The village of Elkhart Lake (80 minutes north of Milwaukee) sports a crystal-clear, 286-acre lake, plus a world-renowned racetrack and irresistible culinary finds. Here's our guide for a two-day getaway.
Colorful cars zip around curves and over hills framed by lush green foliage. A far cry from a NASCAR speedway, Elkhart Lake’s legendary Road America course has an atmosphere more befitting a Sunday picnic (admittedly, a rather noisy one!). The course—one of the world’s longest (at more than 4 miles)—opened in 1955 and has been a favorite of amateur racers ever since. And it’s a great place for amateur fans, too, with its many events, infectious atmosphere and tickets starting at $10.
But why does a little resort town have a race track? To learn, consult the historical markers around Elkhart Lake. Hundreds of thousands of people visited in the early 1950s to watch the nation’s best drivers race through the village and surrounding countryside. You can still drive—not race!—the old routes.
Racing gives Elkhart Lake a distinct jolt of energy, but it’s not the main draw. That would be the lake, and most people come here for quiet weekends of swimming, sunning, boating and waterskiing.
Just outside town, sprawling Kettle Moraine State Forest offers hundreds of miles of trails for biking, hiking and running. The popular 3.5-mile Parnell Tower Trail includes an observation tower with sweeping views of the glacier-carved terrain. A historic village in the park includes The Wade House, where costumed interpreters lead tours of a 19th-century stagecoach inn and visitors explore a carriage museum. For lunch, gorgeous lake views and alfresco dining complement great drinks, pizzas and sizzling burgers at Barefoot Tiki Bar at Victorian Village Resort.
After a beachy afternoon, dinner at Siebkens’ Stop-Inn Tavern is an affordable luxury and considered the best bar on the racing circuit; entrees include grilled swordfish and steaks. Plus, it’s located in Siebkens Resort, the go-to hangout for the racing crowd. Its new condo hotel offers elegant, Prairie-style units with fireplaces, full kitchens and balconies, starting at just $119 on peak weekends. For a quieter night, try The Osthoff Resort, which is renovating its rooms and suites. Families come for kid-friendly programming; adults luxuriate in the Aspira Spa’s Thai massage and chakra balancing treatments. Rooms from $235.
Spend the morning exploring village shops. Two Fish Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden has serious curb appeal: lush plants and fab artwork. The owners open their bungalow to display works from about 70 regional and national artists, as well as fair-trade art. Vintage gift shop Mix and Mingle tucks inside Rhine Street General Co-op, which showcases 12 vendors.
Lunch at Lake Street Cafe presents a choice: The casual dining side offers funky, beer-inspired decor and wood-fired pizzas; the fine-dining side has one of Wisconsin’s longest wine lists and entrees like sesame-seared tuna.
At The Osthoff Resort, participants in laid-back, chef-led cooking classes at L’ecole de la Maison produce impressive dishes in just a few hours. Or spend an afternoon with Queen Anne Carriage Rides. The owner, who sometimes dresses in Victorian garb, talks about the days when gangsters such as John Dillinger and Al Capone hid out in Elkhart Lake.
For a special dinner, visit Paddock Club. The seasonal menu tends toward European: Lemon and ricotta ravioli bursts with heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, pine nuts, Parmesan and lemon oil. In a town where many visitors are still in a hurry to zip around a famous track, it’s delightful to find a place all about savoring a moment.
Prices, hours, menus and other details are subject to change; please check specifics before making travel plans.