Winter’s icy bluster makes it cold outside, but it also produces spectacular vistas along many of Wisconsin’s favorite scenic drives. Weather and water create stunningly sculpted waterfalls, bluffs, and snow-dunes along Wisconsin's Great Lakes shorelines. Inland, white-blanketed woods surrounding ice-capped lakes beckon the cross-country skier, snowshoer and snowmobiler while slapping a seasonal smile on the state’s ice shanty aficionados.
Lake Superior’s South Shore
The South Shore along Hwy 13 from Superior east to Ashland holds one of the Great Lake’s seasonal secrets—the vaulted sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Made more spectacular in the winter by masses of frozen icicles, the caves transform into crystalline sculpture. Visitors should call ahead or stop at the Apostle Islands headquarters in Bayfield to assess ice conditions on the lake. Then, dress appropriately, be careful, and carry a ski pole or walking stick. If the ice is unsafe, mainland caves can be viewed by hiking or snowshoeing the cliff-top Lakeshore Trail at Meyers Beach.
Wisconsin’s largest freshwater inland lake, Lake Winnebago was created by glacial erosion on the Niagara Escarpment - the same limestone formation that formed Niagara Falls some 900 miles to the east. An 88-mile circle tour around Lake Winnebago links some of Wisconsin’s most hospitable communities - including Appleton, Neenah, Menasha, Oshkosh, and Fond du Lac – offering many winter activities, cultural attractions, entertainment, and some of the best shopping in the state. The scenic route includes Hwys 45, 55, and 151 which hug the lakeshore.
Lake Michigan’s western shoreline from Manitowoc to Algoma along Hwy 42 takes on an other-world look as waters freeze along the shoreline and frame the sandy-white beaches against stretches of azure sky. The towns along the way – Manitowoc, Two Rivers, Kewaunee and Algoma – are steeped in Great Lakes maritime history. These harbor towns offer a winter hospitality that hunkered-down and cozy. Enjoy their restive nature, their comfort food and their warm welcome.
Door County Peninsula
Door County is world-famous for its apple and cherry orchards, as well as the throngs of summer visitors who make it the “Cape Cod of the West.” But in winter the peninsula’s lighthouses, rocky shorelines, limestone bluffs, stone fences, and heritage barns stand in stark contrast flanked by white fields and frozen surf. The 83-mile round trip from Sturgeon Bay to Gills Rock on Hwy 42 and back again on Hwy 57 passes four must-see state parks. You’ll find many of the Door’s summer attractions, lodging establishments, and fine restaurants open during the winter.
Hailed as one of the nation’s great unsung scenic drives, the Great River Road in winter traces the Upper Mississippi River Valley beneath 500-foot limestone bluffs draped in snow. Sentinel trees atop craggy outcrops signal majestic river views along 250 miles of Wisconsin’s Hwy 35. From the south, start at the new Great River Road Interpretive Center at the restored Potosi Brewery & National Brewery Museum. Then head north all the way to Prescott where Old Miss and its cousin, the St. Croix River, meet. Open waters along the river in January and February attract scores of bald eagles and other raptors.
Love winter? Get more ideas for a fun winter getaway.
Brenda K. Bredahl is a freelance writer. Content produced in cooperation with Wisconsin Trails.