A to Z Geography: Wisconsin

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Wisconsin is a state located in the northern region of the United States. It is bordered by Michigan to the east, Minnesota to the west, Iowa to the southwest, and Illinois to the south.

The state has a diverse geography, including forests, lakes, rivers, and rolling hills. Much of the state’s geography was shaped by glaciers during the last ice age, which left behind numerous lakes and rivers.

Known as the Wisconsin glaciation, this was a major ice age that occurred in North America that lasted up until about 11,000 years ago. The ice sheet expansion from this event shaped much of the landscape of modern-day Wisconsin and the surrounding regions.

Wisconsin is also home to several major cities, including Milwaukee and Madison, as well as many smaller towns and rural areas.


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Fact sheet with Landsat image for the state of Wisconsin.

A

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a scenic area located on the northern shores of Lake Superior in Wisconsin. It consists of 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland, covering an area of 69,372 acres.

The geography of the Apostle Islands is characterized by its rugged and rocky shoreline, which is dotted with towering sandstone cliffs, sea caves, and rock formations. The islands themselves are a mix of rocky shorelines, sandy beaches, forests, and wetlands.

Red sandstone sea caves covered by trees on the side of a lake and a sandy beach in the distance.
Sand Island Sea Caves, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Photo: NPS, public domain.

One of the most notable features of the Apostle Islands are the sea caves, which are located on the mainland as well as several of the islands. These caves are formed by wave erosion and offer a unique and stunning view of the Lake Superior shoreline.

B

The badger (Taxidea taxus) was named the state animal of Wisconsin in 1957. One of Wisconsin’s nicknames it the “badger state” but the name isn’t because of the animal.

Wisconsin was once a center of lead mining, and the miners were known as “badgers” because they dug out tunnels or “burrows” underground looking for the metal, much like the animal.

Historians are conflicted on whether or not these miners lived in these burrows.

An early 20th century photo of miners outside the factory in Wisconsin.
Miners at Coker Mine, no. 2, Livingston, Wisconsin. Photo: c1915, public domain via loc.gov.

The badger became a symbol of Wisconsin in the mid-19th century, when the state’s residents were looking for a symbol to represent their state. The badger was seen as a hardworking and industrious animal, traits that were valued by the state’s early settlers.

The badger was officially designated as the state animal of Wisconsin in 1957, by an act of the state legislature. Today, it is one of the most recognizable symbols of the state and is often used in logos, mascots, and other representations of Wisconsin.

Despite its status as the state animal, badgers are not actually common in Wisconsin. They are mostly found in the western part of the state, near the Minnesota and Iowa borders.

C

The Cheese Country Trail is a 47-mile-long trail located in southwestern Wisconsin. The trail runs through the Driftless Area, a region of the state that was left untouched by the last glaciation, and is known for its scenic beauty and rolling hills.

D

The Door Peninsula is a long, narrow peninsula located in northeastern Wisconsin. It extends approximately 70 miles (110 km) into Lake Michigan and separates the body of water from Green Bay.

A green shaded relief map showing the major cities in Wisconsin.
Map of Wisconsin showing Door Peninsula. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

E

Eau Claire is a city located in western Wisconsin, near the border with Minnesota. The city is situated on the banks of the Chippewa River and is surrounded by rolling hills and forests.

Eau Claire is also surrounded by numerous lakes, including Lake Altoona and Lake Eau Claire.

The city was once a center of lumber and paper production, thanks in part to its location on the Chippewa River, which provided transportation and water power for mills and factories.

Dells Mill, a gristmill built on Bridge Creek in 1864 that operated until 1968 in the Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, town of Augusta.
Dells Mill is a gristmill that was built on Bridge Creek in 1864. The mill was in operation until 1968. Photo: Augusta, Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, Carol M. Highsmith, public domain via loc.gov.

F

The Fox River is a 202-mile-long river that flows through the eastern and northeastern parts of Wisconsin. The river originates in the central part of the state, near Pardeeville, and flows southeast before emptying into Lake Michigan in the city of Green Bay.

