Wisconsin has an astounding 15,000 lakes scattered throughout the state, and no visit to this low-key Midwestern region would be complete without a detour to Wisconsin’s Lake Country in Waukesha County. Situated just 30 minutes outside of the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, and only an hour from the capital, Madison, Lake Country is home to over 250 lakes. With so many lakes to choose from, picking the right ones to visit on a day trip from Milwaukee can be overwhelming. Each has its own personality, from the humble motor-free fishing lakes to the summertime resorts.
In the early 1900s, this region was a weekend getaway hotspot for the wealthy elite from Milwaukee and Chicago. Today, Wisconsinites and out-of-towners from all over the world can find a slice of lakefront paradise in Lake Country, thanks to the numerous public access beaches and state parks in the region. For the best lakes to visit outside of Milwaukee, look no further than these four Lake Country destinations.
1. Lac La Belle
Lac La Belle, which in French literally translates to “lake the beautiful,” lives up to its name. With four beaches to choose from, Lac La Belle is an ideal spot for summertime sunshine. The popular City Beach is a hub of activity from Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September, with swimming, boat rentals, picnic areas, a playground, sand volleyball, and more. City Beach also hosts events and performances all summer long in the bandshell, including the free weekly Friday night concert series Bands at the Beach.
When it’s time to eat, head over to Buddy’s Beach Bungalow for a brat (Wisconsin bratwurst) and ice cream. Buddy’s also offers full- and half-day pontoon rentals, which are perfect for exploring the lake with a group of family or friends.
Whether you are visiting Lac La Belle at City Beach or at one of the other public beaches like Bender Beach, note that you will need to purchase a beach band from the guardhouse ($2.50 for residents and $5 for non-residents).
If you’re there in a cooler time of year, you can still enjoy lake views while cycling along a bike path around that circles Lac La Belle through the town of Oconomowoc. Bike rentals, along with kayaks and paddleboards, are available at nearby Moboevo. Another option is a round of golf at one of the oldest golf courses in America. The historic Club at Lac La Belle was opened in 1896 and offers afternoon tee-times for non-members.
2. Pewaukee Lake
The longest lake in the region is Pewaukee Lake, measuring five miles long and a mile wide. Pewaukee hosts national regattas during the sailing season from spring to fall and is a popular destination for yachters from around the country. Pewaukee is also one of the best fishing lakes in Wisconsin, and you can find muskies, Wisconsin’s official state fish, measuring over 50 inches long. Beachside Boat and Bait rents pontoons, fishing boats, and kayaks, and sells bait and equipment to help you create your own fisherman’s tale experience.
If you’re neither a boater nor a fisher, you can still get on the lake or exercise on its shores. Koha Yoga offers stand-up paddleboard lessons and rentals, as well as yoga sessions, on Pewaukee Lake. You can also rent bikes at VeloCity Cycling and grab a bite to eat after your ride at the on-site restaurant and pub, The Handle Bar.
The beach at Lakefront Park is best for swimming, lounging on the sand, and strolling the boardwalk. Grab lunch at The Chocolate Factory, which despite the name also sells savory sandwiches, and Artisan 179. Then return to Lakefront Park to while away the afternoon. With westward-facing views over Pewaukee Lake, the park is a fantastic spot for viewing the sunset.
Several local gastro-pubs surround the lake, including the four-generation, family-owned 5 O’Clock Club where you can order an award-winning fish fry in a restaurant that looks more like a vacation home with views of the lake. On the northern side of Pewaukee Lake, Doc’s Dry Dock serves up delicious pizzas and beers right on the water, with a boat dock beckoning in hungry boaters off the water.
3. Nagawicka Lake
Nagawicka Lake is nearby to Pewaukee Lake but is smaller and has a completely different feel. While many lakes in the region cater to summer travel, Nagawicka Lake is popular year-round. In winter, Nagawicka Lake is popular for ice fishing, thanks to the lake’s deep freeze and trophy-sized walleye and northern pike.
It’s also great for angling in every other season and is considered one of the best fishing lakes in south-central Wisconsin — teeming with Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie, perch, and bluegill. Whatever time of year you go, if you aren’t catching your own dinner, Seven Seas Seafood and Steak and Fishbone’s Cajun and Creole Restaurant are two popular lake-view options.
Naga-Waukee Park is the best place to access Nagawicka Lake, with spectacular views from the boardwalk, family-friendly beaches, concessions, and a boat launch. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail also passes through Naga-Waukee Park since the topography of the lakes region is the result of glacial melt from the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago. Whether hiking on the Ice Age trail, or any of the other trails through the park’s oak and hickory forests, be on the lookout for orioles and great-horned owls in the treetops. You can even overnight here right on the lake — just be sure to reserve a campsite ahead of time.
4. Lake Nemahbin
Divided into Upper and Lower portions, Lake Nemahbin offers visitors sandy beaches, fishing opportunities, and scenic views, particularly over Lower Nemahbin’s Sugar Island. Upper Nemhabin is a fishing favorite, with a variety of species living in the lake, like bluegill, largemouth bass, northern pike, smallmouth bass, and walleye.
While Lake Nemahbin doesn’t have public sandy beaches like some of its neighbors, it is excellent for exploring by boat. Lake Nemahbin connects to several other bodies of water like Bark River and Upper and Lower Nashotah Lakes, making it an exciting place to navigate various waterways. Pontoon, paddleboard, and kayak rentals are available right on the lake from Nomad Board Sports. If you’re new to stand-up paddleboarding, Nomad Board Sports also offers guided and themed paddleboard excursions on the lake.
Water skiers frequently ride on Upper Nemahbin, and visitors can grab a spot to watch the watersports and revelry at popular Panga Bar & Grill, where they can also enjoy a cold Wisconsin beer and traditional fish fry to top off their Lake Country experience.