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Wisconsin: 6 Famous Places, Unique Attractions, Natural Wonders, and Historic Sites

The Beauty of Wisconsin

Wisconsin takes its name from an Ojibwa word meaning “gathering of the waters.” It is a fitting name: Wisconsin borders on two of the Great Lakes: Michigan and Superior. The Mississippi River forms the state's western boundary, and thousands of smaller lakes and rivers are scattered throughout Wisconsin.

The Ojibwa were one of several Native American peoples who greeted French explorers and fur traders when they first arrived in the mid-1600s. Britain took control of the region in 1763, and it became U.S. territory after the Revolutionary War. When the Black Hawk War ended Indian resistance in 1832, settlers poured in. Logging, mining, and farming helped the state to grow.

Since the early 1900s, Wisconsin has been a leader in dairy production. Its factories turn out industrial machinery and transportation equipment, processed foods, and paper products. Milwaukee, the state's largest city and long known for its beer, is a major urban and cultural center. Madison, the capital, is the home of the main campus of the prestigious University of Wisconsin.

Famous Places, Unique Attractions, Natural Wonders, and Historic Sites in Wisconsin

Here are some of famous places, unique attractions, historic sites, and natural wonders found in Wisconsin.

1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Where: Northwestern Wisconsin, at the southern end of Lake Superior

When: Established in 1970

A million years ago, enormous glaciers gouged out the huge rock basin that is now Lake Superior. The ice also carved deep channels at the southern tip of the lake bed. The channels are bounded by high sandstone mesas. Over thousands of years the lake filled up. The mesas became islands. A group of these are called the Apostle Islands.

They are known today for their thick pine forests and dramatic sandstone cliffs, caves, and arches. In 1970, the 21 islands became part of a national lakeshore that also includes 11 miles (18 kilometers) of sandy beach on Bayfield Peninsula.

The land is the ancestral home of the Ojibwa Native American tribe. In the late 17th century, French traders came to the islands to trap beavers. The islands remained a major fur-trading center until the 1840s. At that time logging, fishing, and quarrying became the major activities.

Six lighthouses were built to guide the many trading ships that traveled the stormy waters between the islands. Some of the lighthouses are still in service today.

Tourists discovered the Apostle Islands in the 1850s. Wealthy midwesterners built summer homes on Bayfield Peninsula. Today, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a popular place to hike, kayak, picnic, and camp.

The pleasant summer temperatures average 75 to 80° F (24 to 27° C). The islands are less inviting in the winter, when temperatures of -20° F (-29° C) are not unusual.

Black bears inhabit several of the islands. The craggy cliffs and shoreline provide nesting grounds for an abundance of birds, including bald eagles and the endangered piping plover.

2. The Great Lakes

What: Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario

Where: North Central and Northeastern United States

In 1634, French explorer Jean Nicolet set out across a vast body of water. Nicolet was sure that he had found the fabled "western sea" -the Pacific Ocean- and that China lay on the other side. To his surprise, he landed not in China but in what is today Wisconsin. He had crossed Lake Michigan, one of today's five Great Lakes.

The vastness of the Great Lakes makes Nicolet's mistake easy to understand. Formed by glaciers during the Ice Age, they stretch about 850 miles east to west and 700 miles north to south. Lakes Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario lie on the U.S.-Canadian border. Lake Michigan is entirely within the United States. In all, the lakes touch eight states.

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In America's early days, the Great Lakes provided a route for fur trappers and settlers headed west. Over the years, canals linked the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean (via the St. Lawrence Seaway) and the Gulf of Mexico (via the Illinois Waterway and the Mississippi River).

They helped make Great Lakes cities-Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and others-centers of trade and industry. But there are still unspoiled stretches of lakeshore, that make the Great Lakes a magnet for vacationers, especially for anglers.

3. Lake Michigan

4. The Mississippi River

What: The only Great Lake completely within the U.S.

Where: Borders on Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan

Lake Michigan is the third largest of the five Great Lakes. It is the only one that exists completely within the United States. Lake Michigan is 118 miles (190 kilometers) wide at its widest point and 307 miles (494 kilometers) long. At its deepest point, the lake reaches 923 feet (281 meters).

