I’m going to admit this publicly. I recently did something stupid.
Like seemingly all the rest of America, I went camping over the Labor Day weekend.
Every campsite in my chosen park was taken, but luckily, I had reserved a site back in January.
When I arrived I found generators buzzing. The couple of dozen dogs in attendance were barking. Children lapped the campground loops on pink bikes and tricycles. The place sponsored a musician — with an amplifier — that ran well into quiet hours. And when the concert was over my neighbor one site over had a loud and rancorous “discussion” with his spouse.
Ah! Don’t you love camping?
What I’ve failed to mention is that the weather was refreshingly cool, the bugs were absent and the Milky Way stretched from one end of the cloudless sky to the other. A flock of migrating nighthawks passed over at dusk. A late whip-poor-will called at dawn, and the fire, built of oak and spruce, made red-hot coals that cooked our meals to perfection.
Whatever your sense of camping tradition, Wisconsin has the chops to satisfy. Dozens of state, county and even federal campgrounds await your puppy or pup tent.
There are some places to avoid, if possible, like Pattison State Park (a 300-site “cattle processing plant”), Interstate State Park, (the “campsites” are lined up in a row with no vegetative screening; more like a parking lot than a campground) and Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula (where you camp on a lawn and can practically pass a toasted marshmallow to the people at the sites around you).
However, here are 10 of the best choices to spend a night out in northwestern Wisconsin .
• Lake Wissota State Park ($20/night): The sites are what I would call minimally intimate, meaning they are reasonably spaced and there is some vegetative screening between you and your neighbors. Part of the campground is in a red pine plantation, which diminishes the natural experience for me, but the hiking trails that wind through forest and prairie and the access to the lake and river are strengths.
• Chippewa Campground, Chequamegon National Forest ($12-14/night): The National Forest is tres pretty and offers proximity to the Chequamegon Flowage. The campground has decent screening between sites and a lay back feel.
• Coon Fork County Park ($20/night): This well-groomed park offers two beaches and excellent water for swimming or boating. Intriguing hiking trails parallel the lake and branch off into the surrounding forests. The sites are spacious and fairly well-screened.
It’s also one of the noisiest campgrounds I know of, with little enforcement of quiet hours.
• Copper Falls State Park ($20 or more/night, plus entrance fee): The north campground is built to accommodate larger recreational vehicles. I prefer the south, which has a few smaller tent sites. There’s also a single backpacking site.
• Bois Brule Campground, Brule River State Forest ($16/night): This rather small campground is a bit cramped, but the unique fir and hemlock woods is lovely. My favorite spot is the sole walk-in site.
• Nugget Lake County Park ($22/night, plus entrance fee): This is another clean and well-kept county park with great recreational opportunities. You can rent canoes and paddle the lake or let the kids loose at the playground. Since privacy is important to me, I wish the campsites were better screened.
• Castle Mound State Park ($18/night, plus entrance fee): This little-known gem has lovely sites with good spacing. One of the best things about the park is the hiking trail to the tops of two sandstone bluffs — one of which ends in a lookout tower with an impressive view of the forest.
• Brunet Island State Park ($20/night, plus entrance fee): A family favorite of mine. The south campground is popular with RVs, but the north, with sites strung along a unique isthmus, offers a feeling of intimacy and exceptional views of the water. Brunet has the reputation of a well-behaved campground, and the staff is proactive about quiet hour enforcement.
• Amnicon Falls State Park ($15/night, plus entrance fee): Another underutilized park. The sites at Amnicon are some of the best screened of any campground in our area, and the hiking opportunities to the various falls make this a superb camping choice. The walk-in sites are some of my favorites. Be sure to hike to The Snakepit or take a stroll to the falls by moonlight.
• Black River State Forest (Free with permit): The wilder the better, in my opinion. In Black River State Forest the only music playing is that of Timber Wolves or Barred Owls. There is a formal campground in the forest, but better to be adventurous: obtain a permit from the DNR office in Black River Falls and walk in a mile from any spot on the forest road for the ultimate in intimate camping.
Fall is my favorite time to camp. The combination of mosquito-free conditions, cooler weather, autumn color and reduced crowds is most attractive. See you out there.
Betchkal is a bird expert, videographer and writer who lives in Eau Claire.