Waupaca, WI + Columbia Lake
Beth is one of my best friends, and no shocker here, we immediately bonded our first week of freshman year at UW-Madison for a million reasons, but our affinity for walking the lakeshore trail and mutual obsession with our family cottages were a few of them. Here she gushes her lake love for Waupaca, where I've had the pleasure of joining her family multiple times...
If you asked me about my favorite place in Wisconsin or where I have the absolute best memories, it wouldn’t take long to say my family’s cottage on Columbia Lake on the Chain O’Lakes in Waupaca. Waupaca has been my home-away-from-home during the summers since before I can remember. My grandparents purchased our cottage many decades ago, and it has now been handed down to my mother and her siblings. For me, a summer is not complete without time spent on the lake swimming, waterskiing, tubing, enjoying campfires, and just relaxing. My fondest childhood memories are days on the lake, followed by large cookouts, completed with a sunset boat cruise, s’mores, and old stories around the campfire.
I could go on and on about Waupaca, but I will keep it to the highlights so that you can get the basics of the area and get to making your own memories there!
The chain consists of 22 spring-fed lakes, which helps keep the lakes pristine. Talk about clear water and being able to see directly to the bottom - you won’t have any problems scoping out the fish here! There are four “fast” lakes that you are able to water ski, tube, and create a wake - those include: Long Lake, Columbia Lake, Round Lake, and Rainbow Lake. The other lakes have a mandated no-wake at all times. Each of the lakes offer their own little charm, and since they are all connected it is easy to explore them all. Our cottage is on Columbia Lake, so we have had the luxury of being able to water ski and tube directly from our dock.
Closest major city and airport?
Waupaca is located in the middle of the state 30 minutes from Stevens Point, one hour from Wausau, 45 minutes from Neenah-Menasha-Oshkosh, and about one and a half to two hours North from both Madison and Milwaukee
- Appleton International Airport - about 40 minutes away
- Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee - about 1.5-2 hours away
- Dane County Airport in Madison - about 1.5-2 hours away
Distance to nearest grocery store?
There are a few grocery stores in downtown Waupaca, about 10-15 minutes from the Chain, depending upon where on the Chain you’re staying. They’re your typical Piggly Wiggly, Aldi, etc., so you’ll have no problem finding what you need.
- Pick’n’Save: 955 W. Fulton, Waupaca, WI 54981
- Piggly Wiggly: 810 W Fulton St, Waupaca, WI 54981
- Aldi: 1040 W Fulton St, Waupaca, WI 54981
- Festive Foods: 7811 County Rd D, Waupaca, WI 54981
- Niemuth’s Steak and Chophouse: 715 Redfield St, Waupaca, WI 54981
- Turner’s Fresh Market and Greenhouse: E208 WI-54, Waupaca, WI 54981
Favorite local activities/foods/traditions?
- Tom Thumb Mini-Golf - boat, drive, or bike to this iconic course located on Beasley Lake
- Ding’s Dock - rent pontoons or sign up to take the Crystal River trip (the trip takes about half of a day! - ride in small canoes down the Crystal River (you will be dropped off at the beginning and picked up at the end - a great trip for a group of friends or families!) - located on Columbia Lake
- Clearwater Harbor Bar & Restaurant - the only restaurant accessible by water on the chain! Take a trip there for lunch, dinner, live music or take a tour of the Chain on the Chief Waupaca or the Lady of the Lakes
- For boat, kayak, paddle board, and canoe rentals see Boat Rentals below.
Cate & Company: Great local Waupaca themed apparel. Great for gifts!
- Adventure Outfitters LLC Kayak and paddle board rentals.
- Becker Marine Canoes, kayaks, rowboats, ski boats, and pontoons.
- Ding's Dock Canoe rental & trips
- Taylor Lake Marine Kayaks, paddle boards and pontoons
- Jimmy Fords Boards Paddle boards and kayak rentals
However, if you’re looking to bring your own boat during your stay in Waupaca, there are numerous boat launch sites on the Chain. Click here for more details.
What do you do when it rains?
Some of the most calming times at the lake are the days that it rains. I love leaving the windows open and hearing the rain hit the water. During those rainy days, I am always reminded to slow down and just relax. Puzzles, reading, playing cribbage, Euchre or Sheepshead, or crafting are our go-to options; really any activity where the light patter of the rain over the lake as background noise is enjoyable. If we get stir crazy on those days, there is always the option of catching a movie at the local theater downtown (Rogers Cinema.)
Local joints to check out?
- Clearwater Harbor Bar - this is a must for at least one meal while visiting the Chain!
- Simpson’s Restaurant - if you’re looking to experience a true Wisconsin Supper Club, look no further than Simpson’s Restaurant in downtown Waupaca
- Waupaca Woods Restaurant - brunch any time of the day! Also serves lunch and dinner
- The Wheelhouse Restaurant - the best pizza in town! Enjoy inhouse or grab a pizza to go while relaxing on the lake
- Scoopers Ice Cream - this is a MUST GO and a staple in Waupaca! Serving Wisconsin’s own Cedar Crest ice cream and everything from cones to decadent sundaes, no trip to Waupaca is complete with a trip to Scoopers - and they share a parking lot with The Wheelhouse Pizza - great way to double the fun
- King’s Table - if you’re looking for the largest cinnamon roll you’ve ever seen, make a stop here! Great for brunch.
- Chain O’Lakes Bar and Grill - grab a fish fry here any day of the week!
Best place to get a fish fry?
The highlight of any extended time spent at the lake is a homemade fish fry of all of the fish caught during the week - and generally there is a ton! Growing up, the only fish fries I’d eat were prepared by my mom from the fish we had caught that prior week. To this day, homemade fish fries at the cottage are by far my favorite!
If the fish aren’t biting though, Clearwater Harbor Bar, Simpson’s Restaurant, and the Chain O’Lakes Bar and Grill all have fantastic fish fries! However, I still challenge you to attempt to catch your own and make a homemade fish fry.
Fish prominent in the lakes?
- The lakes are swimming with numerous types of fish! In the Chain, you can expect to find Bluegill, Bass, Northern Pike, Walleye, Muskie, Crappie, Sunfish, Perch and Trout
- Remember, you will need to have a Wisconsin fishing license. For information please go to
- Local bait and tackle shop:The Minnow Bucket In addition to bait and tackle supplies, they have archery equipment and accessories, archery lanes and leagues, sporting equipment consignment, pet food, and firearms.
Lessons learned at the lake?
I know what you’re probably thinking - there is no way that I can do everything on this list while I’m in Waupaca...but that’s ok! Like all the lake communities in Wisconsin, there is one ultimate goal while there: enjoy your time on the water, the people you’re with, and make memories that will last a lifetime. THAT is the ultimate lesson that I learned at the lake. Life seems a bit slower there. All the stress and hustle and bustle of home get pushed to the wayside, even if it is just for a short weekend. Leave your makeup and hair products at home. Live in a swimming suit and sweats the entire time. Go to bed smelling of the campfire that you sat around exchanging stories and laughing until your abs hurt. Enjoy the sunset over the lake. When you leave, you know that you’ll go back to your everyday life refreshed and ready to take on anything because you recharged at the lake. And more than anything, you go home already planning your next trip back. Not only is your heart full of memories of that place, but there is always room, and you’re always ready, to make more.