Autumn at Lake Elkhart, Wisconsin

Courtney Drake-McDonough

I’ve always had a passion for the ocean. I figured that it’s the mystery and majesty of that massive, churning water that got to me. But then I visited Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and realized it isn’t the inability to see to the other side or the tumultuous waves that drew me in. It was, purely, the water. Seeing as how our bodies are almost 60% water, it’s definitely a primal thing. But now I know it’s also about the entire vibe of the water, the land surrounding it and the community whose existence is centered on that body of water.  Nowhere near an ocean’s coastline, I found that vibe at Elkhart Lake.

Spring-fed Elkhart Lake is clear and beautiful. Photo courtesy Courtney Drake-McDonough


An easy drive from Milwaukee, Elkhart Lake’s history is treasured by its fewer than 1,000 residents. It is said that the elk’s-heart-shaped lake was named “Me-shay-way-odeh-ni-bis” or “Elk Heart Lake” by the Potawatomi Indians, the original tribe occupying the region. There’s also the story of a love triangle between neighboring Indian tribes that ended tragically, in the Lake.

Formed by a glacier, and subsequent thaw and remaining crater some 10,000 years ago, Elkhart Lake is approximately 120 feet deep, with a perimeter of four miles that covers about 292 acres. Fed by tens of thousands of springs, it is considered one of the cleanest lakes in Wisconsin. Indeed, whether standing at the sandy shore or enjoying one of the many water-centric activities on the lake, the clarity is evident and enticing.


The water of Elkhart Lake is said to have curative powers which, along with the beauty of the area, was a big draw for city folk first by horse and carriage and later by railroad when it was added to the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad route in 1872. The charming train depot still stands in the Village Square of the small town.

As time went on and word began to spread about Elkhart Lake, resorts were built, as were lakeshore cottages (and some grand homes.) It was especially popular with Chicagoans. Women and children would stay for the summer, taking advantage of simple summertime pleasures, including acting camps for the kids followed by performances for the community, which still take place today. The men would take the train or drive up for the weekend before returning to work in the city come Monday morning. That pattern remains a tradition. It’s not uncommon to run into families who will tell you they’ve been coming up to Wisconsin since they were children.

 Road America offers a well-respected racing track in a pristine setting. Photo courtesy Courtney Drake-McDonough.Heartstopping Racing
The Lake itself wasn’t the only draw to the area. In 1950, it was decided that a road race through the streets of Elkhart Lake would be great fun. Racing enthusiasts declared their love for both the long stretches of roadway to gain speed and the tight turns and curves that added to the thrill. Things got a little too thrilling at times, when the only thing between a race car and the crowd of eager observers was a wooden snow fence. Something more permanent (and safer) needed to be built and in 1955, Road America was created.

A 4-mile road course, Road America is still a year-round focal point of Elkhart Lake and is considered one of the best U.S. circuits as well as internationally, attracting more than 800,000 visitors per year. Surrounded by Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine Forest, the lush grounds make it as beautiful a place to camp as it is an exciting place to experience a race.

Historical markers placed around Elkhart Lake’s historic open-road race circuits are a fun way to get a sense of the history of the race, now available for driving (at a moderate speed), walking, running or biking around. Road America has drawn some of the biggest names in racing and even celebrity racers such as Paul Newman and, a frequent visitor, Patrick Dempsey.

Dine and Shop to your Heart’s Content
One of the best things about Elkhart Lake is that the majority of it is walkable. From my home-base at the Victorian Village Resort, I reached a cooking class at L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School within minutes. Making the perfect baguette at the grand Osthoff Resort is hard work, so that experience is followed by a relaxing spa experience at the Aspira Spa. I pass a block of quaint homes with friendly residents greeting me from their front porches to reach the Village Square with shopping and excellent restaurants.

Follow the path the original racers took through town with these historical markers. Photo courtesy Courtney Drake-McDonough.Stop at Off the Rail (located, well, just off the railroad tracks) for large sandwiches. Languish over a meal at Lake Street Café or the Paddock Club, just doors away from each other on Lake Street. There’s a wonderfully supportive and cooperative relationship between the various restaurants. In the alley behind the businesses you can hear “Do you have some basil I can use?” “Sure, we’re low on scotch, can you spare some?” It’s part of the warm, welcoming vibe of Elkhart Lake.

Great dining can be found at the resorts at Lola’s on the Lake at The Osthoff and the Stop Inn Tavern and Restaurant at Siebken Resort. Between the casual dining and after-hours music venue, the place has been a favorite of the racing circuit as well as vacationers. At Victorian Village, the Back Porch Bistro serves food all day including an elegant dinner with unreal desserts on a porch overlooking the lake. The Barefoot Bay Tiki Bar at water’s edge delivers a  hopping atmosphere and live music.

(Heart) Elkhart Lake Year-round
From spring to the relaxing days of summer to the colors of fall and the wonderland of winter, Elkhart Lake has plenty to offer. Take advantage of reduced lodging rates in the fall and winter too! I experienced a mix of giddiness, calm and belonging all at once. It comes down to what the Potawatomi Indians realized so long ago – it’s something about the water.

The chefs at Elkhart Lake take advantage of locally-sourced ingredients to create delicious food such as this dish at the Paddock Club. Photo courtesy Courtney Drake-McDonough. Upcoming Autumn Events in Elkhart Lake

To plan a visit to Elkhart Lake anytime of year, visit

Courtney Drake-McDonough is an award-winning writer and editor with a passion for writing about travel and dining. Despite living in Colorado, she is happiest when she’s around the water.

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