Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- Why Visit this Lake Vacation Destination?
- Elkhart Lake Itself
- It is Off the Beaten Path
- Elkhart Lake, WI Packs a Foodie Punch
- The Pace is Slower Here
- You Can Hike An Ice Age Trail
- Winter Rocks in Elkhart Lake, WI
- Elkhart Lake, WI Is Walkable
- This is Authentic Wisconsin
- Road America is in Elkhart Lake, WI
- Learn Native American History at Henschel's Indian Museum
- There is only ONE Chain Store
- Shop Downtown Elkhart Lake
- Where is Elkhart Lake, WI?
- Elkhart Lake, WI Weather
Elkhart Lake, WI is a year-round destination for those who love good food, lake life, water activities, fast cars and Native American history. Located about an hour north of Milwaukee, this small town is a great choice for a family vacation.
Disclosure: All or part of this trip was provided free or at a reduced cost for review purposes, but the opinions are solely that of the writer.
Elkhart Lake was first settled by the Potawotomi, who named it Great Elk Heart Lake because the lake’s shape is similar to that of an elk’s heart. Over the years, the area has been known for the crystal clear lake waters said to have healing properties as well as car racing, which began here in the 1950s.
Although the village’s permanent population is just around a thousand, it is a popular vacation destination with three large resorts and many private summer homes. The lake is used all summer long for every water activity you can think of, including boating, fishing, water skiing, tubing, stand up paddleboarding, kayaking and swimming. In the wintertime, you can find plenty to do as well, including snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, skating and more.
Though the lake temperature may seem chilly to those accustomed to southern waters, the 70 degree reading in August is pretty typical — and warm compared with Lake Michigan water temps!
Besides, as anyone visiting the Midwest knows, lake vacations are only partially about the lake. Check out even more reasons to visit this unique destination.
Why Visit this Lake Vacation Destination?
Elkhart Lake Itself
Elkhart Lake is simply beautiful. It is one of the largest lakes in Wisconsin, but not so large that it seems overwhelming. You can rent a kayak, take a pontoon boat out or just splash in the refreshingly cool, crisp, clean water.
If you are staying in one of the resorts, you’ll have access to a private beach. Otherwise, Fireman’s Park contains a public beach available for a small fee. There is also a public boat launch available on the lake as well.
Read More: Don’t Fly Over. Stay Over. The Best Midwest Resorts
It is Off the Beaten Path
There are places in the world that everyone seems to know about and visit continuously. Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin is not one of those places…until it is.
Elkhart Lake, one of the best small towns in America, is just a 70 minute drive from the closest major airport in Milwaukee. It is only about 3 hours north of Chicago too.
While not far from these big metropolitan cities, it couldn’t be more different. Many people visit this lake destination for the first time and wonder how they could have missed this jewel of a city in the past. They make sure to not miss it again.
Elkhart Lake, WI Packs a Foodie Punch
If you think that a small town means there isn’t much in the way of a culinary scene, you couldn’t be more wrong. With over 15 local restaurants, this area has a lot to offer, including a coffee shop, brewery, saloon, and yes, even a Tiki Bar. From salads to sandwiches to seafood, you’ll be sure to find something that every member of the family will enjoy.
This is Wisconsin, so yes there is cheese everywhere on the menu. Cheese curds are a popular appetizer, and you’ll know that they’re fresh if they squeak when you bite into them. The local restaurants also incorporate other fresh Wisconsin cheeses into their dishes.
And don’t worry, there also are lots (and lots) of beer and spirits to wash down all the good food.
The Pace is Slower Here
We are so used to being on the go and moving around with 100 things on our to do lists. Not at Elkhart Lake. Racing history aside, this place forces you to slow down and get back to yourself.
Try yoga outside on the lawn at the Osthoff Resort. Or enjoy a myriad of available spa treatments at their Aspira Spa. Or just sit down by the lake and enjoy the sunshine.
People here aren’t rushing through dinner. If there’s a wait, that just means they get to savor their Old Fashioned a little longer.
You Can Hike An Ice Age Trail
Carved out thousands of years ago by the giant glaciers that covered the area, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is over a thousand miles long in total (although some of it is still unmarked). The LaBudde Creek Segment (split into two portions) of the trail runs near Elkhart Lake, within the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest.
The trail is groomed well with yellow-blazed posts marking the way. It is hilly and contains many rocks, so you need to be careful especially on downhill stretches where the rocks can easily shift underfoot. There is also poison ivy in the area, so make sure to keep a careful eye out and stay on the path.
We hiked a two-mile stretch of the trail and it was beautiful, with the tall tree canopy above and greenery and flowers underneath. There is some wildlife here, especially deer and squirrels. The trail is also a popular destination for birders.
