Wisconsin Backpacking

Porcupine Wilderness Backpacking

Backpacking is the next level in hiking as a sport. Many hikers would like to get further into the forest to a secluded fishing lake or scenic campsite all to themselves. Other goal-oriented hikers are attempting to complete many miles of a Wisconsin long distance trail and can accomplish more miles by camping overnight along the trail. And some campers are willing to hike with their gear because they prefer primitive campsites where they can enjoy a peaceful retreat away from crowds and a night sky full of stars.

There are few people who are willing to strap a 40lb pack on their back and trudge out into the wild where there are few comforts of modern life, but among those that do the feeling of freedom and liberation makes the extra effort worthwhile.

Wisconsin offers an array of backpacking opportunities. There are two national trails threading through the state that offer long distance hiking with overnight camping along the trail. In addition, there are millions of acres of public land open to primitive camping with a maze of trails that access secluded destinations. This article presents a compilation of potential Wisconsin backpacking trip plans. Each plan summarized below includes links to articles about the locations along with detailed GPS recorded digital maps.

Over the years I’ll be adding more trip summaries to this page, so be sure to check back and see what new trips have been added.

Snowshoeing & Winter Camping Underdown Recreation Area

The Underdown Recreation Area is a 44,000-acre outdoor adventure playground in Lincoln County near Merrill and Tomahawk. In summer it is the northwood’s most popular horseback riding area. It also draws in mountain bikers, hikers, and anglers. The Ice Age National Trail cuts through the middle of it along the Underdown and Alta Vista Segments … and with three campsites along the IAT it has become a popular segment with backpackers. The Underdown has its own drive-in campground with 11 campsites and dispersed camping is allowed in the Lincoln County Forest 50 feet from trails, roads, and lakes.

In winter, The Underdown is a regional draw for cross country skiers, fat tire mountain bikers, day hikers on the Ice Age Trail, and there is a lengthy and challenging snowshoeing trail network.

In mid-January of 2021 me and a friend were looking for a winter overnight hike with camping along the trail and we settled on The Underdown for what would be our first winter backpacking trip. There are several advantages to this area for winter hiking and camping. This article is a review of that trip.

Hiking the Ice Age Trail Parnell Segment

narrow gravel trail over a large hill with bare trees

The Parnell Segment of the Ice Age National Trail is a 13.9-mile moderate-to-difficult single track footpath in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest. It connects directly to the Greenbush Segment heading eastbound and the Milwaukee River Segment heading westbound on the IAT.

This trail is a popular with day hikers and backpackers. There are a number of parking lots with direct access to the trail at major scenic destinations such as Mauthe Lake , Crooked Lake, Butler Lake, and Parnell Tower. There are also two backpacker shelters and two campgrounds along the trail. All sites and shelters must be reserved in advance. You’ll find everything you need along the trail such as parking, restrooms, and drinking water.

Hiking the New Fane Trails in the Northern Kettle Moraine

New Fane Hiking Trails

The New Fane Trails are a set of hiking, mountain biking, and ski trails in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest at New Fane. This trail system connects directly to the Ice Age Trail – Milwaukee River Segment. All of the hiking trails are easy loops that course through the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine on wide two-track trails. Amenities include a parking lot with restrooms, water, and a picnic area.

Hiking Otter Lake County Park

Otter Lake

Otter Lake is a Lincoln County Park that includes a picnic and swimming area on the south end of the lake and a small campground on the north end. An easy 1.3-mile hiking trail encircles the lake which connects the recreation area to the campground. Camping is first-come-first-serve and self-registration.

Walking the Sanders Creek Trail in Boscobel

sidewalk going under a railroad bridge

The Sanders Creek Trail is a paved 1.5-mile multi-use trail that follows Sanders Creek to the Wisconsin River in Boscobel Wisconsin. It is part of the larger Wisconsin River Trail plan to create a 20-mile loop bike trail connecting Boscobel, Woodman, Wauzeka, and Boydtown with close views of the Wisconsin River from both sides of its banks. The Sanders Creek trail is a spur from this trail that winds through downtown Boscobel and connects parks and neighborhoods. The trail is an easy to walk with few gentle slopes.

