Water is a recurring theme in my list of the most beautiful places in Wisconsin. After all this is a state with a shoreline on two Great Lakes.
In the east is Lake Michigan, while the very north of Wisconsin touches Lake Superior, the largest and wildest of the Great Lakes.
Wisconsin’s interior is flecked with thousands of freshwater lakes, while rivers have shaped the landscape particularly in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin untouched by Ice Age glaciers and etched with impressive gorges.
In the northeast, the Niagara Escarpment shoots off around the shore of Lake Michigan, and this impressive belt of rock reaches the water at the Door Peninsula, a natural and cultural playground akin to Cape Cod.
1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
I’ll begin in northernmost Wisconsin, off the Bayfield Peninsula, where there’s a set of 21 islands protected as one of the United States’ ten national lakeshores.
Reached only by water or air, Apostle Islands are a treasure, with sea caves, striated sandstone cliffs, old-growth forests, ghost towns, nine historic lighthouses, underwater caves, and vibrant wildlife.
With some careful planning you could embark on the kayak adventure of a lifetime, discovering sea caves and remote beaches, and camping far from civilization.
Guides paddling trips are available too, or you can see the islands’ wonders from the comfort of a yacht on a cruise. The town of Bayfield is your way in, with a trove of practical info and advice at the headquarters and visitor center.
2. Devil’s Lake State Park
I think it’s impossible not to be spellbound by this strange natural anomaly, where a lake with no surface outlet is framed by bluffs made up of some of the oldest surface rock in North America.
Devil’s Lake is a vestige of the Wisconsin River, which is now several miles to the southeast.
At the end of the last Ice Age this stretch of river was effectively dammed by terminal moraines at its north and south ends, and impounded to the east and west by the walls of a gorge with quartzite dating back some 1.6 billion years.
Hike the Tumbled Rocks Trail on the west side leading past peculiar deposits along the shore, and then loop back via the West Bluff Trail, with steep drop-offs and jaw-dropping views up to 500 feet above the lake.
3. Door County
Running through northeast Wisconsin, the Niagara Escarpment is an immense arc through the Great Lakes region. In Door County this belt forms a long peninsula, pushing out into Lake Michigan, with magnificent limestone outcroppings on both shores.
Door County is compared to Cape Cod, for its charming coastal communities, quirky specialty shops, vineyards, and effervescent culture, with more than 80 museums, theaters, studios and galleries.
This is all intermingled with nature that will take your breath away, with five state parks and 19 county parks, while ten lighthouses bring some nautical romance to the 300 miles of shoreline. With so much to see, I’ll cover several locations on the Door Peninsula later in this list.
4. Copper Falls State Park
There’s thrilling scenery at Copper Falls State Park, where the Bad River flows through a steep and dark gorge.
These formations are part of the Gogebic Range, extending east into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and valued historically for its iron ore deposits.
To see the highlights on one amazing hike, take the Doughboy’s Nature Trail, a light 1.7-mile loop with three waterfalls on the way.
To go with its magnificent formations, I love how the state park has a modern historical interest, having been developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depths of the Great Depression. Roads, trails and several log buildings hark back to that time.
Also read: The Best US National Parks to Visit
Wisconsin’s smallest city is the departure point for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, but that doesn’t tell the full story of a place often voted among the most beloved small towns in the Midwest.
Bayfield is a historic lumber town, reborn as a tourist escape with spellbinding vistas of Lake Superior, a stirring maritime heritage, hiking trails all along the peninsula, and a slew of orchards to visit close by.
Those fruit trees come into bloom in early June, and there’s a festival in Bayfield to mark the occasion, as well as the popular Apple Fest in October during the harvest.
I’d also keep an eye on the schedule at Big Top Chautauqua, a famous seasonal live music venue that has welcomed the likes of Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, B.B. King and Willie Nelson in its time.
6. Wisconsin Dells
Firmly on the tourist map, Wisconsin Dells takes its name from a five-mile sandstone gorge. This rock, sculpted into sinuous cliffs and branching off along tributaries, is highly delicate, and best viewed from a boat on a tour.
One section open to the public is the Witches Gulch, where a boardwalk takes you through a dark, mossy ravine.
