Explore Wisconsin’s Waterways

10 Must-See On-the-Water Experiences

Boat tours, ferry crossings and maritime museums enhance Wisconsin itineraries. Sightseeing cruises on lakes and rivers lead the list of aquatic adventures.

Blessed with a plethora of scenic rivers and lakes, Wisconsin abounds with on-the-water experiences. Bordered on the north and east by two of America’s five Great Lakes and on the west by the mighty Mississippi, the state offers countless aquatic adventures, from sightseeing cruises to nature walks. Groups can delve into Wisconsin’s maritime heritage at captivating museums and historic lighthouses.

Here are 10 ways to navigate the Badger State’s great waterways and revel in their stories:

1. Geneva Lake Mailboat Tour

Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s U.S. Mailboat Tour is a 2½-hour cruise that circles southeastern Wisconsin’s beautiful, spring-fed Geneva Lake. Besides narration highlighting the history of the magnificent lakeside mansions and their lavishly landscaped grounds, the tour (daily from June 15 to September 15) features the added drama of young mail carriers hopping on and off the moving boat as they deposit letters in pier mailboxes. Passengers cheer on the “mail jumpers,” hoping they make it back onboard without falling into the water (which they sometimes do). Mailboat service has been a Geneva Lake tradition since 1916. The boat has an enclosed lower deck and an open, covered top deck.

The cruise line’s two-hour “Full Lake Tour” does the circuit without the mail stops. Also available is a cruise visiting 1888 Black Pointe Estate, the only historic lakefront home open for tours (accessible only via Lake Geneva Cruise Line).

2. Wisconsin Maritime Museum

Located on the Manitowoc River in downtown Manitowoc, this crowd-pleaser is one of the largest such museums in the U.S. Focusing on the Great Lakes and Wisconsin, the museum displays antique boats, ship models, historic shipwrecks and nautical artifacts, and spotlights Manitowoc’s shipbuilding history as well. One exhibition spotlights the USS Cobia, a restored World War II submarine permanently moored on the river. Walking through the sub, visitors see the torpedo launchers, bunk room, radio room, officers’ quarters, mess hall and engine room. Plaques along the riverfront memorial walk commemorate each of the 28 WWII submarines built for the U.S. Navy by Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, which at one point employed 7,000 workers, including 600 women. The Sub BNB overnight program can accommodate up to 65 guests in the Cobia’s bunks. The vessel is heated and air-conditioned, and a light breakfast is included.

3. S. Badger in Manitowoc

Another fixture on the Manitowoc waterfront is the terminal for the S.S. Badger, a car ferry that crosses Lake Michigan twice a day, from mid-May to early October, between Manitowoc and Ludington, Michigan. The last coal-fired steamship still in operation in the U.S., the Badger carries up to 600 passengers and 160 vehicles, including trucks, tour buses, RVs and farm equipment. Named for the University of Wisconsin athletic teams, the Badger was designed to transport rail cars when it entered service in 1953. During the four-hour, 60-mile crossing, passengers spend their time relaxing on deck, eating and drinking, playing bingo in the main lounge and watching movies in the theater. You lose sight of land after 50 minutes and begin to see it again 50 minutes before arrival at the destination. The steamship is a National Historic Landmark, the only mobile one besides San Francisco’s cable cars.

4. Madeline Island Ferry in Wisconsin

Crossing Lake Superior on the 25-minute voyage between Bayfield and Madeline Island, motorcoach passengers on the ferry disembark in the town of La Pointe. A local step-on guide meets your coach for a tour of the largest and only inhabited island in the 22 Apostle Islands. Groups enjoy shopping in the boutiques and art galleries. A weaving demonstration can be scheduled at Woods Hall Craft Shop, famous for its hand-woven rugs. Stop in for a hot beverage at Mission Hill Coffee or have lunch at the harborside Beach Club. The Madeline Island Historical Museum focuses Ojibwe culture and the island’s past as a French trading post and British settlement.

Dells-Boat-Tours Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau

5. Cruising the Dells

Groups in Wisconsin Dells have a number of on-the-water options. Original Wisconsin Ducks maintains a fleet of World War II amphibious vehicles that have wheels and can float, offering one-hour rides that navigate woodland trails, the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton. Showcasing secluded canyons and unusual rock formations, the Ducks careen down steep hills and make dramatic plunges into water.

Wisconsin River cruises operated by Dells Boat Tours pass by majestic sandstone cliffs, gorges and outcroppings that have been sculpted by wind, water and time. On the two-hour Upper Dells Boat Tour, passengers disembark to walk through narrow passageways at Witches Gulch and watch a dog leap between towering rock pillars. The one-hour Lower Dells Boat Tour features landmark formations like Hawk’s Bill and Baby Grand Piano. The line also offers sunset dinner cruises and 50-minute Jet Boat adventures that combine awesome scenery with spin-outs, slides and power stops.

6. Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin

Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center invites exploration of the nation’s largest cattail marsh. Described by the United Nations and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as globally significant because it is home to endangered species and a stop for migrating birds, the swampy oasis is a tranquil habitat for a complex ecosystem. Bird watchers have spotted at least 300 birds – egrets and owls to pelicans and bald eagles. The center, located one hour northwest of Milwaukee, offers videos and interactive exhibits in its Explorium, plus five miles of trails and boardwalk affording breathtaking views. Recreational activities include canoeing and kayaking.

7. Rogers Street Fishing Village in Two Rivers, WI.

This Two Rivers museum complex comprises a collection of historic sheds and other buildings on the site of century-old fishing yards on the East Twin River. Visitors can view exhibits on commercial fishing, shipwrecks and the Native Americans who first fished in Lake Michigan. They can explore the inside of a fishing tug and climb up the 1886 North Pierhead Lighthouse, one of the few authentic wooden lighthouses left on the Great Lakes. Transplanted from its original location, the beacon guided ships into the harbor until 1969. The large modern building on the grounds houses the Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum, a treasure house of artifacts from the present-day Coast Guard station and U.S. Life-Saving Service station that preceded it.

Foxy Paddler IMG_8516

8. Fox River Cruises of Green Bay

Two-hour Fox River cruises on the cozy, 22-guest Foxy Paddler provide a peaceful way to see Green Bay. For passengers who want to help propel the motorized paddlewheeler, 12 seats are equipped with pedals. Sights along the way include bridges, pelicans and other waterfowl, mountains of coal and gravel, and paper mills (Green Bay has been called the toilet paper capital of the world). Covered by an awning striped in orange, white and gray, the pontoon boat goes as far north as the lighthouse at South Bay Marina, where the Fox meets Green Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan.

9. Door County Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours

From the marina in the Door County village of Sister Bay, the 149-passenger Norra Dörr cruises Green Bay, sailing past the bluffs, caves and lighthouse of Peninsula State Park. On the 90-minute voyage, hear stories of French explorers and early Native American inhabitants. Keep an eye out for whitetail deer drinking along the shore or a bald eagle in flight. Other tour offerings include a sunset live music cruise.

10. Betty Lou Cruises in Madison

View the picturesque city of Madison while cruising either Lake Mendota or Monona aboard Betty Lou Cruises. Enjoy breathtaking views of Madison’s skyline, which can include the State Capitol, Monona Terrace (a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece), the Governor’s Mansion and miles of scenic natural shoreline. Choose from a variety of cruising options from lite snacks to full delicious dinners while enjoying the beautiful scenery of Wisconsin’s state capital.

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