Harrington is more than a beach

One of Wisconsin's best and most diverse state parks is less than an hour from downtown Milwaukee. Harrington Beach has a beach, of course, but it also has a cedar swamp, the ruins of an old mining company town, a huge, water-filled old quarry, hiking trails and much more.

The 637-acre park is located along the Lake Michigan shore in Ozaukee County, near the town of Belgium. Head north on I-43 and when you see the small but charming unincorporated village of Lake Church -- dominated, as you might suspect by a lovely old wood-frame house of worship built in 1846 by immigrants from Luxembourg -- exit and head east. Less than five minutes later, you'll be in the park.

After passing the visitors center -- buy the sticker, after a few visits, it pays for itself -- head through the prarie grasses to the parking lot. Nearby are some great little trails that circle Puckett's Pond. The adjacent picnic area is also perfect for a cookout, but head down closer to the pond so you don't have to look at the cars in the lot.

Then you can take the shuttle down to the beach, the other picnic areas and the Ansay Welcome Center, which, thankfully, has a refreshment concession. You can also drive down, the parking lot there is small and fills up fast.

We always prefer to walk, though, taking the path east from the parking lot. It takes you through some tall prairie grass fields and crosses a pebble access road, where deer can often be spotted. After some wooded areas, you'll emerge at the edge of the 25-acre Quarry Lake with its crystal clear water and rock path navigating its circumference.

The lake is formed in a quarry that was mined by immigrants. You can learn more about the community that grew up around the quarry by following the east-to-navigate Stonehaven Historic Trail, which has markers pointing out the locations of the company store, workers' cottages and the boss' house. The stone foundations of a number of these structures can still be seen and the markers describe the now-lost community.

Fishing in Quarry Lake and Puckett's Pond you can reel in trout, panfish and smallmouth bass.

The park also has excellent birdwatching opportunities, a sand volleyball court and, when there's snow, two miles of trail perfect for cross-country skiing. Of course, there's loads of picnic areas and places to catch some rays, but the best location for that is on the mile-long sandy beach, where on one hot July there were kids building sand forts, swimmers doings laps a few dozen yards offshore, families cooking out and more. But there was still plenty of room to stretch out and get comfortable.

Afterward, stroll the easy .8-mile interpretive trail through a rare Wisconsin cedar swamp, with its peculiar plants and less-often-spied wildlife.

Harrington Beach State Park is open from 6 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. It is located at 531 Hwy. D, Belgium. For more information, call the park office at (262) 285-3015.

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