The north beach at Harrington Beach State Park is great for sunbathing.

The north beach at Harrington Beach State Park is great for sunbathing. Photo By Chelsey Lewis

Usher in summer at Harrington Beach State Park on fee-free weekend

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Dear summer, thanks for finally showing up. We really missed you.

And if there's one thing Wisconsinites know, it's how to take advantage of you. You don't mind, right?

June 7-8 offer a perfect opportunity for doing just that — for free. Admission fees for all state parks and trails are waived, and you don't need a license to fish. It's a great chance to explore a new park or trail and bring along some friends.

To take advantage of both summer and the free-for-all weekend, head north to Harrington Beach State Park along Lake Michigan near Belgium.

The 715-acre park is a good introduction to the parks system, offers something for everyone and is an easy 40-minute drive from Milwaukee.

What to do: Harrington Beach's namesake is its main attraction on warm days. The one-mile white, sandy beach is great for soaking up the sun and taking a dip in Lake Michigan — if you're cool with the cold. Surface water temperatures are still hovering around 50 degrees.

The beach is also usually less crowded than the beautiful, and popular, Kohler-Andrae State Park about 20 miles north.

If the cold water doesn't bother you, you'll want to check water quality before diving in. Bacteria can build up as the water warms, and last year I noticed a funky smell when I visited in August. See www.wibeaches.us for advisories.

But late spring/early summer is a great time to visit before water quality potentially deteriorates, even if it's just for a nice walk along the beach. The north beach is better for sunbathing, while pets — on a leash — are welcome on the south beach. There is also a concession station operated seasonally by the park's friends group.

Pack a picnic and enjoy great views of the lake from the south picnic area. The grassy expanse features plenty of picnic tables, grills, a shelter, sand volleyball courts and room for other recreational pursuits.

Take a hike along some of the seven miles of hiking trails that wind through a white cedar and hardwood swamp, restored wetland ponds and a small lake. There is also a paved path used to shuttle campers from the 69-site campground — added to the park in 2009 — to the beach. The path is open to bikers and is more conducive to pushing a stroller or pulling a wagon than the park's other trails.

The park's 26-acre Quarry Lake is a testament to the site's mining history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Northwestern Stone Co. and then the Lake Shore Stone Co. mined dolomite limestone here and shipped it on Lake Michigan via a 700-foot pier, the remnants of which separate the park's north and south beaches.

When the company shut down operations in 1925, the quarry filledwith water and today is a nice spot for hiking or fishing.

The lake is part of the DNR's urban fishing program, which has special regulations including having year-round seasons and no length limits. Bag limits do still apply. In Quarry Lake, fishermen can snag trout, crappies, bluegills and other panfish.

Puckett's Pond is also a good spot for beginners to cast a line. Visit June 7 for a free fishing clinic, complete with equipment, a light lunch and giveaways, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The park is also a prime spot for birdwatching. More than 250 species have been spotted here, and spring and fall are especially good times for catching birds as they migrate. Look for warblers, sandpipers, bluebirds and purple martins.

Near the point picnic area, look for a large anchor that belonged to the wooden steamship Niagara, which sank off the shore near the park in 1856. The 3,000-pound anchor was removed before the shipwreck site was protected, but scuba divers can still explore the underwater wreck today.

If those aren't enough activities for you, here's a nighttime one: stargazing. The park is home to the Jim and Gwen Plunkett Observatory, which has a 20-inch telescope and a roll-off roof that can be opened to expose the entire night sky.

The Northern Cross Science Foundation operates the observatory and hosts a number of public astronomy programs throughout the summer, including a solar viewing June 8 at noon and a telescope viewing at 9 p.m. July 5.

Getting there: Harrington Beach State Park is at 531 County Road D, Belgium, about 40 miles north of Milwaukee via I-43.

More information: For more on Harrington Beach, call (262) 285-3015 or see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/harrington.

Day Out features day trips within a two-hour drive of the Milwaukee area.

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