Day Trips from Madison, Wisconsin
Story and photos by Rebecca Holland
Rebecca Holland is a freelance travel and food writer based in Chicago. You can find her on Instagram.
Take a drive and enjoy Wisconsin’s natural beauty and major attractions.
Madison offers plenty to see and do, but if you have an extra day or two, you might want to explore the surrounding area by car. From the world’s largest waterpark and world’s largest carousel to renowned artwork and natural beauty, there’s something for everyone.
The Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin Dells is known as the “Waterpark Capital of the World” and is home to the country’s largest waterpark, Noah’s Ark. Here, you can ride watercoasters, lounge on the lazy river, test your speed on nearly vertical slides, ride in the wave pools and more. Mt. Olympus is a Greece-themed water and amusement park, and indoor waterparks like Kalahari are available for colder months. On the Wisconsin River, the Dells also offers water skiing, boat tours and other watersport activities. Downtown, dine at numerous themed restaurants and shop at the boutiques. The Dells are about an hour drive from Madison.
House on the Rock
House on the Rock is one of Wisconsin’s strangest and most famous attractions. It started as a private residence but opened to visitors in 1959. The owner and builder, Alex Jordan Jr., was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright (whose estate Taliesin is just down the road and makes another nice stop) to build a house into Deer Shelter Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Tourists can wander through dark rooms of varying shapes, mostly with rock walls, and test their fear of heights by venturing out to the edge of the infinity room — a narrow hall that extends 218 feet and shakes as you walk. When it was built, the room could be seen sticking out over the forest, but trees have since obstructed it. Once the house was finished, Jordan began collecting antiques, from typewriters to organs to model ships. Visitors can walk through dozens of rooms filled with collections, including one designed as an old-timey street, one with a giant plaster whale, and one with cars and fake hot air balloons. The organ room and carousel room are the most impressive if the eeriest. Enter and watch organs and violins start playing on their own and gaze at the world’s largest carousel and its mix of antique animals — none of which are horses.
Devil’s Lake State Park
Just outside of Baraboo, you can get away from the city at Devil’s Lake State Park, the largest state park in Wisconsin and home to beautiful quartzite bluffs and other glacial features. You can camp overnight or visit for a day and hike any of the 29 miles of trail. One of the most popular is Devil’s Doorway Trail, a short, moderate hike that leads to spectacular views over the lake and the Devil’s Doorway Rock Formation. Devil’s Lake is about 40 minutes from Madison and 20 minutes from Wisconsin Dells, so many people camp at the park and take a day to visit the waterparks.
Milwaukee Art Museum
Milwaukee is about an hour drive from Madison, with numerous breweries, cultural activities and sporting events for visitors to enjoy. The Milwaukee Art Museum is a big draw and one of the largest museums in the United States. The permanent collection includes a large American decorative arts collection, American and European drawings and paintings, video art installations, a modern art collection featuring Andy Warhol and present-day works from Kehinde Wiley (the artist behind President Barack Obama’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery). While the collections are impressive, the building itself is a work of art. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who drew inspiration from the city of Milwaukee and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style, the dramatic structure has large white wings and floor-to-ceiling windows that face Lake Michigan.
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