Visit 15 of Wisconsin's most beautiful state parks on this 9-day road trip, including Devil's Lake, Copper Falls and Peninsula

Summer doesn't officially end for a few weeks, but with school starting up again, it feels like the beginning of the end for the sunny season.

For one last hurrah, how about a road trip to see some of the best Wisconsin state parks ? All the parks in the system have their appeal, obviously — that’s why they’re parks. But some properties rise above the rest, with particularly unique landscapes that make them must-visits.

The 1,200-mile trip outlined here hits 15 gems in the system over the course of nine days. It starts and ends in Milwaukee, but you could jump in anywhere and modify to your liking.

Note that all state parks require an admission sticker ($28/year, $8/day for Wisconsin residents). Most allow leashed pets, although not on nature trails and some beaches.

Kohler-Andrae, Sheboygan County; Whitefish Dunes, Door County

Begin your trip by driving north from Milwaukee along Interstate 43, catching some views of Lake Michigan before you get off at County Road V to head east to Kohler-Andrae State Park.

Rolling sand dunes line Lake Michigan at Kohler-Andrae State Park in Sheboygan.
Rolling sand dunes line Lake Michigan at Kohler-Andrae State Park in Sheboygan.

About an hour from both Milwaukee and Green Bay, Kohler-Andrae is a popular park, with more than 460,000 visitors in 2018. It’s especially busy in the summer, when visitors come for its sandy beaches along Lake Michigan, large campground and signature rolling sand dunes.

With Lake Michigan seeing record-high water levels, the beach at Kohler-Andrae is a lot smaller than in past years.

"We still have a little bit of walkable beach more toward the north end of the property," said Carolyn Morgen, the park's superintendent. Morgen is also in charge of Harrington Beach State Park to the south, and she said that park's beach is worse off than Kohler-Andrae, with almost none of it left.

The beach north of Kohler-Andrae's nature center is open to pets, so that's a perk.

The sand dunes are the real highlight of Kohler-Andrae. A 2-mile cordwalk runs parallel to the lake through the dunes, providing panoramic views of the golden dunes against the backdrop of big, blue Lake Michigan. Morgen said they are working on adding more access trails to link the cordwalk with the beach, as well as rope fencing to keep people off the dunes, which are home to almost a dozen state threatened and endangered species.

“Once one person walks off the trail, it creates a pattern, and then people start following that,” she said.

The limited fencing the park has has been effective at keeping people on the cordwalk, preventing further erosion and trampling of the dunes.

More dunes await farther north at Whitefish Dunes on the east side of the Door County peninsula.

Like its cousin to the south, the beach at Whitefish Dunes is significantly smaller than in the past. The park’s first beach access and kayak launch are completely closed due to high water levels and erosion. Pets are permitted south of the third beach access — about a .75-mile walk from the parking lot.

But the park’s beach isn’t the park's only appeal. The 2.8-mile Red Trail leads to the top of Old Baldy, the park’s tallest dune, which rises more than 90 feet above the lake. Segments of the 2.5-mile Black Trail pass through hardwoods and large limestone rocks, exposed segments of the Niagara Escarpment.

The escarpment is even more visible to the north at Cave Point County Park, nestled within Whitefish Dunes. Follow the Black Trail there, then walk along the shore’s blocky white cliffs. Kayakers sometimes paddle along the cliffs and its caves below when the turquoise waters are calm; when they’re not, waves put on a show slamming against the cliffs.

The park has a rocky beach for cooling off on a hot day.

Peninsula State Park, Door County

From Whitefish Dunes, head almost due north, but across the peninsula, to Peninsula State Park, the state’s second most popular park, with more than 1 million visitors in 2018. There's so much to do here and in the area, set aside a full day.

The park’s five campgrounds (with 468 sites) are popular, but there are a handful of non-reservable sites and the park is part of the DNR’s same-day reservation pilot program for getting a site on short notice. Weekdays are your best bet for snagging a spot, and there are plenty of other lodging options in Fish Creek and other nearby towns.

There's something for everyone at this park. For cyclists, there's the gravel 10-mile Sunset Bike Route. Hikers will enjoy the 2-mile Eagle trail as it drops 200 feet then travels along 150-foot limestone cliffs, also part of the Niagara Escarpment. For photographers, the views from Eagle Panorama are terrific. Beach bums can hang out at Nicolet Beach, or paddlers can rent a kayak there and paddle 1 mile out to Horseshoe Island. For history lovers, there's Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, built in 1868 and open for tours mid-May through mid-October ($8/adult, $5/student, $3/children ages 6-12).

