Travel

Travel Bug: Underrated Wisconsin Parks and Trails

It goes without saying that we haven’t traveled as much in 2020 as we usually do. One of our favorite things to do in a normal year is tent camp in regional parks and hike local trails. Wisconsin has a large number of exceptional state parks, but it seems that only a small handful get recognized: Peninsula State Park, Kohler-Andrae State Park, Devil’s Lake State Park (to name a few of the top ones). There are a large number of beautiful state and locally-managed parks off the beaten path that shouldn’t be missed!

Cave Point County Park, Door County

Photo from Travel Wisconsin

When it comes to Door County parks, the bayside parks get all of the attention (Peninsula State Park primarily, but Potawatomi State Park gets its fair share of attention, too). My favorite park on the peninsula is a County park, but you can also access it through connecting trails at Whitefish Dunes State Park. Cave Point hugs the Lake Michigan shoreline and offers a view of rougher water on many days. The limestone has worn away through centuries of waves and wind pounding away at it and has formed unique cave features visible from the trail above. On the rare calm water day, there are shallow pools with rocky outcroppings where you can walk out away from the caves and get an eye level view (rather than from above). The trails are fairly short here, but they offer some of the best views in Door County and there are lovely picnic sites right along the lakeshore that are rarely crowded. My favorite thing about this park is how crystal clear the water is on a calm day. If you looked just at a photo without context, you’d swear that you were looking at waters in the Caribbean. This park is a Door County park and admission is free. If you enter via Whitefish Dunes State Park, regular State Park admission fees still apply.

Photo from Visit Door County
Lake Michigan on a clear spring afternoon

Hixon Forest Park, La Crosse

Photo from City of La Crosse

Hixon Forest is a City-managed park in La Crosse and offers fantastic trails for hiking and mountain biking with beautiful views of the Mississippi River valley and iconic Southeastern Minnesota bluffs. There is a significant amount of biodiversity in the park and during spring and summer, the wildflowers spread in every direction. As a City park, this park is free to use. We hiked from the Upper Hixon Forest trailhead, which is quite honestly – pretty far off the beaten path, but the views from the top are incredible. No fee to access.

Wildcat Mountain State Park, Ontario

The very private campsites make you feel like you have the park all to yourself.

This is a State Park that I’ve mentioned to a few friends that we visited and only ONE friend had even heard of it. Despite the weather being incredibly hot and humid when we visited, it was one of my favorites in terms of the campsites and the activity. We stayed in a cart-in campsite which is literally as it sounds – you park your car at a parking lot nearby and use their wheelbarrows to haul your stuff to your site. The sites are for tent camping only and do not have electricity, but they are beautifully sheltered in their own grove of trees offering the type of privacy you simply NEVER have while camping. Wildcat Mountain’s appeal is its proximity to the Kickapoo River (it runs through the State Park, in fact). A number of outfitters rent canoes and kayaks on the north end of the river in Ontario, and you have the chance to meander down this slow-moving, peaceful river with incredible views. There are a number of well-marked pull out points along the river – you simply pull your canoe or kayak out at the concrete ramp of the pull out and call or text the outfitter where you rented your boat. They come pick you up and drive you back to your car – all included in the price of your boat rental. Unlike some boating and tubing experiences where there are crowds of people, the experience on the Kickapoo, even on a holiday weekend, was incredibly peaceful and enjoyable. Regular State Park admission fees apply.

Kayaking down the Kickapoo River

Wyalusing State Park, Bagley

Views from the top of the bluff where the Upper campsites are located at Wyalusing

This campground was one o the most beautiful ones I’ve ever camped in – but BE WARNED, there’s a lot of freight train traffic on the river – I would bring a white noise machine or earplugs next time. I can’t say enough good things about the hiking or the views from the campsites. The sites were private enough and all of the upper sites offer stunning views of the river valley below. We enjoyed hiking both in Wylausing and also across the state border at nearby Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. We had the experience of opening our tent door in the morning and seeing the fog in the river valley below us – it was a truly unforgettable view to wake up to. Regular State Park admission fees apply.

Mariner’s Trail, Two Rivers – Manitowoc

You couldn’t possibly closer bike any closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline!

I can’t believe I’ve lived in Wisconsin for nearly a decade and only just discovered this bike trail in 2019! This fabulous paved bike trail runs approximately 6 miles between Two Rivers and Manitowoc, primarily along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The trail offers amazing views of a number of parks, beaches and boats on the water (including the S.S. Badger Lake Michigan Carferry – if you time it right!). Perhaps more importantly in summer, the temperature is 10-15 degrees cooler on the lakeshore than it is in the City. Both times we’ve biked this trail have been exceptionally hot days in Green Bay. It can be a bit daunting to find the trail – we will park at or near Neshota Beach if we can find a spot, but this can prove challenging on a hot summer weekend. Downtown is just a few blocks from the lakeshore, and offers consistently more parking spaces. The trail is around 11 miles roundtrip (maybe 75 minutes if you take a more leisurely ride) and has plenty of scenic stops and benches along the lakeshore. We turned around in Downtown Manitowoc, where there are plenty of dining options and a super cute outdoor bar called The Wharf. This trail is not a State Park trail, so it is free to access and use.

The Wharf in Manitowoc, right along the harbor and the bike trail!

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