Every summer when I was a boy, our family used to pack the old Chevy sedan, hitch it to our pop-up camper, and head off for a weeklong vacation. My brothers and I watched the passing countryside morph from farmland to Northwoods, as we kept our eyes peeled for signs of wildlife.
Once at our destination â€“â€“ usually a state park campground — we rigged our rods and often caught some panfish for supper before Dad had popped up the camper and got some potatoes frying on the Coleman two-burner.
Family vacations create childhood memories like these and lifelong interests. Today, fewer families take extended vacations like we did back in the 1950s and 60s. Many, however, still make long weekend getaways a priority.
Whether you take a whole month or just a few days, here's a look at some great Wisconsin vacation destinations where families can have fun, catch some fish, and create memories that will last a lifetime.
In far northeast Wisconsin, Mercer calls itself "Wisconsin's favorite outdoor playground." And for good reason! Southern Iron County boasts hundreds of lakes, some beautiful rivers and plenty of county, state and national forest land for hiking, camping and other recreational activities.
The heart of the area is the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, a 19,000-acre reservoir formed in 1926 by a dam on the Turtle River. The flowage might appear intimidating at first glance, but don't let its size scare you.
Its 195 islands and many bays break up the flowage and create a small-lake feel.
A dozen full-service resorts, several campgrounds, a county park, and six public boat landings serve the flowage. Most resorts have beaches and boat rentals. Several businesses offer daily or weekly pontoon, canoe and kayak rentals.
Those seeking a more primitive experience might choose one of 66 island campsites accessible only by water. Most do not require registration, a fee or a camping permit. Six group sites are available by registration and require a fee. All campsites feature a steel fire ring and open-air pit toilet.
The flowage is best known for its walleye, panfish, smallmouth and muskie fishing. Crappies run big there, and they can be found near the flowage's many fish cribs. Yellow perch and bluegills round out the panfish species. With a bucket of minnows and a box or two of redworms, your kids should be able to catch a mess of panfish right from the resort dock or from your boat.
Along The Way
Your family can have fun just getting to Mercer. On your way north on Highway 51, stop at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, the site of the John Dillinger gang's epic 1934 shootout with the FBI. The lodge, which still features bullet holes from that gun battle, was the filming location for the Universal Pictures film, "Public Enemies," starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger.
Iron County has Wisconsin's largest ATV trail system, with more than 100 miles of trails that traverse wooded, hilly terrain and connect with trails in other counties. Ride from the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage all the way to Saxon Harbor on Lake Superior.
Mercer's biggest event of the year is the 36th annual Loon Day. Held on the first Wednesday in August, Loon Day attracts 10,000 visitors and features 300 vendors, live music, dancing, great food and the world-famous Loon Calling Contest. For maps and information on area recreation and lodging, visit mercercc.com.
PIKE LAKE CHAIN
Located south of Iron River in western Bayfield County, the Pike Lake Chain is a great family vacation destination. This string of clear lakes that cover just over 1,000 acres offers every fish species from panfish to muskies.
The five largest are Twin Bear and Hart, at about 260 acres each; Millicent (184 acres); Eagle (170 acres) and Buskey Bay (100 acres). When I lived in Bayfield County years ago, my son Jon and I fished those lakes regularly for panfish, bass and walleyes.
Launch at the county park on Twin Bear and motor through connecting channels to all the lakes. Panfish action is good during the day on most lakes. Find largemouths in the shallow bays and weedbeds.
Catch abundant smallmouths on rock bars, points and humps. Walleye numbers have declined, but you can still catch them just before dark on a big center bar on Hart and in the channel to Twin Bear.
For a change of pace, launch a canoe on one of a handful of small carry-in lakes on the Delta-Drummond Road. Some hold nice largemouths and big perch.
You can camp at the county park on Twin Bear or stay at one of several resorts on the chain (bayfieldcounty.org).
Along The Way
Take a day trip up to Bayfield on Lake Superior, where you can cruise the Apostle Islands (apostleisland.com), hike the beaches of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore or take in an evening tent show at Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua (bigtop.org).
Canoe or kayak the historic Brule River, known as the "River of Presidents," because of visits by U.S. presidents Grant, Cleveland, Coolidge, Hoover and Eisenhower (brulerivercanoerental.com).
GREAT ALMA FISHING FLOAT
Anchored just below Mississippi River Dam No. 4, across the channel from the historic river town of Alma in Buffalo County, the Great Alma Fishing Float is a system of rafts connected securely together and buoyed by pontoons. Railings provide safety and a place to mount a rod holder.
The float features benches, restrooms, a tackle shop, fish-cleaning service and a cafÃ© that serves breakfast and lunch. Anglers can rent a room on the float and fish all night. Walk down to the float's landing in Alma and a shuttle will come pick you up.
Mississippi dam tailwaters harbor every species of fish imaginable, and they all can be caught from the float. Panfish, including crappies, bluegills, perch and white bass, are the mainstay of the fishery, but anglers also catch walleyes, saugers, bass, northern pike, catfish and freshwater drum (sheepshead). Float owners Jim and Tim Lodermeier will tell you which fish are biting and how to catch them.