Hiking Blackhawk Lake Recreational Area

Blackhawk Lake Recreation Area

Blackhawk Lake Recreation Area is a 1200-acre park surrounding a 220-acre manmade lake in Cobb and Highland Wisconsin. A 7.5-mile long two-track footpath encircles the lake. The trails climbs a number of steep grades and long inclines to restored parries and dips into deep woodland ravines – a terrain typical of Driftless Area topography.

Due to the total elevation gain, the fording of two deep creeks at unbridged crossings, and the overgrowth of grasses along sections of trail, this trail is rated as difficult. However, seasoned hikers may deem this trail loop to be easy as it is wide, easy to follow, and located in a busy recreation area with access to drinking water, parking, concessions, and other amenities.

Hiking Tower Hill State Park

Tower Hill State Park is one of Wisconsin’s oldest state parks, and among its smallest. A short network of hiking trails climbs a sandstone bluff that rises 180-feet above the Wisconsin River, with all trails leading to the historic shot tower smelting house and its panoramic views of the idyllic Lower Wisconsin River Valley. Trails in this park are wide two-track footpaths that ascend or descend steep hills in a woodland setting speckled with tall white pines among hardwoods.

A small community of ten campsites nestled together on a knoll above the Wisconsin River and organized around a central playing field is the primary recreation attraction at Tower Hill. A boat ramp and canoe launch only a few feet down the bank from the campground offers easy access to the scenic riverway.

Hiking & Biking the Ice Age Trail Hartland Segment

Bark River on the Hartland Segment of the Ice Age Trail

The Hartland segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a 6.8-mile course of various trail types including sidewalks, asphalt paved bike trails, and footpaths spanning between the Delafield Segment to the south and the Merton Segment to the north. These easy trails take hikers and bikers through neighborhoods, parks, and downtown Hartland besides creeks and the Bark River.

Hiking the Ice Age Trail Pine Line Segment

The Pine Line Segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a very short 1-mile long footpath between the Pine Line multi-use bike trail and Highway 13 in Taylor County Wisconsin. This segment does not connect directly to other segments; it is separated via connecting road routes from the East Lake Segment to the east and the Mondeaux Esker Segment to the West. A primitive campground is available first-come-first-serve to long distance hikers on the IAT near the midpoint of the Pine Line Segment. Parking and restrooms are available nearby at Chelsea Lake County Park and a wayside on Highway 13.

Hiking the Ice Age Trail East Lake Segment

Lake shore beneath pines

The East Lake Segment is a 6.4-mile point-to-point single-track footpath of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Taylor County Wisconsin. The trail is easy to follow as it rolls up and down over many hills with some steep climbs. The East Lake Segment does not directly connect to another segment, but it is separated by short road connections from the Pine Line Segment going westbound and the Rib Lake Segment heading eastbound.

Dispersed camping is allowed in the Taylor County Forest along the trail – which is most of the trail, all but a brief section of private land which is indicated by signs along the trail. There is also an established wilderness dispersed site just off the trail on the shore of East Lake.

This Segment gets high marks for scenery, with features that include Moose Mountain, East Lake, the headwaters of the Black River, a very old stump with a sign indicating that it is a very old stump, and “Dramatic high relief hummocky terrain.” There are large off-the-road parking lots at each end of the segment and a restroom and water pump at the wayside at the west trailhead.

Hiking the Ice Age Trail Timberland Wilderness Segment

Along the Ice Age Trail Timberland Wilderness Segment

The Timberland Wilderness Segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a 3.9-mile span of footpath between the Wood Lake Segment and a short road connection to the Camp 27 Segment. Its narrow lane of tread threads through the thick woods of a 35,000-acre State Legacy Forest on the far west end of Lincoln County in the North Central region of Wisconsin. Because legacy forests are privately held timber production lands there is no camping allowed along this segment. A notable feature of this trail is a massive complex of beaver dams which the trail uses to cross between wetlands.

