Happy Trails

By - May 1st, 2008 02:52 pm
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It’s official: you have no good excuse to stay home this summer.

Okay, we take that back. If you want to stay home this summer, you’re welcome to. But there’s a ton to do around here, so we want to make sure you have plenty of ideas for ways to enjoy yourself.

Look, we hear you. Times are tight. Fuel costs are insane, which means prices for everything else are insane, too. Consumer confidence is at an epic low, and everywhere we turn, another flawed system we’ve trusted for too long seems poised to collapse: the housing market, health care, energy, the American dollar. We’re still at war. We’re facing down a mighty sense of global unease. And, increasingly, we’re called to task on the bad shape our planet is in, thanks to a hundred odd-years of industrialization, exponential growth and the unchecked exploitation of our natural resources. It’s too soon to determine the consequences of humanity’s reckless abandon, but they could be dire – even disastrous. We know that if we don’t curb the depletion soon, we’ll be helpless when things start to get really nasty.

It’s enough to make you hunker down in your cellar with some canned goods and a few good books and say, “See you at Christmas.”

But here’s the good news: Wisconsin is amazing.

We mean it: rich natural beauty, a diverse cultural landscape, a wide swath of arts offerings. It sounds tired, but it’s true. And thankfully, traveling lightly in Wisconsin – whether you want to kayak, see Shakespeare outdoors, hear a bluegrass band or just eat some chocolate – is easy. It’s good for your wallet and for the world at large. In fact, there has never been a better time to gain perspective, to reconnect with yourself, your family and the land we all share, to learn, to be an active, fearless member of society.

We are so anxious for you to have a good summer that we’ve spent some time and thought putting together this idea book of low-stress, low-cost, low-impact summer leisure options. It’s a starting point, so browse and brainstorm. Grab some Post-Its or take some notes. Tread lightly this summer, but please, whatever you do, never forget that fun is a top priority.


You might think of the rugged north woods or the towering bluffs of the driftless zone when you think of adventure travel in the Badger State, but you don’t have to go that far.

Get in gear with Bike to Work Week, brought to you by the Bike Federation of Wisconsin, May 11 – May 16. It’s not just a healthier and more conscious way to conduct a daily commute; there are events planned throughout the city for every day of the week, including a Mother’s Day ride along the lakefront, a morning cruise downtown with the Mayor, daily coffee breaks at the Alterra Foundry, mid-week bar trivia, and a grand finale meet-up at Jackalope Lounj and bike-in to the movies at the Marsupial Bridge on May 16, co-sponsored by VITAL.

Looking for more action? We might not have mountains, but you can still mountain bike in Milwaukee County Parks on the three-mile Alpha Trail in Whitnall Park (connecting to the five miles of Crystal Ridges trail) and the 2.5-mile loop in Hoyt Park. Biking not your thing? Maybe you can kayak to work. The Milwaukee Urban River Trail has made it easier than ever for person-powered vessels to navigate the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, with a number of launch and portage locations throughout the park system.

Wisconsin’s most important archeological site is Aztalan State Park in Jefferson, a middle-Mississippian village that is, oh, a thousand years old or so. Hang out at the old stockade, hike its 172 acres of oak woods and prairie, boat the Crawfish River or fish for Northern pike, catfish and walleye. And learn something while you’re at it!

If you’d rather take it to the streets, try the Streetball Challenge in Neenah, June 14-15, where more than 2,000 men and women compete on 400 teams in a three-on-three basketball tournament – played in the downtown streets. That’s awesome. It’s open to anyone over the age of eight of all skill levels. Application deadline is May 14. Or just head out to spectate. We’re sure there will be pick-up games.

If you are up for a northwest adventure, give Living Adventure in Bayfield on Lake Superior a call for guided sea kayaking, overnight inter-island trips and an excellent off-shore shipwreck tour. No need to worry about getting in the water – you can see the wreck right from your boat. Of course, if you are dive-certified, Lake Michigan offers better shipwreck diving than almost anywhere in the world, and a number of dive charters are available to take you to the best sites, including Adventure Charter Boats and Jerry Guyer’s Len-Der Charters.


It’s tough for families to make dollars stretch and keep impatient brains engaged, but we think with a little tenacity you can handle this summer with grace – even enthusiasm.

Seriously, who doesn’t love New Glarus, which offers something for everyone during Heidi Festival and Taste & Treasure of New Glarus, June 27-29. Sample fine noshes and brews while you enjoy sidewalk shopping, a festive Swiss atmosphere and a performance of that classic children’s play about a girl with braids, a gruff old man and the Alps. We hear there will actually be goats onstage.

