By Amy Bayer
There are 47 state parks in Wisconsin, and I’ve been to all but five, with plans to visit those remaining parks within the next year. Each park has its own personality with a variety of features and exploration opportunities.
Whenever I visit a state park for the first time, I like to stop at the main office to ask the staff’s opinions about their favorite features and trails. I have never been disappointed by their suggestions and sometimes even get insider tips about wildlife-viewing opportunities.
Of the 42 Wisconsin state parks I’ve explored to date, here are my top five for hiking:
The first time I visited Harrington Beach, I was actually on the way to Kohler-Andrae State Park. I saw the tell-tale brown sign for a state recreational attraction along the highway, and made a split-second decision to stop here first.
Without any idea of what to expect, I found myself exploring an area that would quickly top my list for favorite places. With trails that follow the Lake Michigan shoreline or forested routes like the one around Quarry Lake, there is a variety of terrain.
I’ve returned multiple times during different seasons and I think my favorite is late spring – before the heat of summer compels travelers to the lakeshore, and the beauty of the fall colors draws extra visitors to the forested trails.
I’ve only been to Madeline Island once and the trip was so stunning that after one visit, Big Bay State Park is my second favorite. I was there in the fall during the colorful season of changing leaves and crisp air.
I hiked the trails along the peninsula of the park and was enamored with the brilliant blue of the Lake Superior waves. At the northern end of the park, I also hiked to the neighboring Big Bay Town Park, with its quiet boardwalk and towering trees. From breathtaking views to the variety of trails, this park has it all.
Located on the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, Wyalusing’s landscape has incredible opportunities for scenic views.
I’ve hiked every trail in this park (as well as paddled the canoe trail) and there are so many points of interest to explore that there is always something new to see. One of my favorite places in the park is the Pictured Rock Cave, a stunning orange sandstone outcropping, which you can access along the Sugar Mail Nature Trail.
I love waterfalls so much that I’ve taken entire vacations based on hiking to and around them. From Stephens' Falls at Governor Dodge State Park to Big and Little Manitou Falls at Pattison State Park, I’ve visited all of our state parks that feature waterfalls.
My favorite is Willow River just north of Hudson. From multiple vantage points above and the scenic bridge below, these cascading falls can be seen in their entirety and can be accessed from the base to get close-up views of their power and beauty.
I especially appreciate the Burkhaldt Trail, which winds through the forest along the river’s shore to one of the park’s overlooks and then down a steep, winding staircase to the base of the falls.
High Cliff is a nostalgic park for me and reminds me of my childhood. I grew up in Neenah on the opposite shore along Lake Winnebago, and when I was younger my dad used to load the family into our boat and head across the lake to the park for a day of hiking, swimming and picnicking.
There are incredible rock formations to explore and a wooden tower to climb, as well as Native American effigy mounds and the remains of a limestone kiln that highlight the cultural significance of the area.
It’s hard not to write about more because I haven’t even mentioned Perrot State Park, Wildcat Mountain or pretty much any park in Door County, but I want to hear from you. What are your favorite state parks and why?