Worth the Drive: Green Lake
Hiking trails and beautiful parks, award-winning golf courses, a bustling arts and entertainment community and the state’s deepest natural inland lake, boasting 27.5 miles of shoreline—those are among the ingredients needed in the recipe for a good life along the shores of Green Lake. Located just one hour from the Fox Cities, Green Lake is not only the perfect destination for a day trip, but the city and greater Green Lake area offer plentiful activities for a long weekend or week vacation.
For 150 years, residents and tourists have enjoyed year-round adventures in Green Lake. As the community celebrates this momentous anniversary in 2022, what originally drew people from across the United States to Green Lake in the 1800s has not changed much. In 1867 the first summer resort in the area, Oakwood Lodge, was built by David Greenway. It is believed to be the first summer resort west of Niagara Falls. By 1871 trains began bringing families from as far away as New Orleans and Philadelphia, who then rented cottages for the entire summer season.
Now, it’s one of the Midwest’s best-kept secrets, with a lake community supporting fishing, boating, sailing and swimming, abundant nature and wildlife, and entertainment and dining options year-round for visitors.
“Green Lake is a vibrant city,” says Mayor Ray Radis. “All involved want the city to prosper and grow while maintaining a small resort-town vibe. I’m a resident and it’s a great place to live. Everyone looks out for their neighbors – and who doesn’t want to live in a resort town?”
Jenna Walker and her husband JR grew up in the area and returned to settle down together and start their family in 2006. Though they could have chosen just about anywhere to start their life together, they chose Green Lake.
“I did not appreciate as a teenager the concept or the comfort of being surrounded by a community of familiar faces,” explains Walker. “As a young adult, I craved that again and wanted to plant my roots and grow my family in that environment. The security and quality of life that it brings is unquantifiable.”
“I actually grew up on a farm north of here, a couple of miles, and I left for 30 years,” adds Green Lake Chamber of Commerce executive director Lisa Meier. “I just returned two years ago. When I returned, I came back to the same little charming community that it was when I was a child. So that is something that makes me really proud; it still has that charm. There’s a calm and peacefulness when you walk in downtown Green Lake … there’s just something that takes over you, and who doesn’t need that these days with everything going on in the world?”
Water, water – everywhere!
Whether filling a pontoon boat with your family for a laid-back ride is your speed, you’re more apt to enjoy a thrilling afternoon on jet skis, or you want to fish, ice fish, water ski, paddle board, kayak, canoe, or even enjoy ice boating, the lake offers something for everyone, all year long. If bringing your own boat or personal watercraft is a priority, there are seven public launch sites on Big Green Lake (as it’s known to locals) alone.
“If it’s anything to do with the water, we’ve got it,” says Mayor Radis. “It’s just a great lake.”
Big Green Lake is known as one of the best fishing lakes in Wisconsin, for both the weekend warriors and experienced anglers. If you aren’t comfortable tackling an afternoon of fishing on your own, there are several guide services available for hire. Guide Charlie Walker, owner of Walker’s Guide Service, is a lifelong resident of Green Lake and one of several guides in his family lineage. Walker’s 40-foot pontoon boat, capable of holding 12 passengers, has been in service on Green Lake for 60 years. (And oh, the fish stories it could tell!) He purchased his business from a family member, Dennis Walker, from whom he learned alongside throughout his adolescence and young adulthood. Walker specializes in catching lake trout.
“I’m very lucky to have been raised outdoors in an area so full of natural opportunities,” Charlie reflects. “When the time became right, it seemed like a natural succession. Green Lake is my backyard and its depth and structure make it a unique fishing destination. I get to share that.”
It’s a similar story for Captain Mike Norton, of Captain Mike Norton’s Fishing Adventures, who is a fourth-generation fishing guide on Big Green Lake. Anglers can hop on board his 45-foot pontoon boat to discover deep cold-water fishing, and he specializes in catching lake trout, white bass and other cold-water species.
If smallmouth bass, walleye, pike and pan fish are what you’re looking for, Mike Norris can help you reel one in through his Wacky Worm Guide Service. Norris won’t only help you land the fish, but he shows his visiting anglers how to read and interpret 2D, down-scan and side-scan sonar.
