The Good Life At Green Lake
Wisconsin’s classic summertime getaway destination
Imagine long summer days in a small yet charming lake town away from the noise or monotony of everyday life. Cool waters lap your bare feet as you lounge at the water’s edge, drink in one hand and a great book in the other.
Fast forward a few hours when you and your family head out to a restaurant mere blocks away from where you’re staying. Dinner and a show are part of your plans and you stroll across the street to the community’s opera house where you catch an hour or two of culture from a celebrated rock band, a regional orchestra or a local singer.
The next morning brings hiking through a small world of wildlife and the wide vistas of beautiful scenery, tubing and boating on the lake, or shopping in downtown’s eclectic stores. Lunch at one of the town’s many restaurants, perhaps with a farm-to-table menu of locally produced foods, might be followed by hitting the green at one of the area’s expansive golf courses. To wind down the day, there’s a roaring campfire and the chance to share stories and laughter.
With today’s hectic schedules, finding time for just one of the aforementioned activities can be challenging. But that’s what summer getaways are for. And in Green Lake, Wisconsin, relaxing and fun filled days are just a few hour drive away. As the locals and frequent visitors say, “Welcome to the good life.”
Lakeside Living, Past and Present
The town of Green Lake cradles the northeast corner of Big Green Lake, the state of Wisconsin’s deepest natural inland lake. This is an impressive claim to fame in itself, but the community is also believed to be the first popular summer resort town west of Niagara Falls. As early as the 1870s, people came from all over the nation to vacation here. A railroad line brought vacationers from Chicago and the south to swim in the lake’s cool waters and stay in grand hotels, like the Oakwood Resort, built by David Greenaway in 1867. While the glamorous hotels and the depot are gone, summer visitors still flock to the area, enjoying the waters and the outdoors just as much as those long-ago tourists.
Like many parts of Wisconsin, Green Lake was the settling grounds for Winnebago Native Americans long before the 1600s. Numerous mounds and effigies remain, including wolf mounds depicting birds, prairie wolves and other animals once native to the region.
White settlers appeared in the area in 1835, when Anson Dart and John Sherwood began to plot the Village of Dartford, which would later come to be known as Green Lake. (For history and heritage buffs, the Dartford Historical Society and the Depot Museum, both on Mill Street, are worth a visit.)
From that point onward, Green Lake became somewhat of a hidden treasure when it came to Wisconsin vacation getaways. The pristine waters, beautiful landscapes, quaint downtown, rolling golf courses and everlasting bike routes called out to families, couples and individuals during vacation planning. The town is within half a day’s drive of Chicago. Close proximity to Wisconsin’s largest cities makes this an easy getaway for in-state visitors, too.
The landscape around the lake features rolling hills and ridges, created by streams and glacier activity during prehistoric times. The shores of the lake are diverse, with low sandy beaches, jutting cliffs and a bedrock of Potsdam sandstone, which gives the water its deep green hue.
Charming vintage buildings neighbor newer architecture along the wide, welcoming streets in the downtown area, where green signs pinpoint go-to places like family parks or boat launches. While Green Lake is a wonderful place to live year round, this town of just 1,100 residents comes to life in the spring and summer.
Boating, Swimming and Fishing the Deep, Deep Green
Given the name, visitors are aware ahead of time that Green Lake is a lake town. The waters stretch for seven-and-a-half miles from east to west, with almost 30 miles of shoreline. They soon discover there’s a wide range of activities to partake in right on the water. For starters, there are seven low-cost or even free boat launches in town, at Deacon Mills Wharf, Canal Street, Hattie Sherwood Park, Duering’s Landing, Sunset Park, Horner’s Landing or Dodge Memorial Park. This is a haven for water sports — Pierless Boat Center, Shoreline Boat Center, Sterling Marina and Action Marina all provide rentals of everything from jet skis, party pontoons and motor boats kitted out for water skiing to kayaks, paddleboats and tubes. Pierless also offers boat tours, as does Heidel House’s Escapade Yacht.
If a quiet sail is more your speed, Green Lake Sailing School offers lessons. One of the prettiest sights on the lake is the Sunday morning sailing races, run by the Green Lake Yacht Club, with as many as 20 fleets in competition. Other sailing events take place Wednesday mornings and Thursday evenings.
Green Lake is a fishing enthusiast’s haven. The 236-ft-deep waters are the ideal habitat for lake trout and plenty of other cool water species swim in the upper reaches. There’s perch, small- and large-mouth bass, walleye, pike and muskellunge. Whether fishing from a powerboat or rowboat or simply helping your child cast for the first time from the shoreline, there are plenty of opportunities to bring home a catch from Big Green Lake.
