The big city, the small town. The well-worn path, the hidden gem. The intriguing past, the oh-so-modern present. We’ve found 10 day-trip destinations within two hours’ drive (or a short train ride) for you to explore.
By LINDSEY ANDERSON, ANN CHRISTENSON, CHRIS DROSNER, KARISA LANGLO and ADAM ROGAN with contributions by JANE BURNS, ALLISON GEYER, ELIZABETH JOHNSON and MATTHEW MARTINEZ.
Baraboo & Devil’s Lake
Not far from the bustle of Wisconsin Dells lies a quieter place with legendary natural beauty. The best way to experience the bluffs, rivers and glades of the Baraboo area is by loading up the bike rack or kicking the dust off your hiking boots. Great views, peace and solitude await. Of course, if you’re up for a circus or one of the quirkiest art installations in Wisconsin, you can find that, too!
Take a Hike
A must-hike trail within a must-visit state park is Devil’s Lake’s (S5975 Park Rd., Baraboo) East Bluff Trail, a 1.7-mile (one-way), moderately difficult hike with a little something for everyone. Winding through the park’s fairy tale-worthy pygmy forest, up shallow stone steps and over jaunty boulders for a total climb of 500 feet, the East Bluff Trail supplies iconic rock formations and beautiful vistas in spades.
Looking to get off the beaten path? Just to the east is Wisconsin’s oldest state natural area, a tranquil, moss-blanketed retreat called Parfrey’s Glen (1377 County Road DL, Merrimac). The temperature drops as you venture deeper along a path surrounded by several rare plant species and “plum-puddingstone” conglomerate. Because of severe flooding in 2008, the Instagrammable falls deep within the glen are accessible only by traversing a stream and some rough stone, so bring waterproof, slip-resistant shoes.
For a more spiritual communion with nature, hit Durward’s Glen (W11876 McLeisch Rd., Baraboo), a leafy, 40-acre retreat center that’s open to the public. The languorous trails and bubbling brook make meditation a natural destination.
Get on Your Bike and Ride
If you’re already heading to Devil’s Lake State Park, bring your mountain bike and traverse the 4-mile Uplands Loop Trail, the park’s only biking trail. Not for the faint of heart, the Uplands Loop rises 325 feet in elevation over mostly mud and gravel.
A less demanding ride can be found on the 400 State Trail, a “rail trail” that stretches from nearby Reedsburg up to Elroy, 22 miles northwest. From the historic Reedsburg Depot (240 Railroad St.), it’s an easy 7-mile journey to La Valle. If you head all the way to Elroy, you’ll cross the Baraboo River 11 times and be able to link up with the Omaha Trail or Elroy-Sparta State Trail.
Beginners can instead opt for the 3-mile Baraboo Riverwalk, a leisurely, paved path that follows the Baraboo River as it snakes through downtown Baraboo. Stop in at Wildside Action Sports (880 Highway 136, Baraboo) for a tune-up or to browse their bikes and rock-climbing merch, both available for purchase or daily rental.
Where to eat
ISHNALA: This classic supper club on Mirror Lake is all about the experience. Start with a festive Chief Ishnala cocktail and drag a breadstick through the complimentary mound of cheese spread. After your entrée – accompanied by tea-light melted butter – allow the waiter to tempt you with something from the tableside artificial dessert display. S2011 Ishnala Rd., Lake Delton
DRIFTLESS GLEN DISTILLERY: Sample spirits from vodka to brandy to bourbon, tour the distillery’s production facilities and stay for an eclectic lunch menu of elk sliders, tuna tataki or a banh mi overlooking the river. 300 Water St., Baraboo
Wisconsin Selfie Stands: Located in 50 selfie-worthy spots across Wisconsin (including two around Devil’s Lake and a third in Mirror Lake State Park), the stands can hold any kind of mobile device and swivel to get your best angles.
Love that Lavender
Sauk County has become somewhat of an unexpected hub for lavender farming in Wisconsin. Pick your own ($12-$20 per bundle) through the end of October at Devil’s Lake Lavender Farm (E11364 Highway 136, Baraboo), or try lavender-forward farm-to-table fare like pizza with lavender herbed oil or lavender-infused maple syrup brats at Devil’s Lake Bistro.
