Wisconsin is an undeniably gorgeous state, it’s no wonder so many tourists flock to see the stunning natural areas. You can see such areas of interest as the Wisconsin Dells, a 5-mile gorge on the Wisconsin River renowned for particularly beautiful sandstone rock formations and tributary canyons. Lake Michigan also borders a large portion of Wisconsin, with the cities of Milwaukee and Green Bay sitting on its western bank.
Wisconsin is home to more than 50 state parks, state forests, and recreation areas. One of 11 national scenic trails in America is found entirely within Wisconsin; the Ice Age Trail is an ancient 1000-mile footpath which passes through many of the state’s natural highlights. This hiking trail follows a pathway of ancient glaciers through dense forests and open prairies, and many campers visit Wisconsin to walk the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. If you plan to hike on your next camping trip, check out these 6 items you should always bring on an outdoor adventure.
The Wisconsin State Park System draws more than 17 million visitors each year, who come to see the stunning natural areas all over the area. This state has much more to offer than just dairy and cheese. In particular, the lakeside and island camping in this state are difficult to beat. Read on to discover some of the most unique destinations for your next back-to-nature getaway, and find out about the best tent camping in Wisconsin.
1. Devil’s Lake State Park: Baraboo
Situated right on top of the Ice Age Trail, Devil’s Lake is Wisconsin’s most popular state park. The lake was created by glacial activity more than 10 thousand years ago, which gave it 500-foot-high quartzite bluffs along the shore. These imposing bluffs are a big draw to the park, and make a fantastic camping spot too. Devil’s Lake State Park is the largest state park in Wisconsin at 9200 acres. The lake itself measures 360 acres.
More than 3 million people visit Devil’s Lake each year to see the quartzite rock formations and the Wisconsin Dells nearby. The park’s fall colors also attract many when summer ends, this Wisconsin state park is an excellent choice all year around. As well as 11 miles of the Ice Age Trail, a further 18 miles of trails are open to hikers and mountain bikers. Kayak and canoe rentals are offered on the lake, which is stocked with a healthy population of brown trout.
The south shore of Devil’s Lake offers easy fishing access from the banks, and non-powered boats can be taken out to angle from. Two large sandy beaches offer plenty of space to relax and rewind after a long day of exploring, just make sure you reserve a spot for the night. This popular state park is reservation-only for campers, offering a range of campgrounds to choose from so close to the city of Madison. The Ice Age Campground is our favorite for tent campers, located in a scenic pine grove. This camping spot offers a selection of restrooms and shower buildings, just a short miles walk to the north shore and beach.
2. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: Lake Superior
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is composed of a 12-mile stretch of Lake Superior’s shoreline along with 21 islands located just off the coast. The total land area is almost 70 thousand acres of old-growth forest, rugged coast and beaches, and sandstone sea caves. The majority of the islands offer public docking (a small fee may be applicable overnight) so there are so many opportunities for adventure.
Apostle Islands National Seashore has the most lighthouses of any site in the National Park system, boasting 9 historical structures across 6 islands. We highly recommend exploring the area by boat, as there’s no better way to see the stunning sights than by paddling around. If you’d rather hike, there are 50-miles of maintained trail which cover many of the highlights and attractions. You can see abandoned quarries, historic industry sites, beaches, and scenic overlooks.
Under the waters of Lake Superior, things get even more interesting. Clear waters mean scuba diving opportunities are excellent, with underwater rock formations and ancient abandoned shipwrecks at the top of your sightseeing list. A total of 18 from 21 islands in this National Lakeshore offer tent camping, and there’s a campground on the mainland as well. There’s no RV sites or car camping here; only those who hike or paddle in get to enjoy the peaceful and secluded camping spots. You can choose from standard tent sites with basic amenities, or head off to a primitive camping area and forge your own way through the wilderness.
3. Mirror Lake State Park: Baraboo
Mirror Lake State Park is another attraction in the popular Wisconsin Dells area. Mirror Lake is actually a reservoir with a surface area of 137 acres and is tucked into a small valley. Because of its sheltered location, the waters of Mirror Lake are often smooth and undisturbed, giving the lake the glassy appearance from where it gets its name. Steep sandstone bluffs reach heights of 15 meters in some areas of the lake.
