From the Great Lakes and winding rivers to canopied forests and towering rock formations, Wisconsin is full of natural wonders worthy of a visit all year round. When the lakes and rivers freeze over, the forests are coated in a dusting of snow and icicles drape from everything in sight, Wisconsin truly embodies the phrase “winter wonderland.” Here are just a few of the natural wonders that especially shine during the winter:
1. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Bayfield)
Back in the day (I’m talking thousands of years ago), glaciers sculpted sandstone into towering cliffs over Lake Superior. During the winter, needle-sharp icicles form at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, creating ice caves that are out of this world. Visits require a two-mile hike across Lake Superior, so access to the caves is highly dependent on weather conditions (so don’t get too excited just yet – “hiking” across Lake Superior right now may require a swimsuit!).
2. Cave of the Mounds (Blue Mounds)
The Blue Mounds, with the West Mound standing at 1,716 feet and the East Mound reaching 1,489 feet, are well-known landmarks in Wisconsin, and Cave of the Mounds is tucked under the slope of the East Mound. Its limestone walls and stalagmites and stalactites (bonus points if you know which is which) are a spectacle any time of year, but its special winter events make it a cozy escape. Visit during Caroling in the Cave, a series of charity fundraisers featuring music groups and a candlelit main chamber of the cave, or join in on the Christmas carols at Sing-A-Long Caroling Cave Tours, where visitors enjoy a one hour guided tour, singing carols at each stop. Cave After Dark, special for adults, will feature an underground cocktail lounge in December, Blues & Brews in January and a glow party in February.
3. High Cliff State Park (Sherwood)
High Cliff State Park overlooks Lake Winnebago, the largest inland lake in Wisconsin, and sits on limestone cliffs that extend northeast to the Door County peninsula and on to Niagara Falls, New York. Nomadic Siouan Indians built effigy mounds over 1,000 years ago in the area that is now the park, including four panther-shaped mounds and two buffalo-shaped mounds. During the winter, visitors enjoy breathtaking, snowy views of a frozen Lake Winnebago, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and winter hikes along the cliff.
4. Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (Park Falls)
Sprawling more than 1.5 million acres of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, it’s hard to avoid the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, and you especially won’t want to miss it during the winter months. Its towering trees dusted in snow, sparkling lakes, winding rivers and overall solitude are gorgeous whether hiking, hunting, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling.
5. Big Manitou Falls at Pattison State Park (Superior)
Located 12 miles south of Superior, Pattison State Park encompasses almost 1,500 acres of forested land and, of course, Big Manitou Falls, which stands at 165 feet and is Wisconsin’s highest waterfall. With over nine miles of hiking trails, the park offers beautiful views of Big Manitou Falls, along with its 31-foot twin waterfall, Little Manitou Falls, which are stunning during the winter months.
6. Copper Falls State Park (Mellen)
While its deep gorges, ancient lava flows and exquisite waterfalls make Copper Falls State Park one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful locations year-round, winter’s blanket adds an incomparable charm to its 1930s log buildings, tall pines and scenic trails. Hilly, wooded cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails provide the perfect outlet for taking in the park’s frozen beauty.
7. Interstate State Park (St. Croix Falls)
Interstate State Park, Wisconsin’s oldest state park, is comprised of two adjacent state parks on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border that straddle the Dalles of the St. Croix River. The fact that the origins of its rock formations date back to pre-ice age, along with the fact that you can cross the state line on your winter hike, make this a must-see winter destination.
8. Natural Bridge State Park (Leland)
Yes, more amazing rock formations, please. How cool is this natural bridge? It lives in Natural Bridge State Park, located in Sauk County, and dates back to the era when glaciers began retreating from Wisconsin. Enjoy a winter hike, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and hunting and trapping in the open areas.
9. Cave Point County Park (Sturgeon Bay)
Known for its underwater caves and wave-worn limestone cliffs, Cave Point County Park is a favorite among fishermen, scuba divers, photographers and nature-lovers across all seasons. During the winter, brave visitors enjoy views of rocks and trees covered in a coat of glistening ice, created by waves, wind and freezing weather.
10. Willow River State Park (Hudson)
Willow River State Park is a haven for all things winter, whether taking advantage of its two miles of hard packed trails for showshoeing, dog sledding and hiking, or using its nine miles of cross-country ski trails. Visits during winter may also include sledding, ice fishing or taking in the beautiful Willow Falls.
Though winter in Wisconsin can seem never-ending, we can’t deny its beauty. What are some of your favorite winter destinations in Wisconsin? Share with us on social media using #DiscoverWisconsin.
Kristen Finstad is a member of the Discover Wisconsin crew. Having grown up in River Falls, attending UW-Stevens Point and now living in Madison, she’s a Wisconsin girl through and through. Watch Discover Wisconsin TV Saturday mornings at 10 on Fox Sports Wisconsin. (Twitter: @DiscoverWI)