Wisconsin’s Best Camping at the Water’s Edge
Bordered by two Great Lakes and containing over 11,100 square miles of lakes, Wisconsin is water lover’s dream. Even the state’s name is derived from a river: French explorers Marquette and Joliet mentioned the Meskousing, a river name from the Native Miami language which passed through French and a transcription error to arrive at “Wisconsin.” Fishing, swimming, paddling and boating are obvious recreation choices, but the abundant lakes and rivers make for a lot of great camping settings as well. There’s nothing quite like stepping out of your tent and greeting a Great Lake in the morning, or falling asleep to the soothing sounds of flowing water, rolling waves or modest ripples tickling nearby shores. But where to go? Here are a number of good recommendations for where to pitch your tent the next time you want to camp just a stone’s throw from the water.
The jewels of Lake Superior. The National Lakeshore also includes 21 islands offer stunning beauty amid the cold and temperamental waters of the greatest of the Great Lakes. Camping is possible on 18 of them. Getting to the islands can be done by boat or sea kayak, or you can use the shuttle service offered by Apostle Islands Cruises (http://www.apostleisland.com/) to get to Oak and Stockton Islands. If you can’t get yourself across the water, there is a primitive site on the mainland portion of the national lakeshore, and some county parks not far down the road. Islands and the mainland have hiking trails as well. A trail from Meyers Beach, the put-in point for sea cave paddling, is the trailhead for a path to the mainland campsites.
Two rivers make up this national riverway: the St. Croix and the Namekago. You’ve got options along this long stretch of clear water that finds its way to the Mississippi through some marvelously preserved landscape. Over 100 free primitive sites are strung out along both rivers, with access limited to paddlers. Find some drive-up sites at Gordon Dam County Park along the shore of the St. Croix Flowage as well.
Cornell, WI 54732
Named for a 19th-century French pioneer, this state park contains 1200 acres, 169 of which are an island in the Chippewa River. Campsites overlook either the river or two of its lagoons. Tent campers will prefer the north side of the island while RV campers can find hookups on the south side. Over 7 miles of trails offer hiking and one can rent a canoe or kayak in nearby Cornell.
Forest Road 2111
Lakewood, WI 54138
The rapids crash and boil over rock ledges in this stretch of the North Branch of the Oconto River inside the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. And the campground is right on top of it all. The sites are set up in two loops with thick vegetation between them for privacy. 14 of the 30 sites are along the river. Call it white(water) noise for a good night’s sleep.
1924 Indian Point Rd., Washington Island, WI 54246-9728
This is about as secluded as you can get. Especially in the shoulder seasons when you may be the only camper on this island off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula in Lake Michigan. Camp in a primitive site overlooking the lake and spend the day hiking to and from the lighthouse. The historic stone boathouse is impressive and open all night. It takes two ferry rides to get here and a lift of some sort across Washington Island for the passenger ferry to the park. No wheels allowed, not even bikes. Take the car ferry to Washington, drive to the parking lot on the east end, and board the ferry. Tip: check online to see when the international space station does its flyby. This island is stellar for stargazing.
475 County Highway NP
Ellison Bay WI 54210
If you don’t want to bother with the ferries to Rock Island, stay on the mainland. Door County’s best lakeside camping can be found at these 17 hike-in sites set up along 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. It’s worth the hike to spend the night where the forest meets the cobblestones, sand and waves of Lake Michigan’s shores. Peninsula and Potawatomi State Parks are also nice but generally fill up in summer, and they don’t quite have the lakeside experience like these sites do.
W8450 Buckhorn Park Avenue
Necedah, Wisconsin 54646
Castle Rock Lake (or Flowage) is Wisconsin’s fourth largest and the sites at this state park take advantage of some shoreline. There are drive-up sites, of course, but also some hike-in sites up to a mile from the parking lot. Or how about this: paddle-up sites! Step outside your tent and a short trail opens to shoreline. The photo here is a sunset from the causeway that crosses to this long, fingerlike peninsula into a dammed section of the Wisconsin River.
East Fork Campground
Black River State Forest
910 Hwy 54 East
Black River, WI 54615
Set up your tent on the banks of the East Fork of the Black River. This is one of two campgrounds in the state forest and is located on the northern end. Good bass and walleye fishing await and you can canoe some mild rapids.
One of my all-time favorite places for paddling and camping. 66 rustic campsites are spread throughout this massive flowage, many of them on islands created when the dam went in. Some shoreline sites are also available. It is all free and first come/first served. You get a fire ring, a log bench or picnic table, and a pit toilet with no shelter right smack in the middle of the woods. It feels like the Boundary Waters. It is a little bit of camping heaven.
W6488 County Road GI
Stoddard WI 54658
Camp on the Mighty Mississippi and watch the river roll by. Located on an island just three miles south of La Crosse, Goose Island Campground is the largest county camp in the state. There are over 400 sites ranging from basic tent camping to RV parking. Some of these sites are right on the river. The park also has river access and rentals for canoes and kayaks, as well as bait sales and a fish cleaning house.
The Wisconsin River
from Prairie du Sac to Prairie du Chien
Camping fees vary from park to park, but in some situations there are none at all. Such is the case with the Wisconsin River. From the last of the Wisconsin Rivers dams — at Sauk Prairie — the river runs unhindered for 92 miles to the Mississippi. This stretch is full of shifting islands and sandbars and open to tent camping. Wyalusing State Park lies where the two rivers meet. Private outfitters can hook you up with canoes or kayaks, and wherever you see a sand bar you can camp for the night.
S3661 State Highway 131
La Farge, Wisconsin 54639
They say this is the crookedest river on earth. The portion within the Kickapoo Valley Reserve twists and turns through beautiful carved sandstone bluffs and offers good trout fishing. Within the reserve are 25 camp sites. A third of these are accessible from the river. This is primitive camping: just you, your tent and a fire ring. The river babbles into the night and might be joined by an owl or two. Another option, though the sites aren’t on the water, is Wildcat Mountain State Park. A good place for the night before a paddling trip.
Blackhawk Memorial Park Campground
2995 County Road Y, Woodford, Wisconsin 53599
This county park on the East Branch of the Pecatonica River is often passed over for the popular Yellowstone Lake State Park just upstream. But here’s where you want to spend the night for waterside camping. The fishing is good – walleye, panfish, bass – and the river will make paddlers happy. Besides the few river sites there are some spots along Dead River, Horseshoe Lake, and Bloody Lake which are also in the park.
For more ideas for Wisconsin camping or paddling, check out my guidebooks: