5 Must-See Wisconsin State Parks

If you’re looking for an adventure this summer that will highlight some of Wisconsin’s hidden gems and be budget friendly, take a drive to one of our state’s very own parks. The 66 parks are distributed across the state, allowing for day trips or lengthy adventures. Many of the parks have been recognized on a national level because of their resources and recreational opportunities.

Each park offers interesting historical background, tranquility of nature, activities and attractions, and even campsites for extended stay. For $28, you can get into any state park or state forest in the state of Wisconsin by purchasing a sticker that is valid for an unlimited number of visits for the year, or you can opt to pay $8 per visit. If the park offers campsites and you wish to camp, the fees differ at each property, depending on the time of year.

The development of Wisconsin’s state park system is historically interesting.Thirty years after Wisconsin became a state (1848), early conservationists realized that forests were rapidly being destroyed for their timber. In 1878, legislation was passed for Wisconsin’s first state park (Parkland) to be established.

The state owned only 10 percent of the land; unfortunately, the park was sold to lumber companies shortly after being established. Just two years later Governor Edward Schofield developed a new state park in Polk County (Interstate Park). The park has been there ever since.

Wisconsin has since developed and secured more than 60,000 acres of scenic land, which now comprise our state parks. The parks in total attract more than 14 million people annually.

Consider these five state parks (each located in a different region of Wisconsin) when seeking adventure this summer.

Northern Wisconsin

On the 1.7-mile Waterfall Trail,Tyler Fork Cascades is one of the many views visitors will come across. Located directly above Brownstone Falls, Tyler Fork Cascades are a photographer’s favorite place to capture. The water flows rapidly down the rocks among what appears to be miles of trees.

Copper Falls State Park area was initially used for mining by Wells Ruggles, who attempted to mine the area for copper, but the operation failed because of flooding. Decades after the mine failed, World War I veterans constructed trails and bridges in the area. Shortly after this Copper Falls was established.

“Much of the current 1.7-mile trail around the falls follows this original route, and the trail is named the ‘Doughboys’ Trail’ in honor of these original workers,” said Dan Yankowiak, property supervisor. The trail follows the Bad River and Tyler Forks, creating breathtaking views for nature lovers.

The park was established in 1929 with a land purchase of 520 acres made by the state, which included the area containing Copper Falls and Brownstone Falls on the Bad and Tyler Forks rivers. The park continued to grow when the state purchased more land ahead of the encampment of a Civilian Conservation Corps work crew at the park in 1935. The park is now over 3,000 acres.

“It continues to be a popular destination for various outdoor recreation opportunities,” Yankowiak said. “The geography of the park is unique and contributes to aesthetics of the Doughboys’ trail in particular, where Copper Falls, Brownstone Falls, and the Tyler Forks Cascades fall over ancient rock formations.”

Southern Wisconsin

Kevin Swenson, the property manager of Blue Mound State Park, said it rests 500 feet above the area’s countryside, allowing for it to be the highest point in Southern Wisconsin.

Blue Mound Park allows visitors a view of hundreds of acres of rivers, valleys and hills. Its pool is family-friendly and warmed to 80 degrees. It is the only state park that has a swimming pool.

“At an elevation of 1,716 feet above sea level, views from the two observation towers or the scenic overlook located on top of the mound provide a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside and Driftless Areas,” Swenson said.

According to Swenson, before the state purchased the property in 1959, the area was used for recreation purposes dating back to the 1800s.

“In 1959, the state began transforming the property into a natural setting while expanding the recreational opportunities,” Swenson said. “The view, even working here every day … I have to pause occasionally when at the top of the mound to capture the moment. From the fog in the valleys below, to the explosion of color in the fall, to the panoramic views of the countryside spanning over 20 miles.”

Eastern Wisconsin

According to the DNR website for Kohler-Andrae State Park, nearly 9,500 years ago, most of Kohler-Andrae State Park was covered by 50 feet of water. On the edge of the “lake,” nomadic Paleo-Indians hunted. In 6,000 B.C, the glaciers retreated and the lake water level dropped dramatically, allowing for Kohler-Andrae’s shoreline to form. Without the melting of glacial lakes, Kohler-Andrae would not be visible.

