Almost every year my family, friends and I travel to a small town in central Wisconsin called Waupaca, and usually it’s over the Fourth of July holiday.
Here’s how it all started.
When my mom and dad were in their early twenties, they started traveling up to Waupaca with their best friends and their best friends and their extended family. Their best friends have come to Waupaca for generation after generation and they have kept the tradition going ever since. The same holds true for our family as now we have kept the tradition going as well, generation after generation. As of July 2018, we now have had three generations of our family attend the annual Waupaca vacation.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you book or buy something through these links, I earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you).
Where is Waupaca? Waupaca’s History
Waupaca is a city in and the county seat of Waupaca County in the state of Wisconsin, United States. The population was 6,069 at the 2010 census. The city is believed to be named after Sam Waupaca (or Chief Wapuka) of the Potowatomi tribe.
In June 1849 Capt. Augustus Hill Sr. and his sons settled at a small waterfall along the Waupaca River, beginning what became known as the city of Waupaca. The settlement was named either for the Menominee term waubuck seba, meaning “pale water”, or after Sam Wapuka, a local Potowatomi man who was also known as Chief Waupaca.
Waupaca was incorporated as a village on May 4, 1857 by an act of the Wisconsin State Legislature. This act was repealed on April 7, 1862, but revived on June 17 of the same year. Waupaca was incorporated as a city by the legislature on March 5, 1875.
Beginning in the 1960’s and continuing to the present, the city has expanded its population and area through annexation.
What’s a Weekend in Waupaca like?
I wont talk about one specific time in Waupaca, because we go every year, but in this blog I will give you an example of what a weekend looks like.
Waupaca is roughly three and a half hours north from our town in Illinois. Typically on the day we leave we find ourselves getting up around 6am and leaving around 7am. We try to all travel as a group, as this makes it more fun and safe. Families will pack their cars the night before and pick out a meeting place for early AM the next day. If we get on the road by 7-7:30am, we will arrive around 10:30-11am. This gives us a full day out on the Chain O’ Lakes.
After our journey is completed on Route 39, we take route 54 to Route Q into King, WI. Before we know it, we are at the boat ramp of Becker Marine unloading all of the gear from the car and onto the boats. We always rent a pontoon boat from Becker Marine, they have the best prices and the best available pontoons on the lake. Check out their website at, www.beckermarine.com for all your rental boat and repair inquires.
My family has a wave runner known as “smokey”. Smokey comes with us every year to Waupaca and we call it smokey because of the smoke it produces from its two-stroke engine. The Yamaha Wave Venture 1100 wave runner produces 110hp and weighs around 600lbs without any passengers or boating accessories. It’s such a blast to drive and has been a great ski over the years. Sadly, its about the only time of the year it comes out to play.
If you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t know the difference between the Chain O’ Lakes and the ocean. It is unbelievably clear, year after year, and it never gets old. The lakes are spring fed, so they are constantly moving and being fed fresh, clear, water. It makes for a very enjoyable swimming and boating experience like no other. You would not think that a small set of lakes in Wisconsin could look like parts of Lake Tahoe. OK, that may be a little bit of an exaggeration but the water is crystal clear in most spots.
Boat check-in at Becker Marine is usually pretty easy and we could now head off with the pontoon and wave runner to do what we please. Our first time out is a quick tour of the lakes we missed so much since last July. The one problem Wisconsin has going for it, is the weather. You never know if it’s going to be raining for three straight days or hot and 90 degrees. We have been lucky in the last few years, its been warm and hot most days.
We have our favorite beach or anchor spots on a couple of lakes. Most days are spent at Rainbow lake at “The beach”. It’s not really a beach that is nicely graded but it has a sandy bottom and comes up to shin-height when anchored in the shallow waters. Here we can lounge, eat, take out the floaties, play volleyball, football, etc. It’s one of the bigger lakes so there is quite a bit of traffic, which is good for people watching but not a place to be if you’re looking for peace and quiet. Most boats are playing some kind of music, talking, having a few alcohol beverages, etc. It can get a bit rowdy at times if you’re of the older crowd. What’s really nice is when you are on the water until the ski show at 6pm. You should have a practically front row seat and its entertaining to say the least.
Another spot we like to sit is in the middle of McCrossin Lake. This is one of the deepest lakes and jumping off the pontoon into the dark blue water is super refreshing. We can sometimes sit here and float for hours on end. The lake is surrounded by summer homes and boats passing by from Round Lake to Rainbow Lake. Using a life jacket or a PFD is best done in the “diaper method”. The diaper method is basically flipping the life jacket upside down and putting your legs through the arm holes and using the life jacket as a big floating diaper. That way your neck doesn’t hurt from the jacket and your upper body is free to do whatever. It’s less restrictive than wearing the life jacket the typical way, but to each their own.