It’s a proven fact that kids love spelunking, so indulge them with a trip to the Cave of the Mounds, a national landmark widely regarded as the jewel box of major American caves. A guided tour of the limestone cave, with its paved walkways and handrails, is easy even on little feet or shaky knees. From there it’s only a 30-minute excursion to the recently-renovated House on the Rock, an astounding exhibition of whimsy, imagination, curiosity, antiques, warped perspectives, and other things that will fill children with awe, astonishment and perhaps a good kind of terror.

Port Washington is close enough for a family bike trip, if your kids are older and heartier, and from June 6-8 it turns into a landlubber’s paradise of mayhem and merriment with the annual Port Washington Pirate Festival. This event, suitable only for scallywags, wenches and their little brats, features a live pirate invasion, a thieves’ marketplace, children’s activities, street performers, a parade, music – you know, everything you expect from pirates. And it’s free! Yo ho ho!

Another “can’t miss” is the Wisconsin-wide Free Fishing Weekend, held annually the first consecutive Saturday and Sunday in June. All the waters of the state are open, including the Great Lakes and rivers bordering Wisconsin. Everyone can fish without a fishing license – although all other fishing regulations (length limits, bag limits, etc.) apply. Because children under the age of 16 never need a fishing license, the motto for Free Fishing Weekend could be “take a grown-up fishing!”


A February article in The New York Times chronicled Wisconsin’s “candy delta”: a frozen-in-time triangle of quaint towns and decadent chocolate shops between Green Bay, Manitowoc and Oshkosh. But the candy shop tradition lives on across the state and right here in Milwaukee – look no further than Stam Chocolate, Kehr’s Candies, The Chocolate Tree or Niemann’s Homemade Chocolate Shop. Of course, for the serious chocoholic, this summer’s must-attend event is the Burlington Chocolate Festival in Burlington, May 23-26, which tempers the chocolate fever with cooking demonstrations, a wine tasting, fireworks, a carnival (give yourself 30 minutes to digest before you ride the Tilt-o-Whirl), a 5k “Chocolate Chase” and more.

There are plenty of places to try cheese around here, but if you find yourself in central Wisconsin, consider a visit to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. They hand-make traditional cheeses using organic, non-GMO, rBGH-free ingredients – and they use an innovative, trademarked “Living Machine” to clean up their wash water and return it to Honey Creek fresh and pure. It’s radical in its own humble way and provides a superb environmental learning experience to accompany your gourmet tasting.

In Muscoda in southwestern Wisconsin, sample a strange and rare delicacy during the Morel Mushroom Festival, May 17-18. Buy morels, sell morels and stuff yourself with morels, then attend a lecture, browse arts and crafts, visit the Ho-Chunk Bison Ranch and stay for the fireworks. There is ample camping, hiking, hunting and fishing in Grant County. Muscoda is also the home of self-taught salvaged metal sculptor Ellis Nelson, whose work you can see throughout the town – or at his studio. Just stop by – allegedly, he loves visitors.

If you want to go farther this summer, spend a weekend in the fields, forests and wetlands of Ogema, hosting the Spring Forager’s Harvest May 17-18. Learn to identify and harvest edible plants, then cook them into a delectable found feast. You’ll hike to Wisconsin’s highest point and visit a virgin tract of forest. Meals and campsite are included for $125. Think of it as purchasing insurance for the next time you are stranded in the wilderness with nothing to eat.


We understand and accept that some of us aren’t “outside” people, but don’t let an aversion to bugs and heat keep you shut in for the season.

In Kenosha, celebrate the grand opening of The Civil War Museum, the first of its kind in the country, June 14-15. The Museum explores life on the home front as well as the battlefield and the social, political and economic influences and implications of the War. The first temporary exhibition studies the wreck of the Maple Leaf, a Union transport vessel sunk near Jacksonville, Florida by a Confederate torpedo.

A hidden gem a mere 30 miles from Milwaukee in Genesee Depot, especially for lovers of theater, antiques and old houses, is Ten Chimneys, the breathtaking country retreat of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Their estate is filled with furniture, décor and accent pieces hand-selected by the couple, comprising a magnificent survey of 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s art and home wares, and situated on 60 green, rolling acres. Throughout the summer, public lectures and readings evoke the Golden Age of theater arts in an unparalleled setting.

