Why Elkhart Lake Wisconsin Rocks for Families

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Lounge chairs off the private beach at Siebken's Resort in Elkhart Lake, WI.
Enjoy the lake vibes and relax at Elkhart Lake! Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

The writer was hosted.

If you’re looking for a year-round lake vacation destination, Elkhart Lake Wisconsin should be on your list. Offering history, great food, family fun and water activities, this small town is conveniently located just an hour north of Milwaukee.

two men sitting on a bench talking near the lake
Elkhart Lake is a lovely place to relax and take in the beautiful views. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

About Elkhart Lake WI

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 become known for the crystal clear lake waters that are rumored to have healing properties. Car racing is also popular in the area, going as far back as the 1950s.

With a permanent population hovering around one thousand, Elkhart Lake is a popular vacation destination. There are three large resorts and numerous private summer residences. The lake provides year-round activities. In the summer boating, fishing, water skiing, tubing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and swimming are popular. In the wintertime, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and skating take over.

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!

Read More: Best Lake Towns Across the US

Why Elkhart Lake Is Worth the Visit

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 and 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: Our Favorite Midwest Resorts Worth the Visit

Elkhart Lake 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. Folks tend to fall in love with this charming lake destination on their first visit. They, of course, come back.

Read More: 12 Fun Things to Do in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin’s Scenic Retreat

plate with pommes puree, broccolini, and Short Rib Au Poivre
The Short Rib au Poivre at P.A.M.’s Restaurant at the Siebken’s Resort is served with pommes puree, blistered broccolini, Togarashi and Grana Padano cheese. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

Elkhart Lake, WI: Where to Eat

If you’re thinking that a small lake town won’t have many food options, you’re wrong. Coffee shops, breweries, saloons and even a tiki bar are among the area’s 15 local restaurants.

This is Wisconsin, so the menus do offer an abundance of cheese. Cheese curds are a popular appetizer, and you’ll know that they’re fresh if they squeak when you bite into them. You’ll also find salads, sandwiches and seafood along with good beer and spirits to wash it all down.

Read More: Best Elkhart Lake Restaurants

three women do yoga on the lawn in front of large white resort buildings
Relax with a yoga class from the Aspira Spa at the Osthoff Resort. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

Lake Life is a bit slower in pace.

We are so used to being on the go and a to-do list with 100 things on it. Not at Elkhart Lake. Racing history aside, this place forces you to slow down and reconnect with yourself.

Try yoga outside on the lawn at the Osthoff Resort. Next, enjoy a spa treatment at their Aspira Spa. They have an expansive menu of treatments. Just looking for quiet? Sit it 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.

wooded forest trail
The Ice Age Trail is a fun day hike. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

You Can Hike An Ice Age Trail

Years ago giant glaciers covered the area. They carved out the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. It measures over one thousand miles long in total with some sections 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 well groomed with yellow-blazed posts marking the way. Be careful, especially on downhill stretches. It’s hilly and rocks can shift as you make your way down. Also, keep an eye out for leaves of three. Poison ivy is along portions of the trail.

We hiked a two-mile stretch of the trail. It was beautiful, with the tall tree canopy above and greenery and flowers underneath. You’ll see some wildlife like deer and squirrels. It’s also a popular destination for birders.

Parent and child ice skating wearing winter gear against a snowy backdrop
Ice skating during Schnee Days in Elkhart Lake Wisconsin. Photo credit: Elkhart Lake Chamber of Commerce

Celebrate Winter in Elkhart Lake, WI

In the winter SheBuysTravel writer Maria Smith says that Elkhart Lake transforms into a frosty landscape with loads of winter activities. You’ll find ice skating, snow-shoeing, sledding and more.

Visiting during the annual Schnee Days in late January? This family-friendly festival named Schnee (German for snow) is presented by the Elkhart Lake Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.

During the three-day event, there is a moonlight snowshoe stroll, live music, chili cook-off, disc golf course challenge, all-day sledding, children’s games, an ice cube hunt on The Shore Club front lawn and more.

Where to Stay In 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.

a firepit and chairs sit in front of a large white resort called The Osthoff Resort, the oldest resort in Elkhart Lake, WI.
In the summertime, you can enjoy an evening bonfire at the Osthoff Resort. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

The Osthoff Resort

The venerable Osthoff Resort is certainly the largest. Featuring exquisitely manicured grounds, a top-rated spa and several restaurants, this resort was the first in the area. Originally built as the Osthoff Hotel in 1886, it was a result of Otto Osthoff and his wife Paulina visiting to take advantage of the health benefits they had heard the lake waters provided.

The Osthoff has been reinvented several times since the 1800s. It was recently updated in 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Families can choose from a variety of room options, including suites. Aspira Spa offers many services, including the Signature Experience which incorporates the waters from Elkhart Lake. You can also get out on the water on a guided pontoon cruise, paddleboard or kayak.

Maria Smith says, “During the winter, the resort 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 at one of our favorite hotels.”

View of Siebken's Resort in Elkhart Lake, WI white buildings with balconies
Every unit in the condo building at Siebkens Resort has a balcony. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

Siebkens Resort

Under new ownership, Siebkens Resort offers hotel rooms or condo units. The one-bedroom condos are spacious enough for a small family. Condo units have full kitchens, fireplaces, outdoor balconies, onsite parking and laundry facilities. The resort also features a pool, onsite dining, live music on Wednesday evenings during the summer months and a private beach. 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 view of the lake
The Shore Club’s tiki bar overlooks the private beach and waterfront. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

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, 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 walking path and historical marker reading lake city walk
While there is no path that runs all the way around Elkhart Lake, you can enjoy walking through town and along the lakefront at the Osthoff Resort. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

Elkhart Lake is a quintessential walkable small town.

As SheBuysTravel writer 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 within walking distance. Stop rushing. No need to load the kids in and out of the car. Get out and walk!”

Read More: 16 Favorite Small Towns Across America

One fun fact about Elkhart Lake? There is only one fast-food restaurant, Subway. It fills a need that was noticed for truckers and those just passing through.

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.”

woman in helmet is in a green UTV
All ready to hit the trails in a UTV! Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

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. Similar to the New York Finger Lakes’ Watkins Glen, cars raced on the open road taking sharp corners and fast turns at 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.

Things to Do at Road America

Road America offers super-charged driving schools and more. We both got to race go-karts that went up to 40 mph. Maria participated in the “champagne slalom” challenge. This involves driving 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.

I had my first experience off-roading at Road America, driving a UTV through the hills and dips that surround the paved areas and track. Even though they said I was on the ‘easy’ course, it was definitely challenging enough for me!

numerous glass shelf displays of native american artifacts at Henschel's Indian Museum
There are so many artifacts on display at Henschel’s! Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

Explore Native American History at Henschel’s Indian Museum

This area of Wisconsin was settled by Native Americans long ago. Henschel’s Indian Museum houses a large collection of locally-discovered artifacts including arrowheads, pottery and tools. The Henschel property has been in the family for over 170 years. 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.

a wide array of scandinavian inspired items line the shelves at Nordic Accents in Elkhart Lake, WI.
Don’t miss the Scandanavian vibe at Nordic Accents. Photo credit: Deb Steenhagen

Shop Downtown Elkhart Lake

In the walkable downtown area of Elkhart Lake, you’ll find numerous opportunities to shop local. One thing we loved in every store we went in was the ability to chat with shop owners who shared the story behind their goods. Hours can vary by season. Be sure to check hours ahead of your visit.

  • Vintage Elkhart Lake offers wine and chocolate and cute reusable shopping bags.
  • The Little Shop of Art was charming and offered a chance to see the work of local artists in every kind of medium imaginable, including jewelry, wood crafting, pottery and more. With reasonable prices, it’s the perfect spot to pick up a meaningful souvenir.
  • Two Fish Gallery, located in a bungalow, has a bit of everything. Inside it’s a gallery and there’s a free sculpture garden out back.
  • If you’re looking for fun Elkhart Lake items and outdoor gear, make a stop at Elkhart Lake Outfitters.
  • I think my favorite Elkhart Lake shop was Nordic Accents. The owner, originally from Sweden, brings in all sorts of imported Scandanavian treasures including wool sweaters, pottery, books and holiday decorations. As an avid knitter, I loved the unique yarns that she carried.

Where is Elkhart Lake, WI?

The lake and town of Elkhart Lake are in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. It’s easily reachable from other Wisconsin popular getaway spots. Elkhart Lake is just an hour north of Milwaukee, two hours south of Green Bay and Door County, 30 minutes west of Kohler and 40 minutes east of Fond du Lac.

If you’re coming from out of state, Elkhart Lake is 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, the SS Badger car ferry will take you across Lake Michigan. You’ll pull into the ferry’s Wisconsin port of Manitowoc, which is only 40 minutes from Elkhart Lake.

How to Pack for Elkhart Lake Weather

Visiting in the winter? Expect it to be cold and to experience snow. Pack and dress accordingly. Boots, hats, scarves and gloves or mittens are a must in Wisconsin. The spring and fall are pleasantly cool. The key is to pack layers to account for temperature swings. 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.

4 responses

  1. Hi! Where is the wooden sign that says Elkhart lake located?

  2. 5

  3. 4.5

  4. Maria,
    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.