremont area offers another change-of-pace vacation. Here, you can choose between the Wolf River and sprawling Lake Poygan. Or, why not choose them both!
The Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest covers about 30,000 acres just an hour northwest of Milwaukee in Washington, Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties. The entire forest is open to hiking and exploring, and there are two main recreation areas: Mauthe Lake and Long Lake.
The Wolf River winds from New London downstream to Lake Poygan, stopping along the way at Partridge Lake and Partridge Crop Lake. The Wolf holds walleyes and bluegills all summer long, while the smaller lakes are hotbeds for panfish and pike activity. Look for bluegills wherever you find brush along the riverbank and in weeds in the smaller lakes.
Lake Poygan, which covers more than 14,000 acres, has a diverse fishery that will keep the kids or the most experienced angler hopping for hours at a time. Walleyes, white bass and crappies make spring spawning runs up the Wolf River, then drift slowly back downstream to Poygan and the lower lakes of Winneconne, Butte des Morts and Winnebago. Kids can have a blast with a bobber and minnow or small spinnerbaits to catch white bass while Dad jigs for walleyes. The northwest shore of Poygan near Tustin is a crappie hotspot all summer.
Numerous boat landings serve the lake and the river, making access easy. There are several resorts, campgrounds and bait shops in the area as well.
Contacts: Wolf River Sports, Winneconne, (920) 582-0471, or WolfRiverSports.com; Winneconne Area Chamber of Commerce, (920) 582-4775, or Winneconne.org; Larry & Jan's Resort, (920) 446-3161, or Fremontwi.com or WolfRiverCountry.com.
KETTLE MORAINE STATE FOREST NORTHERN UNIT
The Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest covers about 30,000 acres just an hour northwest of Milwaukee in Washington, Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties. The entire forest is open to hiking and exploring, and there are two main recreation areas: Mauthe Lake and Long Lake. Special camping areas accommodate large groups and horseback riders.
The state forest also has more than 130 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and backpacking, including 31 miles of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, with shelters for overnight camping. A great place to start exploring the forest is the Henry S. Reuss Ice Age V
isitor Center. The naturalist staff provides educational and entertaining programs throughout the year.
At 427 acres, Long Lake is the largest of a dozen or so kettle lakes in the forest. Located just north of Dundee, it is deep and clear, with good numbers of bass, panfish, walleyes and northern pike. The Milwaukee River's East Branch begins at the outlet of Long Lake and flows through Mauthe Lake and the state forest. The lake's weedbeds along the east shore, a mid-lake hump and several underwater points hold all species. Light line and small baits are recommended in this clear water.
The state forest campground at Long Lake has over 200 campsites, flush toilets and showers, but no electrical hookups. There is a boat launch here and a handicapped-accessible fishing pier. There are also several private boat landings on the lake and two private campgrounds on the west shore.
Mauthe Lake covers 78 acres and has a depth of 28 feet. It lies entirely within the forest, and the only development is the campground on the east shore. Weeds ring the lake, and the deep weed edge holds bass and panfish. A dam at the outlet maintains a stable water level. At high water levels, you can launch a canoe a mile upstream in New Prospect and paddle down to the lake, or you can launch at the boat landing on the lake and canoe downstream to New Fane. You'll need to provide your own shuttle service, but these are great family float trips.
Mauthe Lake Campground has 137 sites, including 49 electrical sites, a shower building and pit toilets. You can even rent an authentic Native American plains teepee. Accessible campsites are also available. Contact stations at both campgrounds are open 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Contacts: Long Lake station, (920) 533-8612; Mauthe Lake station, (262) 626-4305, or dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks.
BLACKHAWK LAKE RECREATION AREA
For a quiet camping experience on a small lake, you might enjoy Blackhawk Lake Recreation Area in Iowa County.
Created in 1972, this 200-acre reservoir is one of the few lakes in southwest Wisconsin's Driftless Area. The lake holds plenty of panfish, along with bass and walleyes. An old roadbed and several building foundations provide good fish-holding structure, or you can fish along deep weed edges and dropoffs. Live bait and plastics should work for all species.
The 2,000-acre state recreation area features over 100 campsites, hiking trails, a picnic area, and evening and weekend programs.
To get there, take Iowa County Highway BH off Highway 80 between Cobb and Highland. Daily or seasonal admission stickers, available at park headquarters, are required to camp or fish.
Contacts: Blackhawk Lake headquarters, (608) 623-2707; Palen's Outpost, (608) 623-2822.
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It's still not too late to plan a vacation for this summer. Do some quick research on the Internet, make some phone calls, and get ready to kick back, relax and chill out!
(Editor's Note: For more great family getaway destinations, contact the Wisconsin Department of Tourism at 1-800-432-TRIP or online at TravelWisconsin.com.)