If you haven’t taken some time yet to check out Wisconsin, you’re missing out. America’s Dairyland isn’t just open pasture – Wisconsin is a secret goldmine for camping and outdoor recreation.
Sandwiched between two of the Great Lakes, with huge swaths of greenery, beaches, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, there’s plenty to see and plenty of room to spread out. Getting out into the Wisconsin countryside will give you a whole new perspective on the Midwest.
But where to begin? We compiled some of the best destinations in Wisconsin to go camping to get you started exploring the state. Dig in!
What To Expect
The natural beauty of Wisconsin is defined primarily by two features: rolling green, tree-covered hills, and water, be it in the form of placid lakes or babbling rivers. Most of the top camping destinations in the state center around some kind of body of water, so remember your bug spray and water shoes! If you have a canoe or kayak, be sure to bring it along. You’ll have ample opportunity to put it to good use.
Wisconsin has a wealth of public land available for visitors, most of which is managed by the state. You can expect most places to have well-maintained primitive campsites, complete with metal fire rings, picnic tables, potable water, and vault toilets. Access to state parks generally requires a nominal fee, which goes toward maintaining and managing the land for future generations. Overall, it’s not a bad deal. Reservations to state park campgrounds can be made directly with the State Park System online.
#1 – Rock Island Island State Park
Rock Island is a tiny island located off the northern tip of the Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan. The adventure of camping at Rock Island starts with getting there. Taking State Highway 42 to its end in Northport, you’ll board a ferry to Washington Island, and then another to Rock Island. The second ferry is for passengers only, so all campgrounds on the island are accessible only by foot.
You can camp on the western edge of the island near where the ferry drops you off or else hoof it to the eastern shore where there are backpacking campsites available. While on the island you spend the day on the beach, in the water, or hiking. Rock Island has a well-established trail system, with several routes crossing the island east to west and one circling the perimeter. You can even bring a canoe or kayak to the island and paddle around the lake. It’s all the idyllic temperate island fun you can imagine and more.
#2 – Peninsula State Park
Also found on the Door Peninsula is Peninsula State Park. The park features an expansive cobblestone shore, historic lighthouse, premium beaches for swimming, hiking and biking trails, and even a golf course. Whatever your tastes, Peninsula has something for you, along with enough room to find some peace and quiet.
There are a lot of options for camping at Peninsula State Park, with over 460 campsites in total. All of the park’s campgrounds are just a short walk to the shore, and all have attractions nearby. There are also day use picnic areas and shelters available for reservation.
#3 – Wyalusing State Park
Wyalusing State Park is situated at the confluence of the Wisconsin River and the mighty Mississippi. There’s a large delta at the intersection of the two rivers full of branching waterways. There is even a six-mile marked trail through the backwaters on the banks of the Mississippi. The park has plenty of cool spots to hike to, including limestone caves and a historical wagon trail.
There are two standard campsites at Wyalusing, as well as several group sites, and five shelters, which you can reserve for day use. Whether you plan on going alone or in a group of 50, there are choice options available at Wyalusing.
#4 – Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
The Apostle Islands is a cluster of 22 small islands on Lake Superior. Often called the “Jewels of Lake Superior”, the islands feature cliffy shorelines, pocketed with shallow caves. In the winter, these caves fill with huge chandeliers of ice, a sight to behold in their own right.
The main draw of the Apostle Islands is exploring them each individually. Access to the islands is permitted by water only. You can either bring your own watercraft and paddle around at your own pace or board a cruise. There are both established sites and backcountry camping areas across the islands, so choose wisely and remember to leave no trace.
#5 – Black River State Forest
Black River State Forest stands out for its size and ease of access. All told the forest includes 68,000 acres of dense forest, and is centrally located in the state, just off Highway 94. Recreation opportunities in the forest include OHV riding, biking, hiking, hunting, and of course, canoeing/kayaking.
There are three major campgrounds in Black River State Forest, spread across the landscape to ensure you get some space to yourself. Each has standard amenities available and different opportunities for recreation, but all have their merits. Be sure to read ahead to find the right campground for you.
#6 – Kickapoo Valley Reserve
For those looking for year-round options, Kickapoo Valley Reserve is likely the top choice in the state. It’s located south of Black River State Forest and offers a spread of activities for all seasons, including hunting, hiking, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and access to the Kickapoo River.
Camping in the reserve is a special experience. There are 25 total sites, which can be accessed on foot, by bike, canoe, or even on horseback. Venturing out into the reserve to your campsite adds a sense of adventure and helps preserve the area’s pristine ecosystem.
#7 – Buckhorn State Park
Buckhorn State Park is yet another outstanding area with a variety of recreation opportunities and great access. The park takes up much of the shoreline on the main peninsula of Castle Rock lake, meaning excellent beaches and endless fun for boaters. There is also abundant hiking as well as great fishing and hunting to be had in the park.
Campgrounds at Buckhorn State Park provide many options for visitors. Whether you plan to car camp or backpack in, there are sites available. There is even a handicap-accessible cabin in the park, making it a destination everyone can enjoy.
#8 – Harrington Beach State Park
Just a half hour north of Milwaukee you’ll find Harrington Beach State Park, a tremendous (and quick) spot for a spontaneous weekend getaway. Naturally, the park features a lovely beach, but you’ll also find miles of superb hiking trails and an observatory you can visit. If you’re in the city and suddenly get the itch to pack the car up and go, you won’t be disappointed with Harrington Beach.
The park offers camping options for all types, with normal drive-up sites, group sites, kayak-in campsites, and an ADA cabin. You can expect the usual top-notch upkeep at Harrington Beach, as well as basic primitive campsite-type facilities.
Where The Waters Gather
Wisconsin might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of spectacular chains of islands, fantastic caves, and immaculate lakes. And yet, it has all of the above, and in no short supply. For lovers of water, lush forests, wildlife, and the majesty of nature, Wisconsin should be on your bucket list. So what are you waiting for?