Every Milwaukeean has a Lake Michigan story and for the next seven days OnMilwaukee will share as many as possible during "MKE Lake Week," sponsored by the Harbor District. Love our lake? You're in the right place.
Take a walk – or, hey, for the purposes of this piece, make it a jog – along Milwaukee’s lakefront in warm weather and you’re likely to see a range of recreation, including water sports actually on Lake Michigan and terrestrial outdoor activities that utilize the scenic, spacious shoreline.
You’ll pass anglers fishing off piers; watch jet skiers, sailors, windsurfers and even some plucky kayakers share the water; a little further north, you’ll see open-water swimmers and the intrepid wave riders making this area an increasingly popular freshwater surfing spot.
On land, there will be volleyball players spiking at Bradford Beach, kite-flyers and hand-cyclers in Veterans Park, rugby and soccer and Frisbee teams practicing on public fields, and even a cricket match breaking out in free space. Of course, there will be the runners and bikers, speed walkers and dog walkers, and vigorous athletes sprinting up hills and using exercise stations.
Indeed, Milwaukee’s prime and practical lakefront is perfect for year-round outdoor sports and activities, with 22,300 square miles of water – though you probably won’t need that much of it – and miles of trails and paths passing through parks and by beaches. Bring your own equipment, or rent it.
Lake Michigan and our waterfront shape Milwaukee and have the power to revitalize the city – economically, environmentally and socially, as the Harbor District would tell you – and there are myriad recreational opportunities. Here are just some of the ways you can play on our great lake:
This one doesn’t need much guidance. Lace up your running shoes and hit one of the many shoreline paths, or create your own route. The beloved six-mile Lakefront Trail might be the best, running north from the Milwaukee Art Museum along Lake Michigan and including a three-mile paved loop through Veterans Park. South of the Art Museum, the one-mile Lakeshore State Park Loop is a great place to get a unique view of Downtown from the east. The extensive Oak Leaf Trail spans 120 miles in and around the city, including through some spectacular parks.
Again, you can make your own adventure here. Use the Lakefront Trail for a more relaxed, people-watching experience – be careful, though, it’s often crowded – or the Oak Leaf. You can rent bicycles through Bublr stations on our near Lincoln Memorial Drive or with Wheel Fun Rentals, 1400 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr. Also, the annual UPAF Ride for the Arts takes cyclists over Milwaukee’s Hoan Bridge.
There’s no better place to play volleyball in Milwaukee than at Bradford Beach, which features 35 sand courts and more than 500 teams in its summer leagues. Newcomers and veteran players alike are welcome, both in competitive matches and pickup games. Bradford Beach Volleyball Leagues run May through September and feature sixes and doubles at all ability levels, with food and beverage available on-site. Bradford Beach also hosts its Volleyball Championship tournament and the annual AVP Tour Milwaukee Open.
Don’t look now, but southeastern Wisconsin is starting to earn a national reputation for its rising freshwater surfing scene. Atwater Beach in Shorewood is popular, as is Grant Park in South Milwaukee. But Sheboygan is where it’s really at, as the city has been called "the Malibu of the Midwest," with wind speeds up to 25 mph from the northeast or west-southwest. Sheboygan’s five-mile stretch of coastline features surfable waves beginning in late August and ramping up in fall.
EOS Surf Shop offers the board rental and lessons you need to catch a wave in Sheboygan, while Lake Effect Surf Shop in Shorewood is our only local place. The Milwaukee Community Sailing Center, 1450 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr., also provides windsurfing lessons and equipment.
There are launches in several convenient harbor locations around the city that provide easy access to Lake Michigan. For a more leisurely maritime experience, Wheel Fun Rentals offers paddleboat, hydro-bike and RC sailboat rentals at the picturesque Veterans Park lagoon near the lake. FYI, the local kayak companies don't venture out onto the lake for safety reasons, but if you're experienced and have your own vessel, you can explore Lake Michigan that way.
Get out on the lake and furl the jib. The Milwaukee Community Sailing Center offers introductory classes for all ages, as well as intermediate and advances courses – with different types of boats and equipment – for more experienced sailors.
Gentle breezes along the lakefront make Veterans Park a kite-flyer’s dream. Gift of Wings at McKinley Marina, 1300 N Lincoln Memorial Dr., features kites of all shapes and sizes, and also offers free flying lessons to help novices get off the ground.
A relatively new and excellent addition to Milwaukee County Parks, which partnered with Ramp Up MKE and The Ability Center on the initiative, are hand-cycles. Accessible and inclusive to people with disabilities, hand-cycles are available at Veterans Park – part of Ramp Up MKE’s goal to transform Milwaukee into The World’s Most Accessible Recreation City – and I can attest that they are great fun.
The Milwaukee Rugby Football Club has been known to practice at McKinley Marina, while the Milwaukee Barbarians use the Lake Park "Gun Club" rugby field further north. The Lakefront 7s tournament is the largest summer rugby event in the country, attracting more than 125 teams from middle-schools to adult clubs, and taking place at Veteran’s Park during the summer.
On any given evening, you’re bound to find Milwaukee Kickers Soccer Club youth teams practicing, open pickup games being played or people just kicking a ball around at fields along the lakefront. Bradford Beach has offered summer beach soccer in the past, though the leagues depend on registration numbers.
There are also often cricket matches played in Veterans Park, though the Milwaukee Cricket Club and Cricket Milwaukee are located away from the lake. Ultimate frisbee leagues and pickup games are also a common sight.
Thanks to Milwaukee County, you can work out with a view. There are lakefront multi-gym locations at McKinley Park, 2300 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr., near the Northpoint Snack Bar, and at Doctors Park. And there is a high-quality exercise station/fitness circuit on the lakefront between Bradford Beach and Northpoint Snack Bar.
Are there other Lake Michigan water sports and recreation activities that we missed? Let us know! And enjoy the lake, Milwaukee.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.