Rib Mountain, Marathon County; Copper Falls, Ashland County

Get an early start to make the 2.5-hour drive to Rib Mountain State Park near Wausau.

The park features as close to a mountain as Wisconsin has to offer, a large hill rising 1,924 feet above sea level. It’s not the state’s highest point (that honor goes to Price County’s Timm’s Hill, at 1,951.5 feet), but the billion-year-old quartzite hill does rise 670 feet above the surrounding landscape, more than any other hill in the state. That altitude offers terrific views of Wausau and the Wisconsin River.

See it all from the 60-foot observation tower on top of the hill. Nearby, snap a photo of the Queen’s Chair, a towering rock formation. Follow the Blue Trail from the tower to see more rock formations and climb stairs carved into the rock by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The trail also leads to an observation deck looking south toward Nine Mile Forest. Trek along the Gray Trail for views to the north, including a look at the Granite Peak Ski Area that covers that side of the mountain.

No dawdling now. It's time for another 2.5-hour drive to the northwestern corner of the state for your first of three waterfall parks: Copper Falls.

The park north of Mellen has a handful of beautiful cascades, including 30-foot Copper Falls and 30-foot Brownstone Falls. A trail built by the CCC (part of which is accessible, but all of which is closed to pets) provides access to viewing points of all the cascades in a dramatic gorge along the Bad River and a tributary, the Tyler Forks.

The red-brown gorge walls rise more than 60 feet in some places, framed by a mix of hardwoods and evergreens.

Also take time to make the short trek to the park’s observation tower for a view of the surrounding forest from above.

Spend the night at the park's campground, which has more than 50 sites.

Big Bay, Bayfield County

The next park is a trek, but worth it if you’re already this far north.

Big Bay State Park is on Madeline Island, the only permanently inhabited Apostle Island and the only one not part of the national lakeshore. But the island and its park do have some of the lakeshore’s signature red sandstone cliffs. To get to the park, you’ll need to take the ferry from Bayfield to La Pointe, then drive about 5 miles across the island.

In the park, hike the Bay View and Point trails to catch views of the cliffs. The half-mile Boardwalk Trail is also worth a hike.

The park’s 1.5-mile beach is a good spot for soaking up the sun and getting in a quick dip if you’re brave — Lake Superior’s chilly waters rarely top 60 degrees in the summer.

Since you’ve made such a long trek to get here, you’ll probably want to spend the night. Grab a drink at the quirky Tom’s Burned Down Café in La Pointe, and pitch a tent at one of the park’s 60 campsites.

Amnicon Falls, Pattison, Douglas County

From Big Bay, make your way back to the mainland and cut across the Bayfield peninsula to Amnicon Falls.

The small park has less than 2 miles of hiking trails but is big on views, with waterfalls visible around nearly every bend in the trail. Swimming is permitted around the falls in the Amnicon River, but water levels can fluctuate and there are no lifeguards or designated beaches — so do it cautiously and watch little ones.

The park also has a beautiful, 55-foot covered bridge that crosses the river between its namesake upper and lower falls. It was moved to the park in 1930.

Less than 20 miles southwest is Pattison State Park, home to the state’s tallest waterfall, Big Manitou, at 165 feet. It’s sister, Little Manitou, is smaller at 31 feet, but is also worth a visit.

The park suffered storm and flood damage in 2018 and some trails, including the Beaver and Little Manitou Falls trails, remain closed. But both waterfalls are still accessible, as is the park’s beach on Interfalls Lake.

Both Amnicon and Pattison have campgrounds. Amnicon’s sites are all rustic, with no electric hookups and only vault toilets. Pattison has some electric sites, a shower building and a few great backpack sites above Little Manitou Falls.

Interstate, Polk County; Perrot, Trempealeau County

Tired yet? We’re more than halfway through our tour, and it’s time to turn south to visit Wisconsin’s first state park, Interstate.

The park is on a scenic gorge along the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which separates Wisconsin from Minnesota. It’s also home to the western terminus of the 1,100-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Find that on the .4-mile Pothole Trail, which also offers views of the river and the steep basalt cliffs of the Dalles of the St. Croix River. Look down at your feet, too, to see the smooth holes carved into the rock by swirling eddies when the cliffs were covered by a glacial river.

From St. Croix Falls, continue south for another riverside park, this time along the Mississippi.

Perrot State Park is along the river at its confluence with the Trempealeau River, and offers stunning views of both from 500-foot bluffs.