Bait and tackle shops in town can help you out not just with lines and lures, but with friendly advice on where the locals are catching and the best bait to use. North Bay Sport & Liquor is a good place to start. Be aware that you’ll need a license to fish — a four-day permit is just $20 or a 15-day permit for the entire family is $40. Daily permits are available, too. Need more help? You can book a tour with a fishing guide through Dennis Walker’s Guide Service or Captain Mike Norton’s Fishing Adventures — there have been guides in both families since the late 1800s. They’ll set you up with rods and reels, too.
If shallow waters are more your style, there are several pristine swimming areas to choose from. You can splash around with your little ones close to shore, dive from swimming platforms at the beach, or even go snorkeling to view life beneath the waves. The Heidel House Resort & Spa has a pool and Green Lake Campground’s pool has some waterpark features.
Time Out for the Arts
A Wisconsin town that’s as pretty as a picture is the perfect destination to enjoy the arts. Creativity is at the heart and soul of this community, and the town is a showcase for the arts all summer long.
A perfect place to start is the Town Square Community Center, located in the heart of downtown in a grand, historic building that used to be the Green Lake County Courthouse. Now, it’s a hub of activity and houses a gallery displaying the works of local artists. There are classes, too, in case you’d like to find your inner artist.
An annual festival in August, The Green Lake Fine Art Show, highlights the work of more than 100 popular Midwest artists. Art works are periodically on view at other places around town, including a small gallery at Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, the Caestecker Public Library and the historic Thrasher Opera House on Mill Street. Sometimes you’ll find works by featured artists for sale at these places, as well as at Daycholah Art Gallery in downtown Green Lake.
Built in 1910, the Thrasher Opera House was once the domain of vaudeville, traveling theatre companies and silent movies. Today it’s a venue for everything from pop and rock to country, classical and Indie folk music. During the summer months, the Opera House hosts productions from Missoula Children’s Theatre. Visiting children can sign up for a week of classes then step into the spotlight themselves.
As the sun sets over the still waters of Green Lake, music fills the air. Every Wednesday from mid-June to mid-August, a Concert in the Park at Deacon Mills Park brings a new band or musical act to town. There’s a variety of genres — jazz, country, bluegrass, rock, folk, Celtic music — to get you on your feet and dancing. All concerts are family friendly, so there’s no reason not to bring the whole gang along for a beautiful summer night of music.
Much of the town’s entertainment comes courtesy of the Green Lake Festival of Music, an arts organization that fills small stages and large venues with local, regional and national acts all summer long. For live performances in a casual setting, local musicians play at Goose Blind Grill & Bar on Gold Street and at Reilly’s Pub at the south end of the lake.
Joys of the Great Outdoors
With natural resources galore and stunning scenery for miles and miles, Green Lake has long earned a reputation as an outdoor wonderland.
Starting small, there are eight community parks offering a full menu of choices covering everything from basketball, baseball and tennis to horse shoes and disc golf. There are parks with play areas for the little ones, shelters for hosting family fun and plenty of green space for picnic lunches. There are also short trails for biking and hiking.
Dodge Memorial County Park is located outside of town on the south end of the lake and offers swimming and features picnic shelters, volleyball courts, and playground equipment.
Also close to town, you can immerse yourself directly into nature at the Green Lake Conference Center property. Here, you will find tree-lined walking or hiking trails with picturesque views of the lake. It’s a haven for bird enthusiasts, so bring your binoculars. While on the property, take the opportunity to climb Judson Tower — a 140-ft-high water tower erected in 1908 — for a stunning view of Big Green Lake. Or rent a bike and coast down hills as you take in the peaceful world around you.
Speaking of biking, while Green Lake may lack actual biking trails, it definitely makes up for that by providing bicycle routes perfect for all levels of cycling.
As you venture further afield, these routes travel past everything rural Wisconsin is best known for — the green pastures, for easy sighting of young deer at dawn and dusk; the farmland that stretches and winds throughout the countryside; and the peaceful back roads that take you away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Rolling Hills, Way Above Par
The gentle contours of Wisconsin’s hills and valleys and shaded copses seem custom-created for a favorite vacation pastime — golf.
Home to four of Wisconsin’s grandest courses, the Green Lake area caters to golfers of multiple skill levels. Tuscumbia Country Club, the oldest course in the state, offers a parkland setting of majestic maples and oaks.
