La Crosse Queen 2 by Preamtip Satasuk
The La Crosse Queen paddleboat (Photo by Preamtip Satasuk)

With two Great Lakes and lots of rivers—including the mighty Mississippi—there are many ways to enjoy Wisconsin on (but not in) the water.

Summer may have passed (far too quickly!) but there will still be plenty of lovely fall days before the non-construction season begins. Why not spend a few of them out on the water? Leave the sailing to the captain and board one of these Wisconsin boat cruises. 

Wisconsin Dells

The Upper Dells is one of the most scenic stretches of the Wisconsin River, and, as such, a good number of those annual 4 million-plus Wisconsin Dells tourists board a boat to see them up close. What better time to ride the river than after school has started and the fall colors are starting? On a double-decker craft, Dells Boat Tours takes you upriver from the dam, making two stops to allow passengers to walk through the narrow Witches Gulch and to see Stand Rock, where a trained dog will re-enact that doggie cliff leap from the famous photograph. The trip takes a second pass through the dells on the return. Daily trips through mid-November.

Green Bay

Foxy Paddler bills itself as Green Bay’s Party Boat, a waterborne version of its pub-crawling Foxy Pedaler. The 22-person pontoon boat with a steamboat type paddle on the back does feature a dozen pedal stations, but you don’t really need to paddle; the boat has a motor. It’s BYOB, but the tour provides ice-filled coolers and bottled water, as well as a Bluetooth sound system for tunes. While the boat is often booked for groups, the Mix & Mingle tours are public options. Routes run north and south on the Fox River, from the river’s mouth on Green Bay to the dam in De Pere, with an optional stop or two at pre-arranged bars. Departs from Leicht Park behind The Depot Restaurant in the historic train station. Season runs into early October.

De Pere and Appleton

River Tyme Tours also runs the Fox River but farther upstream. River Tyme, a 49-passenger 1953 riverboat with a full bar and restroom, and the 32-seat former canal boat River Tyme Too set sail in De Pere and Appleton, respectively. (At the time of writing, low water levels had temporarily canceled De Pere excursions.) De Pere-based trips start upstream of the dam and run to Little Rapids or occasionally through the De Pere lock for a downriver run toward Green Bay. In Appleton, the boat docks in front of Tempest Coffee Collective, but the company’s River Tyme Bistro farther upstream is where you’d go for tickets. Cruises head downstream toward Little Chute, occasionally passing through the locks there, or upstream through Appleton’s four locks. Watch for tours that include a guided narration or music. Season lasts through mid-October.

Bayfield

Visit the islands of Wisconsin’s famous National Lakeshore on an Apostle Islands Cruise boat built for the moody waters of Lake Superior. Whether it’s a sunny day or a magical sail through a morning fog, the narrated 55-minute Grand Tour will not disappoint, sailing past colorful sea caves and sandstone cliffs as well as lighthouses on Devils and Raspberry Islands. Excursions depart mornings and afternoons daily from Bayfield, and an evening cruise is offered on weekends. The season runs through October 23.

Madison

Enjoy views of the State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion, the UW Campus, and all the natural beauty from the parks along the lakeshore to the rising cliffs of Maple Bluff. Betty Lou Cruises has a varied schedule of trips often incorporating themed food and drink menus, such as a Fiesta Cruise with Mexican buffet and unlimited Margaritas and Coronas, Friday fish fry with an Old Fashioned, or a Pizza & Beer cruise. Soda is included on all public tours. Board on the north side of Lake Mendota at Mariner’s Inn. Season runs through October 16, 2022.

La Crosse

The bright red paddle wheel at the stern is not just for show: The La Crosse Queen is a replica of one of the historical paddleboats that once navigated the Mississippi. Setting sail from its namesake port, the Queen offers cruises that vary from 1.5-hour narrated sightseeing tours and pizza cruises, to 2.5 to three-hour lunch and dinner cruises that may include passage through a lock. In fall, nature lovers can enjoy the bird migration along the river corridor. Season lasts through October 23, 2022

Milwaukee

Get a Milwaukee River view of the Cream City’s historic buildings, pass under its bridges, and sail into the Inner Harbor for views of the Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Edelweiss Boat Tours maintains four cruising boats and a pontoon. Edelweiss I and II are low to the water Euro-style canal boats with indoor and outdoor spaces, while the bi-level Miss Wisconsin and The Harbor Lady can handle private groups up to 120 and 145 passengers, respectively. The boats offer full bars and schedule dinner and concert cruises throughout the season. The City Skyline Cruise is a sunset sail down the Milwaukee River through downtown and out into the Inner Harbor on Lake Michigan, with a DJ setting the mood. Sunday Funday offers onboard mimosas. The season runs into mid-October. 

Door County

Door County is surrounded by water so what better place is there from which to see it? Door County Boats operates a 149-passenger, double-decker catamaran with an enclosed lower level. Cruises run up to two hours and depart from Sister Bay. Sights include the towering Eagle Bluff and its namesake lighthouse, Horseshoe Island, caves along Peninsula State Park, and the bluffs of the north shore up to the Death’s Door Crossing. Sunset cruises provide live music. Cruises run through October 15, 2022.