Kohler Andrae offers a gorgeous view of Lake Michigan. On a hot summer day grab your beach towel and picnicking gear to enjoy a day at the beach.

In 3500 B.C., the Archaic and Copper culture Indians lived and hunted in the region. After these Native Americans came many more who would call Kohler-Andrae their home. In 1833, the government took this land  on the shore of Lake Michigan from the Native Americans via a treaty.

Kohler-Andrae area has a marine history of shipwrecks, including 50 known vessels. “The Challenge” schooner was washed up on the shoreline and can now be seen outside the Sanderling Nature Center. In 1966, the state was gifted 280 acres from the Kohler Company, of Kohler, Wisconsin, as a memorial for John Michael Kohler.

In 1924 Terry Andrae, president of Julius Andrae and Sons’ Electric Supply Company in Milwaukee, bought 92 acres of lakeshore property. After he passed, his wife donated the acres to the state of Wisconsin. In addition to the Kohler and Andrae donations, the state purchased 600 acres of property, resulting in a total of 1,000 acres that is now Kohler-Andrae State Park.

Kohler-Andrae State Park is known for its dunes, which are both active and stabilized.

Western Wisconsin

Lois Larson, natural resources property manager at Perrot State Park, said cultures have been drawn to these shores, now called Perrot State Park, for thousands of years.

“As a part of the Driftless Area, nature created our uniquely sculpted bluffs and valleys,” Larson said.

Climb the 60-foot winding stair observation tower and soar above the treeline. Take in the views below, using binoculars at the top if you wish to amplify the impressive panorama.

Untouched by Wisconsin’s glaciers, the landscape is unique to western Wisconsin. One of those unique features is Trempealeau Mountain, an island mountain in the Mississippi, which is considered sacred by local tribes and is a designated State Natural Area. Trempealeau Mountain was used by captains as a navigational landmark.

According to the DNR website for Perrot State Park, the name Trempealeau comes from the French, “la montagne qui trempe à l’eau,” meaning “the mountain whose foot is bathed in water.”

Visitors today can see replicas of artifacts from 10,000 years ago in its Nature Center. Effigy and conical mounds survive from the Woodland Indian periods.

“Our history tells us Nicolas Perrot, the park’s namesake, a French fur trader and diplomat, established a post nearby,” Larson said.

Larson said that Brady’s Bluff is the tallest point in the park at 525 feet high, giving visitors a bird’s eye view of the rivers below.

“West Brady’s Trail (½-mile) takes you through a shady woodland valley of ferns and flowers leading to stone steps and stairways built into the Cambrian rock face know as Brady’s Bluff,” Larson said.

Larson said that East Brady’s Trail (7/10-mile) takes you along a more gradual natural path that winds through the woods. This trail is past a State Natural Area featuring a goat prairie.

“Whichever way you choose to get to the top, it’s a view you won’t forget,” Larson said. 

According to the DNR website for Perrot State Park, the mountain is rich in archaeological features with numerous Native American mounds, burial sites and habitation sites.

“Whether you come for a short visit to picnic or stay for a weekend of camping, you can spend hours or days discovering Perrot,” Larson said.

Central Wisconsin

According to Bill Bursaw, property manager at Rib Mountain State Park, the park is one of the oldest geological features, composed of metamorphic rock called quartzite.

Watch eagles soar right in front of you, while enjoying views of the Mississippi River from 520 feet high on Brady’s Bluff.

“It is one of the highest points in Wisconsin at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level,” Bursaw 

said.

Chippewa Indians used the height of Rib Mountain as a guide point. According to the DNR 

website for Rib Mountain State Park,  two companies, Wausau Sandpaper Company and Wausau Quartz, used Rib Mountain for natural resources for their businesses in the late 1800s to early 1900s.  After this, a couple successful businesses still known today followed their lead.

Bursaw said that in the early 1900s, the Wausau Kiwanis Club donated 120 acres to the 

state conservation department (now known as the DNR).

“After that, donations continued to expand the acreage of the park,” he said. The park officially became a state park in 1927.

Bursaw said that on the west side of the park, there is an 1880s homestead that had belonged to German immigrants.

“The foundations are still there and it’s amazing to look at the conditions which they moved into,” 

Bursaw said.

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