Rock Island State Park
Rock Island State Park (Photo by Mary Bergin)

From parks to pizzas and fishing to fish dinners, cure cabin fever with cafes, canoes, or a different cabin!

Eager but uneasy about leaving home turf as summer nears? Me too. I’m taking it in baby steps.

Safer-at-home time has reminded me to notice the details, rhythms and miracles of nature. Like watching a pair of blue jays at the kitchen feeder, same time on most days. Later come the flitting cardinals, and the waddling turkeys. 

Be grateful for the opportunity to pay attention. It need not end when we allow ourselves a longer leash for roaming.

First, invest in an annual Wisconsin State Parks admission sticker. This is the year to favor state parks over urban getaways, especially as the parks resume near-normal operations.

Second, craft a day trip to a less-visited park and see how that feels before committing to multiple days away in an inn, RV or tent. Try to go on a weekday instead of a weekend. 

Pack face masks, antiseptic wipes and sanitizer along with the canoe, bike, hiking shoes, or picnic basket. Remember that park buildings, including many restrooms, may still be closed. 

To truly get away from it all without leaving Wisconsin, size up rustic Rock Island State Park, our most remote because access requires two Door County ferry rides (first to Washington Island, then to Rock Island). 

One caveat: That second ferry isn’t operating until July, at the earliest.

Wherever you go, look for roads less traveled while en route – especially the 724 miles of Wisconsin Rustic Roads – and remember the adage: Good things come in small packages. That applies to rural dining too, especially where owners make it a priority to exercise caution while going about business.

For starters, consider this trio of safe-away outings. Keep in mind that business procedures and hours may change as coronavirus concerns spike or slump.

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Cafe DUTCHess in Thorp (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Café DUTCHess, Thorp: Marieke Penterman, whose goudas win international awards, began making cheese at the family’s Clark County farm in 2006. Only one year later, the Netherlands native earned a U.S. Cheese Championship gold for her Gouda Foenegreek.

The farm’s breakfast-lunch café, open since 2018, sneaks award-winning cheeses into pancakes, quesadillas and specialty burgers. It is attached to a cheese/gift shop and a quick walk from the milking parlor, where cows parade through as visitors watch and learn.

A window for drive-up orders and pickup was added this year to ease concerns about dining inside. Outdoors you’ll find picnic tables and other seat-yourself options.

Nearby: Most campsites are riverfront at 179-acre Brunet Island State Park, less than 40 miles northwest. Hike eight miles of trails or paddle through channels around the area’s undeveloped islands. 

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Delta Diner in Bayfield County (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Delta Diner, Delta: Inside a rebuilt 1940 Silk City Diner – open since 2003 in this unincorporated Bayfield County town – is a maverick attitude and comforting grub with a gourmet flair. Loyal customers own 40 percent of the diner. Adult employees began earning at least $15 per hour in 2005, when a no-tipping policy was instituted.  

“We are as anxious as anybody to return to some sense of normalcy with our business,” owner Todd Bucher says. “But we will base the steps we take in the next weeks on the best scientific and public health information available to us.” 

Until then, expect curbside-only service: Stay inside your vehicle to eat on the premises (and maybe get a free coffee refill). Blue plate specials include Green Chili Sweet Potato Hash. Slabs of steak and chuck meat marinate overnight before being ground on the morning of Burger Monday. Patties are served seven ways, in addition to the house-made black bean and wild rice veggie burger.

Twenty miles northwest is Brule River State Forest for trout fishing or whitewater rafting. The 44-mile-long waterway is nicknamed “River of Presidents” because Chief Executives from Coolidge to Eisenhower have cast a line. 

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Co-owner Emily Fradenburgh of Sawmill Pizza and Brew Shed in Polk County.

Sawmill Pizza and Brew Shed, near Clear Lake: Seasonal pizza nights, usually at farms, are tourist draws in far western Wisconsin. Pies made with locally sourced ingredients bake quickly in outdoor stone ovens, but customers typically linger until sunset. It’s all about the pleasant drive and destination as well as the food.

Dustin Booth and Emily Fradenburgh were married in 2013 at his family’s old sawmill site. They later turned it into a weekend pizza business. The roomy Polk County property, next to a 13-acre pond in quiet Echo Valley, became a wedding reception venue for other couples after his licensed beer brewing began in 2017. 

Sawmill Pizza and Brew Shed in Polk County (Photo by Mary Bergin)

Emily and Dustin began this season by selling pre-ordered pizzas and $10 crowlers of beer to-go, with hopes of inching back to normal. “This is something we’re working on every day and we will get there,” they promise, via Facebook.

About 25 miles northwest is Interstate State Park, the oldest state park in Wisconsin. It is an end point for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and contains a segment of Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. Across the St. Croix River, via U.S. 8, is Minnesota’s Interstate State Park.