Taking in the beauty of Green Lake is made easy when you hop on board a private cruise tour on the J. Lawson. Run by Pierless Boat Rentals, the 50-foot down-east style boat built for the Navy has been converted into a sightseeing vessel. Pierless also offers private cruises aboard their other yacht, the Escapade. The Escapade is available for public tours weekly as well, departing from Green Lake’s famous Heidel House Hotel & Conference Center on Saturdays at 3 p.m.
Set Sail, Swim & Skate in Green Lake
Green Lake is home to some of the best national and regional sailing regattas in the state, explains Meier. Its rich history in sailing and ice boating can be seen weekly, nearly all year long, from the lake’s shores.
If you are in town for longer than a day or two, and you want to learn to sail or improve your sailing skills, the Green Lake Sailing School offers lessons throughout the summer to suit every age and skill level. Or sit back with a beverage and brunch at Heidel House and watch the Green Lake Yacht Club hold their Sunday morning races during the summer – races start at 9:30 a.m. During the winter months, the members of the Green Lake Ice Yacht Club, who have been gliding across a frozen Green Lake in their iceboats for more than 100 years, are always happy to share their love for iceboating with others. The club also hosts iceboating competitions on Green Lake.
For those who want to enjoy the water at their own pace and be in control of their own path and destination, Green Lake offers plenty of coves and shoreline to explore on a paddleboard, in a kayak or in a canoe, which can be rented from area outfitters, like Lake Street Marina. Swimming is also possible at several of Green Lake’s parks, including Dodge Memorial County Park, Hattie Sherwood Park and Sunset Park.
And when the ice returns each winter, ice skaters and hockey players alike enjoy the ice skating rink at the Wharf. Day or night, the Wharf rink has free skates to borrow if you don’t already have a pair. Take on the family in a pickup hockey game during the day and practice your salchow under the Wharf’s twinkle lights at night.
“Kudos to the Green Lake Association; their efforts help educate our homeowners around the lake and educate us as a community on how we want to continue to protect our lake for the future generations,” notes Meier.
“For such a small town, this community, and the lake itself, draw people from not only across the country, but around the world,” adds guide Charlie Walker. “I get to meet folks from everywhere on my boat, and we have residents from far and wide in Green Lake.”
Hit The Trails
Hiking, Snowshoeing & Snowmobiling
Exploration of the greater Green Lake area is possible among its many public hiking trails. The Green Lake Conservancy trails enable users of all skill levels to enjoy a more low-key activity while immersed in the beauty of nature. Jenna Walker says she takes advantage of the trails all year long.
“I was on the board of this nonprofit organization for nine years … and could not be prouder of the work it does to preserve Green Lake’s special spaces for generations to come,” she states.
In the winter months, the pristine snow-covered scenery can be enjoyed along miles of snowshoeing trails at Tuscumbia, Green Lake Conference Center and the Heidel House. Snowmobiling in Green Lake County is also a popular pastime, and rentals are available from various outfitters.
As the chamber’s Lisa Meier explains, Green Lake is often on the list for cyclists looking to explore new trails within the state of Wisconsin, and the Green Lake area is home to miles of both paced trails and trails for casual rides around the lake.
“We are seeing more and more people coming from outside the area – Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago – who come for the weekend to bike,” she says. “There is Loop the Lake, which is about 22 miles. The chamber is very close to installing signage, so when you are a visitor and you get on your bike, you will know the route without having to look it up. We will have permanent signage for that.”
Just last month, the city hosted its fifth annual Green Lake 100 bike ride. Held in June each year, the challenging, yet fun ride features numerous routes of scenic beauty throughout the area. There are several routes to choose from, including 23, 40, 67 to 100 miles through Green Lake County’s quaint and welcoming communities and it’s an event Meier says they hope to grow in the coming years.
Green Lake County is home to several of the best golf courses in the state – The Golf Courses of Lawsonia, Mascoutin Golf Club, Tuscumbia Golf Course, and Sondalles Whitelake Golf Course.