106 4th Ave., Baraboo
More to Explore
DR. EVERMOR’S FOREVERTRON: Tom Every’s roadside sculpture park is aesthetically dystopian, like the eerie prologue to a horror film. Surrounding the 50-foot-tall scrap metal Forevertron structure are various steampunk vignettes like an orchestra of pliers-beaked cranes with barbed wire plumes and an army of giant ants with snouts made of wrenches. S7703 Highway 12, North Freedom
THE LEOPOLD CENTER: Tour the grounds that inspired esteemed conservationist Aldo Leopold’s The Sand County Almanac and learn about his “land ethic,” which called for a moral responsibility to the natural world. Guided tours of the Leopold Shack and Farm run through Labor Day, but the grounds are open for self-guided tours, birding and hiking year-round. E13701 Levee Rd., Baraboo
CIRCUS WORLD MUSEUM: The circus is embedded in Baraboo’s very DNA. Once the winter headquarters of the touring Ringling Brothers Circus show, Baraboo’s Circus World Museum is now an encyclopedic archive of circus lore, with 64 acres of exhibits, daily performances in the Big Top tent (this year’s theme riffs on the ’60s) and the world’s largest collection of circus wagons. 550 Water St., Baraboo
Twelve Hours in Madison
Point your car due west, and in less than 90 minutes, you’ll arrive in Madison, a food mecca situated on an isthmus. With so many culinary pleasures to enjoy, pacing yourself is key. And in between noshing, take advantage of the surrounding bodies of water with a paddle or a swim. Madison is such an easy city to navigate that you can pack a lot of activities into a single Saturday.
The savvy cheesemongers at Fromagination, located on the Square (12 S. Carroll St.), can help you navigate the shop’s voluminous selection of specialty cheeses. And they don’t just educate by talking tasting notes; they offer generous samples.
It’s just a six-minute drive over to the iconic Babcock Hall Dairy Store (1605 Linden Dr.), where you might catch some creamy treats being made from the second-floor observation deck overlooking the production plant. Finish with some ice cream (of course!) in a classic summer flavor, s’mores.
Dine inside or out at the dazzling Forequarter (708 E. Johnson St.), the restaurant brother to Underground Butcher. The ingredients – lots of seasonal produce – shine in this saloon-like bar-dining room. Share a charcuterie board of Underground-made delicacies and a large plate like the light pan-seared lake trout in chile-ginger broth. Plates $6-$37.
Head home! You’ll sleep well on a full, satisfied.
More to explore
Download the MobileNOW! App, which allows you to pay for a parking meter through your mobile device. With many food destinations located on or near Capitol Square, the app is a lifesaver. While you’re out and about, the app will send you a text when your meter is about to expire.
Green Bay & Manitowoc
Here in Wisconsin, we’re used to football being the center of many fall weekends. (OK, maybe every fall weekend.) And there may be no better place to go deep for a day of football than Titletown itself – even on the 350-some days when there’s not a game there. And just to the southeast lies a pristine stretch of Lake Michigan dotted with attractions that’s worth a jaunt north on its own merits.
It’s a Packapalooza
Forget game day in Green Bay. Think any day. Since Lambeau Field’s renovation in 2000, the Packers have steadily built up reasons to visit the city and the stadium area year-round.
The Packers Hall of Fame is in the stadium’s atrium, but the center of everyday activity is the Titletown District west of Lambeau Field. The park bustles with kids climbing a gonzo playground and running timed 40-yard dashes. Older competitors can get in on the action with lawn games: bocce, cornhole, table tennis, foosball, even horseshoes. And a full-size football field (bring a ball!) offers a chance to try a field goal or see just how hard it is to complete a 15- yard back-shoulder pass. In winter, visitors can fly down the 46-foot sledding hill and skate on an ice rink set up in the plaza.
To maximize exposure to actual Packers, though, late summer’s training camp is the best time to visit – if only to see the tradition of gargantuan linemen riding local kids’ little bikes or score easy, cheap tickets to a preseason game.
Embrace the Lake
Milwaukeeans know a thing or two about Lake Michigan. It defines our city.
But somehow our Great Lake feels even greater when it’s experienced from a small town. The lake just seems to consume, to absorb everything else, when there’s less human activity to balance its immense natural majesty. Exhibit A here is Manitowoc and its twin town, Two Rivers.
