Boredom: It’s bound to happen. Keeping kids’ brains and bodies busy throughout summer vacation can be a herculean task. Juggling soccer camp at the park, story time at the library and swim lessons at the gym can leave parents feeling like little more than chauffeurs. Sometimes you need to leave the schedules behind and embark on an adventure. Here are some ideas to get you out the door, into the car and off exploring with your family.
TO THE NORTH
Explore the great outdoors
Nature nuts need look no further than the West Bend area for three unique experiences.
Visitors to Riveredge Nature Center in Saukville, just east of West Bend, can hike 10 miles of trails through woodlands and prairies. Borrow a self-guided adventure pack from the front desk and set out to explore the sanctuary’s geology, trees, birds and more. Children can also climb, roll and jump on a natural playground made of tree stumps, sand, a hill, pond and tree house. The admission fee maxes out at $12 per family.
Northeast of West Bend is Lizard Mound County Park, which contains 28 prehistoric effigy mounds. Native Americans constructed the mounds between 700 BC and 1200 AD. Such mounds are unique to the midwest, but little else is known about the people who built them. An interpretive center at the park sets the scene for visitors, and a mile-long path winds among the animal-shaped mounds, which rise up to four feet above ground.
Shalom Wildlife Sanctuary, just north of West Bend, is home to elk, bison, wolves, an albino deer and other wild animals on more than 100 acres. Some of the animals have been displaced from other farms, and some are unable to survive in the wild. Visitors explore four miles of trails either on foot or in a rented golf cart. During July and August, kids can follow a scavenger hunt and win a small prize. Adult admission costs $9; kids ages 2 to 12 cost $6.50.
Have a ball together
For a day of sporting fun, families should consider a trip to Appleton, home to the Timber Rattlers, one of two minor league baseball teams in the state. (The other is the Beloit Snappers.)
Fox Cities Stadium holds just 5,500 people and offers a family section in the grandstand, grass seating along the first and third baselines, and even a beach with sand toys for tots behind right field. The team’s schedule is filled with giveaways, and games are jam-packed with entertainment between innings. The mascot, Fang, interacts with the crowd, and games like the Bratzooka (yes, it launches bratwurst) keep the mood light-hearted. Many summer games end with a bang: fireworks. Ticket prices start at $5; kids 2 and under are free if they share a seat with an adults.
TO THE SOUTH
See dinosaursand eat candy
On the shore of Lake Michigan sits a museum mecca, Kenosha. Three of the four museums there offer free admission: the Kenosha Public Museum, Dinosaur Discovery Museum and Kenosha History Center. The Civil War Museum charges $7 for adults, but kids 15 and under are free. For a small price, visitors can shuttle between the sites (and garner another unique experience) on vintage electric streetcars that run a 2-mile loop through the city.
The Kenosha Public Museum is a natural history and fine art museum. Among its treasures are two mastodons unearthed in Wisconsin and art from Pablo Picasso. The Dinosaur Discovery World displays fossils from 18 meat-eating dinosaurs and chronicles the evolution of birds.
The Kenosha History Center records the city’s settlement and maritime history. The Civil War Museum has life-size dioramas and exhibits that tell the stories of soldiers in battle and their families who kept farms and businesses running.
Just west of Kenosha, in Pleasant Prairie, is the Jelly Belly Warehouse. Stop in for a free guided tour; kids will enjoy riding a train through the warehouse and watching movie clips on how the candy is made. The last train stop is the store, where visitors can purchase souvenirs, “Belly Flops” (factory rejects), and try flavors at the Sample Bar.
Bring history to life
Wisconsin’s rural past comes alive along a beautiful road and historic destination. The 115-mile-long Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive travels from Whitewater to Elkhart Lake and highlights this part of the state’s unique geology and ecology. Pick up the trail heading south on Highway C from Delafield. The road will twist and turn through shaded lanes and alongside panoramic fields.
Stop at Lapham Peak State Park (with an annual state park admission pass or the $7 daily fee) to climb to the highest point in Waukesha County. Under the right conditions, the 45-foot-high observation tower serves up glimpses of the Milwaukee skyline to the east and Holy Hill’s spires to the north. In the 19th century, Increase Lapham, who helped found the National Weather Bureau, made weather observations from that hill.
Continue south on the scenic drive toward Eagle, home to Old World Wisconsin, where history comes to life. Trained interpreters show visitors how 19th-century settlers farmed, shopped and lived. Kids can experience the one-room Raspberry School, try washing clothes by hand, and playing old-fashioned games.
In the German Area, visitors can take part in the new “Life on the farm” hands-on experience. Each person receives a biography card about a member of the Krueger family, who emigrated from Poland to Wisconsin in 1851. Guests learn about their alter-ego’s chores and can try their hand at gathering eggs, gardening, carpentry and more.
Admission to OWW costs $16 for adults and $9 for kids ages 5 to 17. Children under 5 are free, and family admission maxes out at $43.
TO THE WEST
Visit another world
Just west of Madison, explorers can step back in time a million years. Forty feet below the surface is Cave of the Mounds, a geologic wonder that started forming during the days of dinosaurs.
Tours start by descending stairs (no strollers allowed) into the cave, which is 50 degrees year-round. Visitors then follow paved, lighted walkways, and guides point out different formations. Colorful crystals cover the walls, floor and ceiling of the cave, earning it the nickname “the Jewel Box.”
Above ground, visitors can explore two short trails, see the restored prairies, learn about sink holes and view wildlife. For a small fee, kids can sift a sluice in search of gemstones or dig for fossils. Visitors can also “Walk the Line,” an outdoor timeline that chronicles earth’s geologic history.
Admission is $16 for adults and $8 for kids ages 4 to 12.
Nearby House on the Rock is a museum like no other. This Japanese-inspired home sits atop a 60-foot rock. Among the stunning features is a 200-foot-long glass infinity room that hovers above the forest.
Inside, collections range from doll houses to pipe organs to artifacts from the Titanic. A highlight is the indoor carousel. While visitors cannot ride the carousel, the 269 animals circling underneath 182 chandeliers is a trip for the senses.
The grounds also include a Zen garden and the Alex Jordan Historic Center, which tells the story of the house’s eccentric founder.
For ticketing purposes, the House is divided into three sections. Tickets to any one individual section cost $12.50, and for the entire attraction cost $28.50 for adults, and $15.50 for kids ages 4 to 17. This pass is checked at each section, and the ticket to any unvisited section is valid for a year. Visitors can return and complete the remaining sections another day.
Take in the circus
The circus is in town year-round in Baraboo, once the winter headquarters of Ringling Bros. Circus. Baraboo is now home to the world’s largest collection of circus memorabilia; Circus World Museum is filled with antique posters, costumes and photos from “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Visitors also can explore eight original animal winter quarters on the shore of the Baraboo River. Elephants, ostriches, camels and hundreds of exotic animals were once housed there. A footbridge over the river leads to more interactive entertainment and a pavilion that houses 200 vintage circus wagons (the same wagons that formed Milwaukee’s Circus Parade).
During the summer, jugglers, clowns, contortionists and dancing dogs perform in the Hippodrome. Kids can dress up and make their own circus act, and, for a small fee, take a spin on the 1917 carousel. The Tristan Crist Illusion Show will leave kids and parents scratching their heads, wondering if magic is real. Admission costs $17.95 for adults and $7.95 for kids ages 5 to 11.
Afterward, take the back roads home and head to the Wisconsin River, where you can board the Merrimac Ferry, the state’s only free ferry. It carries 15 cars on a seven-minute ride from shore to shore. Passengers can exit their cars, take in the view, and enjoy the leisurely ride.
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