3 Family-Friendly Towns Along the Wisconsin River

This summer and fall, we have been taking advantage of all the beautiful outdoor areas and activities that Wisconsin has to offer with our four kids in tow. Discover Wisconsin’s website and blog, The Bobber, cover all the great destinations that Wisconsin has to offer – from the very popular and well-known to the more unique, hidden gems.

Discover Wisconsin shared a blog post earlier this spring with some fun things to do in the Sauk and Merrimac areas, plus a separate post on all that Spring Green has to offer. These are all areas we’ve been to prior to having kids but wanted to revisit with our own families. The Wisconsin River waterfront has been on the top of our list and we are sharing our favorite three locations located along the lower Wisconsin River. Since discoverwisconsin.com provides the “where” and the “what” when visiting these towns, we challenged ourselves to provide the “how”, with kids, to have a fun day that the whole family can enjoy.

Merrimac

Here’s how we spent a day experiencing the Wisconsin River in Merrimac: 

We started out with plans to hike The Gibraltar Rock Segment of the Ice Age Trail. This segment of the Ice Age Trail is a 2.2 mile one-way hike, with a variety of landscapes and views of the Wisconsin River.  

Park at the small parking lot off Slack Road, near Slack’s Jams and Jellies. The trailhead is located here and we hiked about 2.2 miles until we reached the river. Our four kids (ages 2, 4, 7 and 7) hiked with us, so this was a slow hike and took about an hour. At the end of our first 2.2 miles, we were able to take a break and get a sweet treat! The Merrimac Scoop is a small ice cream shop located right at the ferry crossing on the south side of the Wisconsin River. There are chairs near the ice cream shop, otherwise find a spot in the grassy area and watch the cars enter and exit the ferry.  

After our sugar fix, we hiked the 2.2 miles back to our vehicle for a total of 4.5 miles that day.  This was a rewarding hike – the longest Wisconsin hike for our kids – and a guaranteed way to tire out the kiddos. They’ll probably agree that it was their favorite hike, as not many of our past hikes have had an ice cream stop along the way!

Other fun things to try while in the Merrimac area: 

When we hear Merrimac, the first thing that comes to mind is the Merrimac Ferry that crosses the Wisconsin River between Sauk and Columbia counties. The car ferry is a huge hit with kids and adults alike. Conveniently, on both the north and south sides of the river are ice cream shops, so grab a sweet treat before you cross the river. The ferry is the only free ferry in Wisconsin so even if you don’t need to cross the river, take the kids for a ride just because!

Sauk Prairie 

One of our all-time favorite areas along the Wisconsin River is Sauk Prairie!  We have come to Sauk City and Prairie du Sac numerous times with our kids and there is something for everyone.  

Here’s how we typically spend a day visiting Sauk: 

Bring your bikes! The Great Sauk Trail is built on an old railroad corridor and is about 10.5 miles, all along the Wisconsin River. The trail offers a variety of things to look at, from the scenic views of the river and sand bars, the wildlife you might find (we’ve seen bald eagles and a fox), and the sculptures donated and created for the trail. What we love about this trail is how family-friendly it is. There are parks along the way, including a splash pad, and plenty of stops to dine or get a drink! Also, know that the entire trail is paved and stroller-friendly for those who just want to walk or run, rather than bike.

We start by parking at the Ruth Culver Community Library and head north on the trail for as long as the kids can handle it. Once they’re getting burnt out, we turn around and go further south until we get to the Vintage Brewing Company in Sauk City. Order curbside takeout from Vintage and have a picnic along the water or make your way to the outdoor beer garden!

  • Tip:  If you come here in the summer with your kids, pack a backpack with a change of clothes, towel, and some beach toys. There are lots of sandy areas along the river to enjoy the beach. This is also a great way to break up the bike ride and let the little kids play. If you’re visiting during cooler weather, dress in layers and pack a blanket. 

For more activities in the Sauk and Merrimac area, be sure to read Top Picks for a Trip to Merrimac & Sauk Prairie.

Spring Green

Seasonally, there are many farm stands to visit in the Spring Green area. Heck’s Farm Market in Arena is a smaller and lesser-known market in Wisconsin but we love that it’s never overcrowded here! The kids ran around the huge lawn with rows of pumpkins and we left with some apples, cider, and baked goodies. The staff was so friendly and we love supporting family-run small businesses like this.

Next, we entered Tower Hill State Park in Spring Green. A state park pass is required so either purchase ahead of time or at the entrance. This isn’t a large park but had ample parking and a huge open area for picnics and the kids to run around. A trailhead near the parking lot with a sign pointing to the “Shot Tower” is where we started. This trail is about two miles of winding natural paths with so much variety that the kids never got bored. We explored the park with another family who had small children that hadn’t done much hiking in the past and it was very manageable. The trail features wooded paths, old wooden stairs, a historic shot tower building, a small mine, an impressive overlook, and our favorite – an old tunnel dug by hand near the river that the kids thoroughly enjoyed exploring. We were highly impressed by this trail and all the kids enjoyed it as well.

After the hike, we made the short drive to the nearby Peck’s Landing along the Wisconsin River.  A large parking lot along the water included bathrooms, life jackets for borrowing, and a boat kayak/canoe launch. We grabbed our beach bags, speaker, and chairs and headed out to the sandbar. The kids had a blast running around the huge sandbar (which can vary in size throughout the seasons), wading in the shallow areas, and building sandcastles.  Lunch was grabbed to-go at Rumbleseats, an old-school 50s-style drive-in burger and sandwich joint, and brought back to the beach area for a waterfront picnic. We all knew that this late-September day was likely going to be our last beach day with mid-70 degree weather for the year, so we soaked it up and spent the entire afternoon relaxing along the river while the kids happily played nearby.

  • Tip for Peck’s Landing:  We were here on a warm fall day, but it was still fall, so swimming wasn’t the biggest priority for the kids. When you arrive, there is a warning sign posted that says “wading not advised” due to currents. We packed life preservers for the kids, as an extra precaution while being on the river with undertows and currents.

It doesn’t matter what season we’re in, you can’t go wrong visiting any of these three locations along the Wisconsin River. Our best advice when adventuring with young kids is to keep expectations low, dress for the weather, and be flexible based on the moods of the group. Many of these activities can be modified based on skill and activity level, making it fun for the young children to the older adults. There is no better day than spent with family enjoying the water views, tasty eats, and scenic trails found along lower Wisconsin River.

 

We’re Sara and Katie!  This past fall, we started a blog and account called Gathering Twigs as a place to share our families’ “adventures”, as we like to call it.  We both grew up in the Madison area and share a love for simple, fun things in life: exploring new places, trying new things, eating good food, glass(es) of wine, and laughing – a lot.

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