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.
You can 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. Plentiful paddling opportunities abound in the island’s channels and lagoons, as well as hiking on the 20-mile Old Abe State Trail.
In addition to a campground with more than 50 sites, this park in Chippewa County offers boat rentals, an accessible fishing pier and picture-perfect picnicking.
The highlight 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 is, 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 and a 358-foot panther effigy.
Tucked among large swaths of protected wildland, Governor Thompson State Park in Marinette County boasts over 2,000 peaceful acres of woodlands and access to trophy fishing hot spot Caldron Falls Flowage.
You’ll find nearly a hundred campsites across three campgrounds, including three boat-in sites. An accessible fishing pier, ski and hiking trails, and a stunning picnic area on Woods Lake round out the other highlights.
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.
The Wisconsin DNR 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 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.
A state park in the downtown of Wisconsin’s largest city? That’s right! Lakeshore State Park is an urban oasis with a multi-use trail for walking, biking and skating, as well as a fishing pier and boating from a 20-slip marina on Lake Michigan. It’s a charming 22-acre park and a quick walk away from a number of museums and Milwaukee’s main festival grounds.
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 more natural and unblemished than other parks. Second, it’s one of the Midwest’s only Dark Sky places recognized by the International Dark Sky Association — the stargazing here is next to none.
Newport offers 16 shoreline camping sites right on Lake Michigan to those intrepid enough to backpack the couple miles in. Just over half of the 30 miles of hiking trails allow mountain bikes, and the winter brings prime snowshoeing and skiing. Near the Door Peninsula’s northern point, Newport is 2,373 unspoiled acres of forests, meadows and wetlands.
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.
Wisconsin’s Northwoods may be the state’s ultimate ATV playground, but even Milwaukee has thrilling trail-riding adventure. 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 people with disabilities. Some unusual 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.
The Stower Seven Lakes State Trail is one of Wisconsin’s rails-to-trails conversions. This 14-mile crushed stone path passes through small Wisconsin towns on its way from Amery to Dresser in Polk County. Popular for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, the trail will take you from woodlands to wetlands to prairies, skirting as many scenic lakes as its name suggests.
If you’re looking for camping and more to do, Wisconsin’s oldest state park, Interstate Park, is just a few miles north of the trail’s end.
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 dizzying 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.
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 an accessible fishing and picnic area is 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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