A Family-Friendly Road Trip from Milwaukee to Duluth: The Heart of the Midwest
This scenic journey with its first stop in Wausau, Wisconsin taking you just beyond the vibrant city of Duluth, Minnesota belongs on your Midwest road trip bucket list.
With countless incredible sights to behold along the way, you won’t want to rush. Take your time and soak in the beauty on this picturesque road trip. This nature-centric itinerary offers children loads of chances to explore the enchantment of the great outdoors.
Heading North through Wisconsin
We highly recommend spending a half day in Wausau, a charming town known for its outdoor recreation.
The Rib Mountain State Park is a must-visit, with hiking trails that cater to all levels of fitness. I’ve captured my family’s favorite kid-friendly Wausau activities in its own post, most notably the annual hot air balloon festival. In my opinion, it’s the best in Wisconsin for affordability and the quantity of participating balloonists.
Dixie’s Coffee House
About 1.5 hours north of Wausau you’ll reach Manitowish Waters for a coffee break at Dixie’s Coffee House. The kids loved their glazed cinnamon roll while I savored a handcrafted latte. The welcoming atmosphere and peaceful docks on the water made it a perfect pit stop. You could also grab your drinks to go and take them along to the next stop.
North Lakeland Discovery Center
A short drive from Dixie’s is the North Lakeland Discovery Center. My kids were enamored with the natural playscape and story trail before we went inside to check out the brand new interactive nature center inside Discovery Hall. Kids can climb into an eagle’s nest, duck into a beaver dam, and inspect live animals up close.
Insider travel tip: Generously apply bug spray before hitting the playscape or the trails.
Porcupine Mountain State Park
As we continue north, we reach Porcupine Mountain State Park. For more experienced hikers, your family will enjoy Lake of the Clouds. If you seek shorter hikes for little legs like we do, there are a few perfect options on the western end of the State Park, the Presque Isle River Area. Here you’ll find three beautiful waterfalls, a suspension bridge, and beach on Lake Superior perfect for splashing and rock play.
This section of the park was also more convenient to reach along our Milwaukee to Duluth road trip, since we’ll be heading westbound next.
Ask at the Ranger Station whether there are any naturalist programs during your visit.
Insider travel tips: Download a map well before entering the park as you will not find cell service here. Make sure to pack a picnic – there are plenty of scenic spots to enjoy a family lunch.
Driving Through Wisconsin’s Northernmost Peninsula
Copper Falls State Park
Our next stop is Copper Falls State Park, where ancient lava flows have created dramatic gorges and waterfalls. Check out the easy two-mile loop, the Doughboy’s Trail, that offers stunning views of waterfalls.
While the Loon Lake Beach at Copper Falls State Park offers a fantastic spot for sand play and shallow water splashing, it’s important to be aware that leeches can be found in the lake. Stay vigilant! On a lighter note, my son turned this into a game and created a small pond on the beach to catch some leeches.
Insider travel tip: Before embarking on the Doughboy’s Trail, make sure to apply bug spray generously.
This picturesque destination serves as the gateway to the captivating Apostle Islands.
One of the highlights of our visit was a leisurely, 2.5 hour boat tour around the Apostle Islands, which proved to be the main attraction in the area. It offered the perfect opportunity to explore the National Seashore while accommodating our young children. They won’t be old enough for a long time to kayak the sea caves and the speed boats were more pricey and lack bathrooms. We truly feel this cruise was the optimal way to experience the National Seashore.
Insider travel tip: If you’re planning a boat tour of the Apostle Islands, make sure to book ahead of time. While there are several companies offering tours, the popular ones often fill up fast. Also, it’s worth noting that the weather can change quickly on Lake Superior; dress in layers and be prepared for rain or wind (or both). The weather drops 10 degrees when you get out to the islands.
Treat yourself to dinner at the Old Rittenhouse Inn. The restaurant is renowned for its fish fries and their signature dessert: the Raspberry Island Pie. If you want a no fuss dining establishment, we found Gruenke’s Inn to be especially laid back and welcoming of the kids.
Coming soon (early Aug 2023): Our comprehensive guide to the most exciting activities in Bayfield, WI. Don’t miss out on the full post!
Amnicon Falls State Park
Before reaching Duluth, make a detour to Amnicon Falls State Park. The thunderous waterfalls and picturesque covered bridge make for great family photos.
Finally, we’ve made it from Milwaukee to Duluth, a lively city perched on Lake Superior’s westernmost tip. Highlights include the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, Great Lakes Aquarium, and a leisurely stroll along the waterfront. Don’t miss our full guide on kid-approved fun in Duluth! In it you’ll find 18 ideas to thrill the whole family.
Gooseberry Falls State Park & Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Just outside Duluth, Gooseberry Falls State Park and Split Rock Lighthouse State Park offer a perfect conclusion to our road trip. The cascading waterfalls and historic lighthouse against the backdrop of Lake Superior make for a memorable finish.
Insider Travel Tip: Searching for agate in the state parks adds an exciting mission to your outdoor adventure. These semi-precious gemstones, particularly Lake Superior agates, are prized for their intricate patterns and vibrant colors. For the best chance at discovering these treasures, start your hunt after a rain shower when fresh erosion may have exposed new stones. Look in gravel or pebbly areas and always keep an eye out for the distinctive bands of color that agates are known for. Happy hunting!
Final Thoughts on the Milwaukee to Duluth Road Trip
This outdoorsy, family-friendly Midwest road trip from Milwaukee to Duluth offers an unforgettable journey through the Midwest’s natural beauty and charming towns. The itinerary will keep kids and adults alike entertained and intrigued throughout their journey. Lace up your hiking boots and start exploring!