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Adventures North of Madison: A Brief Guide to Nearby State (and National) Parks

Posted: 11:59AM August 12th, 2015 | Comments


This summer, I had the chance to visit a number of beautiful places in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula.  As a college student on a tight budget, my goal of hiking in the Rockies or camping in Yellowstone was a bit far-fetched.  Instead, I embarked on a number of smaller trips and activities closer to home including Perrot State Park, Devil’s Lake State Park, Governor Dodge State Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and numerous local hikes, walks, and bike rides around Madison.  In this blog I’ll describe these few places north of Madison that offer great outdoor adventures.  Hopefully you will be inspired to get outside!

You are likely acquainted with Devil’s Lake State Park, which is known for beautiful rock formations, a clean lake, stunning views, and it’s closeness to Madison (just a 45 minute drive).  I visited here early in the summer this year and last for a simple day trip.  Spectacular 500-foot bluffs and a 360-acre lake offer abundant recreational activities like hiking, swimming, and boating.  I enjoy hiking around the entire lake (bring snacks!), and taking a dip in the lake to cool off at the end.  Devil’s Lake makes a great day trip, just be sure to arrive early in order to beat the crowds.

Later this summer, I visited Perrot State Park (near La Crosse, WI) on my way up to Minneapolis.  This 1,270-acre park has burial mounds and gorgeous views of the Mississippi River.  If you only have a bit of time like I did, take the trail directly up to the bluff.  About two thirds of the trek is a simple gravel path.  When you reach the top, however, smaller trails split off becoming steep, rocky, and narrow.  Soon, this opens up to a marvelous view of the Mississippi River, rolling hills, and a neighboring bluff.  Even in the hot days of July I passed only a couple other hikers, which made this experience peaceful and serene.

For the past two summers, a group of my friends from high school and I booked a large, private campsite at Governor Dodge State Park.  The swimming areas are clean, hiking trails are abundant, and it’s not too busy.  Even though we camped here for two summers, the area is large enough that we found new trails to explore during our second visit.  This is a great family place to camp, too, because the scenery is wonderful (see image below), but the hikes aren’t overly challenging.  Make sure to reserve your campsite early!

Planning a group camping trip at Governor Dodge this summer wasn’t going to be easy with many of my friends gone for internships, research, or vacation, so instead my boyfriend and I embarked on our own trip to the Upper Peninsula (UP). On the northern side of the UP is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, recommended to me by Sustain Dane staff member Lauren Beriont!  The drive is under six hours from Madison, with lovely scenery of Lake Michigan along the way to keep you glued to the window.  Once you reach the park, there are 42 miles of lakeshore to explore.  The geography ranges from sand dunes, to long sandy beaches, to 200-foot tall mineral-streaked cliffs (which create amazing colors and give Pictured Rocks its name, pictured below).

The best way to see these cliffs is probably from a personal kayak or on a boat tour.  Boat tours are informative and under $40, whereas kayak tours (your only option if you don’t have your own kayaks) are upwards of $90.  Additionally, if you plan to camp, I recommend dropping in on a weekday morning.  Campsites are available on a first come first serve basis, and the drive between each campground is a bit monotonous because of the singular winding road that runs through the park –give yourself ample time to scout out a spot.  We came in on a Tuesday around 10:00a.m. and were just fine, but saw a number of disgruntled campers hunting for spots on Friday morning.  If you don’t want to deal with this hassle, try backpacking!  Backcountry camping along the way can be a fun challenge.

Even if your work schedule limits vacation time, know that numerous parks close to home offer fantastic outdoor getaways for quick, cheap trips.  Whenever I spend time in nature, I heighten my self-awareness physically, mentally, and in the ways in which I act outwardly toward people and the environment.  I can more clearly understand how I engage with my surroundings without the bother of school stresses, emails, or social media, and my respect for nature is heightened when I am immersed in its beauty.  So, while driving to that family reunion up north, find a quick hike on your way or schedule a weekend of camping nearby – you’ll always get something back from taking time to get some fresh air.


Source: Wisconsin State Park System Visitor Information Guide

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