Growing up, I spent all of my summers at a cabin in Three Lakes, WI. It's still one of my favorite places, and I go back every year.
An Introduction to Three Lakes
Three Lakes, WI is a small town located in Northern Wisconsin. It's a little over four hours north of Milwaukee and five and a half hours north of Chicago.
The town is a popular summer destination since it's on the south end of 28 interconnected lakes – the largest chain of inland freshwater lakes in the world. In 2010, Three Lakes was named the "Single Best Town in America" in a contest sponsored by Kraft and ABC.
My Grandma owns a cabin on the lake in this quiet town, and I was lucky enough to spend all of my childhood summers here (I still go back at least once every year). I think it's one of the best vacation destinations since it offers a chance to go off the grid and get back to nature. Here are my favorite ways to spend a week in Three Lakes.
Rent a Ski Boat or Pontoon
If you're staying anywhere near a lake (you likely are since most cabin rentals have lake access), rent a boat or pontoon for the week. Many marinas offer a variety of boat rentals, with prices ranging from $125-$300 per day depending on what type of boat you decide to rent.
Pontoons are great if you're traveling a group since they can typically hold more than ten people. However, they aren't ideal for waterskiing or wakeboarding since they aren't built for higher speeds.
A ski boat is needed if you plan to do any water sports. These boats have bigger engines that are capable of pulling people on skis or tubes. You don't need to go all out and rent a top-of-the-line boat though (like a Ski Nautique) to have a great time. When you call to inquire about a rental, let the person know what you plan to do with the boat, and they can recommend different options.
Spend the Day on the Water
Summers here are best spent on the lake, so load up a cooler and spend the day taking a boat cruise to the other lakes on the chain. On your cruise, be sure to check out all of the lakefront cabins since many of them have been there for decades. You can also drop an anchor and take a swim in the middle of the lake.
You'll notice that people on other boats will wave as they go by, which is an unwritten boat rule in the Northwoods. If you get hungry, there are a number of restaurants on the lake that allow you to dock your boat and grab a bite. One of my favorite places to go growing up was Pine Isle, which offers two Wisconsin staples: New Glarus beer and cheese curds.
A fun fact about New Glarus beer is that it's only sold in Wisconsin, so be sure to to try some before you leave. Not sure which kind to try? Spotted Cow is their most popular beer.
There are also a number of marinas that sell gas on the waterfront should you find yourself low on fuel. Be sure to map out where the marinas are and remember to keep an eye on how much gas you have left. The last thing you want to do is run out in the middle of the lake.
Learn to Waterski or Wakeboard
If you're itching to try a new sport, rent a pair of waterskis or a wakeboard. I have taught many friends how to ski over the years, and while it sometimes takes awhile to get the hang of things, you might be able to get up after just a few tries. Plus, it's fun even if you are constantly falling.
If you snow-ski or snowboard, you'll have a leg up in trying to waterski or wakeboard. Both snow sports are similar to their summer counterparts. If you have no experience in either, I recommend starting to waterski. It's much easier and a lot less awkward.
I also recommend trying to learn in the morning before you do anything else, so you'll be at your best. Otherwise, you might already be sore from doing other things and have a harder time. People are always surprised at how much strength it takes to not only get up on skis, but also to hold on to the rope. I'm always exhausted after my first few runs of the season.
Pro tip: Crystal Lake is a small lake at the end of a chain that is great for learning how to ski. It takes about 20 minutes just to go through a small chain that leads to it (in addition to any other lakes you may have to pass through), but it's so worth it. The waves are minimal and there are hardly any other boats on it. It's where I learned to ski when I was nine-years-old.
Go See a Waterski Show
Sports like waterskiing and wakeboarding are a big deal in Wisconsin. Towns all over the state have ski teams that perform every week in the summer months where they do everything from build pyramids while on the water to barefoot skiing to going off jumps. There's even a state competition where teams from all over gather to show off their best skills.
The Aqua Devils are a ski team based in Three Lakes and perform every Wednesday night and Saturday night at 6:30pm between June and July. They are so fun to watch, though I may be a little biased since I spent a summer performing with them back in high school. However, the show is free to attend, so it's worth checking out. You can either watch them from your boat or from land. I recommend driving to the grounds and watching from the stands, because every year is a different theme and everyone is dressed in costumes and they have raffles and prizes.
