A Perfect, Pandemic Safe Autumn Day Trip from Chicago or Milwaukee

The Kenosha-Racine area more likely evokes notions of the Rust Belt rather than tourist destination. But, since the current pandemic has put a premium on short, safe and local excursions, Chicagoland and Milwaukee residents may wish to re-examine that notion for a quick and easy autumn day away from the city.

Foliage reflection on pond at Richard Bong Recreation Area

For a perfect autumn day, start early. Really early, if you can, and head to the Richard Bong State Recreation Area in western Kenosha County. Originally established for the purpose of building an Air Force base, the park has hiking and horse trails around dozens of lakes and marshes. The so-called golden hour for photos is also a particularly great time in the morning to experience the park. At that hour, a damp mist shrouds the fields with a touch of mystery and the fall foliage reflects on the pond surfaces. The network of bike trails in the northern part of the park provides more of the same topography and potentially strikes a nice balance for a group of friends or a family with varied skill levels. Committed mountain bikers may find the trails pleasant but a touch too easy. However, those accustomed to flat, paved surfaces will feel pleasantly satisfied with just the right amount of challenge. Early arrivals should plan to bring cash for their park fees.

After the early morning exercise at the park, stop at nearby Brightonwoods Orchard and AeppelTreow Winery and Distillery. Unlike many orchards, Brightonwoods is NOT a “Pick Your Own” orchard, but that’s a benefit during the time of COVID. Compared to “Pick Your Own” orchards where throngs of families with young children visit on the weekends, the visitor flow at Brightonwoods feels more manageable. Brightonwoods also offers a compelling selection of heirloom varieties of apples and pears — a plus for any foodie.

The AeppelTreow Winery and Distillery at Brightonwoods offers tasting flights of its wines, hard ciders and spirits for a fee. The staff pour behind plexiglass and guests can take the sample flights out to the picnic tables on the grounds. Tip: the sparking pear wine (or Perry) strikes an especially nice balance between sweet and dry and would feel refreshing after a long hiking or biking session.

Serving more or less continuously in Racine since 1926

For lunch, head east to the waterfront in Racine, but first call ahead on the way for take-out at Kewpee Sandwich Shop. Modern burger wonder-kids like Five Guys and Shake Shack still try to recreate the style of burger that’s been served more or less continuously in downtown Racine since 1926. One or two of the other patrons on a recent visit did not wear a mask, so dart in, grab your bag of naughty food and head to Harbor Park for a lunch on Lake Michigan. Wisconsin’s COVID policy at the time of this publication has achieved a sort of notorious fame of the bad variety, but there are benefits from the state’s more laissez faire attitude. In some jurisdictions of the country the overzealous may have roped off picnic tables entirely, but a smattering remain in Harbor Park for a safe, socially distanced and outdoor lunch on the Lake.

After lunch, take a quick drive up to the affluent suburb Wind Point just north of Racine to walk the impeccable grounds of the Wind Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse stands at 108 feet tall and is one of the oldest and tallest lighthouses on the Great Lakes.

Wind Point Lighthouse at Night

Although tower climbs are currently cancelled due to COVID, the gardens and atmosphere at the Wind Point Lighthouse remain timeless. Midwesterners hardly need persuaded of the majesty and force of the Lake, but while reading of the sinking of the Kate Kelly and the seven lives lost off the shore of the lighthouse, the Third Coast moniker feels especially deserved. Visitors can sit on benches at the Lake to watch the waves crash on the rocks and ponder their lives, or at least their nautical dreams.

On the way out of town, stop and buy Wisconsin’s state danish — the kringle, a flakey, buttery heaven that’s now more familiar to those out of the area but has been a mainstay in Racine for generations. O & H Danish Bakery has become famous and has several locations, but a lot of Racine locals swear by Bendtsen’s Bakery. Always remember when given a choice, “both” is also an option. However, for those most averse to crowds at the moment, a slight edge goes to Bendtsten’s where, on a recent visit, there were no other patrons.

As a last and final stop on your way to the freeway, this itinerary has largely eschewed indoor options, but the School Days Antique Mall in Sturtevant felt safe on a recent visit. All other patrons in the large building wore masks and respectfully kept as distant as possible. The School Days Antique Mall has vendor booths filled with typical Americana and, naturally, a healthy dollop of Packers memorabilia. More importantly, for those who love the discovery aspect of shopping and perhaps a little retail therapy, the experience provides an outlet at a time when other shopping feels so rushed simply to avoid crowds. And really, what better way to remember your day trip through the Rust Belt than with a treasure from that earlier, glorious age?

Excelsior, HSJ

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Are there places in the Kenosha-Racine area that Hunter missed? Please message him with tips and hints.

Nomad. Sometimes writer. Sometimes slut. Afrophile. Investor. Art Collector. LGBT. See also: https://twitter.com/HunterStJamesIV