Observations towers have reopened in Wisconsin State Parks. (Photo: Instagram, @wayfaringtess)
Enjoy these beautiful Wisconsin State Parks within just one hour of Milwaukee.
Ready for a break from city (or suburban) life? Wisconsin’s state parks are the perfect places to disconnect from the daily hustle and reconnect with nature! Whether you and the kiddos are looking to hike, swim, canoe, have a picnic or just take in some fresh air, state parks offer all that and more in a no-frills format. Here are 14 that are within an hour’s drive of Milwaukee.
Learn more about these parks and many others at dnr.wi.gov.
1. Aztalan State Park
N6200 Hwy Q, Lake Mills, WI 53551
Aztalan State Park is a National Historic Landmark where you can learn about an ancient village that thrived between A.D. 1000 and 1300. They built large, flat-topped mounds and a stockade that have been reconstructed in the park. Wander around the two miles of trail that meander through open prairie, and get lost in ancient history as you view the reconstructed stockade and mounds. You can also kayak, canoe or fish on Crawfish River.
Fun fact: When mapping the site in 1837, Nathaniel Hyer believed that it was built by people from the ancient Mexican city of Aztalan, and thus named it such. We now know that the inhabitants were not from Mexico, but the name of the site was never changed.
2. Big Foot Beach State Park
1550 S. Lake Shore Dr., Lake Geneva, WI 53147
This 271-acre park is located on the shore of Geneva Lake, known for its clean, clear water. It’s also within driving distance to downtown Lake Geneva. It offers wooded campsites, a 100-foot sandy swimming beach that’s rather close to the highway, 6.5 miles of hiking trails, and picnic and playground areas.
3. Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area
State Highway 33, Saukville, WI 53080
Cedarburg Bog is the most intact large bog in southeastern Wisconsin, and it was once part of a large glacial lake. There are six lakes remaining within the bog, all with varying sizes and depths. A hardwood forest is adjacent to the bog with diverse flora and fauna.
To get there from the intersection of County Highway Y and State Highway 33 in Newburg, go east on 33 for 2.6 miles to a parking area on the south side of the road. A trail leads to a pier on Watts Lake. For access to Mud Lake and the heart of the bog, head south on Y for 4.2 miles, then east on Cedar-Sauk Road for 0.75 miles to a pull-off on the north side of the road. Walk north along a boggy, unimproved trail to the lake.
Fun fact: The Bog’s most unusual feature is the presence of a “String” or “Pattern,” which consists of stunted cedars and tamaracks alternating with flatter, water areas dominated by sedges. String bogs are typically found further north, and the Cedarburg Bog may be the southernmost string bog in all of North America.
4. Glacial Drumlin State Trail
810 College Ave., Waukesha, WI 53188
Developed in 1986, the Glacial Drumlin State Trail is a 52 mile long bike trail that follows an abandoned railway between the Fox River Sanctuary in Waukesha and Cottage Grove. It runs through farmlands and several small towns, and easily connects Milwaukee to Madison. You’ll see abundant wildlife on the trail, including deer, wild turkeys, fox, and frogs. Adults over 16 need a pass to bike or roller blade, but kids do not need one, nor do walkers.
To reach the trailhead in Waukesha, head to the E. B. Shurts Environmental Learning Center in the Fox River Sanctuary. Take the Fox River Trail west to the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, on the right.
Fun Fact: A drumlin is a low, tear-drop or oval shaped hill that formed under moving glacier ice? You’ll see them all around the trail, hence the name.
5. Hank Aaron State Trail
Named in honor of baseball legend Hank Aaron, this trail connects American Family Field with State Fair Park, Lakeshore State Park next to Discovery World, the Oak Leaf Trail, and more. The trail west of American Family Field is paved through 94th Place. From 94th Place to the Underwood Creek Parkway, the trail is surfaced with crushed limestone.
Most of the trail is wheelchair and stroller accessible. The 0.5-mile segment of trail adjacent to the Milwaukee Brewers parking lot has accessible sidewalks, allowing easy access from the parking lot to the trail.
