At first glance, many people might not realize there are any Wisconsin national parks. But look closer and you’ll see that there are several outstanding NPS units worth visiting. It can be helpful to know that, within the National Park System, only 63 units bear the attention-grabbing designation “national park.” But the National Park Service oversees a total of 423 units across all 50 states. These include national monuments, battlefields, seashores, and more—with many of these units having excellent outdoor adventure opportunities typically associated with national parks.
In Wisconsin, there are two NPS units that are particularly attractive to travelers on a national parks road trip: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. There are also two national scenic trails, Ice Age and North Country, passing through the state. And just across the Mississippi River, in Iowa, there’s the fascinating Effigy Mounds National Monument. It might not technically be part of the WI national parks, but it’s so close it demands an honorable mention. Put it all together, and we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the outdoor potential in this far-northern U.S. state.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Located at the northern tip of Wisconsin, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore protects 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland shoreline along Lake Superior. Across the park’s 108 square miles, a wide variety of activities are possible. Many visitors focus on exploring the forested islands and surrounding waters. Since there’s no bridge access, visitors must arrive by water using commercial services, guided trips, and private motorboats or paddle craft.
Many of the islands have shorter and longer trails for hiking and wildlife viewing. Camping is allowed on all but three islands, with both established sites and primitive backcountry zones requiring advanced reservations. Fishing is also popular throughout the park, as is joining guided tours to several historic lighthouses. More camping and the Lakeshore Trail can be found on the mainland portion of the park. During winter, exploring ice caves may be possible when the shoreline is frozen.
Weather, wind, and sea conditions can change quickly in the area, and water temperatures remain quite cold year-round. The park averages only 250,000 visitors per year, with most people coming during the warmest months, typically from late-June through early September. Apostle Islands is one of three national lakeshores located on the Great Lakes, along with Pictured Rocks NL and Sleeping Bear Dunes NL, both in Michigan.
Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
Located in western Wisconsin, about 252 miles of the Namekagon River and Saint Croix River are protected and managed as part of this NPS unit. The highlights mostly revolve around water activities, like paddling, boating, swimming, and fishing. With so much river mileage available, choosing where to paddle can be challenging. To help, the park service has put together a paddling webpage with information about each section.
One of the most scenic and popular areas on the Lower St. Croix River is the Dalles, a sheer-walled gorge of basaltic volcanic rock. Due to a dam downstream, the river is slower and deeper in this section, which invites more motor traffic. The Dalles can also be explored on land at the Wisconsin-Minnesota Interstate Park.
For those who prefer to admire the river from dry land, there are several options. Two scenic drives include the 124-mile St. Croix Scenic Byway, which follows the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River south and north of Saint Croix Falls, WI. Nearby, there’s a shorter driving option on the historic River Road, which follows the St. Croix River on the Wisconsin side for 11 miles north from the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Visitor Center. This is one of six visitor centers along the riverway, some managed by state park partners. For hikers, the park service also maintains seven trails of varying lengths along the banks of the river.
National Scenic Trails and Monuments
Located in northern Wisconsin, a pair of national scenic trails offer opportunities for shorter section hikes or long-distance backpacking trips. The North Country National Scenic Trail, typically called the North Country Trail or NCT, is a long-distance hiking trail that stretches over 4,600 miles across seven states between Middlebury, Vermont, and Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota. Established in 1980, the NCT is the longest of eleven national scenic trails, which also include the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.
Over 200 miles of the NCT pass through northern Wisconsin, with highlights including state parks, forests, and wilderness areas with rugged mountains, deep valleys, and tumbling waterfalls. The North Country Trail Association offers a helpful webpage for identifying where to hike.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a long-distance hiking route occurring entirely within the state of Wisconsin. About 675 miles have been completed of the planned 1,200-mile-long trail. This curiously meandering trail roughly traces the hilly southern edge of glaciation that once partly covered Wisconsin during the last ice age. To help narrow down a shorter section to day hike or backpack, the Ice Age Trail Alliance has created this webpage.
Located in Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from southwestern Wisconsin, you’ll find Effigy Mounds National Monument. This NPS unit preserves over 200 prehistoric mounds built by the mysterious pre-Columbian Mound Builder culture, most likely over 1000 years ago. These effigy mounds are shaped like animals, including deer, bear, bison, lynx, birds, turtles, and panthers. Other mounds are linear or rectangular in shape. The purpose of the mounds is unclear, but archeologists theorize they were ceremonial structures that marked seasonal or celestial events. Visitors can hike trails of varying lengths, each from about 2-7 miles round trip, while exploring mounds dispersed throughout a scenic and forested river valley.
Of course, there’s plenty more to see and do in Wisconsin beyond the national park service units. For more ideas, check out the official site of the Wisconsin Dept. of Tourism at www.travelwisconsin.com. If you’re looking for more national parks and any other NPS units for an adventurous road trip through the heart of America, check out Gateway Arch NP in St. Louis, MO, Cuyahoga Valley NP in Ohio, and the many NPS units along Route 66, which passes through several Midwestern states.
National parks of Wisconsin are highly under-rated and can make an amazing road trip adventure. For a fun activity and keepsake to record your travels, check out the below top-selling scratch off map of United States, which includes a national parks scratch off map poster. You can track your travels!
Cover photo: Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Maryna/Adobe