Located on the beautiful, historic grounds of Green Lake Conference Center, Lawsonia offers 36 championship holes and consistently ranks in the top 50 golf courses in the country. Mascoutin is considered “Wisconsin’s Best Kept Secret,” and its beautiful setting and 27 holes appeal to men, women and junior golfers, challenging professionals and novices alike.
Tuscumbia, meanwhile, is the oldest golf course in Wisconsin, and the facility’s 27-hole, 6,301-yard, par-71 layout is considered one of the best manicured courses in the state. And finally, Whitelake is a challenging 18-hole golf course carved out of ancient glacier-formed land with an unusual western style, apparent by natural landscaping and hilltop scenic views of rolling terrain, vast woods, sloped greens, free-roaming peacocks and spring-fed ponds.
If you were born before 1990, the idea of a bowling alley can bring forth images of dark lighting, smoke hanging in the air, stale beer and cracked orange vinyl seating. For visitors to Green Lake in 2022, however, the 300 Club is nothing like the days of old. It’s a state-of-the-art bowling center ready to set the stage for a lifetime of memories. Lanes are rented by the hour and the 300 Club has new synthetic lanes, brand-new pinsetters and a new scoring system, making it fun for all ages.
They also feature a remodeled sports bar, with eight flat-screen TVs around the bar. Join them for a snack as you bowl or grab lunch or dinner there. The menu offers garlic bread pizzas, focaccia wraps, sandwiches and burgers. Try the Wisconsin Burger, made with bacon, caramelized onion, Ripon-based Knuth Beer Cheese queso, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Or make the PB&B burger – made with crunchy peanut butter, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and a side of jelly – part of your weekend itinerary.
And, in a nice touch of nostalgia, kids and adults alike will enjoy the new arcade – a perfect place to spend a rainy day or when the family feels water-logged!
Thrasher Opera House
Built in 1910 by Charlie Thrasher, the Thrasher Opera House served as a community center and venue for the performing arts for three decades, until its conversion to a warehouse following World War II. It fell into disrepair until 1994, when local real estate broker Ron Hagstrom stepped in and fought to restore it to its one-time glory. In 1998 Thrasher started to host its own events once again and today it hosts a wide variety of entertainment throughout the year.
“I think for any small community in rural Wisconsin, you have to have some sort of live music venue if you’re going to bring people in and have some sort of economic impact in the community,” says Rachael Avery, Thrasher Opera House executive director. “It not only gives residents something to do all year round and brings national touring artists and culture in, but it also brings tourists, which is beneficial to the hotels and restaurants and shops.”
Whether it’s for Americana bands, rock and roll, jazz, the blues, comedians, or theatrical productions, Avery says that generous community support helps keep ticket prices affordable and the venue open. The opera house is owned and managed by the Thrasher Opera House Corporation, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, and operates under the guidance of a 15-member board of directors, a staff of three, and dedicated volunteers. Donations from the community keep the arts alive at Thrasher.
“We have really high-caliber artists that we’re bringing in, and yet we’re able to remain affordable to the local community,” she says. “That is linked to being a non-profit and all of the community support that we receive.”
The Thrasher Opera House also hosts the Missoula Children’s Theater twice a year for a week-long residency. Children try out for roles in popular plays, typically intertwined with a feel-good message about teamwork, inclusion and the like. They start on a Monday with tryouts and by Friday and Saturday, they’re performing the plays for the community.
“It really is one of the most wonderful weeks of the year,” Avery says. “Just to see kids go from being nervous to try out, to performing at the end of the week and singing their hearts out, and feeling so proud after the fact.”
Green Lake, home to day-trippers, seasonal visitors and year-round residents, may seem like an eclectic crowd to keep happy, but Avery says they make it a point to have a wide variety of performances to choose from each season.
“Our goal is always to have something for everyone on our roster,” she adds.
Town Square Community Center
Town Square Community Center is the spot for fun, family-friendly activity year-round in Green Lake. Their mission is to enrich the lives of Green Lake community members, family and friends by providing cultural, social, recreational and educational opportunities for people of all ages. One hundred percent community funded, former marketing manager Amelia Compton Wolff says she was drawn to Town Square because of the excitement and energy she felt the moment she walked through the doors.
