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Wisconsin State Natural Areas Program Bittersweet Lakes (No. 34)



Within the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, Vilas County. T40N-R7E, Sections 14, 15, 21, 22, 27. 1,070 acres.



Four soft water seepage lakes, each separated by an isthmus are the main features of the natural area. The lakes are Bittersweet (104 acres, 31 feet), Oberlin (46 acres, 25 feet), Smith (43 acres, 18 feet), and Prong (30 acres, 50 feet), and all have a variety of bottom substrates, ranging from sand and gravel to rock and muck, are slightly acidic, and have relatively high water clarity. Water levels fluctuate slightly each year. The aquatic vegetation consists of many unusual plants including seven-angle pipewort, watershield, bur-reeds, golden pert, quillworts, water lobelia and waterweed. In some areas, lake pockets contain leatherleaf dominant bog vegetation. The shoreline vegetation consists of a narrow zone of shrubs such as leatherleaf, alders, and meadowsweet, which changes abruptly to uplands. Northwest of Smith Lake and west of Oberlin Lake is an old-growth northern mesic forest remnant of hemlock and yellow birch; a black spruce-tamarack bog is located west of Smith Lake. White pine, red oak and birch dominate the forest found between Bittersweet and Prong Lakes, and a second-growth northern dry-mesic forest composed of paper birch, aspen, red maple, red oak, and lesser amounts of white pine, occurs in other areas. The fishery consists of walleye, northern pike, large and smallmouth bass, and panfish. Many diving ducks use the lakes during migration and common loons have nested in the tract. Bittersweet Lakes is owned by the DNR and was designated a State Natural Area in 1958.


Driving directions

From the intersection of Highways 155 and 70 in St. Germain, go west on 70 5.7 miles, then north on an unnamed gravel access road (marked by a "Bittersweet Wild Lakes" sign) about 0.7 miles to a fork, then take the right fork another 0.3 miles to a carry-in canoe launch on the southwest side of Bittersweet Lake. The four lakes are connected by short overland portages marked by signs. Primitive camping is available at five reservable shoreline campsites. No motors of any kind are allowed on the four lakes.


Bittersweet Lakes is owned by:

  • WDNR


The DNR's state natural areas program is comprised of lands owned by the state, private conservation organizations, municipalities, other governmental agencies, educational institutions and private individuals. While the majority of SNAs are open to the public, access may vary according to individual ownership policies. Public use restrictions may apply due to public safety, or to protect endangered or threatened species or unique natural features. Lands may be temporarily closed due to specific management activities. Users are encouraged to contact the landowner for more specific details.

The data shown on these maps have been obtained from various sources, and are of varying age, reliability, and resolution. The data may contain errors or omissions and should not be interpreted as a legal representation of legal ownership boundaries.


Site objectives

Manage the site as a reserve for northern dry-mesic and mesic forest, as an aquatic and experimental lakes reserve, and as an ecological reference area. Natural processes will primarily determine the structure of the forest and lakes. Provide opportunities for research and education on the highest quality native northern dry-mesic / mesic forests and lakes.

Management approach

The native species are managed passively, which allows nature to determine the ecological characteristics of the site. The dry-mesic and mesic forests will be allowed to convert over time to a more uneven-aged condition. Allowable activities include control of invasive plants and animals, maintenance of existing facilities, and access to suppress fires. Salvage of trees after a major wind event is not considered compatible with management objectives.

Site-specific considerations

  • A 400-foot “Wild Lake Management Zone” surrounds lakes, where motorized access is prohibited.
  • Maintain a lightly-developed public vehicle access road from Hwy 70 to Bittersweet Lake, with the parking area located outside the 400-foot Wild Lake Management Zone.
  • Maintain lightly-developed vehicle access road to Oberlin Lake from the north to allow access for researchers and disabled persons who have obtained a permit from the Forest Superintendent.
  • Snowmobile trails west and east of Oberlin and Smith lakes will be permanently closed. The trail west and south of Bittersweet and Prong Lakes that bisects the Dry Lakes Pines section will remain open. Local snowmobile clubs have management authority to keep the trails free of windfalls and overhanging hazard trees, though soil disturbance is not permitted.
  • Five primitive campsites, primitive portage trails between the lakes, and a proposed lightly-developed hiking trail are the extent of recreational facilities development.


Very few State Natural Areas have public facilities, but nearly all are open for a variety of recreational activities as indicated below. Generally, there are no picnic areas, restrooms, or other developments. Parking lots or designated parking areas are noted on individual SNA pages and maps. Trails, if present, are typically undesignated footpaths. If a developed trail is present, it will normally be noted on the SNA map and/or under the "Access" tab. A compass and topographic map or a GPS unit are useful tools for exploring larger, isolated SNAs.

Allowable activities

In general, the activities listed below are allowed on all DNR-owned SNA lands. Exceptions to this list of public uses, such as SNAs closed to hunting, are noted under the "Access" tab above and posted with signs on site.

  • Hiking
  • Fishing
  • Cross country skiing
  • Hunting
  • Trapping

Prohibited activities

  • Camping and campfires
  • Collecting of animals (other than legally harvested species), non-edible fungi, rocks, minerals, fossils, archaeological artifacts, soil, downed wood, or any other natural material, alive or dead. Collecting for scientific research requires a permit issued by the DNR
  • Collecting of plants including seeds, roots or other non-edible parts of herbaceous plants such as wildflowers or grasses
  • Geocaching
  • Horseback riding
  • Rock climbing
  • Vehicles, including bicycles, ATVs, aircraft, and snowmobiles except on trails and roadways designated for their use

For rules governing state-owned SNAs and other state lands, please consult Chapter NR 45 Wis. Admin. Code [exit DNR]

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Last revised: Friday, October 26, 2018