The shores and remaining 2000 acres of this state park are mostly pine-oak forest, with a mixture of hardwood trees. You can explore using the 28 miles of hiking trails, or check out the pathways assigned for mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. There are no motorboats allowed on Mirror Lake as the wake would erode the sandstone, but kayaking and canoeing are allowed. We highly recommend exploring this park by paddle, as it’s the best way to see the scenic cliffs around the lake.
One of the best campgrounds in Wisconsin is Bluewater Bay Campground in Mirror LAke State Park. This gorgeous campground offers wooded camping spots with seasonal amenities, so you might not find open showers in the winter. However, vault toilets are open year-round, and that’s all you really need for a natural Wisconsin experience. We highly recommend visiting this scenic campground on your trip to Mirror Lake State Park.
4. Rock Island State Park – Green Bay
The journey alone to Rock Island is an exciting adventure, beginning on the peninsula of Door County. From there, you can take a ferry to Washington Island where any vehicles must be left behind. After that, it’s a short trip across Lake Michigan to Rock Island State Park, and then the fun can really begin. If you have your own watercraft you can take it to the island yourself, or walk there over the frozen lake in winter.
This primitive island totals 906 acres, with designated campsites down either side of the island. You can choose to set up camp either facing Green Bay or on the opposite side facing out over Lake Michigan. Each primitive campsite is equipped with a picnic table and fire ring, and you can find vault toilets and drinking water on the island. However, you’ll need to pack in (and out) all the equipment and supplies you need.
Some of the best tent camping in Wisconsin is found on this isolated island. Without any amenities or busy attractions nearby, you can concentrate on soaking in the phenomenal 360-degree views of Lake Michigan and enjoy the lack of development. If the stunning natural features aren’t enough to persuade you, know that Rock Island is home to the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin. History buffs might also want to visit the ancient Viking boathouse and historic water tower.
5. Wyalusing State Park: Wyalusing
Wyalusing State Park sits on the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, where the deep river valleys and tall rocky bluffs create a fantastic natural area to visit. The 2700 acres of Wyalusing make up one of Wisconsin’s oldest state parks, including hardwood forests, waterfalls, wetlands and more. The varied landscape makes this state park explorable on foot or by the water, giving campers plenty of choice.
A 6-mile canoe trail follows the current of the Mississippi River through the backwaters of this state park. Plenty of signage tells canoers exactly which waterways to follow while they see the highlights of the park. On land, there are 14 miles of hiking trails with varying difficulty, passing through the forests and wildflower meadows of the area. There are two campgrounds in Wyalusing State Park, one of which offers hot showers to all campers.
6. Copper Falls State Park: Mellen
Any geologists or rock enthusiasts on a trip to Wisconsin have to check out Copper Falls State Park. The ancient lava flows, deeply cut gorges, and dramatic waterfalls make this unique state park one of the best places to camp in Wisconsin. This 3000-acre state park is home to a host of plant and animal life, including fishers, a medium-sized member of the weasel family which has been recently (and successfully) reintroduced to Wisconsin.
Vast and varied forests blanket most of the park and include yellow birch, red oak, and pine trees. The valleys of the area support plenty of wildflowers, making a hike through Copper Falls State Park a heavenly experience. Of course, you can see Copper Falls on your visit, a 30-foot crashing tower of the Bad River. Visitors can choose from two camping areas, both of which are secluded from the heavily-trafficked tourist attractions in the park. A total of 24 campsites are available with electrical hookups, some of which are accessible. Showers and a dump station are provided, however, these are closed during the winter season.
7. Harrington Beach State Park: Belgium
Harrington Beach State Park is small by Wisconsin standards, totaling only 715 acres including a mile-long beach on the shores of Lake Michigan. Even with it’s smaller land offering, this Wisconsin state park still draws plenty of visitors to one of the best beaches on Lake Michigan. The white sandy shoreline is the main attraction to this state park, while the rest of the area offers a white cedar and hardwood swamp.
Seven miles of hiking trails are open to campers from which you could see the 1900s pier which now lies in disuse. Horseback riding is also on offer, however, equestrians aren’t allowed on the beach. Boating isn’t very popular because the strong winds of LakeMichigan make staying on course difficult, but plenty of fishing is available from the pier and banks of the lake. Salmon and trout draw many anglers to Harrington Beach State Park.