“One of the things that attracted me to this area was Town Square offering things like weekly yoga classes, kids’ events and things for me to do with my family on the weekends,” she explains.
First opened on August 11, 2012, Town Square initially offered a yoga and Pilates studio, a lobby art gallery, the Lester Schwartz Gallery, a commercial kitchen business incubator, and the offices of the Green Lake Association. In 10 years, Town Square has grown tremendously and now offers a full range of programs and events, farm and artisan markets, a taproom, indoor and outdoor event spaces, a STEM-focused children’s hub, working art studios and more. It is also home to many of the community’s nonprofit organizations and clubs.
“We truly want this to be a space that welcomes everyone,” emphasizes Wolff.
For the kiddos, Town Square hosts events like Dino Days, which fills nearly every space in Town Square and on its lawn with a dinosaur-related activity. Camp Chocolate, Broadway Musical Camp and Kids in the Kitchen are among the other kid-focused activities this summer, while this fall – September 4 to be exact – they’re hosting performing artist singer/songwriter Franki Moscato. Attendees can learn about her musical journey as an American Idol contestant and the music industry before a performance that evening.
For people of all ages, Town Square hosts regular art classes for every level, as well as crafts, sewing, photography, papermaking and more. The holidays bring about the Town Square Holiday Faire and Hofbräuhaus, where the renovated ballroom is converted into a German-style beer hall, complete with German music and beer, and people can enjoy shopping, cookie decorating and a visit with Santa.
Town Square also coordinates special events like Supper Club Night, featuring live music and a traditional supper club meal, which has become one of its most popular events during the year, says Wolff.
One of the several ways Town Square supports itself is through the Town Square Tap, a bar located adjacent to Town Square’s Mill Pond Terrace. The space features craft beers and local wines, hosts live music, and is open May through September.
And though there is always a hustle and bustle around town, including at Town Square, Wolff says she feels a sense of close-knit community in Green Lake. It manages to retain that small-town charm you’d only expect to only see in the movies or on TV.
“There’s a lot going on and it feels exciting, but yet it’s laid-back,” she states. “And it sounds so cliche, but people are just super, super nice here and they’re happy to see you.”
Recently opened, GEAR. offers high-quality apparel and other gear for everything from the lake to the links. Their downtown shop sells sunglasses, suits, wake surf boards, golf apparel, hats, sandals, and more. Visit them for anything you need while enjoying all that Green Lake life has to offer.
For upscale resale, Hangers boutique is located in Town Square’s lobby and features new and gently used women’s apparel. Not only will you find a variety of sizes (including curvy), styles and accessories, but you’ll also be giving back to the Green Lake community. Proceeds from every item sold at Hangers are used to support Town Square Community Center’s many programs and events for residents and visitors to Green Lake.
If you are in search of something you won’t find anywhere else, something made of unique fabrics, bright colors, and beautiful patterns – or if you’re on the hunt for amazing accessories like scarves, fun handbags, hats and sunglasses, Dish is your place. Find that perfect top or dress to take home with you from Green Lake to remember your day trip or vacay, each time you wear it.
Camp Girl / Journeyman Co. Resort Shop
Camp Girl of Green Lake, a unique retail store offering a one-of-a-kind shopping experience – and home to Camp Making It – is now sharing space with Journeyman Co. Resort Shop, a men’s clothing store based in Middleton, WI. Camp Girl celebrates western American crafts and craftsmanship, offering traditional western goods with unique details, like handmade moccasins and boots, hats and jewelry. Journeyman, meanwhile, specializes in “Made in the USA” products with a focus on fit and high-quality brands for men – with offerings for the ladies as well.
Live Music, Festivals, Fairs & Fun!
Concerts in the Park
Held each Wednesday evening from June through August, Deacon Mills Park in Green Lake plays host to this weekly event. Live music is a big scene in Green Lake, and here you can kick back lakeside and enjoy delicious local food and brew, while listening to a variety of music.