The Fox River is one of only a few large rivers in the United States that flows north.

A photograph taken from space showing the Fox River emptying into Lake Michigan during the winter.
The Fox River, which empties into Lake Michigan. Photo taken from the International Space Station, February 22, 2014, NASA, public domain.

G

Green Bay, a city located on the shores of Green Bay, a large body of water connected to Lake Michigan

H

Hayward, a city located in northern Wisconsin known for its outdoor recreation opportunities

I

Interstate 94, a major highway running east-west through southern Wisconsin

J

Janesville is a city located in southern Wisconsin on the Rock River.

K

Kettle Moraine State Forest is a large forested area located in southeastern Wisconsin.

L

Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes, which forms Wisconsin’s eastern border.

Shaded relief map showing the Great Lakes in blue and the surrounding areas in shades of green and yellow.
The Great Lakes. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

M

Milwaukee is the largest city in Wisconsin, located on the western shore of Lake Michigan in the southeastern part of the state.

View of downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin from Pier Wisconsin Cruise dock in winter on an overcast day.
View of downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin from Pier Wisconsin Cruise dock in winter. Photo: USGS, public domain.

N

Nicolet National Forest is a large forested area located in northeastern Wisconsin.

O

Oshkosh is a city located on the shores of Lake Winnebago in eastern Wisconsin.

P

Peshtigo is a town located in northeastern Wisconsin, near the border with Michigan. The town is situated along the Peshtigo River and is surrounded by forests and rural areas.

A bird's eye view map of Peshtigo, Wisconsin published one month before the great fire.
A bird’s eye view map of Peshtigo, Wisconsin published one month before the great fire. Map: T.M. Fowler & Co., September 1871, Library of Congress.

The Peshtigo Fire was a devastating wildfire that occurred on October 8, 1871, in northeastern Wisconsin. The fire began near the town of Peshtigo and quickly spread, fueled by strong winds and drought conditions.

The Peshtigo Fire is considered one of the deadliest wildfires in American history, with an estimated death toll of 1,200 people.

Q

Wisconsin is home to more than 15,000 lakes. One of them is Quarry Lake, a small lake located in central Wisconsin.

R

Rock River is a river that runs through southern Wisconsin.

S

Superior, a city located on the shores of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes.

T

Timms Hill is the highest natural point in Wisconsin, with an elevation of 1,951 feet (594 meters) above sea level. It is located in Price County in north-central Wisconsin, near the town of Ogema.

U

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a large public university located in the state capital.

V

Vilas County is a county located in northern Wisconsin known for its lakes and outdoor recreation opportunities.

W

Lake Winnebago is the largest freshwater lake located entirely within the borders of Wisconsin. It is located in the east-central part of the state and covers an area of 137,708 acres (55,728 hectares).

The geography of Lake Winnebago is characterized by its shallow waters, with an average depth of only 15 feet (4.6 meters). The lake is relatively flat and has a maximum depth of 21 feet (6.4 meters) in its deepest parts.

Lake Winnebago is fed by several rivers and streams, including the Fox River, which flows into the lake’s northeastern corner. The lake’s outflow is the Fox River as well, which exits at the southwestern corner of the lake.

X

X-Country Skiing is a popular winter sport in Wisconsin.

Y

The Yellow River is a 76-mile-long river that flows through central Wisconsin, originating in Clark County and emptying into the Black River in Jackson County.

Z

Zion is a small unincorporated community located in southeastern Wisconsin.

References

Wilson, J. K. (2022, March 23). How the badger burrowed into Wisconsin’s identity. Wisconsin Public Radio. https://www.wpr.org/how-badger-burrowed-wisconsins-identity

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources [DNR. (2016) Wiscland 2 land cover user guide: Wisconsin DNR, 83 p. https://p.widencdn.net/8ghipa/Wiscland_2_User_Guide_September_2016.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.