15 great places for kids in Wisconsin
From farm to city to beach, the state is one big playground for children.
© Beth Gauper
Near Baraboo, Devil's Lake is said to be the cleanest and clearest in the state.
Over the years, my children logged many crossings of the St. Croix River.
Like all who are young at heart, we love traveling in Wisconsin. Not only is it beautiful, but it also tends to produce people who remember how much fun it was to be a kid.
Take Laura Ingalls Wilder and Caddie Woodlawn, whose adventures were recounted in famous children's books.
The Ringling Brothers' youthful spectacles in Baraboo grew into the world's biggest circus, and Tommy Bartlett's water-ski thrill show helped turn the Wisconsin Dells into Kid Central.
Thanks to them, it's really fun to be a kid in Wisconsin.
When they were younger, my children were thrilled by the Big Top Circus in Baraboo, the water parks in the Dells, the vintage-train rides out of Osceola.
When they grew older, they began to appreciate the theaters and shops of Door County, the counterculture atmosphere of Madison's State Street and baseball games under the retractable roof of Milwaukee's Miller Park.
But their favorite spots weren't always the biggest or best-known attractions. They loved picking blueberries in the bluffs near Laura Ingalls Wilder's birthplace and playing with puppies on Amish farms in Vernon County.
They loved any beach on Lake Superior or Lake Michigan, especially if it had rocks on which they could climb.
Not all kids like the same things, of course. Still, it's a good bet that any of them can have a good time in the Badger State. After all, said John Ringling, one thing we never lose is "the universal instinct to be young again."
Below are some of Wisconsin's greatest destinations, for young and old.
© Beth Gauper
Little boys get a ride atop an elephant at Circus World in Baraboo.
Who doesn't like a circus? Along the Baraboo River at the Ringlings' old winter quarters, Circus World Museum includes an authentic Big Top Circus that has all the classics — jugglers, clowns, aerialists and illusionists. Be sure to spend the entire day.
Just to the south, Devil's Lake State Park has one of the state's most popular beaches on the state's clearest lake. Older children will love climbing around on the boulders and rocks that surround the lake, as well as hiking on the spectacular East and West Bluff trails.
For more, see The divine Devil's Lake.
This peninsula in Lake Michigan has fine restaurants, shops, B&Bs, music festivals and outdoor theaters, so many people think of it as an adult getaway.
But Door County is lined by sand beaches on which little kids can spend hours, and older kids will find lots of chances to bicycle, sail, swim and explore — and there's even a drive-in theater.
For more, see Outdoors in Door County.
© Beth Gauper
Most rides at Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay cost 50 cents.
Once, many towns had places like Bay Beach Amusement Park; now, Green Bay's city-owned park is a rare treasure.
It's peaceful, wholesome and scenic, and rides are a bargain — $1 for a ride on the Zippin Pippin, a replica of Elvis' favorite roller coaster; 50 cents for the Ferris wheel, Scrambler, Tilt-A-Whirl and Yo-Yo; and only 25 cents to go down a giant slide.
On many Mondays and Wednesdays, there are Teen Nights for high-school kids, featuring free rides and a live radio broadcast. It's on the Lake Michigan shore east of downtown.
Of course, there's one other little attraction in Green Bay. Little Packers fans can tread the hallowed grounds of Lambeau Field and absorb nuggets of Vince Lombardi's wisdom — "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing'' — at the 25,000-square-foot Packers Hall of Fame.
It's known for big fish, big lakes — and big men swinging axes and chain saws.
Hayward still is a lumber town, and muscle-bound jacks and jills perform six days a week in the summer, entertaining visitors with speed climbing, logrolling, log-jousting and axe-throwing at the Lumberjack Bowl.
On the last weekend of July, see the best of the best compete in the Lumberjack World Championships, where the lithe and speedy Hayward athletes often dominate.
For more, see Hayward's lumberjacks.
This is lakes country, and the busy resort town Minocqua is nearby. But the village of Lac du Flambeau has retained a low-key atmosphere as well as northwoods traditions.
Kids can meet local Ojibwe and learn about their traditions at the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center and at the weekly powwows at the Waaswaaganing Indian Bowl, where everyone who wants to dance is invited into the circle.
© Beth Gauper
For Madeline Island's sandcastle competition, children pitch in and often create their own.
There are no go-karts, water parks or fast-food restaurants on the largest of the Apostles, but children will find some of the region's more charming pleasures.
For the annual Fourth of July parade, visiting children are invited to make papier-mache puppets at a drop-in workshop. For the annual sand-castle competition at Big Bay State Park in August, children are asked not only to create sand sculpture but to create "stories" about them as well.
Of course, the beaches on Lake Superior are a big draw, and adventurous teens can explore by kayak or bicycle, perhaps dropping by Tom's Burned Down Cafe, where "Normal is just a setting on a washing machine."
For such a college town, this city is remarkably child-friendly, with a children's museum, a children's theater and regular free concerts, storytelling and festivals at the Overture Center for the Arts on State Street. Of course, it's teens who will most appreciate the iconoclastic pleasures of State Street.
In summer, go to Capitol Square for the weekly Dane County Farmers Market and a tour of the gleaming white Capitol. On the other end of State Street go to the lakefront terrace of the Memorial Union and rent a canoe or listen to music.