You can usually find summer sausage, cheese, grapes, chips, fruit and plenty of our famous vodka-lemonades circling the boat deck all afternoon long.
As our generation of kids gets older and older we take on the “less is more” approach. When all the kids were younger, and when I say kids, there were about 20 of us or so…when all of us kids were younger, we would go tubing and swimming for hours on end. Now, we would prefer to lounge, relaxe and drink. Ha!
Some of our favorite activities include water volleyball, water pong, football and fishing. Volleyball and football games can become pretty heated with a big group of us shouting and splashing each other but it’s all in good fun. Volleyball games are usually won in an all-out-splash-fest to the best team who had won two out of three games. Three games can last a couple of hours with drink and food breaks in between. I’d have to say that the volleyball games are some of my favorite times on the lake.
What is there to eat?
When the sun starts to sit lower in the sky the lakes become less and less crowded as most people depart for dinner. Depending on what day it is, depends on how early or late we get off the water. We have a few favorite restaurants that server American cuisine that we like to hit; Wheelhouse, The Harbor Bar Restaurant & Grill, Weasels and the in-famous ice cream place called Scoopers. If you are new here and you have not read any other posts, I absolutely love ice cream. I’m an ice cream connoisseur! The service is always phenomenal and each cone or dish is handed out with a smile. The scoops are humongous, eat it like you stole it!
I’ll dive a little bit into the restaurants in the following paragraphs so you can get an idea of what to expect.
The Wheelhouse restaurant is located just off the lakes and gets very loud and busy after 5pm most days. There is usually a longer wait if you have a party any bigger than two or three people. They have decent pizza and good appetizers. I have had the meatball sandwich and beef sandwich and they were both pretty good. The fair is average price for American cuisine in central Wisconsin. Overall, nothing fancy here but a good atmosphere if you don’t mind the energetic and sometimes chaotic atmosphere. Sitting outside on the “ship” is a little more quiet but then you have to deal with the mosquitoes in the summer time. There is also a bar out there to grab drinks if the waitresses are not making their rounds quick enough.
For great pizza you want to head to Weasel’s in downtown Waupaca. They have a ton of topping choices and the thin crust pizza is very good. If you order some cheese curds or wings for an appetizer, you’re good to go. The fair is pretty cheap here but the atmosphere definitely lacks. It’s more of a local hot spot hole-in-the-wall bar that caters to an older crowd. Bottom line, go here for the pizza and beer on tap, not for the party or atmosphere.
If you want to party, The Harbor Bar & Grill is the place to be! The daytime is filled with a crowded party atmosphere outside on the multiple decks, patios and areas to sit and eat or drink. On weekends you can find live bands playing on the water stage and after 9pm. It’s a great place to grab lunch because it’s right on the Chain O’ Lakes. They specialize in their fish sandwiches and chicken fingers. The drinks are strong and cheap, it’s a great combo!
What kind of activities can I expect?
Because we happen to go over the Fourth of July weekend every year, there is usually fireworks on the water one or two nights. It can get a little stressful trying to find a spot to park and anchor in the water because there are hundreds of boats on a small lake. However, once you’re situated, it’s well worth the wait as the fireworks are usually pretty good. Afterwards, don’t try to race out of there and beat the crowd because you won’t unless you leave early. It’s best to wait it out and just watch the chaos unfold as everybody scrambles towards the exits, its quite comical.
A 100-unit parade at 10am kicks off Waupaca’s annual Fourth of July celebration every year. The parade forms at the north end of Main Street, proceeding south on Main to a break-up point at Lake Street. After the parade, the Knights of Columbus offer a chicken barbecue (until gone) at South Park’s upper level. The Kiwanis run a concession at the park’s lower level in the evening. Weather permitting, Waupaca’s Chain Skiers offer a water ski show at Rainbow Lake on the Waupaca Chain of Lakes, viewable by boat or from the grounds of the Wisconsin Veterans Home, County QQ.
Most activities start and end with the Chain O’ Lakes but on a wet or cold day you can visit the downtown Movie Theater or other local restaurants as well.
Where do I stay?
Each year we book six months in advanced at The Comfort Suites Foxfire Hotel in Waupaca. We have been staying here for the last decade or so and because of this they usually give us a pretty good rate. The rooms are fantastic. They are always clean, provide plenty of room for 4+ people and its only a 10min drive to the lakes.
The hotel offers continental breakfast that stocks fresh waffles, fruit and the likes of bacon, eggs, sausage, burritos and more. I would highly recommend staying here. You can expect to pay a little more here over the holiday weekend and there are other, cheaper, options available as well if you book far in advanced.