Winter Rocks in Elkhart Lake, WI
According to SheBuysTravel Maria Smith, in winter, Elkhart Lake transforms into a frosty landscape and activities turn to snow-based ones such as ice skating, snow-shoeing, sledding and more. A fun time to visit is during the annual Schnee Days (schnee means snow in German) festival. Presented by the Elkhart Lake Chamber of Commerce and local businesses, the family-friendly festival typically takes place in late January.
The three-day event includes a moonlight snowshoe stroll, live music, a chili cook off, disc golf course challenge and all-day sledding, children’s games, an ice cube hunt on The Shore Club front lawn and more. Proceeds raised from the Schnee Days event benefit a local charity and help promote the Elkhart Lake community.
Lovely Elkhart Lake Resort Options
Three resorts sit along the northeastern side of the lake. At first glance, they look enough alike that you may not be able to tell which is which. But each of these historical resorts offers a slightly different feel.
The Osthoff Resort
The venerable Osthoff Resort is certainly the largest and has exquisitely manicured grounds as well as a top-rated spa and several restaurants. This was also the first resort to be built here, as the Osthoff Hotel, in 1886 after Otto Osthoff and his wife Paulina came to Elkhart Lake to take advantage of the health benefits they had heard the lake waters provided.
The Osthoff has been reinvented several times since the 1800s and just went through additional renovations when the restaurants were updated in 2020 during the COVID pandemic. The resort has a variety of room options, including suites. The onsite Aspira Spa offers many services, including the Signature Experience which incorporates the waters from Elkhart Lake. Or get out on the water on a guided pontoon cruise, paddleboard or kayak.
Maria Smith says, “During the winter, the resorts hosts the Old World Christmas market, modeled on the centuries-old Christkindlesmarkt of Nüremberg, Germany. It’s a great place to buy unique holiday gifts and one of our favorite hotels.”
Under new ownership, Siebkens Resort offers hotel rooms or condo units. I stayed in a one-bedroom condo that would be plenty spacious enough for a small family. The condo units have full kitchens, fireplaces, outdoor balconies, onsite parking and laundry facilities. The resort also has a pool, onsite dining, live music on Wednesday evenings during the summer months, and a private beach. You can also enjoy a meal at P.A.M.’s restaurant, a drink at the Stop-Inn Tavern or locally made gelato at Sissy’s Gelato Shop.
The Shore Club
Also under new ownership, the Shore Club (formerly called Victorian Village) has a variety of rooms, including suites and condo units. They are a Choice Club hotel in the Ascend Hotel Collection. Amenities on site include an indoor pool, expansive lawn area, game room, boutique, private beach, free continental breakfast and parking and onsite dining. They even have a tiki bar with a beautiful lake view.
Whether you’re passing through or looking to spend some time at Elkhart Lake, you can find local hotels and available Airbnbs here.
Elkhart Lake, WI Is Walkable
As SheBuysTravel Maria Smith says, “There is no need to drive once you get into town. Park once and get around town the old fashioned way…with your own two feet. Everything is in walking distance. Stop rushing. No need to load the kids in and out of the car. Get out and walk!”
This is Authentic Wisconsin
Maria says, “Rustic and luxurious with absolutely no pretentiousness, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin is a great representation of the state. You get cheese at locally-made cheese shops like Hennings Cheese, and you can find Wisconsin-made cranberry wine (along with hundreds of other options) at Vintage Wine Shop.
There are no Starbucks here and few fast food restaurants. The fields of corn and gardens full of tomatoes you drive by on the way to town are probably the source for your dinner.”
Road America is in Elkhart Lake, WI
One of the coolest things both Maria and I participated in while visiting this lake vacation destination has nothing to do with the lake. We loved going to Road America. This motorsports track routinely hosts more than 500 events per year, including many nationally-televised NASCAR races. It is one of the world’s fastest permanent road racetracks.
While Road America attracts worldwide attention today, the twisty-turny village roads of Elkhart Lake were the racing circuit in the early 1950s, just like Watkins Glen in NY’s Finger Lakes. Cars raced the open road, taking sharp corners and fast turns up to an astonishing 65 miles per hour. As many as 100,000 people watched the three races with 238 cars in 1952.
Historic Race Circuit signs mark some of those turns, close to the Elkhart Lake resorts. The circuit ended after only three years, and Road America opened in 1955.
Road America offers super-charged driving schools and more. Both Maria and I had the opportunity to race go-karts that went up to 40 mph. She also was able to participate in the “champagne slalom” challenge. This challenge allowed Maria to drive one of the test cars through a curvy course without letting a ball drop from the cup stuck on the hood. She won, by the way.
