Beach weather has finally arrived in Wisconsin. And with more than 15,000 lakes plus countless rivers, ponds and other bodies of water across the state, there are plenty of places to cool off. But few places in southeastern Wisconsin can beat Sheboygan's Kohler-Andrae State Park, situated along two miles of sandy beach on Lake Michigan, fewer than 60 miles from Milwaukee.
The nearly 1,000-acre park is one of the state's most popular, drawing more than 400,000 visitors in 2012, with the beach as its most popular feature.
The beach at Kohler-Andrae is a beauty and includes plenty of room for sunbathing and swimming in the clear, cool (temperatures peak at around 70 degrees) Lake Michigan water.
"One thing that's nice about the beach is it's so big that even if you come on a popular weekend, you can walk a short distance from the parking lot and still find a spot by yourself," says Ed Muzik, Kohler-Andrae State Park manager.
The park also features a nice nature center; a new fishing pond stocked with trout and panfish; and a variety of hiking trails through white pine forest, wetlands and along the lake, including a beautiful wooden cordwalk trail through sand dunes.
The dunes are part of the Kohler Park Dunes State Natural Area, which contains one of the state's largest collections of rare interdunal wetlands — pockets of water and wetlands within the dunes — that exist in less than 10 spots in Wisconsin. A cordwalk snakes through the dunes for two miles along Lake Michigan, providing up-close views of the unique landscape as well as the lake to the east and forest to the west.
Also watch for more than 150 bird species that live in or migrate through the park, including red-tailed hawks, sanderlings, sandhill cranes, belted kingfishers and great horned owls.
Route: From the park office, follow Beach Park Lane north and east to the parking lot at the northern edge of the Dunes Cordwalk. From there, hike half a mile south through the dunes along the lake to the Sanderling Nature Center. Explore the center for a bit before continuing along the cordwalk for another 1.5 miles. The entire stretch is part of the state natural area.
At the southern end of the cordwalk, stop for a picnic lunch near the campground. From there, you can hike back to your starting point or find an open spot on the beach for an afternoon on the water.
Difficulty level: Moderate. The sometimes uneven surface of the cordwalk makes for an interesting, but challenging, hike.
When to go: "The water warms up around the Fourth of July, so the best time to visit is between the first part of July and the middle of September," Muzik says. He adds that Sunday is the park's most popular day for visitors.
Keep in mind: The beach has been known to be windy at times, and unpredictable rip currents in Lake Michigan can be dangerous, so it's advisable to stay near shore and keep a close eye on young children.
Also be sure to check water quality conditions before heading out. Get current conditions from the Wisconsin Beach Health program.
While you're there: The campground at Kohler-Andrae is one of my favorites in the state parks system, with large spots nicely spaced among the pines and clean facilities. But campsites book up quickly in the summer, so Muzik advises making reservations early. (888) 947-2757, wisconsinstateparks.reserveamerica.com.
Head into downtown Sheboygan to visit 12 galleries housed within the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.608 New York Ave., Sheboygan; (920) 458-6144.
The towering wall of toilets at the Kohler Design Center is a work of art in itself. See the three-story display and other Kohler-inspired kitchen and bath designs, plus learn about the company's history, at the center. 101 Upper Road, Kohler; (920) 457-3699.
How much it will set you back: A daily admission pass for vehicles with Wisconsin plates is $7, or $25 for a yearly pass (out-of-state vehicle admission stickers are $10/day or $35/annual).
Getting there: Kohler-Andrae State Park is at 1020 Beach Park Lane in Sheboygan, about an hour's drive north of Milwaukee.
More info: (920) 451-4080, dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kohlerandrae
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