Start with a visit to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) and dive into the town’s prolific shipbuilding past. A tour of the museum’s signature piece, World War II-era submarine USS Cobia, brings the stuffy, confined duty of its crew to life.
Hugging the lake along the 7 miles between the downtowns of Manitowoc and Two Rivers is the Mariner’s Trail, with scenic overlooks and the flower-filled lawns of the West of the Lake Gardens making for good stops along the way.
The area also boasts some of the state’s best beaches. Neshotah Beach, in a municipal park on the north end of Two Rivers, offers a snack bar, shaded pavilion and volleyball nets in the sugary white sand. Point Beach State Forest includes a 6-mile expanse of mostly undeveloped beach, with a campground, lighthouse, nature center and hiking trails nearby.
Where to eat
We asked Carthage College placekicker David Collins for some keys if you’re trying to knock one through the uprights at the field in the Titletown District. His tips: Keep your head down, follow through with your body and take deep breaths to block out distractions like your heckling friend. Collins centers his kicks on the big knuckle of his big toe and says positivity is vital. “Always have faith in the kick,” Collins says.
More to explore
East Troy & Fort Atkinson
If you are looking for an excursion that is both fun and educational, East Troy, Fort Atkinson and the surrounding area is the perfect destination. From millennia-old Native American effigy mounds, to Civil War-era artifacts, to trains and an ice cream shop evoking the early part of the 20th century, you’ll find plenty to ponder, long after you’ve returned back home to the here and now.
Hop A Train
Here in Milwaukee, we’re enjoying the joys of riding a streetcar with the newly-minted Hop. But a hundred years ago or so, electric trains were the norm for city and regional travel. The East Troy Railroad Museum (2002 Church St., East Troy) provides its 15,000 yearly patrons with a firsthand experience of how it used to be, offering a 10-mile excursion onboard its collection of vintage trains. Set aside a few hours so you can hop on and hop off at the various stops. And listen closely as volunteer conductors offer historical – and sometimes comical – perspectives on local landmarks.
➸ Before you board, spend a little time learning the history of electric trains at the museum. Then, enjoy the 5-mile ride north to The Elegant Farmer stop, where you can indulge in its famous brownbag apple pie.
➸ Interested in enjoying a meal on a train? The museum offers special dinners throughout the season, including a family pasta night on Aug. 17.
Did you know?
Starting in 1907 and into the 1940s, you could ride an electric train 36 miles from Milwaukee, through Hales Corners, to East Troy. Another line would carry you to Wauwatosa and on to Waukesha. Still others went to Sheboygan and Kenosha.
Sometimes museums are best when they bring a little bit of everything, and that’s the approach in the quirky collection of historical artifacts, contemporary art and bovine memorabilia at Fort Atkinson’s Hoard Historical Museum (401 Whitewater Ave.).
➸ The National Dairy Shrine, a barn-shaped structure connected to the Hoard, serves up small-town charm by the gallon. It celebrates the history of dairy farming via life-size (and thumb-size) dioramas, as well as an interactive multimedia tour. The best part? A dairy library with everything from 1920s milking records to a comprehensive book of milk-mustachioed celebrities.
➸ A ledger of Fort Atkinson Civil War veterans across the hall from an exhibit on Native American effigy mounds. Abraham Lincoln’s original signature in the same room as a bronze bust of Sauk war leader Black Hawk. These diverse exhibits reflect the history of the area, piquing curiosity as to what stories and secrets this tiny burg off the Rock River holds.
➸ Sweeping vistas and sleepy pastorals are on display in the Jones Family Gallery at the Hoard, where you can contemplate and purchase the work of local painters. You’ll also find paintings depicting the harshness of the rural Wisconsin winter and the untamed glory of the American plains.
Where to eat
2894 ON MAIN: This gem of a restaurant is not to be missed. Open daily for breakfast and lunch, plus dinner Tuesday through Saturday, the emphasis on local, organic ingredients helps make every dish sing. 2894 shares space with an organic grocery that sells handmade aprons and bags along with locally grown products. 2894 Main St., East Troy
More to explore
Twelve Hours in Chicago
It may be called the Second City, but its culture, cuisine and scenery are all first-rate. It’s large enough to sustain thousands of restaurants, hundreds of parks and dozens of museums. But only because it’s also large enough to sustain a population of 2.7 million people, spread out over more than 200 square miles.
