Minocqua offers a variety of activities perfect for kids of all ages.
Bike tires merrily crunch along a crushed granite trail, periodically bumping and thumping over historic old railroad trestles. Shrieks of excitement echo throughout thick pine woods as kids buzz along a zip line strung through the forest. A hush falls over the animal nursery when a toddler impulsively folds her arms around a squat, pot-bellied pig. Eyes widen when the northern lights burst forth in a blaze of emerald and violet, beautifully painting the night sky. Any of these adventures provides a great family bonding experience. Wrap them together in one family vacation, and you’ve got a trip you and your loved ones will remember for a lifetime.
The Lakeland area in northern Wisconsin offers all of these family-fun activities, and plenty more, within its four communities and their environs: Arbor Vitae, Minocqua and Woodruff. The area is famous for its 3,200 sparkling glacial lakes, streams and ponds (it’s home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of freshwater bodies), and its sprawling state and national forest lands — 100,000+ acres of thick evergreen and hardwoods. So plenty of folks know it’s a prime spot for activities like hiking, fishing and boating. But the area offers so much more, especially when it comes to family fun.
Over at Minocqua Zoo, more than 1,000 creatures, large and small, are waiting for you to visit. Stroll through the facility, Wisconsin’s second-largest zoo, and you’ll be able to see mountain lions, tigers, emus, zebras, hyenas, sloths, armadillos, snakes and leopards, to name but a few. Threatened and endangered species such as flamingos and sarus cranes also call Wildwood home.
Educational programs are held in the site’s amphitheater to help visitors learn more about the furry, winged and scaled critters in the zoo. And you can even feed some of the animals, including the giraffes, camels and koi. The most popular activity is feeding the bears. We’re not talking cubs here, we’re talking 800-pound adults. How in the world does that work? Staff members blend a special juice cocktail the bears love, then pour it into a bottle whose tip you’re able to insert into a metal screen that separates you from the bears.
“Feeding the bears is hugely popular,” says Duane Domaszek, Wildwood Wildlife Park owner. “So is the Budgie encounter.”
The Budgie encounter is a walk-through aviary that’s home to more than 500 colorful parakeets, a few of whom may decide to hitchhike on your shoulder or head when they’re tired of flying around. to entice a few of the shyer fine-feathered friends to zip over and say hello, you can purchase a stick coated with bird food and hold it near you.
For a different twist on wildlife encounters, head over to the Northwoods Wildlife Center, whose mission is to take care of injured and orphaned wild animals, helping prepare them to be released back into the wilderness. Free 30-minute tours of the facility are held regularly in summer and can be scheduled during other seasons. During your tour, you’ll be able to see some of the center’s resident animals — those creatures who have some type of disability which prevents them from being released back into the wild. Current residents include a bald eagle, red-tailed hawks, numerous owls and turtles, snakes and a turkey vulture. The Northwoods Wildlife Center also holds various wildlife and nature programs twice weekly throughout the summer.
“A visit to our center offers you the chance to see various species of wildlife native to the area,” says executive director Laura Fuhrman, who notes Northwoods’ birds of prey are a crowd favorite. “And these birds are glove trained, so you really can see them up close,” she says.
To get your heart racing a bit, set aside time to take in a Min-Aqua Bats waterski show. The Min-Aqua Bats Waterski club originated in 1950, when locals and visitors began hanging out on lake Minocqua on Sunday afternoons to watch the group of young adults who regularly waterskied there at that time. The skiers noticed their growing fan base and thought it would be fun to put on a show for them, and thus formed the Min-Aqua Bats. The group became one of America’s first waterski show teams, and to this day continues to perform free for anyone who cares to plop down on the bleachers and watch. Their graceful, daring and acrobatic feats are popular with kids and adults alike.
One of the more unique activities families can enjoy in the Minocqua area — Woodruff, to be specific — is a lumberjack show. At the Fred Scheers Lumberjack Show, world-champion lumberjacks compete against one another in 10 events, such as log-rolling (aka birling), pole-climbing, canoe jousting and ax-throwing. Their skills are impressive, and the events are thrilling to watch. how can they not be, when they involve chucking axes, revving up enormous, whining chainsaws and racing up 60-foot poles, then dropping to the ground?
But the show is more than an athletic match. A wealth of interesting information about lumberjacks and lumberjacking is dispensed during the show, along with a good dose of humor. Kids are invited up on stage during intermission, too; a few lucky ones will get to help a lumberjack (or maybe a lumberjill) crosscut saw.
But spending time in Minocqua and its environs isn’t just about taking in a variety of shows and wandering through museums. No trip up here is complete without immersing yourself in the great Northwoods. There are many ways you can do so. One idea: sign on for a trail ride with Rock Falls Riding stable, which offers horseback tours throughout its 28 wooded acres. (Mini golf and go-karts are part of the operation, too.)
Over at Northwoods Zip Line, you can fly along eight different zip lines laced through 100-foot white and red pine forests. the lines, which collectively total more than one mile, not only transport you over these trees, but take you over ravines, through valleys and, for the grand finale, 1,000 feet over a lake. The multi-hour adventure also includes walking across six adventure bridges and climbing atop a 50-foot platform that affords great views of lake Minocqua.
Bring your bikes, or rent some, so you can wheel along the famous Bearskin Trail, an 18-mile compact-granite recreational path that traces Bearskin creek. The path was created on a former railroad corridor that was built to transport the white pine logs the lumberjacks were chopping down for use in various Midwestern cities. As you pedal along the trail, you’ll cross numerous old railroad trestles, which span sparkling lakes and streams left by glacial meltwater.
Don’t forget, though, that vacations are for unwinding. Make sure to leave space in your itinerary to simply relax and enjoy your beautiful surroundings. Sometimes deeply inhaling fresh, pine-scented air, or laying on your back and gazing up at a dark sky kissed with twinkling stars, creates the fondest family memories of all.
Want a few more family-friendly ideas on how to enjoy the area? Here are five.
- Geocache. Finding the area’s geocaches will lead you through forests, along remote bike trails, over the water to islands and to historic locales. You can also sign on for the great Northwoods Treasure Hunt, a special group of 18 area caches.
- Sit near a lake and listen to the loons. It’s not difficult; Vilas and Oneida counties lead the state in loon population.
- Tour a fish hatchery. The Art Oehmcke Fish Hatchery in Woodruff is a cool-water hatchery specializing in muskellunge, walleye, lake trout and suckers. Tours are held twice daily during the summer.
- See the world’s largest penny. Head to Woodruff to see this roadside attraction, created to commemorate a 1953 fundraiser to build a local hospital.
- Pick strawberries. Visit during berry season, and you’ll be able to pick and eat plump, super-sweet berries at various locales.