A family campground with 69 separate campsites offers accommodation to overnight visitors. Certain sites offer electrical hookups, and a handful is available on a first-come-first-served basis. However, we recommend making a reservation far in advance for this popular state park, especially if you’d prefer one of the more secluded sites. There’s also a single tent-only site for kayak campers, with a campfire ring and picnic table.
8. High Cliff State Park: Sherwood
Lake Winnebago is the largest inland lake in Wisconsin, and one of the biggest in the United States. If you want to see the shores of this impressive body of water, there’s no better destination than High Cliff State Park. This is the only state-owned recreation area on Lake Winnebago, so it’s a clear choice for your lakeside getaway. High Cliff State Park offers all the hiking, biking, and outdoor activities you could need near Sherwood, Wisconsin.
One trail you might want to see is the Indian Mound Trail, a short pathway leading to a collection of effigy mounds at the top of an escarpment. From this area, which is a registered Historic Place, you can see across to the north shore of Lake Winnebago from the 12 meter observation tower. A selection of trails are open to equestrians and bikers as well as hikers. Other recreational opportunities include boating and fishing, a hobby which is great for you!
Campers visiting High Cliff State Park can choose from 112 family campsites, 32 of which have electric hookups. A building containing flush toilets and showers is open to guests from May to October. Firewood and most other items can be bought from the Marina concession stand or the High Cliff general store. Picnic areas including tables, grills, and restrooms are also on offer.
9. Kettle Moraine State Forest: Milwaukee
The Kettle Moraine State Forest is a huge 56 thousand acre area of land, encompassing rolling hills, icy lakes, green grasslands, and various forests. However, the biggest draw to this state park is the glacial area known as Kettle Moraine. This hilly landscape features many glacial landforms including kettles, kames, and eskers. These unique natural features are created over thousands of years ago by the flowage of glacial meltwater, and they make for a very interesting place to visit.
More than 250 miles of hiking trails are contained in Kettle Moraine National Forest, including a portion of the Ice Age Trail. There are also hundreds of additional miles of trail for equestrians, cross-country skiers, and off-road bikers. There are several lake campgrounds within the national forest, but we prefer the backpacking sites. These tent-only camping spots are completely secluded, located along the Ice age National Scenic Trail. It’s recommended to make reservations for backpack shelters as they’re very popular during the high season. A fire ring, pit toilet, and roofed shelter is provided on-site at each location.
10. Blue Mound State Park: Madison
Blue Mound State Park is just a short distance west of Madison, atop the highest point in the state. At an elevation of 1719 feet, this state park offers 360-degree views of all of Wisconsin. This state park is one of the best non-mountainous regions for bikers to visit, offering a 15-mile selection of trails varying in elevation by 500 feet. Many cyclists visit this Wisconsin state park for the entry-level trails, but more advanced bikers might find them a little too relaxing.
Blue Mound is the only Wisconsin state park with a large open swimming pool, accessible to disabled users. Campers can check out the east and west viewing towers for the best view possible over the state, or hike by the Indian Tree Marker. This crooked tree was part of an ancient network which Native Americans created to mark their own hiking trails.
The campground at Blue Mound is open throughout the year and offers 77 wooded campsites. Every site is equipped with a picnic table and fire ring, while just two have a connection to electricity. This quiet state park might not seem like the most exciting destination in Wisconsin, but it offers some of the most peaceful and natural tent camping spots. If you’d like to visit somewhere a little off the beaten track, check out Blue Mound State Park with the highest hill in Wisconsin.
The rolling hills and gentle valleys of Wisconsin are a stark contrast from the powerful and violent glaciers which created them, as you’d never realize the age-old destruction on a visit to one of these peaceful state parks. With more island camping opportunities than we’ve ever seen, this state has so much to offer to campers.
Top that off with plenty of lakeshore and riverside camping, and many sites at high elevations with excellent views and a camping trip to Wisconsin is definitely in order. We recommend checking out some of the best survival books to get better prepared for your trip.
Bonus tip: Check out this video on Copper Falls State Park while you’re at it!