After 3.5 years and 74,000 miles of road tripping around North America, we’ve reached our 50th State! We started this grand USA road trip in April 2017, ventured everywhere from the Arctic Circle to the Florida Keys, and have finally made it to the Great Lakes state of Wisconsin! With Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and 15,000 other lakes scattered around WI, they are known for their freshwater adventures, but we quickly realized that’s just the beginning. They have a International Dark Sky Park, billion-year-old rock formations, a 1,200-mile hiking trail, IMBA-ranked mountain biking, and more fruit and veggie farms than a vegan could dream of. For our 50th-state celebration, we went big and partnered with Travel Wisconsin for a 1,300-mile, two-week road trip around the state—in peak fall foliage, no less! We had an absolute blast and are excited to share our must-see stops for the ultimate Wisconsin road trip.
Our Wisconsin Road Trip Route
This was a grand clockwise loop around the state, working our way up the Great River Road to Wisconsin’s slice of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands, carrying on through the cranberry bogs of Eagle River to the billion-year-old Rib Mountain. After a heartwarming farmstay in New London, we zigzagged up the Door Peninsula and ferried to their outlying islands. Cutting back into the center of the state, we explored Devil’s Lake and dug into Frank Lloyd Wright’s roots in Spring Green. Making stops in quirky towns like Mt. Horeb (the unofficial Troll Capital) and the 19th-century Swiss Village of New Glarus, we headed back out to Lake Michigan for a splash-out finale.
The Great River Road
Running through 10 US states—from Minnesota to Louisiana—The Great River Road is a national scenic byway we’ve driven at numerous points. Though Wisconsin’s 250-mile stretch, running along massive bluffs and through 33 historic towns, somehow made the importance of America’s original super highway resonate in a new way. Getting off on the right foot, our journey started at possibly the coolest visitor center: Potosi Brewing Company. Not only do they offer helpful info on the Great River Road, this 1850s brewery is still making beer and has partnered with the American Breweriana Association to host The National Brewery Museum. We bellied up to the bar and got more local tips from the adorable mother-son bartender team, then toured the thousands of beer artifacts—from 19th-century ceramic beer bottles to nostalgic tin adverts. Better yet, Potosi is a Harvest Host so we stayed the night in exchange for our pints of patronage. We continued north on Highway 35, making stops at the state historic site of Villa Louis to learn about the early French fur traders, cruised the Victorian mansions of La Crosse, and stopped at the sleek La Crosse Distilling for unreal vegan seitan chorizo enchiladas and a flight of their handcrafted spirits. Leaving the area’s largest city, nature areas dominate. The Great River Road is also the Mississippi River Flyway, a major corridor for migrating songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and more. We stopped at the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge and marveled at the thousands of birds feeding and playing in the lagoon. For a spectacular finish to the day, we zigzagged up to Alma’s Buena Vista Overlook to watch the sun drop over the cliffs and shimmer pink across the Mississippi.
Driftless Area & Vernon County
Detouring inland, we realized it wasn’t just the mighty Mississippi sculpting the landscape. We were in the Driftless Area, a region that escaped the flattening effects of glaciation during the last ice age and is instead marked by steep forested ridges, deep river valleys, and karst geology. Vernon County was settled by Norwegians because the rugged landscape reminded them of home; they were joined by Italians, African American freedom-seekers, and Amish to create a rich agricultural heritage, complete with iconic round barns and over 200 organic farms. This bounty of quality ingredients is exactly why Luke Zahm, a James Beard-nominated chef and host of Wisconsin Foodie, chose this area for his restaurant. Spoiled for choice and keen on fresh ingredients, the Driftless Cafe changes their menu every day based on what local farmers have on offer. We had to try this place. Cuddling up in a high-back booth, we ordered crispy brussels sprouts and beet ravioli to start, then entrees of roasted sweet potato, caramelized onion, and chickpeas, topped with creamy turmeric sauce and toasted sunflower seeds. It was the most delicious expression of the region.
Interstate Park & The Ice Age Trail
There are a lot of reasons to visit Interstate State Park. Located on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, it’s Wisconsin’s first state park and the western end of WI’s very own National Scenic Trail. The Ice Age Trail is a 1,200-mile footpath zigzagging from the Minnesota border to Lake Michigan, tracing the edge of an ancient glacier. As it retreated 10,000 years ago, it left behind a stunning landscape and some of the world’s finest examples of the continental glaciation that shaped our planet. We took the Potholes Trail to see the official start of the national route, views over the steep river gorge, and the curious cylindrical holes left by the torrential meltwater. While we were far from joining the thousand-mile club, we got to hike the awe-inspiring Ice Age Trail from three different trailheads around the state.
