By Jeniece Smith
Wisconsin's most enchanting time of the year is the brief but beautiful flood of fall colors across the state, starting in the north around mid-September and ending along the southern border by late October.
Make the most of this spectacular season with our three-part series highlighting optimal camping spots to enjoy peak foliage in northern, central and southern Wisconsin. Before reserving your spot, check our annual Fall Color Report for real-time details from our statewide network of foliage reporters, or text "WI FallTrips" to 468311 to receive alerts.
From Lake Michigan to the Mississippi – with some surprising city-side destinations in between – here are 11 prime parks and forests in southern Wisconsin where you can park your RV or pitch your tent.
Get a Lofty Perspective
Devil’s Lake attracts more visitors than any other Wisconsin state park, perhaps because of the unbeatable views. Enormous quartzite bluffs border a mountain-like lake, with thick timber above and below. It’s Wisconsin’s largest state park, with nearly 30 miles of hiking thanks to the intersecting Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
To see miles and miles of scenery spread beneath you in a vivid patchwork, head to Blue Mound State Park. Two observation towers on either side of the highest hill in southern Wisconsin offer fantastic birds-eye views. About 25 miles from Madison, this year-round park offers hike-in, bike-in and even ski-in tent camping in addition to standard campsites and a handicap-accessible cabin.
Want to see a shimmering ribbon of river meandering through a multihued hardwood forest? At Wyalusing State Park, you can camp 500 feet above the lush valley where the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers meet.
For more views high above the Mighty Mississippi, try Nelson Dewey State Park a bit further south.
Plot a Quick City Escape
A multitude of Illinoisans have retreated to Lake Geneva since wealthy Chicago families first started building second homes in this fabulous resort community in the mid-1800s. Find some peace at one of the 100 wooded campsites at Big Foot Beach State Park, one of the last parcels of undeveloped land surrounding Lake Geneva.
Do a little fall fishing in Ceylon Lagoon with some loaned equipment from the park office, or stroll a section of the 21-mile path between the clear waters of Geneva Lake and the gorgeous old mansions lining its shores.
Just 40 minutes north of Milwaukee, Harrington Beach State Park on Lake Michigan offers camping through the last weekend in October. You can take in 360-degree views of white cedar and colorful hardwood trees from a small pond and limestone quarry lake inland, then the canopy opens to more than a mile of sandy Great Lakes shoreline.
Along with a handicap-accessible cabin, there’s even a kayak-in campsite for those paddling from Kohler-Andrae State Park to the north. Add on a 20-minute drive to stroll through magnificently preserved dunes, woods and wetlands, and expect to see flocks of migrating birds overhead.
Kohler-Andrae offers year-round campsites, including a cabin for those with disabilities.
Open through the end of October, Lake Kegonsa State Park is considered one of the Madison area’s best-kept secrets. Most of the roughly 100 campsites are heavily wooded and provide a perfect opportunity to surround yourself with fall color.
It’s just under an hour west of Madison, but Governor Dodge State Park is more than worth the drive. You’ll find two lakes surrounded by the dramatic bluffs and valleys typical of the rugged Driftless Area. Be sure to take the short hike down to the perfectly placid Stephens Falls, which trickles down a mossy slab of rock into a wooded, fern-walled ravine.
Hide Out in the Woods
Wisconsin’s southern-most state forest, the Kettle Moraine, covers more than 50,000 acres in five units spread across a hundred miles – Northern, Southern, Pike Lake, Loew Lake and Lapham Peak. Several hundred campsites are available, some through mid-October and some year-round.
Moraines, kames, kettle lakes and valleys dot the pine and hardwood forests and pristine prairies, creating some of Wisconsin’s most breathtaking natural spots. Endless miles of trails offer hiking, biking and horseback riding, along with skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. There’s even a 115-mile designated Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive that will give you an eyeful of autumn hues.
A bit further to the west, New Glarus Woods State Park offers peaceful camping in the changing timber through the fall season, along with access to the scenic Sugar River Trail. This little 435-acre gem is directly adjacent to New Glarus Brewing Company, so grab a seasonal beer to complete your visit!
Don’t let the season slip by! Check out our fall color guide for all things autumn, including information on the mix of colors you’ll see in different trees and more ideas for enjoying fall foliage.