Embrace the Wisconsin outdoors with an ideal camping experience
Let's go camping!
The late-summer sun is setting quickly over the tip of the Door County Peninsula and the surface of Lake Michigan is like glass. We’re floating aimlessly in our sea kayaks between Washington Island and Rock Island, in no hurry to get off the water. When a Great Lake is this calm, it’s best to take your time and savor the moment.This trip is our first to Rock Island. But after spending four nights with my wife and a pair of 12-year-old boys, I’m ready to call it my favorite camping spot in Wisconsin. At least so far.Established as a state park in 1965, Rock Island offers miles of hiking trails, 2,000 feet of sand beach and the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin. It also features stone buildings constructed by a wealthy Chicago investor and his family in the 1920s, including a dramatic Viking boathouse that is worth a visit on its own.
Still, getting out to Rock Island requires two ferry rides and then carrying in your gear on your back or in carts to the campground. And if the rain comes or the winds howl, your stay at Rock Island might take on a whole different look.
But that is the great thing about camping in Wisconsin. There are as many ways to enjoy a night in the outdoors as there are places to pitch a tent or park an RV.
There’s car camping, which involves jamming as much as you can into the family jalopy, driving somewhere scenic and setting up shop – often so close to other people you know what they’re having for dinner. Or you can leave the tent at home altogether and stay in more luxurious accommodations.
At the other end of the spectrum is minimalist camping, which can mean anything from hiking the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and sleeping inside a wooden shelter to going ultra-light along the North Country Trail and spending the night in a hammock strung between two trees.
“Wisconsin’s camping experience is very different than what I grew up with,” Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett tells Madison Magazine. “Today we have camping in a yurt, a treehouse, villa or even a covered wagon. And we’ve still got all of the more traditional camping so many people still love.”
To that end, we’ve broken down the Wisconsin camping experience into four general categories and offered up a couple suggestions for each. Now get out there!
These people favor quiet over convenience and likely have plenty of experience in the outdoors. Solitude Seekers aren’t afraid to go light and haul gear in backpacks, on bikes or in boats to lose the crowds. Getting wet or lost isn’t a big deal to these folks. Heck, what’s the worst that could happen?
Newport Beach State Park
Door County is often busy but this park on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula offers a peaceful experience for those willing to do a little work. As Wisconsin’s only formally designated wilderness park, Newport offers 2,373 acres and 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline along with 16 different campsites that can be accessed only by foot, mountain bike or paddle craft.
Distance from Madison: The drive from Madison is about four hours but is well worth it, especially if you have never visited Newport. Plan on staying at least two nights since you’ll be hauling in all your stuff.
Not to miss: Newport features 30 miles of hiking trails winding through the park. One of the most remote trails heads out to the sandstone rocks of Lynd Point. If you want more distance on your bike or hike, trek to Europe Lake on the northern edge of the park. It’s a shallow, marshy lake scientists think was once part of Lake Michigan until a drop in water levels closed off the bay.
Ice Age Trail
This National Scenic Trail stretches 1,200 miles across Wisconsin roughly following the glacial deposits or “terminal moraine” from the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. Hilly, scenic and at times quite remote, the trail is open to hiking throughout the year with wilderness-style camping in some locations.
Distance from Madison: The Ice Age Trail can be accessed just a few miles west of Madison in Verona and Cross Plains. But the closest backpacking opportunity lies an hour east in the Kettle Moraine State Forest – home to many miles of looped mountain biking trails.
Not to miss: Three rustic cabins, like those along the famed Appalachian Trail, are available on the Ice Age Trail in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest. Reservations are limited to one night at each, but another site may be reserved for a second or third night so you can do a longer trip.
Camping is traditionally a family affair – all the more so today because a camping trip gives parents the best chance of getting their kids off their electronic devices and into nature. So what makes a good family camping spot? A beach, a playground and a place where kids can be kids.
Devil’s Lake State Park
The largest park in the state, Devil’s Lake is visited by more than three million people per year, rightly earning it the title of “Wisconsin’s premier natural vacation destination.” With miles of hiking trails, 500-foot bluffs and two large sand beaches, there is plenty to engage every family member here. There are more than 400 campsites of varying types, but they often fill quickly.
Distance from Madison: Devil’s Lake is an easy 40-minute drive from Madison. You can make the trip itself a thrill by taking the Merrimac Ferry in at least one direction.
