There’s plenty of places to get out and explore without leaving the state
Written and photographed by Daniel Ziolkowski
People often think of road trips as week-long journeys westward toward Colorado, Utah and California. But with the world stuck in a state of uncertainty, you don’t need to travel thousands of miles to take in nature’s best scenes. No matter where you are in Wisconsin, there’s something amazing for adventurers to explore within a few hours’ drive. If you have a weekend to get out and explore, pick a few of these spots and make it a road trip!
Picnic Point — Madison, Dane County
One of the most popular places for Wisconsin Badgers to run, hike and swim, the peninsula is known for its astounding views of the Wisconsin State Capitol dome and the Madison skyline. The 129-acre collection of trails, fireplaces and marshes runs about a mile out into Lake Mendota. Water is visible on both sides along multiple points of the main trail, and has helped it become the prime jewel of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.
UW–Madison Arboretum — Madison, Dane County
The Arboretum, a 1,200-acre wildlife sanctuary just a few minutes outside of downtown Madison, was created by the university as a wildlife preserve in 1932. Explorers can visit the habitats of hundreds of state or federally threatened species, and UW–Madison ecologists and biologists use it to do research on local wildlife. This helps protect endangered species of plants in Wisconsin and is an example of ecological restoration, or the process of reintroducing species in their natural wild condition.
Devil’s Lake State Park — Baraboo, Sauk County
Easily the most well-visited state park in Wisconsin, Devil’s Lake attracts over 3 million visitors per year and is just a portion of the beauty in Sauk County. The park boasts countless hiking trails up different hills or along the shoreline, suitable for hikers of any age, and is generally rather dog friendly. At the highest point of 1,447 feet, you can see most of the county’s 27,000 acres dedicated to public recreation, and each trail gives its own stunning views of the surrounding area. It is located roughly an hour northwest of Madison.
Dells of the Wisconsin River State Natural Area — Wisconsin Dells, multiple counties
Well-known for waterparks, goofy shops and amphibious car tours, the Wisconsin Dells area also offers a few pretty amazing hiking trails along the Wisconsin River. These natural areas provide shoreline views of the eroded river walls unmatched anywhere else in the state. This particular area covers a five-mile region around the river. Some portions are only accessible via boat tour.
Wildcat Mountain State Park — Ontario, Vernon County
If you’re in it for the biggest, widest views possible, Wildcat Mountain of southwestern Wisconsin is the perfect spot for views of what the state may have looked like before the Ice Age. What’s even better is you don’t have to hike to the top to find them, with a parking lot right next to a marked observatory point, from which you can then hike down the hill. On top of that, the 3,643-acre park surrounds the Kickapoo River, which provides smaller canyon formations and the Ice Cave Trail, where people come to see massive icicles in the colder months.
Lake Wissota State Park — Chippewa Falls, Chippewa County
Northeast of Eau Claire in Chippewa Falls, Lake Wissota State Park is a very youthful forest and prairie region formed partially in 1918 with the construction of a dam on the Chippewa River. The lake has become an extremely popular fishing spot for walleye, muskie, bass and more, but is also equipped with 17 miles of hiking trails and a 285-foot beach. As it gets colder outside, steam coming off the lake becomes very visible, which makes for a very beautiful drive in and out. You’ll quickly start to see ice fishing huts pop up, too.
Timm’s Hill — Town of Hill, Price County
The highest natural point in the state, at 1,951.5 feet, is less-known to tourists than you might expect. Wisconsin’s tallest peak features an observation tower that allows you to see more than 30 miles in each direction, and the park hosts a collection of two sizable lakes and other small streams. Fishing and bird-watching are popular in the relatively quiet region. Its main trail connects to the Ice Age Trail that spans 1,200 miles of areas that glaciers carved out of the state. This landmark is near the city of Tomahawk, but relatively isolated.
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest — Multiple sections across northern Wisconsin
This national forest is broken up into six massive regions that collectively span 1.5 million acres. These photos come from the Lakewood-Laona District, which is a popular destination for ATV riders and off-road enthusiasts. Every road through the forests is a scenic drive in itself, and while general hiking options can be rather limited, there are many unique spots like the Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. Built by the U.S. Forest Service in 1935 to watch for growing wildfires in the area, the tower is essentially a 100-foot tall steel staircase that gets the heart racing pretty fast, but provides wonderful views.
High Cliff State Park — Sherwood, Calumet County
Located near Appleton on the shores of Lake Winnebago, the state’s largest inland lake, High Cliff State Park shows off the soaring walls of limestone formerly mined in the region. The park features a handful of notable attractions, including a 12-foot statue of the Winnebago Chief Red Bird and the ruins of the lime kiln industry that operated in the area until 1956. Each corner you turn seems to be a completely new environment, as it switches between prairies, cliffs, forests and shoreline.