The lake is 577 feet (176 meters) above sea level. It connects to the Atlantic Ocean through other Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The lake is an important shipping route for such heavy cargo as ore, coal, and grain.

Lake Michigan touches Illinois only at its northeastern corner, but Chicago is the largest and most important city on its shores. It is a major shipping port. The southern region of Lake Michigan rarely freezes, but the northern region is closed by ice during most winters. The lake provides recreational fishing and boating, but the southern reaches have been damaged by heavy pollution from surrounding industries.

What: The second-longest river in North America

Where: Central U.S., from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico

Native Americans called it the "father of waters" or the "big river." Both are appropriate names for the Mississippi, the second-longest river in North America. Today, the great waterway stretches about 2,340 miles (3,766 kilometers) from its source near Lake Itasca in Minnesota to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico.

Its true length, however, has changed many times, as the river has carved new bends in its winding course. At its mouth, the river deposits silt in a wide, marshy delta that extends far out into the Gulf.

The Mississippi has always been a grand character in American history. It was the country's western border when the United States was formed. Then in 1803, Thomas Jefferson bought the vast Louisiana Territory beyond the river from France. As the new lands were settled, the river became a key trade route.

Perhaps the most colorful chapter in its history came in the mid-1800s, when steamboats plied its waters, bringing supplies and entertainment to riverbank settlements. Although that era has passed, it firmly established some of America's great cities, including St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.

The Mississippi is still an important trade route. And it is still the traditional dividing line between east and west, marking the borders of ten states. The entire Mississippi system (the river and its tributaries) drains more than a million square miles of the nation's heartland.

5. Monona Terrace Convention Center

What: A convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Where: On the shore of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin

When: Designed in 1938; built in 1997

In 1938, the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright looked across Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. He envisioned a grand palace with towers and terraces rising up from the lakeshore. Wright wanted to build a "dream civic center" in the shadow of the nearby state capitol.

At first, the politicians and citizens of Madison seemed receptive to Wright's idea. But his futuristic designs were controversial. The city eventually decided not to build the project. Angrily, Wright said that Madison was "too provincial, backwater, smug, and satisfied" for his designs.

A half century later, Mayor Paul Soglin dusted off Wright's plans. This time, Madison united behind the architect's dream. The city pledged $40 million to build the convention center. In 1997, Monona Terrace Convention Center finally opened its doors, much as Wright first envisioned it.

The spectacular semicircular building features floor-to-ceiling windows, rooftop gardens, and a wing of grand ballrooms that sweeps 90 feet (27 meters) over the water. Describing the splendor of Monona Terrace, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss remarked how "stunningly stupid" it was that Madison took 60 years to build it. But almost everyone agreed that the result was worth the wait.

6. Wisconsin River

What: A river that begins in northern Wisconsin and joins the Mississippi south of Prairie du Chien

The Wisconsin River travels 430 miles (692 kilometers) from northern Wisconsin to reach the Mississippi River. It drops 917 feet (280 meters) along the way, sometimes in breathtaking waterfalls.

The river is divided into three sections. The Upper River begins at Old Desert Lake near the Wisconsin-Michigan border and goes through Plover. Its water is the color of root beer because of tannin deposits from the tamarack forests it flows through.

The Middle River extends from the fast-moving Wisconsin Rapids to the awesome gorge of the Wisconsin Dells. The Lower River runs from Portage through the Driftless Area. It joins the Mississippi River south of Prairie du Chien.

Light craft can sail up the river until Portage. North of that, shifting sandbars make navigation difficult. The river provides nesting sites for many bald eagles and is home to herons, egrets, and sandhill cranes.

Aldo Leopold is one of the river's best-known naturalists. Born and raised in Iowa, Leopold bought a farm on the Wisconsin River in Sauk County in 1935. He spent the rest of his life studying the river. He formed the Department of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin.

Leopold's most famous book is a series of essays about the river called A Sand County Almanac. The book was published after his death and is now considered a classic guide to ecology and land use.

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