To get there, take exit 308B and go south on State Highway 341 (Brewers Boulevard / Miller Park Way). After entering via Highway 341, merge to the right lane ASAP and take the exit for American Family Field. Follow around the curve, and turn right at the first set of lights. At the next set of lights, turn left into the Gantner parking lot (just south of the Klement’s Sausage Haus). Park here and take the pedestrian bridge across the river. The Hank Aaron State Trail sign is at the bridge’s east end. The trail is down the hill from the sign, with access ramps at the north and south ends of the walkway.
Visitors can take Miller Park Way from the south and follow signs to the general parking area as well. There is also parking near the intersection of Canal Street and Milwaukee Road, just east of the stadium or a Park & Ride lot at 76th St.
6. Harrington Beach State Park
531 County Rd. D, Belgium, WI 53004
Harrington Beach State Park boasts more than a mile of beautiful, clean beach along Lake Michigan. The 715-acre park is dog-friendly and also features a white cedar and hardwood swamp and wetlands. Take a walking path down to the scenic limestone quarry lake. For stargazing, visit the Jim and Gwen Plunkett Observatory, where you’ll find a 20-inch telescope weighing over 2000 pounds. The roof of the observatory is designed to expose the full night sky. Throughout the summer and early fall, the North Cross Science Foundation holds free astronomy evenings that are open to the public.
7. Havenwoods State Forest
6141 N. Hopkins St., Milwaukee WI 53209
Wisconsin’s only urban state forest, Havenwoods sits on 237 acres of grasslands, woods and wetlands in the city of Milwaukee. There are six miles of hiking trails, four ponds, a 120-foot bridge, and plenty of places to sit and relax with a picnic. Geocachers will love completing the “Trek Through Time” adventure to earn a collectible wooden geotoken.
7. Kettle Moraine State Forest – Lapham Peak Unit
W329 N846 County Rd C, Delafield, WI 53018
Ten thousand years ago, a glacier covered most of Wisconsin. It formed the Kettle Moraine and Lapham Peak, and the landscape that it left behind is perfect for hiking. You’ll find kid-friendly trails all over the Lapham Peak Unit, and you’re sure to stumble upon a lovely surprise such as a prairie restoration or a butterfly garden.
Start your trip at the Hausmann Nature Center, where you’ll find a children’s interactive area, great views of the forest, and nature exhibits. From there, it’s a relatively easy hike to the 45-foot observation tower that sits atop the highest point in Waukesha County (1,233 feet above sea level). You’ll see lake country for miles. Another stroller- (and wheelchair-) friendly area is the Plantation Path trail. It offers almost 2 miles of paved trail through a prairie and wooded area.
8. Kettle Moraine State Forest – Northern Unit
N1765 County Rd G, Campbellsport, WI 53010
The largest of the Kettle Moraine units, the northern portion contains 30,000 acres, more than 350 campsites, challenging mountain biking trails and three swimming beaches.
To enjoy the beautiful Kettle Moraine Northern Unit with kids, you can first head to the Ice Age Visitor Center, where you’ll be treated to a great view of the landscape and enjoy activities provided by the naturalists who work there. From there, head to the kid-friendly Moraine Nature Trail. It’s less than a mile with easy terrain. You can even print out a self-guided tour of the hike that teaches kids about the trees they will see.
9. Kettle Moraine State Forest – Pike Lake Unit
3544 Kettle Moraine Rd., Hartford, WI 53027
The Pike Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest is named after the 522-acre spring-fed lake where visitors can swim, fish and enjoy a picnic. The surrounding area offers several short, kid-friendly hikes that will enable you to enjoy the outdoors together. Astronomy Trail is a half-mile portion of the blue trail that takes hikers on a walk through the solar system. The Boardwalk Trail is another half-mile hike, accessible to wheelchairs and strollers, and with an observation deck along the shore. Be sure to hike to Powder Hill, whose trailhead is about a half mile away from the Nature Trail parking lot.
