When it comes to natural riches, Wisconsin has enough jewels to rival the Queen of England. With 64 state parks, forests and and recreation areas, plus even more state trails and protected areas, Wisconsinites have plenty of opportunities for outdoor exploration.
And like a mother choosing a favorite child, the task of picking the best ones is nearly impossible. We all have our favorites. I’ve always loved Devil’s Lake, climbing the rock formations and drinking in views of the lake below. Newport is my favorite when I want to ditch the tweets and texts and Facebook posts for a dose of wilderness not too far from home. Peninsula holds a special place in my heart as the park my family travels to every Labor Day weekend, my sister and I racing ahead of my parents down the Sunset Bike Trail.
Here’s a rundown of 12 of my favorites - although I could have included many more. Share your favorite state parks and why you love them in the comments below.
1. Best for hiking: Copper Falls State Park
What makes a great hike in Wisconsin? Great scenery. Copper Falls State Park obliges with three waterfalls and 17 miles of hiking trails. Hike the 1.7-mile Doughboys’ Nature Trail for views of Copper and Brownstone falls, or follow the 2.5-mile Red Granite Falls trail for a glimpse of the small 8-foot cascade on the Bad River. More ambitious hikers can take on a 4-mile segment of the North Country Scenic Trail, which traverses the length the park.
2. Best for swimming: Big Bay State Park
The Lake Superior water at Big Bay may be a bit chilly, but it’s some of the cleanest and clearest in the state, creating a swimming area that is a sliver of paradise. The 1.5-mile beach is tucked into a bay and features shallow, blue water perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day. The park is seven miles from the ferry landing in La Pointe on Madeline Island, so you’ll need a bike or car to get there.
3. Best for fishing: Brule River State Forest
If it’s good enough for five presidents, it’s good enough for us. Nicknamed the River of Presidents, the Boise Brule River in the northwest corner of the state is a premier trout stream. Anglers flock to the scenic river in spring and fall for steelhead trout and in late summer for brown trout. Find day access points along the river north of Highway 2.
4. Best for mountain biking: Blue Mound State Park
The more than 15 miles of singletrack bike trails are some of the most challenging available in a state park, offering plenty of obstacles and elevation changes through hilly terrain. The Holy Schist trail segment is aptly named and features some quick descents and many rock and root obstacles. As with all trails in Wisconsin, check conditions before heading out and only ride when trails are dry.
5. Best for kids: Peninsula State Park
One of Wisconsin’s most popular parks, Peninsula State Park in Door County has everything you need for keeping the little ones occupied: trails to hike and bike; a sand beach with kayak, canoe and other watercraft rentals; a lighthouse to explore; two playgrounds; and tennis and volleyball courts. Plus, with 468 campsites and a location close to other shops, restaurants and rentals in Fish Creek, it’s easy enough to plan a cheap family weekend getaway to Peninsula.
6. Best for pets: Governor Nelson State Park
Man’s best friend deserves to enjoy nature, too, and while most state parks are open to pets in certain areas, Governor Nelson goes above and beyond in providing a separate pet swim area for your pooch. The area includes a pier to practice jumping and a sandy bottom that’s easy on the paws. Pets are also allowed on the more than 8 miles of hiking trails (but just the Morningside Trail when snow flies). Whenever your dog is not swimming, make sure he’s under control on a leash no longer than 8 feet.
7. Best for taking photos: Devil’s Lake State Park
All of Wisconsin’s natural landscapes make for some magnificent photographs, but Devil’s Lake’s towering bluffs, intriguing rock formations, large lake and collection of wildlife and foliage - especially in the fall - provide a diverse array of photo ops throughout the year. Not to mention it was photographs of this park and the surrounding area by Wisconsinite H.H. Bennett that put the Dells on the map in the late 19th century.
8. Best views: Wyalusing State Park
The mighty Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers meet for some mighty views at Wyalusing State Park in western Wisconsin. Pack a picnic for a meal at Henneger Point Picnic Area on the 1.8-mile Mississippi Ridge Trail and take in sweeping views of the Mighty Miss. Or make a short jaunt along the Bluff Ridge Trail for great views of the Wisconsin. Vistas are especially grand at dusk, when the river valleys are bathed in the glowing reds and oranges of the setting sun.
9. Best for paddling: Turtle Flambeau Scenic Waters Area
While not technically a park, the Turtle Flambeau flowage in Iron County is a Wisconsin DNR property and is one of the best places in the state for paddling in a wilderness setting. Often compared to the much larger Boundary Waters on the Minnesota-Ontario border, the Turtle Flambeau is a 14,000-acre pine-steeped basin that exists because of human hands (a dam created the flowage in 1926), but seems completely untouched by them. Remote campsites are accessible only by water, and hundreds of islands scattered among meandering waterways allow for abundant wildlife sightings.
10. Best for privacy: Newport State Park
As Wisconsin’s only formally designated wilderness park, Newport State Park is a quiet contrast to the much busier state park across the peninsula. The park includes just 16 backpack campsites and provides 30 miles of trails and 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline for exploration. Campsite 16 is a park favorite, with a location on a private sand dune overlooking the lake.
11. Best for natural diversity: Buckhorn State Park
Buckhorn’s array of natural environments, from hardwood forest to restored praire, are perfect for spotting a variety of plants and wildlife. The 2,000-acre Buckhorn Barrons State Natural Area inside the park is especially great for nature lovers, and includes a unique expanse of sand barrens. Look for Canada geese, sandhill cranes, hawks, owls and the threatened osprey. Larger wildlife include deer, coyotes, wild turkeys and black bears.
12. Best under-the-radar park: Interstate Park
Respecting your elders should certainly apply for Interstate Park, Wisconsin’s oldest state park. But many Wisconsinites outside of the western part of the state aren’t as aware of this natural gem that straddles the St. Croix River along the Minnesota border. Trails along the river provide views of the Dalles of the St. Croix, a gorgeous gorge with steep cliffs and unique rock formations. The 1,300-acre park is also the western end of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail - a beautiful place to start or end an Ice Age hike.
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