And visit Henry Vilas Zoo any time, where admission still is free.
© Beth Gauper
At Milwaukee's Discovery World, kids can explore technology and the natural sciences.
This pint-size big city is a great place to take children, especially in the summer, when festivals are held every weekend and beaches are open along Lake Michigan, some with rocks for climbing.
For nonstop views of the lake, rent a Bublr bike and ride along the Oak Leaf Trail, stopping to tour the 1888 North Point Lighthouse.
Downtown, the Milwaukee Public Museum has been a favorite for generations, with dinosaur exhibits, a butterfly wing and a turn-of-the-century downtown with cobbled lanes.
Red trolley cars take baseball fans to Miller Park, an old-style ballpark with a retractable roof. And even kids love watching the Milwaukee Art Museum's giant "wings" fold and unfold.
The golden era of passenger trains is alive and well in the St. Croix River town of Osceola in western Wisconsin, where passenger trains on the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway leave on summer weekends for Dresser, Wis., and Marine on St. Croix in Minnesota, reached by a swing bridge.
Run by volunteers from the Minnesota Transportation Museum, the big locomotives give young people a glimpse at a long-gone era; for an extra treat, book tickets on the pizza train.
There are also vintage-train rides in nearby Spooner and in Laona, North Freedom and East Troy. For more, see Riding the rails.
In the 1870s, Pa Ingalls left the family home on the bluff above Pepin — twice. Today, people flock to the lovely area. His daughter Laura also loved the woods and her "little gray house made of logs"; it was the location of her first book, "Little House in the Big Woods."
© Beth Gauper
Laura look-alikes compete during Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin.
In the village, the Pepin Historical Museum tells what life was like in Laura Ingalls Wilder's day, and the log cabin where she was born is re-created in the hills seven miles above town, on County Road CC.
In September, the town holds Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, with a parade, puppet theater and Laura Look-Alike contest.
For more, see Laura land.
Just up Lake Pepin, in the bluffs above Maiden Rock, children can exercise their hunter-gatherer instincts at Rush River Produce, where blueberry season starts around the Fourth of July.
It's three miles up County Road A, with a spectacular view of the surrounding valleys.
For kids, pizza comes with the scenery on a ride along the Namekagon River on the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad out of Spooner.
Just to the north in Trego, at the junction of U.S. 53 and 63, you can rent tubes, canoes and kayaks for floating down the Namekagon River. Jack's and Log Cabin Resort both rent tubes and boats and provide shuttles.
© Beth Gauper
After competing in Downsville's annual Caddie Look-Alike Contest, little girls run into Caddie Woodlawn's 1856 house.
Spring Valley and Downsville
The formations of Crystal Cave near Spring Valley will kick a child's imagination into high gear; it was a boy who discovered it and later explored it with his brother, lowered into the shaft by their parents. Tours are given daily during summer.
From Spring Valley, head south to Elmwood on Wisconsin 128, then east on Wisconsin 72 to Downsville. From there it's only four miles south along the Red Cedar River to the Caddie Woodlawn Home and Park, setting for the 1935 children's classic "Caddie Woodlawn."
Caroline Woodhouse, known as Caddie, is less-known than Laura Ingalls Wilder, but her adventures were much more interesting. During her childhood in the 1860s, she often ran off to gather hazelnuts in the woods, dodge rattlesnakes and ford the river on tiptoe, to visit her Santee Dakota friends.
The house and park are open daily, and there's no admission fee.
© Beth Gauper
Bicyclists cruise along Wisconsin's Elroy-Sparta State Trail.
The ridges and valleys of this picturesque county are a paradise for children. The crooked Kickapoo River is a kick to canoe, and the Elroy-Sparta State Trail is just over the border, famous for its three dark and dank tunnels.
Mostly, Vernon County is a place to explore, on the trails of Wildcat Mountain State Park, in a countryside sprinkled with 12 round barns and at Amish farms, where children are fascinated by the electronics-free lifestyle of Amish children.
Many Amish families sell pastries, plants, rugs, furniture and other goods and welcome visitors every day except Sunday; Wisconsin 33 between Ontario and Cashton is an especially good place to look.
Many cabins and cottages are for rent in pretty country locations.
© Beth Gauper
On the Wolf River, a teen learns how to kayak in whitewater.
The northeast corner of Wisconsin is a bubbling froth of rivers, a mecca for whitewater kayakers.
This is the place to take a teen-ager — it offers danger and thrills, but in a safe and structured environment. Near White Lake, Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure offers cabins and campsites and rents boats.
Nearby, many outfitters offer rafting and tubing day trips on the Wolf, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers, including Shotgun Eddy.
It's big, it's flashy, it's practically a Midwestern Las Vegas. But fun is guaranteed, as long as you don't mind spending some money.
The bigger resorts now have indoor and outdoor water parks, so weather isn't a factor, and nearly everybody loves the rides.
And don't forget what made the Dells famous: the sandstone formations along the Wisconsin River, as beautiful as when H.H. Bennett's photos turned the area into a tourism destination in 1870s.
See them on excursions via launch, the amphibious Ducks or canoe. And teen-agers like the jet-boat excursions.
For more about indoor water parks around the region, see Water, water, everywhere.
Last updated on June 7, 2019