By Melanie Radzicki Mcmanus | Photo: Big Bay State Park/©Travel Wisconsin

With more than 60 state parks and natural areas that draw more than 20 million visits each year, Wisconsin is the perfect destination for outdoor fun year-round. Want to truly immerse yourself in all that Mother Nature has to offer? Camping is a great option. Throughout the state park system, you’ll find campsites scattered along the shores of Lake Michigan, tucked into fragrant pine forests and set atop the bluffs towering over the Mississippi.

Looking to get out onto the water? A number of parks offer the perfect space for paddle boarding, kayaking and canoeing, without the distraction of motorized traffic. Sand beaches are great spots for building sandcastles and wiling away a summer day. And several parks offer off-road, single track trails perfect for the mountain bike enthusiast. Here are a few parks to explore this summer.

Northern Wisconsin

Big Bay State Park

Big Bay sits on the eastern shore of Madeline Island, the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands and a short ferry ride from Bayfield. Its campground features 60 sites and a 11⁄2-mile stretch of Barrier Beach. When you’re not splashing in the water or ogling the colorful sandstone bluffs lining the bay, check out the park’s seven miles of hiking trails. Or paddle around the bay to explore the nearby sea caves.

While You’re There: Watch the sun set over Lake Superior from The Pub Restaurant and Wine Bar, preferably while noshing on its famous stone hearth pizzas or freshly-caught whitefish.

Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest (NHAL)

The massive state forest encompasses 236,000 acres and 900 lakes, including the pristine waters of Clear Lake. Just minutes from the Minocqua area and true to its name, the lake’s waters are crystal clear, which equates to excellent fishing, boating, swimming and waterskiing.

Visitors will find a large sandy beach, boat landing and campground, along with a paved walking/hiking trail. Additional recreational activities can be found in the NHAL, Wisconsin’s largest state forest.

While You’re Here: Drive five minutes into Woodruff to grab a selfie with the world’s largest penny. The giant coin commemorates a 1953 fundraising event, where local school kids collected 1.7 million pennies to help build a local hospital.

Willow River State Park

Highlights of this park include the scenic Willow Falls and Willow Gorge. And a spacious campground on Little Falls Lake is one of Wisconsin’s most popular. There are well over 100 campsites here, three playgrounds, a boat launch and a nature center with numerous hands- on displays — and, sometimes, live animal interactions. Visitors love to boat, hike, canoe and kayak, plus enjoy the swimming beach

While You’re There: Make the 10-minute drive to Hudson, a quaint town on the St. Croix River that’s filled with boutiques, restaurants, a brewery and more.

Central Wisconsin

Black River State Forest

Two forks of the Black River slice through this 68,000-acre forest, which features nearly 100 campsites spread among three campgrounds: Castle Mound, East Fork and Pigeon Creek. Nature trails hook into Pigeon Creek and Castle Mound (the view is definitely worth the two-mile trek), while Pigeon Creek also offers a canoe launch, swimming beach and access to off-road biking trails. In addition, the state forest contains more than 30 miles of ATV trails and numerous multiuse paths.

While You’re There: Keep an eye out for elk roaming through the pine and oak woods. The animals were reintroduced into the forest in 2015 and 2016 after a 125-year absence.

Kohler-Andrae State Park

About 50 miles north of Milwaukee lies one of the state’s more popular parks, where Lake Michigan and its majestic shoreline are the stars. A campground offers more than 100 campsites and a cabin for those with disabilities. Hike along the park’s dune cord walk, which showcases the lakeshore’s rolling sand dunes. You can also bike; try your luck at the fishing pond; or explore the Sanderling Nature Center, which features interactive exhibits, nature films and a rooftop observation deck. There are also seasonal educational programs for kids and adults. And don’t forget about your four-legged friends, as the dedicated dog beach is perfect for pooches.

While You’re There: Head five minutes north to the Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden, which features several dozen life- size and miniature figures in lifelike tableaux. Created by the late James Tellen, the collection is considered one of Wisconsin’s best outdoor art exhibits.

Southern Wisconsin

Wyalusing State Park

Incredible vistas await campers at Wyalusing, perched 500 feet above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. The campground features 109 individual campsites, plus outdoor group campgrounds and a lodge with dormitories for groups. Check out the park’s 14-plus miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, a six-mile canoe trail and fishing spots. Unique spots to explore include the Treasure Cave, where stairs lead to the cave and then a small limestone cavern. There’s no beach here, but there’s one at Wyalusing Recreation Area, two miles to the south.

While You’re There: Explore the park’s 69 Native American mounds, namely, the famous Sentinel Hill and Procession mound groups.


Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer specializing in travel. She has received numerous awards for her travel writing, most notably Lowell Thomas gold and grand awards, considered the most prestigious in the field. Her book "Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail" was published in 2017 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

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