The float is located in the Wisconsin-Minnesota boundary waters, so a fishing license from either state will let you fish there. Because the float is on the Minnesota side of the main channel, Minnesota rules and bag limits apply. Each angler can use only two rods.
Bluegills and sunfish have a combined 10-fish daily bag limit. The walleye/sauger bag limit is 6 fish. There is no size limit on sauger, but walleyes must measure 15 inches or longer. The smallmouth/largemouth bass limit is 5 per day, with a minimum size of 14 inches. (almafishingfloat.com)
Along The Way
Camp at Merrick State Park, a few miles south of Alma. The park features 322 acres, 67 campsites, showers, a picnic area and more. Bring a boat or fish from shore. The park has three miles of hiking trails, canoe rentals, two boat landings and a nature center that offers seasonal naturalist programs. (dnr.wi.gov)
For those who prefer a bed, the float's Web site lists several nearby motels, resorts and cabin rentals, along with restaurants in Alma's historic downtown.
Just across the river in Wabasha, Minn., the National Eagle Center features daily live eagle programs, up-close views of captive eagles, an education center and a chance for kids to catch fish to feed the eagles. (nationaleaglecenter.org)
Created in 1972 by a dam on Otter Creek in Iowa County, Blackhawk Lake covers 220 acres in the 2,050-acre Blackhawk State Recreation Area. One of the few lakes in Southwest Wisconsin's Driftless Area, Blackhawk contains an abundance of panfish, bass and walleyes.
Farmland between the villages of Cobb and Highland was flooded to create the lake, and an old roadbed and several building foundations provide good structure for fish. Kids can easily catch panfish right from shore at many locations around the lake or from the handicapped-accessible fishing pier.
The park features more than 150 campsites, and there are five one-room cabins available to rent. All have electricity, AC, heat, a charcoal grill, fire pit and picnic table.
Four hiking trails, a picnic shelter and evening and weekend programs round out recreational opportunities. There is a boat launch and fish-cleaning station for park campers to use. The park also rents canoes, kayaks and pontoon boats. Daily or seasonal admission stickers, available at park headquarters, are required to camp or fish.
Along The Way
Check out The Kickapoo Valley Acoustic Music Association's 19th annual LarryFest, Aug. 18-20, a bluegrass festival held Woodstock-style on a farm located between Rockton and Dell, not too far from Avalanche and LaFarge. Camping is available. This is a family-friendly music festival, with food vendors, soft drinks and free sweet corn. (kvama.org)
History buffs will love a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's Wisconsin home, Taliesin, just south of Spring Green off Highway 23. (taliesinpreservation.org) Alex Jordan's 1940s-era House on the Rock, a few miles farther south, is another architectural marvel.
Take the self-guided tour of an eclectic collection that includes the world's largest carousel, a 200-foot sea creature, automated music machines and more. The kids will have plenty of stories for show and tell after this visit. (houseontherock.com)
At just 78 acres, Mauthe Lake is a glacial kettle lake located in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in Fond du Lac County. There is a state campground on the east shore, with a public boat landing, an accessible fishing pier, and a beach and picnic area. With a maximum depth of 28 feet and a weedline that rings the lake, this is a bass and panfish hotspot. Northern pike are also common, and there are a few walleyes as well.
Kids can catch panfish off the fishing pier located just north of the beach. Launch a canoe or small boat and fish the deep weed edges for bigger bluegills and largemouths. Try fishing the slop near the inlets along the north shore with weedless frogs for bass in July and August.
Mauthe Lake Campground has 137 sites, including 49 electrical sites, a shower building and pit toilets. Accessible campsites are available. The National Scenic Ice Age Trail runs along the lake and through the state forest. The Lake-to-Lake Bike Trail connects the Mauthe Lake campground with the Long Lake Recreation Area just north of Dundee.
If you have a family of equestrians, you can ride the horse trails in the state forest. There's even an overnight campground just for horseback riders.
Along The Way
Stop on your way or hike the Ice Age Trail from Mauthe Lake to the Henry S. Reuss Ice Age Visitor Center, a half-mile west of Dundee on Highway 67. Exhibits tell how glaciers formed much of Wisconsin's landscape. Forest naturalists present a wide array of educational programs at the center and at both Mauthe and Long Lake recreation areas. Loaner fishing tackle is available at the center.
At high water levels, you can launch a canoe on the East Branch of the Milwaukee River at New Prospect and paddle a mile down to Mauthe Lake. If you are more adventurous, launch canoes or kayaks at the boat landing for a three-hour trip down the Milwaukee River through a wildlife sanctuary to New Fane.
You'll need your own shuttle service, but these are great family floats. These are a few of the options for a fantastic family summer vacation. For more great family getaway destinations, contact the Wisconsin Department of Tourism at 800-432-TRIP or online at travelwisconsin.com.