Fun Fact: Powder Hill is the second-highest point in southeastern Wisconsin, and you can climb the observation tower for a panoramic view.
10. Kettle Moraine State Forest – Southern Unit
S91 W39091 WI-59, Eagle, WI 53119
The Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest spans more than 22,000 acres and is 30 miles long, stretching from Dousman to Whitewater. With kids, you can hike the Bald Bluff nature trail, just a half-mile long. It’s one of the highest points in Jefferson County, and it used to be a signal hill for Native Americans.
The Lone Tree Bluff nature trail is also just a half-mile long. You’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the Kettle Moraine’s landscape, and you’ll learn all about its history through the markers on the way up. The Rice Lake nature trail is also just a half-mile long, and hugs the edge of a small pond. The Southern Unit also features three family campgrounds, horseback riding trails and opportunities to paddle, swim or fish.
11. Kohler-Andrae State Park
1020 Beach Park Ln., Sheboygan, WI 53081
One of the last remaining nature preserves along Lake Michigan, Kohler-Andrae State Park offers hikes along sandy beaches and rolling sand dunes, through pine trees and wildlife. The Sanderling Nature Center is situated among the sand dunes right on the shore of the lake. There are interactive exhibits, nature films, picture books, and a rooftop observation deck.
The Creeping Juniper Nature Trail starts and ends at the nature center and will immerse you among the sand dunes. Other short hikes include the Black River Marsh Boardwalk, just a quarter-mile hike through wetlands, and the Fishing Pond Trail, another quarter-mile hike with a flat surface for strollers and plenty of resting spots. The one-mile Woodland Dunes Nature Trail is also stroller accessible, and it starts and ends at the playground.
12. Lakeshore State Park
500 N. Harbor Dr., Milwaukee, WI 53202
Formerly known as Harbor Island, Lakeshore State Park is nestled in the heart of downtown Milwaukee between the Summerfest grounds and Discovery World, right along the shores of Lake Michigan. Its 22 acres make up the only urban state park in all of Wisconsin, and it’s the perfect place to explore and learn about the Great Lakes. This peaceful urban oasis is free to visit and open to the public year-round, and it provides a 1.7-mile hiking and biking trail, water access for canoes and kayaks, fishing area, boat slips, and a bridge that connects the park to the Summerfest grounds.
The Friends of Lakeshore State Park offer guided hikes and educational activities for kids all throughout the year. Great views of the city and Lake Michigan have been preserved by not planting many trees and instead fostering short grass prairies throughout the park.
Don’t miss: The Black Box Fund’s current art installation of large colorful bird sculptures. They are a big hit with kids!
13. Richard Bong State Recreation Area
26313 Burlington Rd, Kansasville, WI 53139
When you first arrive, stop by the Molinaro Visitor Center to check out the live animals, hands-on exhibits and displays, and a solarium with butterflies, play areas, and beautiful views. There are usually nature programs going on throughout the year. From the visitor center, you can hike a .7 mile-long nature trail that is stroller friendly. It runs through prairie and grasslands, and there’s a boardwalk that overlooks Wolf Lake.
Fun Fact: The Richard Bong State Recreation Area used to be a jet fighter base. It’s named after Major Richard I. Bong, a Wisconsinite who was America’s leading air ace during World War II. Plans were underway to pour a 12,500-foot runway for the air base, but it was abandoned three days before it was scheduled to happen. A group of locals decided to protect the natural area, and the rest is history.
Did you know?
The Wisconsin Explorer Program (Ages 3-12) makes it easy and fun to explore the outdoors with your kids. Make tracks to the nearest state park, forest, trail, or recreation area and ask for a free Wisconsin Explorer booklet(You can also download it for free). Inside you’ll find nature activities, scavenger hunts, games, hikes, and crafts to help you explore Wisconsin’s great outdoors together. Kids who complete the requirements will earn collectable state symbol patches. Visit www.dnr.wi.gov to get started.