The arrival of summer means it’s time to hit the beach, and we have a lot of choices in Wisconsin. In the state are about 15,000 lakes, plus shorelines for the Mississippi River, St. Croix River and Great Lakes of Michigan and Superior.
Much of what makes Wisconsin beaches different from those in Waikiki is the hype and personality. OK, make that multiple personalities. Some close-to-home beaches are perfect for swimming; others are good for simply watching the waves. The craggy, sandy, calm and sleek each has its fans.
What you won’t find is a generic lineup of high-rise hotels, beachside bars or souvenir hawkers along Wisconsin beaches. The lack of homogenization is a good thing because beach forests to urban shorelines please different types of visitors.
We have almost 200 coastal, public beaches that total about 55 miles, says Donnalea Dinsmore, beach program coordinator at the state Department of Natural Resources. This doesn’t include resort and other private or customer-only beaches, but some patches of public beach might only be big enough to launch jet skis.
Much beach variety exists statewide. Consider the diversity of public shoreline in Door County:
Whitefish Dunes State Park, whose 93-foot Old Baldy sand dune is the state’s tallest.
Nicolet Bay Beach at Peninsula State Park, where ice cream sales and boat rentals (kayaks to paddleboats) are within steps of beach goers.
Schoolhouse Beach on Washington Island, home to one of the world’s few beaches of flat and smooth stones. It is the perfect place to practice stone skipping.
Rock Island State Park, home to Wisconsin’s most remote beach because almost everybody hops two ferries in order to reach it.
The Clean Beaches Coalition annually designates Blue Wave beaches, a certification of environmental quality. Wisconsin has three on Lake Superior, all within Apostle Island National Lakeshore: Julian Bay, Little Sand Bay and Meyers.
Two on Lake Michigan – Racine’s expansive North Beach and Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach – also are Blue Wave beaches.
Within North Beach is Kids Cove, a maze of wooden forts and lookouts. It is handicapped accessible and billed as the state’s largest outdoor playground with equipment. The public zoo is directly north.
Milwaukee’s Bradford is a haven for hipsters, especially fans and players of beach volleyball. Events include Olympic-caliber competition throughout the summer.
Both beaches are extremely popular during summer, but they are not the only stars along Lake Michigan.
Kohler-Andrae State Park, a 1,000-acre refuge with woodland sand dunes near Sheboygan, is a good match for sun-bathing birders. Dozens of feathered species, diving ducks to ospreys, make this their home.
Point Beach State Forest, where the shoreline – most of it undeveloped and sandy – stretches six miles, is fun for beach walkers. All campsites also are within an easy walk of the lake, which is near Two Rivers.
Inland is lots of additional diversity.
Look for North Shore Beach at Wisconsin’s most-visited recreational area – Devil’s Lake State Park, near Baraboo. On two Saturday nights per month in summer, look for dancers to Big Band music at the park’s lakefront Chateau.
For stunning panoramic views, head to High Cliff State Park in the Fox Valley. Beach lovers get an eyeful of Lake Winnebago, the state’s biggest inland lake at 28 miles long and 8 miles wide.
In Lake Wissota State Park, near Chippewa Falls, the 6,300-acre manmade lake brings with it a 285-foot swimming beach and secluded campsites. It exists because of a Chippewa River dam built in 1918.
Sandy riverfront lounging since 1901 has drawn crowds to Pettibone Park, La Crosse, where the Mississippi River view includes the big Cass Street bridge, linking Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Far north is Ashland’s Bayview Park, where swimmers catch a view of an old lighthouse as fishermen cast their lines nearby. The Waterfront Trail leads to a scenic tour of downtown.
Too numerous to mention are the pretty, under-advertised beaches of small towns – be it Shell Lake Beach in northwest Wisconsin or Pewaukee’s Lakefront Park, in the shadow of Milwaukee. Clean lakes and well-kept beachfront define these communities and their waterfronts.
My personal favorite? I’ll always have a soft spot for Elkhart Lake, where no motorized boats are allowed on Sundays and the beach at Fireman’s Park packs in sunbathers from morning to sunset.
I’m a lot less likely to slather on the Coppertone and roast these days, but I still find my way to the Barefoot Tiki Bar at Victorian Village Resort, especially when there is music.
Wherever you go for water sports or sunbathing, pay attention to weather conditions, says Donnalea Dinsmore, state beach program coordinator.
“Wind currents on the Great Lakes can be extreme,” she says. The National Weather Service in 2015 began rip current forecasts on the Great Lakes, to increase awareness.
Also pay attention to rainstorms, Donnalea says, because they may affect water quality. “The heavier the rain, the more run-off” of anything near a lake’s shoreline.
Go to dnr.gov/topic/beaches for ideas about where to go, and wibeaches.us includes water quality advisories (conditions are monitored daily and updated online around 10:30 a.m.). Coastal beach signs include a smart phone code with this information.