Spend the Afternoon Tubing
If skiing and wake boarding leave you frustrated or aren't your cup of tea, rent a big inner tube and spend the day tubing. It's fun for people of all ages and won't leave you totally sore afterwards.
If you are with a bigger group of people, I recommend renting a larger tube that can hold more than one person. Plus, it's always fun to ride together.
Go Out Fishing
If you're a morning person or are looking for something to do in the evening when the weather cools off, fishing is always a great option. You can easily fish off your pier or off your boat rental. You don't necessarily need a fishing boat. Though if you plan to spend most of the week fishing rather than tubing or skiing, you might want to look into renting a fishing boat. There are great fishing spots on almost every lake. I've even had great luck just throwing in a line from the pier. If you're going out in the evening hours, be sure your boat has a light and you bring bug spray with you.
A fishing license is required for everyone over the age of 15, but it's easy to get a one day license if you want to try it out first. The Wisconsin DNR offers an option to purchase a license online and print it out that same day. If you'd prefer to get one in person, there are at least a few spots in Three Lakes that sell them. You'll also want to purchase worms. As for a fishing rod, places like Walmart sell some that are under $20.
Rent a Kayak or Stand Up Paddleboard
If you're looking to have a relaxing day on the water, rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Most of the lakes on the chain have little inlets you can check out. It's a great way to slowly explore the lake you're on and get a closer look at the other cabins on the lake.
The local hardware store in Three Lakes rents both of these items, which is where I usually rent from. A ten-foot kayak can be rented for $50/day and a paddleboard can be rented for $40/day.
End the Evening with a Bonfire
I encourage you to end every evening with a bonfire if weather permits. Go the store and buy some hotdogs and items for S'mores. Buy some dry firewood if there isn't any on your property. You can easily find sticks to use to roast the hotdogs and marshmallows. Remember to buy bug spray as Mosquitos come out at night in this neck of the woods. You should also wear long-sleeves and pants to cover up as much skin as possible.
Some of my best memories at the cabin involve sitting around the fire telling stories or getting into deep conversations with family and friends.
Check Out a Fish Fry
End your week with a Wisconsin tradition: a Friday fish-fry. I make sure all of my vacations include at least one Friday, so I can partake every time I go back. Some restaurants offer all-you-can-eat options while others give you just a few pieces. I recommend going on the early side of dinner (before 6pm) if you want to beat the crowds (some places offer early bird specials).
There are numerous restaurants in the area that offer Friday fish-fries. Here are a few of my local favorites: Bonnie's Lakeside, Black Forest Pub & Grille and Honey Bear Inn.
However, my favorite spot is Wolff's River Inn in Elcho, about a 40 minute drive from Three Lakes. This hole-in-the-wall has one of the best fish-fries I have ever had. The restaurant doesn't have a website, so you'll want to look up their phone number and give them a call for the most up-to-date hours and Friday specials. However, it's a place that most locals know about, so expect a long wait if you don't show up right when it opens.
What to Do on a Rainy Day
It's always a bummer when it rains since most activities are outdoors, but if it starts to rain, don't fret. There's plenty to do even when the weather is gloomy.
Three Lakes has a great little winery that's worth checking out when the weather isn't cooperating. They offer complimentary short tours everyday from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. They also allow customers to taste up to six wines on the house. It's a fun way to spend a couple hours.
You can also take a trip to Eagle River, which is only about 20 minutes away by car. Some places worth visiting:
- Tremblay's Sweet Shop, which sells homemade fudge
- Country Store, which is an old-fashioned candy and ice cream shop
- Arrow Gift Shop, which offers a large selection of moccasins
- Northwoods Furniture Gallery
- Grandma's Toy Box
I also love just spending rainy days playing cards or boardgames with family and friends. Most places don't have wifi or good cell reception, so not having access to technology is refreshing. Some of our favorite games to play include Settlers of Catan, Monopoly, Rummy 500, Crazy Eights and Uno.
I hope you love Three Lakes as much as I do. It's a town full of charm and endless outdoor activities. Let me know if you end up visiting!
Carl on November 30, 2019:
I also spent many summers on planting ground lake. Thanks to my grandparents it was the best memories that I still sit back and remember and smile about. Also thank you for sharing yours it's so right on.....