David Watkins figures he's been camping for about as long as he's been able to walk. And Watkins, a manager at the REI store in Madison, says one of his favorite times of year for an overnight adventure in one of Wisconsin's many beautiful parks is autumn.
"My folks took me camping when I was about 18 months old," said the 35-year-old Watkins, who lives in Mount Horeb and bicycles roughly 15 miles to work each way. "And I've always loved it.
"Fall is absolutely one of the best times of the year for camping, for a variety of reasons," said Watkins, who recently returned from a bicycling and camping trip in the Pacific Northwest with his father that ended in the San Juan Islands.
"The colors here in Wisconsin are lovely now, the bugs are pretty much gone, there isn't much competition for tent sites because school is in session and unlike the middle of summer, the temperatures in the fall are usually quite pleasant.
"That means you can cozy up to your spouse or partner to help stay warm and you don't have to worry about getting hot and sticky," he said. Likewise, you can zip your sleeping bags together if they have compatible zippers, or link sleeping pads with snaps and a comfy down quilt cover in a system offered by Cascade.
If it's been a while since you've camped, Watkins suggests checking your gear before heading out to make sure it's still working. He also advises properly staking out your tent and rainfly to make sure the water stays outside. And if you're using a white gas stove system, practice priming it properly.
"A lot of people will just pump it up, open the valve and get a big yellow flare-up when they light it," he said. "The proper technique is to pump it, open it just a touch and drizzle out a bit of fuel. Then close the valve, light it, wait for the fuel to burn off a bit and then open it up again, so all the stove parts will be warmed up and the fuel will be vaporized to get a more efficient burn."
Lastly, because the weather can turn rainy and cold in the fall, he suggests avoiding cotton clothing. Instead, he says outdoor enthusiasts should layer with a base made from synthetic fiber and then have an insulating layer and shell handy – just in case.
Here are his recommendations from among the dozens of parks around the state that make for great fall visits:
Door County's Peninsula State Park has a whopping 468 campsites in five campgrounds, a lighthouse, tall bluffs, biking and hiking trails, and a sandy beach for wading and swimming – if you don't mind slightly chilly water. But Watkins said Nicolet Bay is shallow and often warms up on sunny autumn days.
This is the state's most popular camping destination, but use drops off in the fall.
Devil's Lake State Park near Baraboo is also one of Wisconsin's more popular camping spots in the summer. Come fall, when the leaves in the deciduous trees have turned red and orange, the views from the 500-foot-tall quartzite bluffs above the lake are sublime. In addition, there is rock climbing, two nice beaches for swimming and picnicking, 29 miles of hiking paths — including stretches of the Ice Age trail — and 5 miles of off-road bike trails.
Another option near Baraboo is Mirror Lake State Park, which is named for its centerpiece, a lake usually so calm that is has nary a ripple. In the autumn, the lake reflects the colorful trees along its shore. The park's 2,200 acres have wooded campsites, several picnic areas, a swimming beach, wetlands and a cabin for people with disabilities.
Blue Mound State Park near Mount Horeb rises several hundred feet above the surrounding woodlands and farm fields. It is perched on top of the highest point in southern Wisconsin and was a landmark for settlers in pioneer days. The park has 20 miles of hiking trails, 15 miles of off-road bike trails, a family campground, two observation towers and access to the Military Ridge State Trail with bike-in campsites. It also has a rustic cabin for people with disabilities.
Wyalusing State Park is near Prairie du Chien, where the Wisconsin River and the mighty Mississippi join. You can camp 500 feet above the confluence of these and have great views of the bluffs and rivers, valleys and colorful foliage. Maybe you'll see a bald eagle or two. This is one of the state's oldest parks and has family and group camps, hiking trails, a canoe trail, American Indian effigy burial mounds, bird watching, fishing, boating, bicycling and picnicking near several scenic overlooks of the river valleys below.
If you really want to get away, Watkins recommends the campground on Rock Island at the northern tip of the Door County peninsula. This primitive island is northeast of Washington Island in Lake Michigan and has hiking trails, the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin and 2,000 feet of beach.
Vehicles are not permitted on the 912-acre island, which also features a stone boathouse open for exploring that was built by a wealthy inventor and his family.
To get to Rock Island, you'll need to take the ferry to Washington Island and then the passenger-only ferry to your destination. Drinking water is available, but there is no camp store on the island. All supplies and equipment must be brought to the island.
"It's almost a backpacking experience out there," Watkins said. "But they do have wooden carts you can use to transport your gear to the campsites. But you'll really feel like you're out there on the edge in this park, because you are."
Up on Lake Superior near Bayfield, the Apostle Islands beckon with their many camping opportunities. Watkins recommends Rocky Island, which is just north of Otter Island in this beautiful archipelago. It has one campground and a long spit. Otter Island also has camping, plus a lighthouse.
You can take a ferry to Rocky Island, paddle from the mainland in your sea kayak or sail over in your yacht.
The Apostles may be closed because of the government shutdown, so another Lake Superior option is camping at Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island.
It is the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands and is not part of the national lakeshore.
Big Bay covers 2,350 acres, has a lovely, 1.5-mile-long beach; campground with drinking water, showers and toilets; picnic areas; and seven miles of hiking and nature trails with great views of Lake Superior.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison writer and photographer.
IF YOU GO
For camping reservations at a Wisconsin state park, call (888) 947-2757 or visit wisconsinstateparks.reserveamerica.com.
For more information about Wisconsin state parks, see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks.
If you're driving into a park to camp, you'll need a state parks vehicle admission sticker. Stickers cost $25 a year or $7 a day for vehicles with Wisconsin plates, $35 a year or $10 a day for out-of-state vehicles.
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