So if you’ve only got a day to spend in the city, choose depth over breadth. All of the destinations included in this art-inspired itinerary are within walking distance of the Blue Line – a 24-hour train line that passes through a few of the city’s hippest neighborhoods.
The wndr museum (1130 W. Monroe St.) began life as a pop-up exhibition, but was so staggeringly successful it’s now a permanent fixture of the West Loop. The standout work is a 2017 infinity room by nonagenarian pop artist Yayoi Kusama.
Earlier this year, one of Yayoi Kusama’s paintings sold for a cool $7.96 million, the most money anyone has ever spent on a work by a living female artist.
A five-minute walk from the museum, Monteverde (1020 W. Madison St.) is an elegantly understated Italian restaurant. Snag a seat near the restaurant’s open kitchen, and watch the chefs knead and roll out the dough for your pasta (you must order pasta) while sipping prosecco.
Board a Blue Line train and ride it to the Chicago stop. Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (756 N. Milwaukee Ave.) is just a block away. One highlight is a re-creation of outsider artist Henry Darger’s colorful one-room apartment.
Now that you’ve got a bit of a buzz, you’d better put something in your stomach, and it might as well be something delicious. So head back south along the Blue Line, to the newly opened Cabra Cevicheria. Perched atop the buzzy Hoxton Hotel (200 N. Green St.), this Peruvian restaurant enjoys panoramic views of the city and even better views of its chic clientele, who pack the place every night of the week.
Give yourself some time to walk back to Union Station, so that you’re ready to board the 9:15 p.m. train bound for Milwaukee. You can catch some Zs on your way home, or start planning your next day trip.
More to explore
Mount Horeb & New Glarus
When you drive the unglaciated, rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin, it seems like there’s an interesting and historic small town around every bend in the road. The two we visit here are worth the trip for their immersion in European heritage, not to mention some hip charm and a hallowed hall of beer.
Number of trolls, mostly wood-carved, throughout the village. To meet them all, pick up a map at the Welcome Center, 300 E. Main St.
Trolling for Cool
First it was the Norwegian heritage, then antiques, then the carved trolls that popped up around town. All are still part of the draw for visitors to Mount Horeb, but these days the village west of Madison has settled in to just being what it is: a bit of a hipster Mayberry that’s fun to wander.
Local food and beverage options abound, with locally made wine, cider and beer all on tap. Even the Driftless Historium gets in on the local eats, partnering with UW-Platteville dairy science students who make ice cream sold there.
More recreational pleasures include trail or road cycling, with the Military Ridge State Trail bisecting the village on its route between Madison and Dodgeville and country roads extending in all directions into the undulating countryside.
Downtown, shops offer Norwegian goods, fancy soaps or craft sodas. Choose from 450 varieties, from Frostie Strawberry Watermelon to Werewolf Howling Ginger Beer, at The Pop Place (213 E. Main St.). It’s also the corporate headquarters – and home of the first retail store – of Duluth Trading Co., which helps explain the sight of so many people in flannel wandering Main Street over the lunch hour.
The Cow’s Cradle
Sometimes, a brewery visit is just that, something to do on an unspoken-for Saturday. Other times, it’s a pilgrimage. New Glarus Brewing, for a great many people in this state and out, is the latter.
Your visit will probably begin with the most ho-hum part of your experience here. New Glarus’ 10-year-old facility, built-in camouflage as a European farm village atop a hill on the edge of town, is impressive on its technical merits, with towering tank farms, a maze of plumbing and clacking packaging machinery. But the tour is self-guided and lacks the charm and personality that a fired-up guide can bring.
But there’s beer! You’re here to drink Spotted Cow – or world-class wild and fruit beers, or any other of the traditional styles New Glarus executes perfectly – from the source, which makes it all the more special. And you’ll be able to pick up bottles of exclusive brewery-only releases to save for a special occasion or curry favor with a beer-geek loved one.
But what brewery visits are really about is the immersion in everything a brewery is about, and at New Glarus the place that culture truly comes to life is in the beer garden. Pergolas and trees shade this sprawling terrace, and seemingly secret pathways lead to cloistered sets of seating from which to drain your new souvenir pint glass and take in the stunning views of the countryside. Arrive at the right time and there just might be a couple of guys blowing “Amazing Grace” on alphorns.
It’s is a slice of the old world right here in Wisconsin.
Where to eat