Wisconsin is known for its agricultural roots, its natural environments and its rivers and lakes, including Lake Winnebago, the second-largest inland freshwater lake in the United States. From large cities like Milwaukee and Green Bay to smaller waterfront towns, the area offers plenty of water-filled experiences.
Situated on the banks of the Rock River, Beloit offers visitors a little bit of everything, from watersports and riverfront parks to a historic and beautifully restored downtown area full of independently owned restaurants, coffee shops and stores. It sits at the midway point of the Rock River Trail, a 320-mile trail that wends its way through Wisconsin and Illinois. The trail offers attractions from water and driving trails to biking, horseback riding, and beer and wine experiences. Beloit’s downtown was named America’s most romantic main street by Main Street America, and on Saturdays, the town hosts Wisconsin’s largest farmers market, which brings in visitors from across the state.
Along with Beloit College, the oldest operating college in Wisconsin, and two world-class museums, the riverfront town is home to several effigy mounds in the shape of animals built by the Ho-Chunk nation. The turtle-shaped mound was the inspiration for Beloit College’s mascot, the Snappers.
Tour groups that wish to sample some of what life was like along the river can tour Beckman Mill County Park, a property that houses the Beckman Mill, a restored and functioning gristmill built in 1868 on the east bank of Coon Creek. There are walking trails on the grounds, a pond and a fish ladder for salmon to run up. It also has a sawmill display, an 1840s cooperage, a visitor’s center, a blacksmith shop, a vintage garden and a nature trail.
“That’s one of our historic treasures,” said Stacey Bodnar, director of marketing and public relations for Visit Beloit.
Nature at the Confluence is another great place to take groups. The environmental center, which opened in 2017 on the confluence of the Rock River, Turtle and Kelly creeks, gives visitors a taste of the area’s local scenery, with a five-acre prairie restoration and pollinator gardens. Visitors can also rent kayaks at the center and take tours of the area. Riverside Park has a three-mile walking and biking trail and a lagoon where visitors can rent paddleboats, kayaks and fishing poles.
“It’s a really beautiful place to enjoy the water,” Bodnar said.
Fond du Lac
Fond du Lac means “foot of the lake” in French, as the town is perched on the shores of Lake Winnebago, one of the country’s largest inland lakes. It is also surrounded by state forest and the largest cattail marsh in the United States.
“We’re a perfect hub-and-spoke because we are just south of Green Bay and north of Milwaukee,” said Liz Engh, director of group tour sales for the Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The area is known for its lakeside supper clubs and its 400-acre Lakeside Park, which has a beautiful lighthouse where visitors love to pose for selfies. The supper clubs are come-as-you-are family-style restaurants that serve everything from seafood to steak, and they are where residents of the area go every Friday night to meet friends and celebrate events.
Agritourism is big in the area, and groups love to visit Rosendale Dairy, a large corporate dairy farm with two 80-cow carousels and a milking parlor. The Meuer Farm is a sustainable farm that grows many different types of grains. Visitors take a wagon ride around the farm and learn about sustainable farming practices and then shop the Busy Bee Country Store. Groups can also take a tour through the “Everglades of the North,” the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States.
Other group tours take visitors to area wineries, breweries and distilleries or to the apple orchards. And even though the area has an agricultural bent, it also is home to 70 attractions, including museums, theaters, galleries and family-owned businesses.
Hudson sits on the St. Croix River where it merges with the Mississippi River. Early settlers to the area, mostly loggers, named the area Hudson because it reminded them of the Hudson River on the East Coast. To get a deeper sense of the area, groups love to get out on the water with St. Croix River Cruises, which operates out of Hudson. The cruise company has two large boats that offer scenic cruises, leaf peeping, fireworks, comedian dinner cruises and more.