Hiking the Merrrimac Preserve Trails

Along the trails at Merrimac Preserve

The Merrimac Preserve is an 1800-acre land trust, established and maintained by Riverland Conservancy, found adjacent to Devil’s Lake State Park. The preserve features a 9-mile network of hiking trails which directly connect to the Devils Lake trails. The Merrimac Segment of the Ice Age National Trail passes through the Merrimac Preserve.

Riverland Conservancy was established by Alliant Energy which owns and operates several of the Wisconsin River hydroelectric dams nearby. This enormous conservation gift essentially extends the boundaries of Devil’s Lake State Park and provides a critical greenway for the route of the Ice Age Trail as it connects from Devil’s Lake to the Merrimac Ferry.

This article describes some of the trails and features of the Merrimac Preserve in text and photography. And, below, I’ll reveal what my all-time favorite hiking trail is in the state of Wisconsin. Spoiler ... it involves some of the trails at Merrimac Preserve.

Hiking the Lauterman Trail

Lake Lauterman from Campsite #3

The Lauterman Recreation Area is a substantial hiking and camping area within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest off Highway 70 near Florence Wisconsin. This area features a trail network that can be used for cross country skiing, hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking. There is an array of camping options within the recreation area and along the trails. There are drive-in campgrounds at Chipmunk Rapids and Lost Lake and there are 5 wilderness hike-in campsites along the trail around Lauterman Lake, and an additional 5 wilderness hike-in campsites on the trail around Perch Lake. There is also a trail shelter on a hill overlooking Lake Lauterman with plenty of room around it for tents. Also, there is an former youth campground with vintage cabins for rent through the Forest Service on Lost Lake. Groups can rent all of the cabins and kitchens to hold a large group event, or individuals can rent individual cabins and facilities.

The hiking route is on a network of hiking and skiing trails. I started this trail at Chipmunk Rapids and hiked along the 3-mile Chipmunk Trail to reach the 2.8-mile Lake Lauterman Loop and returned for a 9-mile lollipop hike. If you have more time to stay in the area you can also hike the 5-mile ridge trail loop or 2-mile Perch Lake loop. The Assessors Trail is a short trail that connects between trails near the Lost Lake Campground. Taken together, there are enough interconnected trails to put together a nice overnight backpacking trip by using the wilderness sites along the trails at Lauterman Lake and Perch Lake. If that isn’t enough, the property is adjacent to the Whisker Lake Federal Wilderness. So, backpackers interested in a longer multi-day adventure can continue 3-miles up Forest Road 2150 to access trails into Whisker Lake.

Biking the Great Sauk State Trail

asphalt paved trail through grasslands

The Great Sauk Trail is a 10.5-mile multi-use state trail that currently spans between Sauk City and the former Badger Ammunition Plant just outside Devils Lake State Park. Scenery is abundant along the trail with several miles directly paralleling a stretch of the Wisconsin River famous for its bald eagle sightings. Half of the trail travels through Sauk City and Prairie du Sac with easy access to restaurants and city parks. The second half crosses through the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area which is the site of the former Badger Ammunition Plant.

Hiking and Backpacking the Hidden Lake Trail

If you are looking for a weekend backpacking trip in Wisconsin, this is the trail you’re looking for. Hidden Lakes is a 15.5-mile loop trail – ideal for solo hikers, it has dispersed non-designated campsites all along it, there are two established National Forest campgrounds set 5-miles apart along its route. Views are rich with scenic lakes, dense forest, birch groves, hemlocks, pines and maple forest. There are hills, but they not too frequent. And, there are lakes ... lots of lakes with echoes of loons and great horned owls. On top of that, if you have ATT wireless, you will have great phone service and at least enough internet service to pull down a weather forecast.

The Hidden Lake Trail is comprised of a series of footpaths, mountain bike trails, ski trails and horseback trails that taken together form a continuous loop around Butternut Lake in the Nicolet National Forest in Forest County WI near Eagle River off Highway 70. The trail contorts its way from one small lake to another over undulating glacial terrain, along eskers high above deep ravines, beside wetlands and disappearing kettle lakes, through thick pines and wide expanses of maple forest.

