Photography courtesy Elkhart Lake Tourism
There’s a small village on the shores of a crystal-clear lake in Wisconsin that you will wish you had heard of a long time ago. Elkhart Lake, a bit larger than a mile in size with about 1,000 permanent residents, offers vacationers just about anything they might want.
This area, adjacent to the heavily wooded Kettle Moraine State Forest North and midway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, has been a legendary respite since the 1800’s. Elkhart Lake has a wealth of outdoor recreation options on land and water, top-flight dining, a world-class spa, culinary school and delightful shops (including a wintertime German Christmas market); but the town’s crown jewel, the premier Road America racetrack, is what really put this quaint village on the world map.
Originally a gambling resort, Elkhart Lake was a hot spot back in the Victorian era. Various inns, hotels and other period buildings have their distinctive architecture lovingly restored and maintained. Just strolling the small downtown’s shady lanes and viewing the well-kept flower gardens, a block or so from the lake, brings on a mood of peaceful relaxation.
Racing In Elkhart Lake
During the early 1950’s, Elkhart Lake began enjoying its new identity as a road-racing haven, as top sports car drivers traveled from around the world to take on the hills and sharp corners of its open-road race circuit. It was founded by World War II vets who returned to the quiet little town thirsting for the excitement they experienced during their time abroad. The open-road circuit then segued into the international motorsports venue of Road America after open-road racing was banned. Fortunately, the historic circuit remains a lovely public drive, marked with nostalgic signs such as Wacker’s Wend, Kimberly’s Korner and Dicken’s Ditch, commemorating some of the famous early racers.
Road America, a wooded 640-acre property, is known as “America’s National Park of Speed.” Just one mile from Elkhart Lake, it is the site of international motorsport events with celebrity drivers and riders. This year-round venue is one of the very few that openly allows the public into the paddocks and pits, offers free parking and allows patrons to bring in their own picnics. Road America hosts activities for groups of all sizes. Attracting 700,000 annual visitors from around the world, the track holds 425 events each year, often running multiple events each day, using the 4-mile, 14-turn track, the interior motorplex and the other surrounding event grounds. Events include NASCAR, American LeMans, the Corvette World Tribute and various motorcycle competitions, along with other unique motorsport affairs. Major race weekends run from May-September, and tickets should be bought in advance as they typically sell out.
Road America also hosts a variety of adventure programs for all four seasons, such as paintball, ATV rides, disc golf, geocaching, go-karting, motorcycling, Supermoto, snowshoeing, dog sledding, hiking, outdoor survival and more.
Hit the Town of Elkhart Lake
Road racing is not the only thing to do when visiting Elkhart Lake. A totally different experience is offered at the lavish Osthoff Resort, home to a French culinary school, L’ecole de la Maison. This world-class school is open to the public and has workshops that last from two hours to two days, teaching in a hands-on and interactive experience, ranging from whole food to presentation. Chef Scott Baker teaches courses such as a French Christmas, Chocolate Desserts, Northern Italian Cuisine and Teen Cuisine, to name a few. Note that 48-hour reservations are required. Ready for some pampering? The Osthoff also offers the holistic, organic-approach Aspira Spa, a truly five-star facility with unique treatments in a sublime setting.
Shopping and dining are treats as well, with a bevy of independent, one-of-a-kind stores and restaurants in Elkhart Lake. Check out the eclectic array of handicrafts, antiques and collectables at Rhine Street General, or the Scandinavian products and foodstuffs at Nordic Accents. Looking for meats and cheeses? Feed Mill Market has just about everything. Local and regional artists have a hefty offering at Two Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden, and nostalgia buffs will have a heyday at Lieutenant Dave’s Area 51 Vintage Shop. Saturday mornings from June through mid-October, you’ll find the Farmers and Artisans Market inside the village, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Dining choices range from rustic and casual to semiformal. Check out the European and nouvelle cuisine at The Paddock Club or the Lake Street Café, which hold Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence, or dine elegantly at Lola’s on the Lake at the Osthoff, overlooking the lake (perfect for that special evening). A charming local favorite is the Off the Rail Café, located in the town’s original railroad depot, where you might want to relax for hours with a special coffee and homemade baked good, or gourmet sandwich — check out the weighty “Freight Train.”
Back in the gambling days of the village, bars were a big part of the scene, and the places to be seen. When racing took over, bars kept up the tradition, and the one to not miss (even if you just visit for a soda pop) is the Stop-Inn Tavern & Restaurant at the turn-of-the-century Siebkens Resort, right on the banks of the lake. While the resort itself is a landmark beautifully remodeled to state-of-the-art standards, the Stop-Inn’s walls are still covered from top to bottom with old racing posters and memorabilia, and its heavy wooden furniture dates back several decades. It is known as the “best bar on the racing circuit” and is packed with racing enthusiasts during the season. It’s a delightfully cozy, nostalgic spot to enjoy a drink and listen to live music any time of the year.
Enjoying Elkart Lake & The Outdoors
Getting outside and enjoying Elkhart Lake is easy. The 286-acre, 120-foot deep, vividly blue spring-fed lake measures just a bit more than one mile across, and a leisurely hike around its wooded banks takes about 1.5 hours. The surrounding area provides excellent hiking in the glacial hills and forests, as well as biking, fishing, pontoon cruises, sailing, kayaking, canoeing, tennis, golf and volleyball. Winter activities include skiing and snowshoeing. Lovely trails for hiking and snowshoeing are found in various parks and state forests in the area, such as the Ice Age Trail’s foot path, and the Old Plank Road Trail’s 17 miles built for bicyclists, runners, in-line skaters, horseback riders, moped users, Nordic skiers and snowmobiles on 10 feet of asphalt and 8 feet of turf.
History buffs might want to schedule their visit around the Civil War Weekend held in September at the Wade House, a former stagecoach inn now operating as a living museum. Wade House becomes the center of battle reenactments, military drills, medical care situations, period music and food, demonstrations and more. The weekend spectacle involves more than 500 reenactors. Each year features a different historic scenario of the war, with the 2012 reenactment to be held September 29-30.
Elkhart Lake hosts special events and festivals all year, but a few of the best include Jazz on the Vine, a Mother’s Day weekend celebration, the three-day family-themed Independence Day event and the wintertime SchneeFest. Christmas is a big deal here, with the Old World Christmas Market and its authentic German artisans’ craft fair under warm tents (just like Germany, without the cold!) at the Osthoff Resort with traditional German and Wisconsin holiday foods and beverages, running November 30 – December 9, 2012.
No matter what time of year you choose to visit the Elkhart Lake region in your RV, you’ll find plenty of activities, fine cuisine and friendly hosts to keep you happy and if your timing is just right, the hum of race cars will fill the air.