Looking for alternative travel ideas this summer? We may not be able to fly to Europe yet, but there is plenty of beauty to be found right here at home! I think it’s time we go old school and revive the lost art of camping!
Let’s start with my home state of Wisconsin. Living in Memphis now, I have such fond memories of summers with my best friend, piled into her parents’ “hippie van” to set off on new camping adventures each year. Hiking along lake-side trails, marveling at rocky cliffs formed by glaciers, canoeing across pristine lakes, and spending evenings at the campfire. What a perfect way to disconnect from the world for a week, or even just a weekend.
Wisconsin has some of the most beautiful state parks in the United States. We've put together a list of our favorites, ready and waiting for you and your sense of adventure!
Peninsula State Park tops my list, as it holds a special place in my heart. Named for its location at the tip of Wisconsin's "thumb," nestled between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, this park resides in a tiny slice of heaven known as Door County. My mom was born "Up Nort," as we say, and I remember spending summers at my grandparents' house in Sister Bay. Riding my bike down country roads, spending lazy days at the beach, taking trips to Wilson's Ice Cream Parlor, eating "fancy" dinners at the Al Johnson's with goats on the roof, and exploring the hiking trails at Peninsula State Park.
Although now the secret has gotten out, and Door County has become a destination for folks from all over Wisconsin, and even a few from Chicago (yes, we do let people from Illinois over the border every now and then). But there's a reason it is so well loved. The allure of Door County is in its step back in time, small town feel. Picturesque towns reminiscent of days gone by, that hunker down every winter and open back up with a smile every summer. Towns like Ephraim, Bailey's Harbor, Egg Harbor, Ellison Bay, and Sister Bay. And the entrance to Peninsula State Park is right on the main street in one of the most adorable little towns you'll find, Fish Creek, which should be pronounced "Fish Crick" if you know what's good for you.
The state park itself is a treasure in its own right. Even with six separate campgrounds and hundreds of sites, you still need a reservation to snag a spot here. Catch the sunset from the Tennison Bay boat launch. Visit the White Cedar Nature Center. Enjoy a show under the stars at the Northern Sky Theater. Outdoor recreational activities abound as well. Hiking and biking, sailing and swimming, just to name a few. You can rent canoes, kayaks, bicycles, tandems and tagalongs at the concession stand at Nicolet Beach. They still have the same camp store I remember from 35 years ago, with supplies, souvenirs and ice, and a snack bar with pizza, burgers and ice cream. It's a blast from the past, in the best possible way!
Boasting the highest peak in Wisconsin, we love Wild Cat Mountain because of the gorgeous views of the Kickapoo River Valley from its hiking trails. This is especially true in the Fall, when the foliage is absolutely amazing! An added bonus is the name of the river, the Kickapoo, just sounds fun! In addition to having a fun name, we also love playing on it. Canoeing, kayaking, or fishing, take your pick. You can bring your own, or rent them in town. Ontario (Wisconsin, not Canada!) has several locations for canoe and kayak rentals, as well as shuttle services. Wander down the river this way and that way, as the river's name means in the Algonquin language. Whether you're paddling or floating, you'll fall in love with the Kickapoo!
The campground here is a real hidden beauty, with options for families, groups, and horseback campers. Their best sites though, are what they call “cart-in”. They give you a cart to load your gear in, which you then take to a more private site a few hundred feet off the road. This is perfect if you like the feel of being off the beaten path, without having to hike in with everything on your back. Another reason we love this park is that it's smaller and less popular than some of the others. A diamond in the rough, you might say. The hiking trails here are rugged and secluded, but offer spectacularly rewarding views of the entire Kickapoo Valley.
Tucked away in the Southwestern corner of Wisconsin, and not too far from the popular Wisconsin Dells area, sits Governor Dodge State Park. It may be less visited than the "Dells", but it is certainly no less beautiful. This part of the state is unique in the diversity of its terrain, with dense forests, steep ridges, winding river valleys, spring-fed waterfalls and an abundance of creeks, streams, and lakes. This all adds up to some pretty phenomenal hiking!
One of the things we like best about Governor Dodge is how versatile its camping facilities are, with options that appeal to just about any style. They have two full campgrounds for family camping with over 250 sites, including some that are accessible for those with disabilities. They also have 8 group campsites that fit up to 40 people, and 6 "pack-in" sites that are about a 1/2 mile from the parking area. With an additional campground for horses, they pretty much have everything covered. Oh, and did I mention winter camping? This is Wisconsin, but if you're brave enough to camp in the winter, Governor Dodge has about 30 sites that stay open all year!
We chose to include High Cliff State park because of its awesome hiking trails, interesting history, and location on Lake Winnebago. The largest inland lake in Wisconsin, it has over 100 boat slips available for rent at the marina. This gives you the freedom to store your boat and come back as often as you want. For those campers who still want a few modern conveniences, High Cliff even offers a golf course and a restaurant. In addition to boating, the size of the lake also provides a really nice beach with recreation and picnic areas.
Hike on trails that meander among limestone cliffs and lead to rock outcroppings with breathtaking views of Lake Winnebago. Discover the history of the the Niagara Escarpment and explore Native American Effigy Mounds. One of the best features of the hiking trails at High Cliff is that they all intersect, which gives you options for planning your distance and difficulty level. Our favorite is the Lime Kiln Trail because it has elevation changes and variety in the terrain, without being too difficult. It also has historical landmarks, side trails to the water, and an observation tower with gorgeous sunset views if you can time your visit right!
Devil's Lake State Park has the claim to fame as being the largest state park in Wisconsin. With a 360 acre lake and ancient bluffs that reach heights of 500 feet, it's a nature lover's paradise! In the part of Wisconsin known as the Dells, this area is famous for water parks and outdoor adventure. Due to its popularity, be prepared for high crowds in the summer. You will definitely need a reservation if you want to camp at one of the three campgrounds at Devil's Lake.
Despite the crowds, Devil's Lake is still one of our favorites. Mainly for one reason. The hiking. The trail system here is extensive and beautiful, with trails for people of all ages and abilities. Whether you prefer strolling along the water on a paved path, getting a view of the lake through the Devil's Doorway, trekking up to the Balanced Rock formation on the cliffs, or exploring the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, this park has you covered. Plenty of opportunities for water adventures await you here as well! Swim at either of the lake's two beaches, pick a fishing spot on or off shore, or head out onto the water in a rowboat, paddleboat, kayak or canoe.
You will find this gem of a state park sitting on the border of Wisconsin and Iowa, at the intersection of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. After you've camped and hiked at so many parks, it's sometimes hard for any to stand out. But this one sticks out in my mind so clearly, even 30 years after my first visit there. What is it that makes Wyalusing so special? Well let me tell you!
Campsites that sit atop bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River valley, Native American burial mounds, sandstone caves, waterfalls, and a canoe trail that takes you on an aquatic journey of discovery into the backwaters of the Upper Mississippi. Not to mention a network of hiking trails that challenge you with steep climbs, descents that cut through mysterious rock-walls, and stairways that lead to magnificent views. The overlooks are truly amazing, and if you're lucky, you might spot a turkey vulture circling in the distance or a bald eagle sailing past.
If this doesn't make you want to get outdoors, I don't know what will! You've got cream of the crop camping in Wisconsin. So grab your tent, camper, or RV, and hit the road!