Visitors that want to experience the waterfront without stepping foot on a boat should visit Lakefront Park, which has picnic shelters and a walking path that goes five or six city blocks along the water’s edge. There is also an old toll bridge road that leads to where a bridge used to connect Minnesota and Wisconsin. Visitors still like to walk to the end of the road and take advantage of the swim beach there. Fishing is big as well. Birkmose Park and Indian Burial Grounds overlooks the St. Croix River Valley and river and is home to several Native American burial mounds.
The Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau offers self-guided historic walking tours of restored Victorian-era homes in the historic residential district of Hudson. The Hudson Food Walk offers a three-hour guided tour of historic downtown Hudson with tastings at five popular restaurants. And the Hudson Trolley Company offers wine, brew and distillery tours; scenic and historic tours; specialty and holiday tours; and family fun tours. The town has a great arts community that includes art galleries, theater and music.
Oshkosh is surrounded by water. There are lakes to the east and west and a river that runs between them, so it is safe to say that much of what happens in Oshkosh happens on or near the water. The town has capitalized on its perfect water placement by building a river walk and adding numerous waterfront bars and restaurants, “which makes it a really fun place to hang out when the weather is nice,” said Cathy Cluff, director of sales for the Oshkosh Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Group visitors that want to get out on the water can book a paddlewheel riverboat tour through On the Loos Cruises. The 39-passenger paddle wheeler travels up and down the Fox River and on to Lake Butte des Morts and Lake Winnebago. Another cruise tour company, the Fin ’n’ Feather, offers scenic dinner, lunch and brunch cruises on the Showboat II riverboat that traverses the scenic Wolf River and upper lakes. The Showboat II Cruises can hold 120 passengers for cocktail and hors d’oeuvre cruises and up to 60 for buffet cruises.
Groups can combine a cruise with visits to Oshkosh’s museum and art galleries. Cluff likens Oshkosh to Cape Cod, saying it is just as pretty but much less crowded.
“We’re really lucky in Oshkosh,” Cluff said. “We’re a small to medium-size city with four museums, all of which are different and interesting.”
The most visited museum is the Experimental Aircraft Association, which is an aircraft and spacecraft museum. Oshkosh hosts the world’s largest air show each year, drawing half a million people to the area for a week in July. The Paine Art Center and Gardens is also a big draw. The historic mansion and gardens hosts world-class art exhibits, including works by Chihuly and Tiffany.
Dubbed the Malibu of the Midwest, Sheboygan is known for its freshwater surfing on Lake Michigan. Surfers come from all over to take advantage of the best freshwater surfing in the world. Surfing isn’t for everybody, so for group travelers who want to get a taste of the lake, the Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan (SEAS) offers stand-up paddleboarding, sailing and powerboat lessons. The two-hour sailing course gives first-time sailors instruction on how to handle every aspect of a sailboat. The tour is great for people 50 or older, said Shelly Harms, tours and events manager for Visit Sheboygan.
Visitors to the lakefront can also tour the wreck of the Lottie Cooper, a three-masted schooner that capsized and sank in 1894 just off Sheboygan Harbor. The wreck was discovered before the construction of the marina. The remains of the ship were recovered and reassembled in Deland Park. Self-guided tours and guided tours of the ship are available.
Group travelers that aren’t interested in getting out on Lake Michigan can try a bratwurst in the so-called bratwurst capital of the world or take part in group activities sponsored by the downtown business district, three blocks from the lakefront. One shop offers a class on how to make all-natural cosmetics and hand and body lotion. A kitchen store offers group cooking classes, and its Gadget Hour allows visitors to try all kinds of kitchen gadgets they’ve probably never encountered.
“A lot of times when we have a motorcoach, 40 or 50 people can’t go to each business,” said Harms. The group will be split up so that everyone can get a taste of what Sheboygan has to offer.
There’s also a nice walking trail that runs parallel to Lake Michigan, and visitors can visit the stores, restaurants, bars and coffee shops along the way. Kohler-Andrae State Park, about two miles south of Sheboygan, offers a mix of pine and hardwood forests, beautiful beaches and sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan and river marshland. Bookworm Gardens is another must-see in Sheboygan. The botanic gardens were inspired by famous children’s storybooks.