More than anywhere else on my list, the town of Wisconsin Dells is a family destination, visited by as many as five million people each year.
As well as those geological wonders, you’ve got a whole lineup of indoor and outdoor water parks (this is The Waterpark Capital of the World), along with zoos, museums, and other attractions. Like a short riverwalk for a snapshot of the scenery enveloping the town.
In 1911, to get away from the scandal caused by his relationship with Mamah Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright returned to the landscape of his childhood, by the Wisconsin River in the hilly Driftless Region.
Sitting on the brow of a hill, Taliesin was reworked in 1914 and 1925 and the 800-acre estate is dotted with architecture from every chapter in his prestigious career.
This would be his main residence and studio for the test of his life, encapsulating his philosophy of Organic Architecture better than any other site.
At the core is the Taliesin residence, accompanied by buildings from the 1890s up to the 1950s, including the Romeo and Juliet Windmill (1896), Hillside Home School (1903), and Midway Barn (1949).
Also check out my guide on the most romantic weekend getaways in Wisconsin!
8. Cave Point County Park
There’s breathtaking, rough-hewn beauty at this unique place on the east side of the Door Peninsula.
At Cave Point County Park you’ll come to a line of dolomite cliffs shaped by the waves on Lake Michigan. Something that fascinates me about this place is how its character is entirely transformed by the conditions.
When the surf is boisterous there’s an almost intimidating feel to Cave Point, with waves thundering against the rock and sending plumes of mist through blowholes.
Hours later, the waves can be little more than ripples and you’ll be tempted to take a kayak tour or join the swimmers leaping into the clear water.
The property is surrounded on three sides by Whitefish Dunes State Park, with fine sandy beaches and the largest dunes on the western shore of Lake Michigan.
9. Peninsula State Park
Facing Green Bay on the Door Peninsula, Wisconsin’s most versatile state park packs unspoiled nature, soaring bluffs, historic landmarks, and endless opportunities for recreation.
As a priority, I think everyone should head straight for the 180-foot Eagle Bluff on the park’s north side, where there’s an observation tower that you can scale via a magnificent 850-foot canopy walk for an extraordinary panorama of the peninsula, Horseshoe Island and Eagle Harbor.
Also allow plenty of time for the idyllic Eagle Bluff Light (1868), open for tours, and with awesome views of the Strawberry Islands.
Peninsula State Park has an abundance of facilities to cater to its many visitors, with 470 family campsites, miles of trails for hiking and biking, a gorgeous beach, two golf courses, the White Cedar Nature Center, and a large choice of picnic areas.
Also see: 15 Best Lakes in Wisconsin
10. Newport State Park
Things start to feel very remote as you approach the northern tip of the Door Peninsula, and this seclusion makes Newport State Park the best place in Wisconsin to study the night sky.
The International Dark-Sky Association designated it a Dark Sky Park in 2017, and it’s a title given only to parts of the world with the least light pollution.
In the daytime the park’s wilderness is ripe for discovery on foot, with more than 30 miles of trails, all close to the shoreline of Lake Michigan, which is extraordinarily beautiful.
For a true outdoorsy experience I recommend a backpacking trip, as the park has 17 far-flung campsites that can only be reached on foot via trails or by kayak on the water.
Along Cedar Creek, Cedarburg grew up as a mill town in the 19th century, including the largest woolen mill west of Philadelphia.
The settlement that formed around these factories is now downtown, with more than 200 historic buildings, and several listings on the National Register of Historic Places.
I’d fill a weekend in Cedarburg with lazy strolls, a coasting bike ride on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail, and visits to museums, galleries, wineries, craft breweries and a distillery.
12. Pattison State Park
In the far northwest of Wisconsin you can track down the highest waterfall in the state. This is the dramatic Big Manitou Falls, 165 feet high, making it the fourth highest east of the Rockies.
You don’t need to be a daring adventurer to see one of the Wiconsin’s natural wonders, as there’s a parking lot just off State Trunk Highway 35, which cuts through the park, while a wooden observation deck at the top gives you the perfect view of the waterfall spilling into the gorge.
The smaller Little Manitou Falls is equally accessible on the south side of the park, while in between is the Interfalls Lake, with a 300-foot sandy beach.
Pattison State Park is a stop that can be done in an hour or so, but I’d advise packing mosquito repellent if you’re coming in summer.