Riding The CAMBA Trails
Who would have thought the Midwest would turn us into mountain bikers? After our summer rides on the Maah Daah Hey and the Copper Harbor, we were warmed up and stoked to try Wisconsin’s Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) trail system. It’s one of around 40 in the world recognized as a “Ride Center” by the International Mountain Biking Association and particularly incredible in autumn. To make the most of the 28 trails and 300 miles of biking heaven, we called Up North Guided Tours. The founder Josh grew up going to summer camp in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and always dreamt of coming back to lead his own adventures. Today he runs the area’s premier fat biking tours and might be the happiest guy on the planet. He was so excited to show us the beautifully groomed CAMBA trails and secret single-track that rolled like a coaster through the hills. To cap off an awesome day of biking, Josh did a cookout for us on the crystal-clear Lake Owen and ROAM Adventure Base Camp had a fantastic camping spot waiting for us. ROAM had modern cabins, wooded campsites, sparkly clean bathhouses, and a wood-fired Finnish sauna to reward our day on the trail. Glampers, make sure you book early…their cabins are in high demand!
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
We’ve long dreamt of the Apostle Islands. In our book Ultimate Journeys for Two: Extraordinary Destinations on Every Continent, we close every chapter with a list of experiences still on our bucket list. When it came to our roundup of “Ultimate Freshwater Adventures,” kayaking the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore got top billing. We had seen images of the sandstone cliffs and paddlers weaving between the caves, and it forever stayed in our minds. Three years later, we arrived raring to explore the 21-island archipelago from every angle. For an overview, we hopped aboard the National Park Service boat, Apostle Islands Cruises. Their “Grand Tour” sails 55 miles through the islands, with commentary on the islanders past and present, historic lighthouses, and geological formations carved by Lake Superior and Old Man Winter. When you reach Devil’s Island, with its dozens of arches, vaulted chambers, and honeycomb cliffs, you’ll see why kayaking is a must. Many outfitters just skirt the mainland shoreline but Whitecap Kayaks does trips to Sand Island, a place with the perfect mix of Great Lakes history and sea caves; plus, these guys have such heart! The husband-wife team not only started the company for their love of paddling, but as a leadership and wilderness training program for local youth. We went out with Dr. Neal and his long-time mentee, Josh, for a full-day trip to Sand Island. We chatted the whole three miles, swapping international travel stories (he’s done all sorts of disaster relief work abroad), until we reached the jaw-dropping cliffs. We followed their lead under the stone arches and into the network of caves, listening to Lake Superior gurgle like the stomach of a giant. We docked on Sand Island for lunch next to the 19th-century lighthouse and celebrated an adventure that exceeded bucket-list expectations.
HoneyTrek Tip: For an incredible glamping experience at the foot of this national lakeshore, check out Apostle Islands Area Campground and stay in their covered wagon!
Lake Nokomis Cranberries
Did you know that Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries, harvesting more than 60 percent of the country’s crop and half of the world’s production?! Wild cranberries are native to the marshlands of central Wisconsin and have been harvested for centuries by Native Americans and the tradition continues with family farms like Lake Nokomis Cranberries. We arrived at harvest time and the Zawistowski family and crew were literally up to their elbows in berries, and asked if we wanted to jump in and help. You bet! They handed us rubber waders and wooden paddles, then we were corralling berries with the best of them. As we were learning the art of the cran-sweep from Cecil, a man in his 50s from St Louis, he opened up to us. “I was a bad boy for most of my life, caught up in trouble in the city, but I’ve found my calling in this bog.” When we were down to the last berries, we used our hands to “doggie paddle” them into the boom, then gave rubber-gloved high fives to our new team. The owner Dave thanked us for our “help” with an extensive flight of cranberry wine, just one of the many cran products they offer in their tasting room and gift shop (aka the former family house). Maybe it’s their intake of antioxidants, but as Dave shared stories of his life on the farm and adventures by motorbike, you could tell he had found happiness too.
HoneyTrek Tip: September-October is the time to see the harvest and when Lake Nokomis offers tours; though it’s worth stopping by the tasting room anytime of year to meet the Zawistowskis for a glass of cranberry wine.