One my recent trip, I had my first experience with off-roading, driving a UTV through the hills and dips that surround the paved areas and track. I had a lot of fun even on what they called the ‘easy’ course. It was definitely challenging enough for me!
Learn Native American History at Henschel’s Indian Museum
This area of Wisconsin was settled by Native Americans long ago. Henschel’s Indian Museum is home to a large collection of locally-discovered artifacts such as arrowheads, pottery, tools and more. The Henschel property has been in the family for over 170 years and Gary Henschel is a treasure trove of information. You can visit the museum by appointment to hear Gary’s stories and see his demonstrations of how the natives used these items to hunt and survive.
There is only ONE Chain Store
There is only one fast-food restaurant in Elkhart Lake – Subway. It fills a need that was noticed when it temporarily closed a couple of years ago, especially for truckers or others just passing through. But for those who come to stay for a day or more, you won’t really even notice the lack of convenience options.
Maria says, “During my time at this lovely small town in Wisconsin, I realized that sometimes you just have to go where no one knows your name, but they’re still glad you came. It’s good to go to a place where the hotels have funny names.
Sometimes exploring a small town gift shop or enjoying a handcrafted ice cream sundae or learning why it’s good for your cheese to “squeak” can create the type of memories you’ll always carry with you. And you’ll find that in Elkhart Lake.”
Shop Downtown Elkhart Lake
There may only be one chain store in Elkhart Lake, but what they do have are several unique shops and boutiques in their walkable downtown area. You will find wines and specialty foods at Vintage Elkhart Lake. I may not be a wine drinker, but I loved their fine chocolates and also found some very cute reusable shopping bags that I just had to buy as well.
I loved exploring the art found at The Little Shop of Art. They showcase local artists in all kinds of mediums, including jewelry, woodcrafting, pottery and more. The prices are very reasonable and I loved looking through everything they had to offer. I couldn’t make it to the Two Fish Gallery, but judging from the outside of their shop, it looks like a fun place to explore too. The Elkhart Lake Outfitters has a great supply of everything outdoorsy, along with fun Elkhart Lake souvenirs.
I think my favorite Elkhart Lake shop is Nordic Accents. It’s not something you would necessarily expect to find in small town Wisconsin, but it gives the area such a European flair. I spoke with the owner, who is a lovely lady originally from Sweden. You’ll find all kinds of imported Scandanavian treasures there, including wool sweaters, pottery, books, and holiday decorations. As an avid knitter, I was thrilled to see that she even carries yarns that you won’t find in a typical local yarn store.
That’s one big difference with these small shops – you can generally chat with the owners while you shop and get to know them as well as their wares. That’s not something you’ll find at any big box or department store. Just note however, that store hours will vary depending on the time of year so it’s always good to check to see what’s open.
Where is Elkhart Lake, WI?
The lake and town of Elkhart Lake are in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. It’s easily reachable from several other Wisconsin getaway spots: an hour north of Milwaukee, two hours south of Green Bay and Door County, 30 minutes west of Kohler and a 40 east of Fond du Lac.
Elkhart Lake is just about 2-1/2 hours north of Chicago and less than a 6-hour drive from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. If you’re coming from Michigan, consider taking the SS Badger carferry across Lake Michigan. The ferry’s port in Manitowoc, WI is only about 40 minutes from Elkhart Lake.
Elkhart Lake, WI Weather
Expect cold and snow in the winter and make sure to dress accordingly. Boots, hats, scarves and gloves or mittens are a must in Wisconsin. The spring and fall are pleasantly cool. In the summer you’ll have warm, but not too hot, weather. Perfect for a swim in the lake or to sit out by a fire and roast marshmallows!
For more information about Elkhart Lake, check out their website or call 1-877-355-4278.
This is an update of a post originally written by Maria Smith.
Justin Eastman says
Hi! Where is the wooden sign that says Elkhart lake located?
Thank you for your stunning review of my hometown, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. It is a somewhat hidden gem, although, that is rapidly changing as word continues to spread about this beautiful place. Many families I grew up with run businesses there and they have done an incredible job of providing a five-star experience while maintaining the quaint charm the village has to offer.
As you mentioned, the summer months are not the only time to visit. There are many offerings year-round including cooking classes, vintage car shows, Christmas markets, Jazz on the Vine jazz festival, just to name a few. In addition, world-class golfing is available in town and within 30 minutes of Elkhart Lake.
I live on Lake Martin in Alabama and have children in Atlanta. They all love Elkhart Lake and we try to return there as often as we can.