“It’s such a beautiful setting to sit there in a chair, have a few beers and listen to the music while looking at the lake,” says Mayor Radis.
This year’s lineup includes everything from the ever-popular Copper Box to the Last Bees, WhiskeyBelles, UW Marching Band, the DelRays and Midnight Train.
Light Up The Lake 4th of July Celebration
If you have visions of a 4th of July celebration that unfolds in front of you like a Norman Rockwell painting, there is no better place to visit than Green Lake. The entire town puts a lot of effort into celebrating this great country and the excitement and good vibes are contagious! Start your day with the pancake breakfast at the American Legion, enjoy the duck races, patriotic boat parade, live music, and community street parade. And then settle in on a blanket or at a local establishment with your loved ones for the grand finale – fireworks at dusk.
Green Lake County Fair
Held in early August (August 4-7 in 2022), the Green Lake County Fair provides positive youth development and leadership skills, along with promoting agriculture, family, and community involvement through education and tradition. Known as “the best little fair around,” the event has free admission and the normal county fair finds – food, fun, fair rides and family-friendly activities.
“We take pride in this little fair,” says Meier. “It’s just a fun, charming event.”
Considered one of the signature Green Lake events, Harvest Fest (September 24-25 in 2022) offers food, a beer garden, craft fair, farmers market, entertainment stages, antique tractor show, classic car show, raffle prizes – and even Betsy Cow Chip Bingo! As the leaves turn and it becomes sweater weather, it’s a fun way to spend a beautiful autumn weekend in Green Lake.
WinterFest on Big Green
WinterFest is the revival of sorts of a popular Green Lake event back in the 1970s and was well-received in the community in 2022. Celebrate the best things about winter in Wisconsin with a trout derby fisheree, beer and food, kids’ pond hockey, a cornhole tournament, and piping hot, delicious comfort food like pork sandwiches, mac and cheese, chili, chili dogs and hot chocolate from community vendors. A vintage snowmobile show, horse-drawn wagon rides, and live music was all part of the fun in 2022. Bundle up and join in the fun in 2023!
Fine Arts Festival
Nearly 50 years in the making, the Green Lake Fine Art Show was created to provide artists throughout the Midwest with a space to showcase their locally made, original artwork. As one of the most heralded art shows in the Midwest, the show falls on the second weekend in August each year and is one of the most favored events for the artists and community alike.
The juried show, held at Playground Park in Green Lake, offers work by photographers, painters, sculptors, and more.
Eating & Dining
Start your day at Sassafras, a family-friendly coffee shop in business since 2014. Offering specialty drinks, morning pastries, salads, fruit and so much more. Stop to pick up a muffin or scone to go with your hot cup of java and then return for a salad or wrap to take and eat at a local park.
Norton’s of Green Lake
Norton’s, a Green Lake institution since 1948, is a must-stop during your adventures in Green Lake. Located on the north shore of Green Lake, it offers supper-club style fare in the evenings, including classic land, sea and pasta dishes. Try Norton’s famous walleye, their robust grilled ribeye, or their house cold-smoke baby back ribs.
If you’re just passing by for a quick bite, have a burger or french dip at the bar or try a starter – or three! The steamed PEI mussels, their house-made bleu cheese chips with smoked bacon and bleu cheese crumbles, and their Firecracker shrimp all make a great choice if you’re making a quick stop while you spend the day on the water. Lunch – and a tiki bar – return with summer’s arrival each year.
“We love Norton’s,” says Jenna Walker. “It is a classic dining option that has been serving the community lakeside for generations. They have a large dock so in the summer we can tie up and grab a bite while boating. On nice days, they serve al fresco and have an outdoor tiki bar.”
Chops Fine Cuisine
Though Green Lake’s population is less than 1,000 full-time residents and the town itself is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of big city life, foodies are not forgotten. Home to Chops Fine Cuisine since 2017, the restaurant offers modern contemporary fine cuisine in an elegant atmosphere.