Also check out my guide on the best waterfalls to visit in Wisconsin.
13. Perrot State Park
In the Driftless Region, Perrot State Park is at the scenic place where the Trempealeau River flows into the Mississippi. Here you can check out some of the finest views of the Mississippi to be had anywhere.
The bluffs along the river rise to more than 500 feet, and afford amazing vistas of the great river, and landmarks like the prominent Trempealeau Mountain, used as a navigation aid by steamboat captains.
If you’re hiking, my tip is to come prepared, as these trails can be surprisingly tough. Near the confluence, Trempealeau Bay is perfect for paddling in summer, with astounding views of the bluffs all around.
14. Eagle River Chain of Lakes
A part of Wisconsin a little neglected by my list is the Northern Highland, a large region of forestland peppered with glacial lakes. This is the setting for what is claimed to be the longest chain of freshwater lakes in the world.
Held as one of Wisconsin’s natural wonders, the Eagle River Chain of Lakes is made up of 28 connected bodies of clear water.
If you’re up for outdoor recreation, you’ll be in good hands, with more than 240,000 acres of public lands in Vilas County alone.
There’s a multitude of picturesque places for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, boating, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, and fishing. In fact, this is one of the best spots around for bass, panfish and musky fishing, and you can arrange a charter or hire an experienced guide to help you land a monster.
15. Lake Geneva
From the 1870s the shores of the crystalline Geneva Lake in southeast Wisconsin became an opulent resort, favored by Chicago industrialists.
One of these was beer tycoon Conrad Seipp, whose elegant Queen Anne estate, Black Point, is open for tours in the summer months. Lake Geneva endures as a summer getaway, with an enticing public beach downtown, commanded by the grand Riviera Ballroom from 1932.
There’s a 21-mile trail around the entire lakeshore, for a leisurely stroll to admire those stately mansions.
You can also delve into the city’s glamorous history at the local museum, cruise the waters on any kind of vessel you can imagine, and check out a whole catalog of family attractions befitting a modern resort city.
16. Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Winters in Wisconsin can outstay their welcome, but one place to go for unseasonal color is the Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison.
This 10,000-square-foot greenhouse has some 750 plants from 550+ species and cultivars from tropical and sub-tropical zones. In the coldest months of the year, the temperature is a regular 18-26 °F. My favorite here is the rank-smelling corpse flower, which only blooms every few years.
Outside are 16 acres of perfectly tended gardens, among them a rock garden with a beautiful stream, a sunken garden, a rose garden with an observation tower, a meadow garden, and a Thai garden with a traditional sala pavilion.
17. Cave of the Mounds
In the Driftless Area you can make the descent into the best example of a limestone cave in the Upper Midwest. Flush with bizarre concretions, including flowstones, helictites, soda straws, oolites, and curtains, the Cave of the Mounds is a National Natural Landmark.
This cavity was gradually formed over some 488 million years and lay undiscovered until an opening was exposed in a quarry in 1939.
The cave has been open to the public since the following year, and has concrete walkways, masterful lighting, and lots of signs shedding light on the science and history of this place.
The countryside on ground level is a joy, and you can also get a handle on the area’s geology and its fascinating processes along the Karst Trail directly above the cave.
Read also: 15 Best Places to Live in Wisconsin
18. New Glarus
Source: Erwin Widmer / shutterstock
Known as America’s Little Switzerland, this picture-perfect village in Green County was founded in the 1840s by immigrants from the Swiss canton of Glarus.
Down the years, New Glarus held onto its Swiss heritage and then started to actively promote it in the 20th century.
Now, according to the municipal code, any new building or renovation downtown has to be in the Swiss style, giving rise to a quaint townscape of chalets, while Swiss customs like yodeling and Jass are still alive.
For things to do, you’ve got a whole calendar of Swiss-style festivals, one of the top craft breweries in the region, a vineyard, a village-style historical museum, and the adventure of the 24-mile Sugar River State Trail.
19. Horicon Marsh
The largest freshwater marsh in the country is in southeastern Wisconsin, at the site of a silted-up glacial lake.
Spread across more than 33,000 acres, the Horicon Marsh is a Ramsar site, and a crucial spot for Canada geese and several duck species to rest on their migrations.
