Heading out for a day of snowshoeing at Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee.
Hot picks for cold weather fun
Bright, sparkling snow, crisp air and no crowds make winter trips to the state parks fun and relaxing.
State parks and forests that are bustling in summer offer their own charm in the winter months. It's a lot quieter. You won't be bugged by insects or many neighbors in the campgrounds that are open, and you can be more spontaneous when the forecast predicts a beautiful sunny day for an outing. Whether you just want to take a day trip and a light picnic, or warm up at a campfire on a starlit night, the state parks and forests offer wide open spaces you can enjoy without reservation.
The 28 state properties charted on page 28 offer campsites and overnight amenities year-round. Yes, it is a longer walk to a thawed out faucet this time of year and it's true that you'll have to wait 'til you're home to shower, but it's especially nice to follow a rabbit track in the snow, glide down a ski trail, then relax around the campfire with a warm mug of cocoa while you slip a tinfoil dinner into the embers. And you might just get the best night of sleep you'll have all year after a day with plenty of exercise in the brisk air.
Some of the best bets in winter might surprise you. For instance, state park and trail visitors this past year voted the Gold Seal to Pattison State Park in Douglas County. Visitors said the park's winterized campgrounds made a perfect place for a cold weather getaway. Also, the 165-foot Manitou Falls is a stunning sight any time of year! Pattison has 4.5miles of groomed skiing trails ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert routes.
Your favorite snowshoe trail? This year the nod went to Mirror Lake State Park just southwest of Lake Delton and the Wisconsin Dells area. The park has 3.2 miles of snowshoe trails and 19 miles of cross-country ski trails. It is a park known for its winter fun with ice fishing, skiing and winter camping. Snowshoes and cross-country skis are available to rent. Please call the park office at (608) 254-2333 for more information and trail updates.
The top pick for the best candlelight ski events last winter? Kohler-Andrae State Park just four miles south of Sheboygan along Lake Michigan where the staff and friends group do it up light and bright by offering an illuminating, romantic experience on February 12, just before Valentine's Day. They fire up torches of passion setting out nearly 200 tiki torches along a two-mile cross-country ski route. After your exercise, round off the evening with a cup of hot chocolate by the fireplace. The candlelight events are a free add-on once you have purchased your park admission sticker.
Word of mouth from friends, park neighbors and avid outdoor users is a great way to find a hot spot for cold weather fun at the state parks. You can also start at Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources searching under "Outdoor Recreation" in the left side navigation then just type "State Parks Winter" into the search box. You'll find plenty of links to winter campsite specifics, outdoor activities, dates and locations of remaining candlelight hikes and skiing events as well as other monthly programs at the parks.
Visitors share some of their all- around winter favorites too. One of the most popular is High Cliff State Park in Sherwood on the northeast side of Lake Winnebago, which has stunning overviews of the lake. The park has an interesting mix of sites to visit including a natural area, an old lime kiln and quarry, and Native American effigy mounds. Visitors can also rent snowshoes at the property. The 1.3-mile Forest Management Trail is especially popular with the snowshoeing set because it follows a 25-stop guided trail to learn a bit about woodland management. Visit the park website, click on the Park Map and you will find a special map for winter use of the facility.
Peninsula State Park at Fish Creek is a perennial favorite winter pick. Hardy campers can spend the night at the Tennison Bay campground. There is good sledding on the big hill on the fairway of the 17th hole on the Peninsula Golf Course. You can ski on 16 miles of cross-country trails including six miles groomed for skate skiers. Five miles of trails are reserved for hikers and snowshoers – including the mile-long moderate Minnehaha Trail starting at Nicolet Bay, the 2.8-mile Sentinel Trail from the Eagle Tower area, and the more difficult 1.4-mile Niagara Snowshoe Trail that features a tough climb through a shoreland hardwood plot. For those who like to stay grounded in milder activities, the White Cedar Nature Center is open most Saturdays throughout the year. Peninsula also boasts 17 miles of groomed snowmobile trails.
An up-and-coming winter hotspot among state properties is the 15,000-acre Navarino Wildlife Area in Shawano County where several ski and snowshoe trails converge near the modern nature center. Snowshoe rentals are available on-site. You might cross paths with squirrels and winter songbirds on a warm, snowy day.
Both the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest based in Campbellsport and the Southern Unit headquartered in Eagle and running 30 miles between Dousman and Whitewater, are favored spots for cross-country skiers from the southeastern metro areas. The Nordic, McMiller and Scuppernong trails in the Southern Unit are groomed when there is adequate snow and provide beautiful rolling scenery through woods, along wetlands and through pine plantations.
The Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in Delafield has just over 17 miles of cross-country ski trails including 2.5 miles that are lighted for night skiing.
Another best bet for winter fun is Blue Mounds State Park, which offers 89 winter campsites as well as hiking trails, snowshoeing trails, sledding hills and cross-country ski trails.
Devil's Lake State Park in Baraboo keeps 15 winter campsites open in the family campground as well as a sledding hill near the Quartzite Campground, five miles of cross-country ski trails and quality ice fishing opportunities for northerns and trout on the lake.
Interstate Park at the Dalles of the St. Croix River in the bordering communities of St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, and Taylor Falls, Minnesota, has more than 11 miles of cross-country ski trails and a few miles of excellent snowmobile trails that link to county trails and private club snowmobiling trails in the area.
The Red Cedar Trail between Menomonie and Downsville running to the Dunnville Wildlife Area in Dunn County features 14.5 miles for skiing along a rail trail that parallels portions of the Red Cedar River and connects to the Chippewa River State Trail. Snowshoers can also use and enjoy portions of the trail that are not groomed for skiers. Certainly a highlight is a wall of ice that forms from the seeping cliffs near the northern trailhead just outside Menomonie.
Join us while the snow is still a go and crisp days make a quiet day in the parks a special pleasure.