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Go Off the Grid with Wisconsin's Rustic Campsites

Unplugging, disconnecting, going off the grid – call it what you will, but in our high-paced, instant-notification society, we are finding the need to get away from it all and immerse ourselves in green space.

Camping is a great option, but if a park of 100 sites with cars, pop-ups, electric hookups and neighbors just beyond your tent flap does not go deep enough, then you need to look at rustic camping. Wisconsin offers a variety of camping sites that take you back to the most basic wilderness experience.

Governor Dodge State Park

You don’t necessarily need to drive far to be off the beaten track: some state parks may also offer backpacking sites. At this popular state park in southwestern Wisconsin, you can hike in a half mile and pitch your tent, but any facilities will be back at the parking lot. You’ll still have over forty miles of hiking trails, a couple of swimming lakes and a scenic waterfall if you wish to come out of the woods. Unlike other primitive sites, these can be reserved.

Newport State Park

Waves falling along the shore will be your lullaby at this Door County state park, one of the more unusual state parks as it only offers primitive camping. Sixteen hike-in sites lie anywhere from a quarter mile to three miles away from the parking lot. Facilities are limited to pit toilets, fire rings and boxes to protect your supplies from curious critters.

The water source is back at the lot – unless you filter it out of Lake Michigan. One campsite sits atop a sand dune overlooking the big lake. Another site sets up next to the small, shallow Europe Lake. Hikers have over thirty miles of trails and mountain bikers are allowed on just over half of them.

Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

Made up of over 1.5 million acres, this federally protected wilderness spreads throughout northern Wisconsin. Numerous campgrounds are primitive with as few as half a dozen sites, such as the small loop at Chipmunk Rapids Recreation Area, overlooking the Pine River. Facilities are rustic and there’s an artesian well for water.

Take it one step further: Lauterman Lake and Perch Lake are thirteen miles west of Florence, on either side of Highway 70. But you won’t find them on the national forest website. These are “dispersed camping” sites, requiring a hike-in and offering picnic tables, fire rings, a few pit toilets but no drinking water. But the fishing and hiking are great, and you are quite unlikely to run into other campers. For more of these dispersed sites, contact any of the regional forest offices.

Finally, there are the Designated Wilderness Areas. This is as hardcore as it gets. This is Leave No Trace meets Self-Reliance. No water pumps, no tent pads, picnic tables or facilities; just human vs. nature. What you bring in is what you take out, and they are completely undeveloped. You cannot camp within 100 feet of water or the trail.

There are five such areas in the national forest, offering a total of 44,000 acres. Rainbow Lake Wilderness is north of Drummond, WI and has a good trail system, including the North Country National Scenic Trail, which crosses through here. Fish are jumping at more than a dozen named lakes – and a few only locals might know. No canoes allowed, but then if you want to primitive camping while paddling, that’s a whole other set of options!

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