The landscape is divided into a National Wildlife Refuge in the north and a State Wildlife Area in the south, with three visitor centers to check out.
You can hike along a boardwalk to view egrets, drive a three-mile auto tour, and launch a kayak in the State Wildlife Area, off Wisconsin Highway 28. My ideal time to visit is, of course, in spring and fall for the Canada geese migrations, bringing thousands of birdwatchers to the marsh.
To my mind, the best place to see the sun go down in Wisconsin is at this stunning village in Door County, just east of Peninsula State Park. Ephraim has a pristine view west across Eagle Harbor to the park’s beech-covered bluffs.
This is another place with strong roots, settled in the 1850s by Norwegian Protestants, belonging to the Moriavian Church.
With cute whitewashed buildings, the village is well preserved, walkable and packed with galleries, studios, and local businesses like Wilson’s Ice Cream, a fixture since 1906.
In summer it’s hard to resist the call of Eagle Harbour, whether you’re kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, or yachting, or simply taking it all in from Harborside Park.
21. High Cliff State Park
Next to Wiconsin’s largest inland lake, this awe-inspiring landscape is also on the Niagara Escarpment, with rousing views of Lake Winnebago from the top of the limestone cliff.
As well as sheer walls of rock, there’s compelling history at High Cliff State Park, with nine important examples of conical and effigy mounds, made between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago by Siouan Native Americans.
More recent are the vestiges of a lime kiln and quarry, operating between the 1850s and 1950s.
Something I find fascinating about High Cliff is the huge diversity in plant life within a few hundred feet, from the summit to the slope and the lakeshore.
Atop the cliff there’s an observation tower, where you can see for miles across the lake and north over the Fox River valley.
This one-of-a-kind city is the jumping off point for Devil’s Lake State Park and the rest of the ecologically and geologically important Baraboo Range.
But I reckon Baraboo itself deserves plenty of your time, not least because of its beautiful preserved downtown, with scores of historically significant buildings and a lively square around the Sauk County Courthouse.
For decades, Baraboo was the winter home of one of the Ringling brothers, one of the largest circuses in the United States. Their headquarters, dating back to the 1880s, is on the National Register of Historic Places and open as a museum.
23. Brunet Island State Park
At the confluence of the Fisher and Chippewa rivers, this water-rich property is another of the best places in Wisconsin for a kayaking adventure.
That is down to the large network of lagoons and gentle channels at Brunet Island State Park. The namesake island, covering 169 acres, is the park’s most developed area, and you can rent all the equipment you need from outfitters in Cornell, a mile or two away.
As well as a choice of boat ramps you’ll find a swimming beach, almost 70 campsites, shelters with electricity, and connections to the 19.5-mile Old Abe Trail, and the epic Ice Age Trail, which weaves through Wisconsin for 1,200 miles.
24. Elkhart Lake
In the 19th century the stagecoach and then the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad brought guests to this refined lakeside resort village.
Well over a century later, Elkhart Lake remains an elevated destination, with a string of resorts and waterside parks around the eponymous 300-acre glacial lake.
One of my favorite sights in Wisconsin is Elkhart Lake on a sunny day, when the water has a beautiful shade of deep blue, caused by its natural springs.
You can linger by the shore, go fishing, take a paddling trip, and attend one of the many summer festivals that infuse the village with a sense of fun.
Elkhart Lake is also a byword for motorsports, with a legendary road course that opened in 1955 and continues to host more than 400 events each year.
Also see: Best Resorts in Wisconsin
25. Richard Bong State Recreation Area
Bringing an end to my list is more than 4,000 acres of grasslands and wetlands in Racine County towards the southeast of Wisconsin.
There’s an intriguing story behind the Richard Bong State Recreation Area as in the 1950s this patch of farmland was all set to become an Air Force base, but the plans were abandoned just before construction began.
There’s a gentle beauty to the low, rolling landscape, ready for hiking, camping (217 sites), fishing, paddling and birding.
An easy way to experience this place is on a paved service road, which will lead you past something unexpected—the Champion Tree, a sizable bald cypress relocated here from Louisiana in the mid-19th century.
Read Next: 20 Amazing Hidden Gems in Wisconsin