Hidden Gems: 12 Wisconsin State Parks Perfect for Exploring
While Wisconsin’s most popular natural parks draw a dedicated crowd, there’s also plenty of exciting spots to explore just off the beaten path. Whether you and your crew are into hiking through lush forest, kicking back in kayaks on a refreshing lake or just enjoying some fresh air, there’s unexpected magic in the places a little less frequented.
Out of our state’s 60+ state parks and recreation areas, here are some of Wisconsin’s hidden gems.
Brunet Island State Park – Cornell
Camp on an island right along the water’s edge at Brunet Island State Park, a 1,300-acre park at the confluence of the Chippewa and Fisher rivers near Cornell. Plentiful paddling opportunities abound in the island’s channels and lagoons, and you and your group can hike on the nearby Old Abe State Trail.
In addition to a campground with more than 50 sites, this park in Chippewa County offers boat rentals, a wheelchair-accessible fishing pier and picture-perfect picnicking.
Governor Nelson State Park - Waunakee
One of the highlights of Dane County’s Governor Nelson State Park(named after Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson) is a dog beach with a pier and ramp to help your pup get in and out of the water. And the best part? There’s also a fantastic view of the Wisconsin State Capitol and downtown Madison right across lovely Lake Mendota.
Along with its sandy beaches, you’ll find a boat launch, picnic areas, prairie restorations and more than eight miles of trails at this day-use park. Hike the mile-long Woodland Trail for views of several Native American mounds including a 358-foot panther effigy.
Governor Thompson State Park – Crivitz
At Harrington Beach State Park, the sparkling, mile-long beach along Lake Michigan will make you think you’ve found an ocean shoreline instead of the Great Lakes. There’s plenty of fun packed into this park, including beaches for people and pets, an observatory, a campground with walk-in and kayak sites, and a wheelchair-accessible cabin.
With its limestone outcrops lined with striking white cedars, the old quarry lake is one of the park’s most scenic spots. Follow the hiking trail that wraps around the lake for great fishing and geocaching.
Harrington Beach State Park – Belgium
At Harrington Beach State Park, the sparkling, mile-long beach along Lake Michigan will make you think you’ve found an ocean shoreline instead of the Great Lakes. There’s plenty of fun packed into this park, including beaches for people and pets, an observatory, a campground with walk-in and kayak sites, and an accessible cabin.
With its limestone outcrops rimmed by striking white cedars, the old quarry lake encircled by a hiking trail is one of the park’s most scenic spots, and the perfect place for fishing or geocaching.
Hartman Creek State Park – Waupaca
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources calls Hartman Creek State Park a “quiet and friendly natural gem.” With seven crystal-clear lakes, boat launches, a beach, fishing, more than a hundred campsites and trails for hiking, cycling, mountain biking and horseback riding, there’s truly something here for everyone.
The prettiest spot in these lake-dotted woodlands may be Whispering Pines on Marl Lake – one of the park’s four picnic areas – with its scenic stone steps leading up from the shoreline to picnic tables and grills.
Lakeshore State Park – Milwaukee
A state park in the downtown of Wisconsin’s largest city? That’s right! Lakeshore State Park is an urban oasis within Milwaukee. Explore the multi-use trail for walking, biking and skating, as well as a fishing pier and boating from a 20-slip marina on Lake Michigan. This charming 22-acre park is a quick walk from a number of museums and Milwaukee’s festival grounds, making it easy to add an outdoor adventure to your trip.
Newport State Park – Ellison Bay
Newport State Park in Door County has two designations that make it extra special. First, it’s Wisconsin’s only formally designated wilderness park, making it even more natural and unblemished than other parks. Second, it’s one of the Midwest’s only Dark Sky Parks recognized by the International Dark Sky Association — the stargazing here is next to none.
Newport offers 16 shoreline camping sites right on Lake Michigan for those intrepid enough to backpack a couple of miles in. Just over half of the 30 miles of hiking trails allow mountain bikes, and the winter brings prime snowshoeing and skiing. Check out the wheelchair-accessible Fern Trail with audio panels designed for travelers with hearing impairments. Near the Door Peninsula’s northernmost point, Newport has 2,373 unspoiled acres perfect for your next adventure.
Perrot State Park – Trempealeau
The hike to the top of Brady’s Bluff at Perrot State Park is less than a mile, but it’s a steep climb to the top of this Midwest mountain. The reward? Feeling like you’re soaring higher than the birds as you enjoy a panorama of the mighty Mississippi.
Speaking of birds, you may want to bring your binoculars along, because more than 200 species pass through this migratory flyway each year. If you still have energy after a jaunt on the trails, paddle the 3.4-mile water trail or bike the adjoining Great River State Trail for extra fun.
Richard Bong State Recreation Area – Kansasville
Wisconsin’s Northwoods may be the state’s ultimate ATV playground, but Milwaukee is also home to some thrilling trail-riding adventures. The Richard Bong State Recreation Area in Wisconsin’s southeastern corner offers about 14 miles of trails for ATVs/UTVs and off-highway motorcycle trails.
Two campgrounds boast more than 200 sites combined, and you’ll also find six group areas and a cabin for wheelchair users. Some surprising highlights include special use zones for model aircraft, hang gliders and hot air balloons, as well as areas for training falcons and hunting or sled dogs. Hiking, biking, fishing, swimming and horseback riding round out the other offerings at this one-of-a-kind park.
Interstate State Park - St. Croix Falls
Wisconsin's oldest state park, Interstate State Park spans 1,400 acres and features a dramatic gorge with stunning views of the St. Croix River. Camp overnight with friends and family to give yourselves plenty of time for exploring trails featuring natural potholes, lush forest and lake and river views.
Wyalusing State Park – Prairie du Chien
Camping comes with a view at one of Wisconsin’s three original state parks, Wyalusing State Park. Here, you can pitch your tent on a blufftop above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. Historic sights include thousand-year-old Native American mounds (don’t miss the bear effigy) and stone walls constructed during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Camp, hike, bike, fish or paddle the canoe trail, or check out the feature that sets this state park apart from all the others — an astronomy center that brings the stars to you.
Yellowstone Lake State Park – Blanchardville
The 455-acre lake at Yellowstone Lake State Park means this state park is all about fun on the water. Walleye and crappies are abundant, and you can even borrow fishing equipment from the office to try your luck reeling them in. Boat rentals and two launches offer access to the lake, and wheelchair-accessible fishing and picnic areas are close by. If you’re not a fan of fishing, throw your suit on in the beachside bathhouse and take a swim!
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