A ‘Country Club in the Woods’ in Picturesque Kohler, Wisconsin
In Kohler, Wisconsin, you can explore a trail that meanders through a lush forest and alongside the Sheboygan River – either on horseback or on foot – then enjoy a gourmet dinner in a candle-lit log cabin nestled in the woods. That’s my idea of a perfect day. If you agree, you must make the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago to Kohler and check out River Wildlife, a secluded private club and wilderness preserve situated on 500 unspoiled acres.
To have access to River Wildlife, you must be staying at The American Club or Inn on Wood Lake, and you must purchase a guest pass ($20 for an individual, $40 for a family). Is River Wildlife worth all that? In my opinion, yes! If you’re thinking about planning a Wisconsin getaway, why not choose one of these beautiful Kohler resorts and get the added benefit of access to this unique outdoor playground and dining club? There’s truly nothing quite like it.
Once you buy a guest pass at your hotel’s front desk, you can take part in all of the outdoor activities that are offered, plus dine at the River Wildlife Lodge Restaurant (that alone is worth the price of the pass). My husband and I recently explored River Wildlife during a trip to The American Club for our 20th anniversary. We first visited 17 years ago just before the birth of our oldest son (our last hurrah). Our experience at the Lodge Restaurant was so memorable that when we were deciding where to celebrate our milestone anniversary, River Wildlife seemed like the perfect choice. (We also couldn’t wait to get back to Whistling Straits. Read about that incredible experience at the bottom.)
The restaurant is in a rustic log cabin with a giant fireplace and cozy dining rooms, including a loft area. It is truly IN the woods – you have to take a short hike to find it. This place is so inviting and unique that I would recommend it even if the food was average. But thankfully, that is not the case. I can’t remember what we ate 17 years ago, although I know we loved it, but I can tell you that our recent meals were the best we’ve had in a long time. I ordered the Asiago Cheese and Almond Crusted Canadian Walleye with Citrus Caper Remoulade. Out of this world! We started with an amazing mushroom and fontina cheese flatbread and inspired salad. The creative menu is seasonal and always changing. I also must mention that our server was so attentive and friendly and really went out of her way to make sure our evening was special.
So the dining is unforgettable, but River Wildlife is so much more than a great restaurant. Your guest pass enables you to take advantage of the following adventures (plus a few more):
- Hiking: River Wildlife is a wildlife sanctuary that is maintained in a natural state. When you pay your fee, you get a detailed map of the area and its 18 miles of trails. You can select the self-guided nature trail or beginner, moderate or difficult hiking trails. But truthfully, all of the trails we hiked were pretty easy. This is Wisconsin, after all, not Colorado! We started at a trailhead next to the clubhouse for the Blackwolf Run Golf Course. The trails weave in and out of the course, so every once in a while you get a view of the manicured fairways, which are pretty spectacular. But the highlight for me was the natural beauty of the trails.
- Bird Hike: If you want to see and identify many birds, take the one-mile self-guided birding hike along the Sheboygan River. A bird identification field guide and binoculars are provided, and you can reserve a picnic lunch if you’d like.
- Canoe and Kayak Rentals: Paddling adventures are self guided and cover seven miles of the Sheboygan River, which takes about two-and-a-half hours. This isn’t white water (again, not Colorado), and average stamina is sufficient. You need a reservation, and River Wildlife staff transport you from the lodge to the launch site. This is available May through mid- September for $80 (canoe) or $46 (kayak).
- Horseback Riding: I was surprised to learn that in some spots, hikers share the trails with horses. So watch your step! I wanted to go horseback riding, but we didn’t have time. It’s on the list for next time. Guided rides are available May to November for $80 per rider (age 12 and up).
- Fishing: We saw a fisherman at the Sheboygan River, and she had caught quite a few. The River Wildlife materials say that the area boasts some of the best fishing in the state in the spring and fall, as trout and salmon make their way upstream. The fishing is self guided, so you must bring your own gear and required licenses.
- Cross-Country Skiing: I haven’t seen River Wildlife in winter, but I can imagine how beautiful it must be when the landscape is covered in snow. There are more than 18 miles of cross country ski trails through the wooded areas and rolling meadows. Equipment can be rented at The American Club.
River Wildlife has been called “a country club in the woods,” thanks to its picturesque natural surroundings combined with high-end dining and service. I think many people stumble upon the area by accident, but once they do, I bet they want to return again and again. I know I can’t wait to go back.
When you go:
- Kohler is home to the Kohler Company, and The American Club once served as housing for the factory’s workers. Today, it is a luxury resort, with beautiful grounds, gourmet restaurants and the renowned Kohler Waters Spa. The American Club’s main Tudor-style building is elegant but a bit dark. The newer Carriage House houses the spa and also hotel rooms that are brighter and more modern (my preference). The American Club is pricey, but a memorable place to celebrate a special occasion. I recommend The Winery Bar as an after-dinner stop. We loved the drinks and cozy “European wine cellar” atmosphere.
- Inn on Woodlake is up the road from The American Club and a little more affordable. It’s a boutique-style hotel with pretty views of peaceful Wood Lake. Both hotels feature Kohler fixtures, of course, and innovative “shower experiences.”
- The River Wildlife Lodge Restaurant is open for lunch Monday through Saturday. Dinner is served only on Fridays and Saturdays. There’s also a Sunday brunch. Dinner at the Lodge is such a special experience that I suggest planning your visit around it. And be sure to call ahead for reservations. There is no kids’ menu, and the restaurant is a bit “fancy.” But if your kids are adventurous eaters and well behaved in restaurants, you should be fine. They’ll love the cool atmosphere. Instead of driving to the Lodge Restaurant, take advantage of the hotels’ shuttle service.
- In addition to buying guest passes at the hotels, you can get them at the Lodge Restaurant. If you fall in love with River Wildlife and think you’ll visit often, you might want to consider purchasing a membership, which entitles you to visit any time, even if you’re not staying at one of the hotels. I’m tempted!
- One more thing…On the way to Kohler, we stopped in Sheboygan at the Whistling Straits golf course. This course, which is part of The American Club, has hosted several PGA championships and is the future site of the 2020 Ryder Cup. So in the golf world, it’s kind of a big deal. And I can certainly understand why, seeing as how the moment you enter the main drive you feel like you’ve been transported from Wisconsin to Scotland. It’s very expensive to golf there, and I would imagine it caters to those who play much a better game than I do. So we did not go for the golf. We went for the food and a bloody mary, of course, not to mention the view. The restaurant is in a rustic farmhouse that is meant to look like something you’d find in Ireland, and it looks out over the course with sweeping views of Lake Michigan. Not a bad view for lunch. The food is great; if you go, don’t miss the famous potato leek soup with cream sherry and chive oil. Whistling Straits is definitely worth a stop, even if you don’t plan to golf.