Rib Mountain & Granite Peak Resort
While Wisconsin doesn’t have huge mountains, they have some of the oldest on earth. Made of tough quartzite, Rib Mountain has withstood 1.5-billion years of time and offers incredible rock formations to explore. It’s a state park with trails along the rugged spine and views over Marathon County, plus it’s one of the Midwest’s best skiing destinations. Granite Peak Ski Resort boasts 68 trails, 4 terrain parks, and snow-blowing that promises around a six-month season. Making use of their high-speed lifts and scenic location, Granite runs special fall hours for leaf peepers. There is nothing like seeing the autumn tree canopy at eye level and gliding through a sea of color.
HoneyTrek Tip: While you’re in the neighborhood, visit the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum (we caught the annual “Birds in Art” exhibit and it was spectacular) and stop for beers at Central Waters, one the state’s most sustainable breweries.
Farmstay at Mulroy’s Irish Acres
In early summer we got a call out of the blue, “Hi, I’m Jane from Mulroy’s Irish Acres, a fifth-generation family farm in Wisconsin,” said a chipper voice. “I bought your glamping book and think you would love a stay with us.” At the time we had no idea we’d be heading to Wisconsin, but always remembered her cheery disposition and kind invitation, so we took her up on a stay in the off-grid fairy cabin and a day of farm-life workshops. As we indulged in pumpkin pancakes with caramelized apple compote, Jane and her husband David told us about their farm’s beginnings in 1848, when the only neighbors were 13 newly settled Irish families and the Menominee Indians, all living in harmony off the land. To this day, the Mulroys use Celtic traditions and biodynamic techniques to help their heirloom seeds thrive without pesticides. Despite their success, they were concerned about the future of their family farm, considering their own kids have opted for city life. The conversation continued, as we made dream pillows out of floral herbs and pressed apples for cider, and the good news is…Irish Acres has big plans. They’re expanding their offerings with a wild herb school, an on-site farmer’s market, internships for urban youth, and eventually becoming a Camphill—a self-sustaining community for adults with developmental disabilities. Not only did we come away with a gallon of apple cider and eight pounds of fresh picked vegetables, we gained a new appreciation for farmers and hope that there are more like the Mulroys.
If you look at a map of Wisconsin, you’ll notice there’s a long skinny peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan—that’s the incredible Door County. Three-hundred miles of shoreline, 35 islands, 5 state parks, and dozens of charming villages, it’s a place we could have clearly spent more time. Funny enough, when we went to talk to the visitor center, an enthusiastic tourist would barely let the attendant get a word in edgewise, emoting his favorite tips from his annual trips here. With a marked-up map in hand, we started our counterclockwise loop around the peninsula, making our first stop at Whitefish Dunes State Park. With abundant sunshine, sandy beaches, and turquoise water, Lake Michigan was looking closer to the Caribbean than the Midwest. We picnicked on the dune side, then walked the honeycomb cliffs to Cave Point. Next up, Cana Island via John Deere Tractor. Would have never seen that one coming, but farm machinery and a wooden wagon are the best way to make the shallow crossing. We rumbled and splashed our way across and giggled every minute of it. Looking up at the 150-year-old lighthouse in the late afternoon light, we had a travel epiphany. “If we take our RV on the 6pm ferry to Washington Island, we’ll get a sunset cruise and be in an extra remote area for stargazing near the International Dark Sky Park!” Our plan worked and we had an incredible night at Washington Island Campground, photographing the Milky Way and our fun flashlight drawings (see opener photo). In the morning, we explored this isle rich with Scandinavian culture (it’s the second oldest Icelandic settlement in the US), with stops at the Washington Island Farm Museum, Schoolhouse Beach, and Stavkirke—an impressive replica of a Norwegian church from 1150 CE. Hopping the ferry back to the mainland, we cruised the west side of the peninsula, where the concentration of cute towns is off the charts—from Sister Bay, where goats graze on the roofs of Swedish restaurants, to Ephraim whose lakeside warehouse is signed by a century of sailors who’ve docked there. For the quintessential Door County sendoff, we watched a fish boil at the White Gull Inn, then had dinner at the Mill Supper Club, complete with Wisconsin-style Old Fashioneds.