Follow the steep Brady’s Bluff Trail to the top of the park’s tallest bluff, with views of Trempealeau Mountain and the Mississippi River. Watch for more than 200 species of birds, especially during migration season, including hawks riding the thermals around the bluffs.

The park’s campground has a few sites with water views; 44 is one of the best.

Wildcat Mountain, Vernon County; Wyalusing, Grant County

It’s time for a view of a different river, in the state’s hilly Driftless Region.

Head southeast through rolling, unglaciated land to Wildcat Mountain State Park, along the winding Kickapoo River. The river is a favorite for paddlers; if you're spending a full day, rent a canoe or kayak in Ontario for a trip.

Otherwise take in the river from above at the park, which has a handful of lookouts. The best views of the river are around the Upper Picnic Area.

Some of the best hiking and more great views can be found in the southwest corner of the park, on the challenging 1.3-mile Hemlock Nature trail up 1,220-foot Mount Pisgah. (Pets are not permitted.)

After a dose of the Driftless, it’s time for more river views at Wyalusing State Park, where the Wisconsin River meets the Mississippi.

Hike along 500-foot bluffs and catch views of both rivers on multiple trails throughout the park. The park also has a few caves carved into the bluffs' limestone, include Treasure Cave on the Bluff Trail and a couple on the Sand Cave trail, where there’s also a small waterfall.

The Bluff Trail near the Wisconsin Ridge campground is one of the best spots for watching the sun set over the confluence of the rivers, and the campground has some sites with Wisconsin River views.

Governor Dodge, Iowa County; Devil's Lake, Sauk County

Eastward bound, follow Highway 18 to Governor Dodge State Park, one of the state’s largest at 5,350 acres. We’re still in the Driftless, so that’s over 5,000 acres of forested hills, with two lakes sandwiched in.

There are more than 40 miles of trails to explore, but if you only have time for one, make it the short, half-mile trail to Stephens Falls. A paved, accessible trail leads to an overlook above the small cascade, which drops over a mossy slab of sandstone. Stairs lead down to the waterfall for a closer look and access to the 3-mile Lost Canyon Trail.

Follow that trail the other way to find an old spring house just above the waterfall. There’s another spring house along the same trail closer to the Cox Hollow Campground, and one north of the Falls near the horse trail.

Leave time to make your way to Baraboo and the state’s most popular park.

It’s easy to see why Devil’s Lake draws so many visitors — more than 2.6 million in 2018. The park’s 500-foot quartzite bluffs are one-of-a-kind in Wisconsin, and the lake is popular for cooling off in the summer.

The park's classic hike is a challenging trek up the East Bluff. From the South Shore, link the Balanced Rock, East Bluff, Potholes and Grottos trails for a loop up and down the bluff. The trails are challenging, including segments with stairs made from the blocky quartzite that can be slick when wet. The rewards are views of the lake, the Baraboo Hills and formations like Balanced Rock, a top-like formation, and Devil’s Doorway, a favorite for photos when the sun sets to the west behind it.

The park is one of the best rock-climbing spots in the state, with more than 1,600 routes. Try your hand at it with an outfitter like Devils Lake Climbing Guides.

The park has a lot of campsites, but instead spend your final night at the park's quieter cousin less than 15 miles north.

Mirror Lake, Sauk County

Mirror Lake State Park has more than 150 campsites in three campgrounds, plus an accessible cabin. If you plan far enough in advance, you could rent the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Seth Peterson Cottage, which is tucked inside the park.

The park's aptly named no-wake lake is surrounded by sandstone cliffs that shelter its calm waters. Rent a canoe, kayak or standup paddleboard from near the boat launch and explore the wooded cliffs that rise 50 feet in some spots.

The park has more than 19 miles of hiking trails, including one that leads to Ishnala Supper Club, the perfect place to finish your trip.

The legendary supper club offers views of the lake through walls of windows in the main dining room and bar, plus outdoor decks. Ishnala does not accept reservations and waits can be long, but with an Old Fashioned in hand and classic Wisconsin views, the wait is an experience in itself.

Contact Chelsey Lewis at (414) 224-2144 or Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.

Sign up for our Travel newsletter for ideas on things to do around Wisconsin and the Midwest delivered to your inbox.

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

More travel stories

Wisconsin Bucket List: 20 things you have to do

Visit 15 of Wisconsin's best parks on this 9-day road trip

50 of the best national trail miles in Wisconsin

FOLLOW JS TRAVEL: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: The best Wisconsin state parks to visit for a summer road trip