The Golf Courses of Lawsonia, located on the north shore of the lake and hugging its shoreline, touts its Links Course as a big, bold experience, with deep bunkers and wide fairways. By contrast, its Woodland Course, carved from a mature hardwood and pine forest, offers lakeside vistas and cliff-
and quarry-side tees.
Sondalles WhiteLake Country Club in nearby Montello, a 25-minute drive from town, is a par 72 18-hole, 6,373-yard layout carved out of 200+acres of ancient glacier lands and nestled among hills, woods, and ponds. A 12-minute drive north is Mascoutin Golf Club in Berlin, which also offers a challenging championship-caliber course.
Shopping and Dining
Downtown Green Lake and the surrounding area offer the best of both worlds when it comes to shopping and dining. You’ll find an inviting mix of upscale boutiques, artisanal shops and souvenir stores with everything from the perfect accessory to go with your outfit to yard art that makes passersby do a double take. Many are family owned, like Wallenfang’s, a go-to grocery on North Street since 1975. Green Lake Mercantile on Mill Street is packed with vintage curiosities and rustic décor.
Taking a break from shopping you can tantalize your taste buds with a warm cup of coffee from Sassafras on Mill Street or, for a delicious treat, dig into a bag of gourmet popcorn from Guth’s Candy, a little further along Mill Street.
When it comes to dining out, it can sometimes be difficult to satisfy everyone in your party. Fortunately, Green Lake offers a variety of options. From fine dining to casual eateries and everything in between, there is a range of cuisine for every appetite.
The Little Corporal is a long-time family run eatery on Hill Street; Adam’s Rib is a good old-fashioned Wisconsin bar and restaurant on Mill Street; and ThunderBoss Bar & Grill is a new lakefront restaurant with outdoor dining, set to open in June.
Outside town, along Highway 23, is Christianos Pizza, and if you’re up for a longer drive, Knuth’s Brewing Company and Vines & Rushes Winery are located about 10 to 15 minutes away in Ripon.
Depending on where you’re staying, another option is to eat at home. The weekly summer farmers market, held every Friday afternoon from May 25 to September 28 at Town Square, brings in fresh produce from a farm right down the road.
You might also attend local farm-to-table events, where you can chat with the farmers who grew the meal in front of you. Boerson Farm and Stack Farm both offer dinners scheduled through Vines & Rushes Winery or Town Square.
Venturing Farther Afield
Green Lake is only minutes away from winery and brewery tours in Ripon; antique and flea market shopping in Princeton; a day trip kayaking along the Fox River in Berlin; and the beautiful Amish country of Markesan. Green Lake is centrally located and approximately 40 minutes from Oshkosh, and an hour and a half from Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay.
A Home Away from Home
When it comes to finding a place to stay in or near Green Lake, your options are open. Heidel House Resort & Spa may suit you if your idea of home is a luxurious hotel room within a destination spa retreat for the ultimate relaxation experience.
Or perhaps you’d prefer Angel Inn, an elegant in-town guest house with lake views, offering an intimate bed and breakfast experience.
Families often prefer fully equipped vacation rentals, available from Greenaway Cottages, On Green Lake Rentals or Sunrise Property Management. And the more adventurous might opt for Green Lake Campground for an evening of marshmallows and ghost stories around the campfire.
Summer in Green Lake
Splash into Summer/Chalk Walk June 9. Spend your Saturday at Deacon Mills Park playing games with your little ones, exploring inside law enforcement and rescue vehicles, and getting your creative juices flowing by partaking in the Chalk Walk.
Freeland Film Fest June 15 – 17. Join the Freeland organization for its first film festival, with themes related to conservation, the environment and wildlife and more to complement Freeland’s mission of preventing wildlife trade and human trafficking around the world.
Diamonds in the Dark Fourth of July Celebration Celebrate Independence Day in Green Lake with children’s activities, live music, great food, and a parade. The annual Boat Jam includes a boat parade and a wooden boat show.
Green Lake Water Ski Show July 28. Hattie Sherwood Park is the place to be as the Pewaukee Lake Water Ski Team takes to the water for a themed show.
Green Lake County Fair August 2 – 5. Enjoy four days of one of the state’s last remaining free county fairs, with animal showings, a carnival, demolition events, live music and delicious fair food.
Green Lake Fine Art Fair August 11 – 12. View a showcase of the works of more than a hundred of the Midwest’s finest artists.
Harvest Fest September 29 – 30. One of the area’s premier harvest festivals, with a craft fair, a farmer market, live music, a parade, a car show, children’s activities, and a Taste of Green Lake event.
Alyssa Paulsen has previously written for the Green Lake Reporter and the Berlin Journal newspapers.Edit Module