Hiking the North Country Trail Penokee to Beaver Lake

Brunsweiler River on the NCT

The North Country Trail is one of only eleven National Scenic Trails in the United States. Its overall 4600-mile route lays down a 200-mile passage through Wisconsin in Iron, Ashland, Bayfield, and Douglas counties. This trail offers Wisconsin’s most premiere backpacking experience as it threads through deep wilderness with waypoints at some of Wisconsin’s most photogenic scenic highlights. A long section of the trail passes through the Nicolet-Chequamegon National Forest.

I’ve broken down the Chequamegon section into routes that can be achieved in weekend backpacking trips, and this article will review the section between Penokee Trailhead and Beaver Lake Campground. My hiking party covered this 12-mile section over three days with two nights camped along the trail. This section lacks major scenic destinations, but it is nonetheless an adventurous section that makes for a great long weekend outing. It could surely be hiked in a single day point-to-point, but we enjoyed breaking it into easier hikes which accommodated driving days from southern Wisconsin and allowed us to enjoy the scenery and dispersed camping rather than push for the athletic accomplishment of a punishing day hike.

Hiking the North Country Trail Wren Falls to Foster Falls

Wren Falls

The North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) cuts a 200+ mile course through the northernmost counties of Wisconsin between Minnesota and Upper Michigan. The trail route is not yet fully established, but volunteer trail crews are working each year to add more miles of trail. In 2019 the Heritage Chapter of the NCTA added a critical bridge over the Tyler Forks River at Wren Falls and developed additional miles of trail to form a point-to-point route between Wren Falls and Foster Falls. This 8-mile route is, for the time being, separated from other sections of the NCT by road connections.

As a point-to-point hike the Wren/Foster Falls Section stands on its own. This section packs in scenery around every twist in its narrow single-track trail that cuts alongside two scenic rivers, past two thundering waterfalls, five established primitive campsites, an abandoned goldmine, and climbs from the marshy bottoms of the Iron County Forest to vast overlooks, one of which surveys Upson Lake from a bald rock perch 300 feet above.

Development has already begun on the next leg of the section which will connect this section with the Copper Falls Section at Highway 169. When this missing piece of the puzzle is opened in the coming years hikers will be able to hike from the St Croix River in Douglas County all the way to Foster Falls on uninterrupted trail. Yet, even before this connection is complete, I expect the Wren to Foster Falls Section to become one of Wisconsin’s most popular overnight backpacking hikes. When a hiker gets an idea to backpack for a night on a scenic slice of trail, that idea is embodied in all that this compact trail section offers.

Biking the Three Eagle Trail in Eagle River

The Three Eagle Trail is a 13-mile non-motorized multi-use trail that connects Three Lakes and Eagle River in northeastern Wisconsin. It is primarily used for recreational biking. This newly constructed trail offers an extraordinary biking experience. The wide trail is paved with crushed stone and winds and bends through northwoods forests and wetlands. Extensive wood decked bridges cross rivers and streams. Modern facilities have been constructed to serve the trail with water stations, repair stations, screened picnic shelters, restrooms, and parking lots. All of these services make it delightfully easy to access the trail.

Hiking the Escanaba Lake Trail in Vilas County

Campsite on Pallette Lake

The Escanaba/Pallette Lake Trail is a classic Vilas County hiking destination. This trail network located just southwest of Boulder Junction is a double loop, with one loop encircling Pallette Lake and another around Escanaba Lake. Taken together, hikers can make one larger loop around both lakes that is an 8-mile moderate hike. Hikers looking for a shorter route can take either of two shorter loops. This trail also connects to the longer Lumberjack Trail Network.

Escanaba and Pallette Lakes are UW Stevens Point research lakes in the Northern Highlands American Legion State Forest. They also belong to the Lost Canoe State Natural Area which the trails provide foot access through.

The hiking trail is a well-maintained single-track footpath. It is well marked and served with large parking areas, restrooms, drinking water, and a ski shelter. You’ll also discover five primitive campsites along the trail which are intended for watercraft access only, an unfortunate teaser along this trail which would otherwise be an excellent beginner-level overnight backpacking route. These trails are also used as cross-country ski trails in winter.