Science geeks, environmental advocates and anyone interested in reducing their footprint should make it a point to attend the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair in Custer. We’ll only say this once: it is the largest energy fair of its kind in the world, featuring over 260 exhibitors, 170 workshops, a clean energy car show, a farmer’s market and a “green home pavilion” designed to help you find sustainable, efficient and responsible home design ideas and products. The Fair provides mass transit options straight from Milwaukee.

If you can’t make it to Custer, you’ll find another benchmark of sustainability in Baraboo – the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center is the greenest building in the country. Take a guided tour to learn about the grandfather of wilderness preservation and wildlife management, as well as the features of the Legacy Center – solar power, geothermics and sustainable materials – that allow it to produce more energy than it consumes.

As long as you’re in Baraboo, pay a visit to Circus World Museum, where you’ll find the restored town Ringlingville, where the famous Ringling Brothers spent their winters, as well as the world’s largest collection of antique circus wagons. Throughout the summer, see circus shows daily in the Hippodrome, Circus World’s permanent big top.


The Steel Bridge SongFest celebrates its fourth season June 12 – 14 in Sturgeon Bay. Steel Bridge benefits the preservation of Michigan Street Bridge, the iconic gateway to Door County and a historic Wisconsin landmark. The structure, built in 1930, is one of only two like it in the country. Organized by pat mAcdonald, the event brings together more than 100 bands and musicians from across the nation to perform, speak out and create. One of the most unique aspects of the Fest is The Construction Zone, a five-day collaborative songwriting workshop for 25 invited artists, who will be performing around town during the weekend. Fest headliners include mAcdonald, Jackson Browne, Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s, Eric McFadden of P-Funk, Victor DeLorenzo of the Violent Femmes, Ian Moore and Louise Goffin.

Jazz in the Park and Florentine at the Lake are grand outdoor music traditions in Milwaukee, and Madison has one of its own – Concerts on the Square, free performances by the Madison Chamber Orchestra on the grounds of the state capitol. The 2008 season marks the series’ 25th anniversary, so it’s sure to be bigger and more beautiful than ever. Rough it and bring a blanket and a picnic, or make a donation and reserve a table with linens and a catered meal.

Get a true taste of rustic Wisconsin at Bill Jorgenson’s Heritage Farms Bluegrass Festival, June 13 – 15 in Kewaunee. Banjo-man Bill Jorgenson, the father of Wisconsin bluegrass, died last year at the age of 77, and this year’s festival is held in his memory. Spend three days getting down to the authentic sound of ten Midwestern bluegrass bands, then stay up past your bedtime dancing in the barn – or around the bonfire. Country food from the farm kitchen will be available for purchase and there are three full-service campgrounds in the vicinity for the ultimate backwoods hospitality experience!

Closer to home, our fave summer music spree is the late-season Global Union, hosted at the band shell in Milwaukee’s Humboldt Park by Alverno Presents. There’s a palpable feeling of community friendliness and worldly goodwill when you bring in acts of all different flavors from all over the world and let people enjoy their talent and passion for free. We’re looking forward to it.


There’s way more to summer in Milwaukee than festival season (though of course festivals are fun, too) – you could easily plan a full-on long-weekend vacation without ever leaving the county.

Of course, for enthusiasts of that other kind of bike, there’s a great deal in store this summer. It’s Harley Davidson’s 105th Anniversary, August 28-31. The ride-in is bigger than ever, with 105 major starting cities across the country and 80 smaller starting points. And the Harley-Davidson Museum opens in July at 6th and Canal in the rejuvenated Menomonee Valley. Harley-Davidson is one of Milwaukee’s great industrial icons, and the design of the museum reflects that legacy while making serious steps toward environmental sustainability. Plus, everyone knows that motorcycles get way better gas mileage than cars.

If you still find yourself feeling shut in – or just broke – remember all of the fabulous civic institutions you can access for cheap or free as a city resident: the Milwaukee Public Museum is free on Mondays, Milwaukee Art Museum on Wednesdays. Take $1.75 off each admission to the Milwaukee County Zoo on Wednesdays. For $10, get a “Magnificent Three” pass valid for admission to the Charles Allis Art Museum, Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum and the Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion. That’s a whiz-bang $3.33 a visit – and you don’t have to see them all the same day!

Alright, so you’re out of ideas. Or you’re full of them. The next step?

Visit our online summer recreation guide, where you’ll find contact information, planning resources, links to maps, routes and trails, and a few dozen other ideas that we couldn’t fit in print. There’s everything you need to minimize your impact and maximize both your money and your enjoyment.

Still have questions, or ideas to share? Come see us at the Jackalope Lounj on May 16, or leave a comment on the story.

Until then, happy trails. VS

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