Baraboo: The Gateway to Devil’s Lake
While it was tempting to just keep cruising the gorgeous Lake Michigan shoreline, there were still more gems in the center of the state. The town of Baraboo is the gateway to Wisconsin’s most popular park and interestingly enough, where Ringling Brothers Circus began in 1884. Their success made for a grand little town with a beautiful main street, mansions, parks, and a theater that still brings in top-notch shows. We had a great time antiquing (our nieces are going to love these vintage toys!) and had a very special lunch at The Cheeze Factory. We were celebrating our 5th anniversary as vegans so this 100% plant-based restaurant, serving international cuisine with a Wisconsin twist, was just the ticket. Mike ordered the “Deli-icious” sandwich, a grilled ciabatta bun stuffed with miraculously vegan roast beef, pepperoni, smoky bacon, and Italian sausage, dressed with grilled onions, tangy banana peppers, and smoked gouda (Wisconsin cheese, at last!) and I had the Indonesian rice dish Nasi Goreng with broccoli, mushrooms with grilled sesame tofu. Now it was time to hike off all that food! Devil’s Lake State Park has 30 miles of trails, with the East Bluff offering the best quartzite formations like Balanced Rock and Devil’s Doorway. We took the gradual ascent up the 500-foot bluffs, admiring the jigsaw-puzzle of boulders, the peak fall foliage, and the massive lake. In no hurry to leave, we decided to camp at the Ice Age Campground (yes, the national trail goes right through the park) and found a gorgeous spot surrounded by autumn-red sumac. Props to the Wisconsin State Park System for offering same-day, online booking, so we could show up after hours, pick the best available site, and pay on our phone.
Taliesin & The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
A Wisconsin road trip would not be complete without seeing the work of their homegrown boy and “the greatest American architect of all time,” Frank Lloyd Wright. His Welsh family settled in Spring Green, WI and the valley’s rugged bluffs and coulees inspired his famed organic architecture. This is where Wright oversaw his very first building, started his school of architecture, and called home for over 60 years of his life. His Taliesin estate is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and living museum. We took the Highlights Tour which explores the interiors of both his Hillside Studio (where Wright trained his army of apprentices) and his 37,000-square-foot residence. Unlike other Wright properties, Taliesin isn’t just a line item on his resume, the estate shows the evolution of his style from a young man in the 1890s to his final days in the 1950s, with buildings and additions from nearly every decade of his career. Plus, it shows the personal side of this legendary man, whose life was filled with nearly as much scandal as success. The moment that struck us most was standing before his desk and thinking about all the revolutionary ideas that transpired on that simple slab of wood. Our tour guide was excellent, the grounds beautiful, and the interiors a dream. Taliesin is a must, and if you have more time, make all nine stops along Wisconsin’s Frank Lloyd Wright Trail.
Wisconsin Road Trip Finale: The American Club
Wrapping up our time in our 50th state called for a little celebration, so we checked into The American Club—one of the finest hotels in Wisconsin and the world. It started in the 1920s as the employee quarters for the Kohler Company (of kitchen and bath fame) and has been transformed into a hotel that’s been awarded Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond status. The accommodations have expanded well beyond the original building, with eight separate lodging choices, including the brand new Lake Cabin. Just outside the Whistling Straights Golf Course (home to the 2021 Ryder Cup) and along the cliffs of Lake Michigan, it was the perfect hideaway! Wrap-around porch, outdoor firepit, state of the art kitchens and baths (of course), and ultra chic decor…it had us swooning. We didn’t want to leave this cabin for a minute, but couldn’t miss the chance to stand-up paddleboard Kohler-Andrae State Park with the pros at EOS Surf and get a couples massage at the world-class Kohler Waters Spa. After a day of relaxation, The American Club knows guests don’t want to toil away in the kitchen, so they’ve just added a recipe box program to their list of dining options. This is where their award-winning chefs stock your kitchen to your dietary preferences and give you pre-prepped ingredients and detailed instructions to craft gourmet meals. Our fridge and pantry were veritable treasure chests of vegan delights and all the items necessary for a three-course Indian feast with sticky toffee cake and green apple sorbet for dessert. We had so much fun cooking in our deluxe kitchen, sipping champagne, and laughing about our sudden rise to culinary greatness. Cuddled up in our gorgeous cabin and eating the most delicious meal we’ve ever made, we felt like we really made it.
A big thank you to Travel Wisconsin for sponsoring this post and making our 50th state so unforgettable! As a part of our ongoing #BloggersGiveBack pledge and to show our appreciation to the communities and wilderness that make the state so beautiful inside and out, we have made $250 in donations to the following non-profits: Wisconsin Environment, Hunger Task Force, and WisconsinFirstNations.org.
For more photos and videos from our #TravelWI adventures, see our Instagram highlights reel. We’d love to hear which places piqued your interest and if you’d like any extra trips to plan your own Wisconsin road trip!
Looking for more awesome places and handy travel guides? Check out our National Geographic book, Ultimate Journeys for Two! This couples travel guide features our favorite 75 destinations across seven continents and our best trip planning tips. We hope you can pick up a copy—it’s the perfect gift for anniversaries, engagement parties, and anyone who loves travel.