Uncovering Wisconsin's Hidden Gems: Unexpected Capitals

Photo by Brandon Olmscheid

I always LOVE (in all caps!) visiting a capital city. Without doing much research, the designation alone is a cue that you’re bound to experience something special, whether it’s the history, the culture, or the buzzing energy. That’s certainly true for our state’s capital. From touring the capitol building itself to traveling the city by boat, bike, foot, or fork, there are so many discoveries to be found in Madison.

But Madison isn’t the only capital city in Wisconsin that draws travelers from near and far. Some other distinctions have put Wisconsin on the map and deserve a spot on your bucket list.

Marinette County: Waterfall Capital of Wisconsin
If you’re interested in chasing waterfalls, Wisconsin has more than 40 to choose from throughout the state. You’ll definitely want to plan a trip to Marinette County, the Waterfall Capital of Wisconsin and home to 15 jaw-dropping waterfalls along the Pike, Thunder, Peshtigo, and Menominee Rivers. Marinette County’s self-guided waterfalls tour will help you explore their stunning park system with gorgeous forests, rivers, and lakes.

While all the waterfalls along the tour are worth discovering, make sure to bring your camera to capture the exquisite scenery at Veteran’s Falls. Located inside Veterans Memorial Park, you’ll discover three waterfalls and a beautiful walking bridge suspended over the river. Additionally, Morgan Park, near Long Slide Falls, has campsites, a playground, fishing access, and a swimming area.

Photograph provided by Travel Wisconsin

Boulder Junction: Muskie Capital of the World
Bordered by two Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, with more than 15,000 inland lakes and 84,000 miles of rivers and streams, Wisconsin has great fishing no matter which direction you set out. But if you’re after the elusive fish of 10,000 casts, make sure to head to Boulder Junction, the Muskie Capital of the World.

Boulder Junction has held this prestigious distinction for nearly 60 years due to the abundance of muskies in the area’s waters. There are 194 lakes within nine miles of town, many of which are officially designated by the Department of Natural Resources as Class A muskie lakes.

Take advantage of one of Boulder Junction’s eight different fishing guide services, like Errington’s Guide Service, who will help lead you to some of the area’s best fishing spots. And if you want to plan your own muskie adventure, chart a trip to the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, home to 900 lakes and 18 family campgrounds, including the scenic Muskie Lake Campground.

Plymouth: Cheese Capital of the World
Plymouth has a rich—and creamy—history when it comes to cheese. Cheesemakers began popping up in Plymouth in the mid-19th century, and in 1918, Plymouth was the location of the National Cheese Exchange, which set the commodity price of bulk cheese. Today, more than 14 percent of the cheese consumed in the United States goes through Plymouth.

Photograph by Jason Britt

To experience Plymouth’s cheesy history, head to the Cheese Counter and Dairy Heritage Center. From grilled cheese to paninis and mac and cheese, their cheese-centric menu items are made fresh, and you can buy any of their more-than-100 cheese products. While there, you can learn about Plymouth’s cheese history through the interactive displays.

You’ll also want to check out the 21 murals downtown, painted by the Walldogs, a group of highly skilled muralists from around the world. The murals depict businesses from Plymouth’s historic past. Grab your map for the self-guided walking tour at the visitor center.

If you’re looking for a uniquely Wisconsin New Year’s Eve celebration, head to Plymouth to watch the Big Cheese Drop at midnight, hosted by the Sartori Company, a locally owned company that has produced award-winning cheese since 1939. What a legen-dairy way to ring in the new year.

Mercer: Loon Capital of the World
Wisconsin’s abundant lakes, rivers, and protected forests make it an ideal place for birds to nest and raise their young. Whether you’re a budding birder or an old pro, you’re going to want to pack your optics and plan a trip to Mercer, the Loon Capital of the World.

Mercer has one of the highest concentrations of nesting loon pairs in the continental United States. And while spring and summer are the best times to see a nesting pair on any of the 214 lakes in the Mercer area, no matter the season, you can always snap a picture with the iconic Claire d’ Loon, a 16-foot loon sculpture that sits outside the town’s chamber of commerce. Listen closely and you might hear its call.

Book a stay at the Loon’s Nest Motel and enjoy local restaurants within walking distance, like The Pines Restaurant and Beer Garden.

Photograph provided by Travel Wisconsin

Marathon County: Ginseng Capital of the United States
Of course, you know Wisconsin for its agritourism, but did you know it’s also one of the best places in the world to grow ginseng thanks to our rich glacial soils? In fact, 95 percent of the ginseng grown in the United States is grown in Wisconsin, most in Marathon County, the Ginseng Capital of the United States. In total, Wisconsin produces 10 percent of the world’s ginseng.

In September, Wausau hosts the International Wisconsin Ginseng Festival, celebrating the crop’s immense impact on Wisconsin’s economy and its flavorful, bitter, earthy, and sweet taste. Learn about the harvesting process, taste some ginseng-infused cuisine, attend a cooking class, and more at this international event.

To get an even closer look at ginseng farming, take a tour of Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises, Inc., right in Wausau. Tours of Hsu’s farms are available throughout the harvest season through late October. After the tour, don’t miss the chance to bring home some fresh ginseng or ginseng-infused products.

As you plan your travels for this fall and beyond, here’s to new discoveries you can’t find anywhere else.

Anne Sayers is the secretary-designee at Wisconsin Department of Tourism. travelwisconsin.com