Start your dinner with their signature truffle french fries with caper aioli, or the rare ahi tuna. Their filet mignon is served with truffled mashed potatoes and a veal glaze. If you’re feeling indulgent, their filet Oscar is topped with crab meat, truffled mashed potatoes, béarnaise sauce and a veal glaze. For their twist on pan-seared scallops, Chops’ version is complemented with their risotto, uniquely flavored by black garlic truffled parmesan and lemon extra virgin olive oil.
Murphy’s On Green
For a quick dinner with the kids—or a fun, laid-back date night—Murphy’s On Green was recently opened on Bayview Court. It gives diners lakeside views while they wait for their tacos, tequila and more. It’s a great place for casual dining, where you can be comfortable in a T-shirt and your flip-flops while eating their blackened shrimp taco, an order of queso curds, or a Murphy Dilla – their take on quesadillas. The Mexican-inspired menu also offers gluten friendly items.
Vines & Rushes
Vines & Rushes Winery is another Green Lake County gem. Located on an established family farm in Ripon, owners Ryan and Megan Prellwitz grow five acres of grapes that can withstand Wisconsin’s winters; the varieties grown are primarily Marquette, St. Pepin and Petite Pearl. Visit the tasting room to start your trip and stay for a Neapolitan-style pizza, made in their Italian-made, wood-fired brick oven.
Walk the Dog
If you want a Food Network-worthy hot dog, Green Lake’s Walk the Dog serves a huge array of mouth-watering creations – to go! Complemented by their fancy french fries, the gourmet hot dogs have 40-plus toppings to choose from. Try their Corny Dog – a Chicago-style dog of the finest quality topped with sweet corn, cheese blend, raw onions, bacon and ranch. Or splurge with a Wisco dog – topped with fresh cheese curds, beer-bathed onions, brown mustard, cheese blend and bacon. Gluten-free and vegetarian options are also available, so there’s something for everyone.
(And after you’re done with your dog, head down to Lake Street Marina for ice cream during the summer months!)
Places to Stay
The Heidel House
The Heidel House may be the most well-known Green Lake landmark for vacationers. Currently a 115-room hotel and conference center along the lakefront, it was originally built in 1890 as a private estate. Though it closed in May 2019, it reopened under new ownership and management in 2021 and offers both indoor and outdoor fun and recreation for our guests. When you aren’t mesmerized by the dazzling lake views, there is an indoor pool, two dining options and direct access to the Tuscumbia Country Club.
Bed & Breakfasts
If quaint bed and breakfasts are more your speed, there are several to choose from. For retreats with a historic touch, The Greenway House bed and breakfast is located in the heart of Green Lake. The wrap-around porch is the perfect place to catch the lake breeze and relax the mind.
At The Miller’s Daughter – located near downtown, the lake and close to the bike path – enjoy its peaceful setting among the pines and gardens. The inn was built in 1905 as a parsonage for the First Congregational Church. It was then moved to its present location in 2002 to save it from demolition and then renovated.
Green Lake Inn
With rooms completely renovated just in time to welcome guests for the 2022 summer season, the historic Green Lake Inn is located minutes from Green Lake. The 17-room hotel will also be adding a bar and grill with a large relaxing deck in the future. They plan to offer outdoor activities like horseshoes, cornhole, croquet, and much more, as well as rentals of bicycles, mopeds, and shuttle bus services for large groups.
Residential short-term stays
If you are looking for that woodsy cabin feel, a cute bungalow, a cozy cottage or you need a luxury home for your large crew, there are many homes for rent by highly regarded homeowners and hosts on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo as well.
Get Out & Explore, All Year Long!
There is so much to love about the synergy of traditional tourist hangouts with the outdoor recreational opportunities in Green Lake throughout the four seasons. There’s no doubt you’ll be able to find something to do and see, no matter the length of your stay.
“There is a very good balance between retail and the outdoors,” says Mayor Radis. “People come here to boat, hike, bike, and [for the] shopping and dining.”
“Green Lake is special; it is a natural treasure that I proudly and intentionally built my life around,” furthers Jenna Walker. “In addition to the community this area offers, its beauty is unmeasurable. Green Lake and the surrounding watershed offer endless opportunities to play, relax and reset together year-round.”
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