Wisconsin may never replace the Florida Keys or the blue-water beaches of the Caribbean as a vacation destination. Still, with two Great Lakes and more than 15,000 smaller ones, the Badger State has some real beach gems—from hard-to-find clear-water quarry ponds to hard-to-miss rough-water adventures with waves so big you can hear the surf thunder.
1. DEVIL’S LAKE STATE PARK, BARABOO
With more than 3,300 feet of beaches, Devil’s Lake is the most-visited state park in Wisconsin. Facilities: restrooms, changing facilities, picnic areas, concessions stands, grills. State fees. S5975 Park Rd., Baraboo; (608) 356-8301.
2. POINT BEACH STATE FOREST, TWO RIVERS
Six miles of soft, white sand along Lake Michigan make this an ideal beach for sunbathing and swimming. The beach also features the 113-foot Rawley Point lighthouse, which is not open for tours but can be photographed from outside. Facilities: restrooms, concessions, playground, volleyball courts. State fees. 9400 County Hwy. O, Two Rivers; (920) 794-7480.
3. NORTH BEACH, RACINE
Named one of the 51 best beaches in the country by USA Today in 2012, North Beach stretches along 1.2 miles of Lake Michigan and has been designated a Blue Wave Beach, a certification for its commitment to responsible beach management practices. Facilities: restrooms, concessions, Kid's Cove Playground. 89 Kewaunee St., Racine.
4. GOVERNOR NELSON STATE PARK, WAUNAKEE
The 500-foot beach along the northwest shore of Madison’s Lake Mendota has calm waters and a gradual slope, making it a great family beach. There’s even a dog beach. Facilities: restrooms, playground. State fees. 5140 County Hwy. M, Waunakee; (608) 831-3005.
5. BIG BAY STATE PARK, MADELINE ISLAND
The water off this 1.5-mile beach on Lake Superior stays brisk into July (though it’s often warmed up by September). Go for it if you have polar bear blood and love a rustic lifestyle. Facilities: pit toilets, picnic areas, drinking water. State fees. 141 S. Third St., Bayfield; (715) 747-6425.
6. HARTMAN CREEK STATE PARK, WAUPACA
This sandy beach on a clear-water lake in the middle of Hartman Creek State Park is near Waupaca’s Chain O’ Lakes. The calm, shallow water makes it family-friendly. Facilities: pit toilets, changing facilities, concessions stand. State fees. N2480 Hartman Creek Rd., Waupaca; (715) 258-2372.
7. KOHLER-ANDRAE STATE PARK, SHEBOYGAN
Wind-swept and expansive—with miles of sandy beaches and dunes—this big-water beach on Lake Michigan can be a little dangerous for small children (but a favorite for surfers). Facilities: restrooms, changing facilities, picnic tables,
concessions stands, grills. State fees. 1020 Beach Park Lane, Sheboygan; (920) 451-4080.
8. PENINSULA STATE PARK, FISH CREEK
Nicolet Beach on the Green Bay side of the Door peninsula has clear, calm waters and 800 feet of sand. Facilities: restrooms, showers, picnic area, playground, concessions stands, kayak rentals. State fees. 9462 Shore Rd., Fish Creek; (920) 868-3258.
9. PORTAGE TOWN PARK, STURGEON BAY
Located down a short dirt road, this Lake Michigan beach is an unknown, uncrowded gem. Soft sand and a shallow slope make this a terrific family beach. Facilities: picnic area. No fees. Lake Forest Park Rd., Sturgeon Bay; (920) 743-4456.
10. RICHARD BONG STATE RECREATION AREA, KANSASVILLE
This underutilized beach sits beside a 4,500-plus-acre recreation area where you can hike, camp and enjoy a full slate of scheduled activities. Facilities: handicapped access, restrooms, changing facilities, play equipment. State fees. 26313 Burlington Rd., Kansasville; (262) 878-5600.
11. WHITEFISH DUNES STATE PARK, STURGEON BAY
This Lake Michigan beach, just south of Jacksonport, offers miles of terrific sand and dunes, though the water can be cold even in summer, and rip currents make swimming dangerous. Facilities: handicapped access, pit toilets. State fees. 3275 Clark Lake Rd. (County Hwy. WD), Sturgeon Bay; (920) 823-2400.
12. FOX BROOK PARK, BROOKFIELD
Ideal for families with small children, this Waukesha County Park beach is just 17 miles from downtown Milwaukee. Facilities: restrooms, picnic tables, state-of-the-art playground equipment, concessions stand with indoor seating. Fees: $4/car. Annual rates: $28 residents, $38 nonresidents. 2925 N. Barker Rd., Brookfield; (262) 548-7801.
John Ingrisano has written for Fodor’s Caribbean Guide.
- Weekend Getaway: Wassail concerts enliven Rittenhouse Inn
- Day Out: All aboard for great comfort food at Franks (1)
- Day Out: Indulge in the holiday spirit throughout Wisconsin
- Winter Getaways: Bayfield bustling with outdoor activities in winter
- Day Out: Delafield riverwalk honors veterans of U.S. wars
- Day Out: Gorge at Parfrey’s Glen is a peek into the past (2)
- Weekend Getaway: No doilies at these Wisconsin B&Bs
- Day Out: 10 things to do outside in Wisconsin before the snow flies
- Wisconsin's 10 most haunted places (1)
- Road trip along Highway 51 is a small-town treat