Not to miss: This is a great place for rock climbing either on your own or, better yet, with an outfitter who can set you up with all the proper safety equipment. Kids are natural climbers, so why not let them try it at the Midwest’s top rock-climbing destination?
White Mound County Park
Many of Wisconsin’s lesser-known county parks offer overnight camping, and this 1,100-acre gem in western Sauk County is a personal family favorite. The campsites are shady, the beach is clean and there is plenty of room for the kids to roam. Horses are welcome here, too.
Distance from Madison: White Mound is located 15 miles north of Spring Green, about an hour drive from Madison. The scenic and hilly country roads nearby are worth exploring either by car or bicycle (when mom or dad need a break from hiking).
Not to miss: White Mound Lake offers excellent bass and bluegill fishing even from shore. The lake is also “no wake,” meaning motorboat drivers are required to proceed slowly, making it safe for kids to get on stand-up paddleboards or float on steamy summer afternoons. But bring your own boards and boats. SUPs, kayaks and canoes are available for rent from outfitters in Baraboo, Sauk City and along the Wisconsin River.
Just sitting around the campfire doing nothing is a longstanding Wisconsin tradition. Add a cup of hot coffee in the morning or can of cold beer in the afternoon to complete the picture. Some Hanger Outers never even leave their campsite but that’s OK. You’re on vacation, right?
Nelson Dewey State Park
If you’re going to spend a lot of time in a folding chair, best to choose a place with a nice view. And this under-loved park high above the Mississippi River fits the bill. The family campground has 45 individual wooded sites, 18 with electric service. Four walk-in sites offer an excellent view of the “Big Muddy” below.
Distance from Madison: It’s a two-hour drive to Nelson Dewey State Park, which sits just outside Grant County’s historic city of Cassville, known for having several buildings dating to the 19th century.
Not to miss: Even Hanger Outers like to venture forth sometimes. Take the short and scenic drive to the Great River Road Interpretive Center and the acclaimed Potosi Brewery Co. The Stonefield state historic site is also nearby.
Token Creek County Park
Who says you need to spend hours in the car to sleep under the stars? This 427-acre park off Interstate 90-94 just east of Madison has five shelter facilities with ample open space for picnics or family reunions. There’s a 43-unit campground, and most of the units have electric hook-ups for hanging Chinese lanterns.
Distance from Madison: Token Creek is less than 30 minutes from just about anywhere in Madison. That’s close enough for a one-nighter, especially if you just want to back in the pop-up camper or van. Some retirees with time to kill stay for weeks.
Not to miss: Dogs and discs are the big draws at Token Creek, which features a 27-hole disc golf course and two off-leash dog parks, including one set aside for smaller pooches. Nature lovers will want to hike the elevated boardwalk through a sedge meadow marsh.
“Glamping” combines glamour with camping and describes a style of overnighting with resort-style services. The term first appeared in the United Kingdom around 2005 to describe the inn-to-inn hikes where your gear is transported for you along the way. It’s one of the hotter trends in vacationing these days, especially among aging baby boomers with time and money to spend.
Seth Peterson Cottage
Spend a night in one of the few Frank Lloyd Wright homes available for public overnight rental. Nestled in the woods of Mirror Lake State Park near Wisconsin Dells, the Seth Peterson Cottage offers peace and quiet and a chance to sleep in a space designed by Wisconsin’s most famous architect. And there’s plenty to do right out the front door with mountain biking, cross-country skiing and paddling, depending on the season.
Distance from Madison: It’s about an hour drive to the cottage, which requires a two-night minimum stay at $300-$325 per night.
Not to miss: The building is the attraction here, so make sure to bring a good book to enjoy in front of the big stone fireplace. A winter trip offers a chance to try Mirror Lake’s excellent ski trails.
Wildman Adventure Resort
Set deep in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, this glamping destination features a wide assortment of adventure trips, including whitewater outings on the powerful Peshtigo and Menominee rivers. Guests can camp among the trees in tents, snuggle up in rustic cabins, sleep in a yurt or go first class in even more deluxe accommodations.
Distance from Madison: Wildman is located north of Green Bay. Total driving time is 3 hours, 30 minutes.
Not to miss: Among its many attractions, Wildman offers a zipline canopy tour where visitors fly through the pine trees suspended from a cable. Try it at least once, if for no other reason than to cross it off the bucket list.
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