Chicago-born author and environmentalist Sigurd F. Olson once wrote, "Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium." For many of us, that antidote comes in the form of camping.
But growing popularity and population can make getting away from it all a challenge. For campers, having another tent right across the hedgerow — or worse, being in a wide-open space that looks more like a group camp at the Bonnaroo music festival — just isn't far enough away. But as an avid camper in Wisconsin, I have always found it remarkable how remote a person can get on less than a tank of gas.
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Wisconsin 70, WI, USA
Governor Dodge State Park, 4175 Wisconsin 23, Dodgeville, WI 53533, USA
Newport State Park, 475 County Highway NP, Ellison Bay, WI 54210, USA
Rock Island State Park, 1924 Indian Point Road, Washington Island, WI 54246, USA
Marinette, WI, USA
Rustic camping, meaning no electricity and just basic facilities, often is the best bet, but even the loops of rustic sites at state parks can fill up, especially on weekends when campers sense the waning days of summer. So you need to dig a little deeper. Several parks offer a few backpack or back-country sites. So after your car has done most of your work for you, the final stretch to pitch your tent is going to require your hiking boots.
Gov. Dodge State Park, near Dodgeville in the southwestern part of the state, inside the glacially untouched Driftless Area, is noted for great hiking, fishing and even a couple of beaches. The two campgrounds fill up on weekends. But far from these loops of campers, in the northernmost corner of the park, are six backpacker sites half a mile inside the woods. No motorists will be passing your site at night trying to find their tents. Not even the park's hiking trails pass in close proximity.
Up in Door County, Newport State Park strings its hike-in sites along the shore of Lake Michigan. Consider these numbers: 11 miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan; 2,373 wooded acres; 30 miles of hiking trails. And only 16 campsites, all of them requiring you to carry your gear. Not only are the sites spread out — one of them tops a dune overlooking the lake — but they generally are closed in a bit by brush. Each site has a metal storage box to stymie sticky fingers of resident raccoons, and pit toilets are short strolls from each camp. (In season, thimbleberries make for some great snacks around your site.)
Just beyond Washington Island at the end of the Door Peninsula lies Rock Island State Park: Two ferries to get there and no vehicles allowed. Should the already amply spaced sites on the southwest corner of the island not be enough to satisfy your get-away-from-it-all needs, follow the hiking trail over to the east side of the island for five sites, lettered A through E, set up in the trees along the shore. Listen to the breeze through the pine needles and the waves soughing at the sand and stones.
Beyond state parks
Some of the most remote-feeling camping in Wisconsin lies in the northeastern corner of the state. Much of the map here is shaded green by the Nicolet portion of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, and an assortment of state forests, parks and natural areas fill in much of the remainder. Yet a straight shot up Interstate Highway 43 connects to U.S. Highway 141, and campers escaping Chicago can be setting up their tents in less than five hours from their driveways.
Bisected by U.S. 141, Marinette County has a number of county parks that don't come up on the radar for most travelers. They are small, often rustic and provide excellent escapes from the crowds.
Twelve Foot Falls Park, about an 8-mile drive west from Pembine, is a perfect example. I can't claim that this is the quietest place on earth; the whitewater provides white noise at the park's namesake waterfall.
In fact, of the 14 named waterfalls in Marinette County, Wisconsin's "Waterfall Capital," no fewer than five are close to this park. The dark-copper-colored waters of the North Fork Pike River tumble over granite, and though swimming is not smart under the falls, dropping a line in for some resident trout might catch dinner.
Campers with holding tanks aren't allowed, and five of the 12 sites are strictly tent only. If there is no one else in these first-come, first-served campsites — and there's a good chance of that on a weekday — it's just you and the river out here.
A pair of lakes
The next county north, and the last before Michigan, is Florence County. Just before the state line and 13 miles west of the town of Florence are a couple of perfect lake getaways for tent campers. Lauterman and Perch lakes lie on opposite sides of Wisconsin Highway 70 and offer some of the most rustic and remote camping in the state. How off-the-path are these? The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest website doesn't list them.
The five campsites at Lauterman are laid out on a 3.1-mile loop through the forest and come only with fire rings, tables and a wilderness-style toilet (think outhouse without the house). Another five sites on Perch Lake are on a 1.3-mile loop that runs parallel to the shore. Four of these sites are close to the water, making them ideal for campers with a canoe. Northern pike, bass and bluegill await anglers.
The sites at both parks are walk-in, requiring anywhere from 200 yards to a mile of hiking before you can pound a tent stake. Under the jurisdiction of the Florence Ranger District, camping is free, but vehicles incur a daily parking fee.
Well-maintained hiking and mountain-biking trails, especially the 9-mile Lauterman Lake National Recreation Trail, run over mostly forested, hilly terrain and a few boardwalks through some wetlands. The trailhead for Whisker Lake Wilderness lies just half a mile north of the parking area at Perch Lake. Venture in here with your tackle box to get access to Riley Creek and Riley Lake for a bit of backwoods trout fishing.
Lauterman never fills with campers, and Perch rarely does so. If you are looking for that antidote to the pressures of the day, this may be the strongest dose yet.
Wisconsin native Kevin Revolinski is the co-author of the newly released "Best Tent Camping Wisconsin," third edition (Menasha Ridge).
If you go
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, 715-362-1300, http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/cnnf
Lauterman Lake, tinyurl.com/lauterman (for directions). Perch Lake, tinyurl.com/perchlakecg (for directions). Daily vehicle parking fee $5. First come, first served.
Gov. Dodge State Park, 4175 Wisconsin Highway 23, Dodgeville, Wis.; 608-935-2315; dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/govdodge; $15 resident/$17 nonresident per night, plus vehicle fee; reservations accepted, plus some first-come/first-served sites.
Newport State Park, 475 County Highway NP, Ellison Bay, Wis.; 920-854-2500; dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/newport; $15 resident/$17 nonresident per night, plus vehicle fee; reservations accepted, plus some first- come/first-served sites.
Rock Island State Park, 1924 Indian Point Road, Washington Island, Wis.; 920-847-2235, dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/rockisland; $15 resident/$17 nonresident per night, plus vehicle fee on Washington Island; reservations accepted, plus some first-come/first-served sites. Additional fee for water-view sites.
Twelve Foot Falls County Park, Marinette County Parks, 715-732-7531; marinettecounty.com/departments; $10 per night. First come, first served.