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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

Devil's Lake State Park is beautiful in the summer and even more so come autumn.

Experience fall at one of Wisconsin's state parks


As the temperatures drop, even if its only slightly, it's time to gear up for another fall in Wisconsin. Mother Nature is kind to us here, giving us plenty of ways to enjoy her autumn creations, even right here in the city.

But if you find yourself with an urge to hit the road and a desire to take in the fall colors and other natural splendor of our state, it's a great time to check out one of Wisconsin's beautiful state parks and forests.

There are currently 66 parks in the state system, covering more than 60,000 of the most beautiful acres in the state. In addition to the parks, the Department of Natural Resources administers nearly half a million acres of land in the state forest system.

With festival season wrapping up, the kids back in school and options for outdoor entertainment dwindling, now is the perfect time to get out and enjoy these spots before the snow starts falling.

Keep in mind you'll need a vehicle admission sticker to visit a park or forest. A one-day pass is available $7 (some parks have $5, one-hour permits) but the annual sticker is just $25 for vehicles with Wisconsin license plates and $35 if your plates are from out-of-state.

For information on all of Wisconsin's state parks, visit the DNR website, which includes hours of operation, directions and links for campsite reservations.

In the meantime, here are a few of my favorites that I think you'll enjoy this fall, starting here in town.

Devil's Lake/Mirror Lake/Rocky Arbor
Baraboo/Wisconsin Dells

Devil's Lake, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, is the most popular of Wisconsin's park system (and the subject of a travel story earlier this summer) and one of the best places in the state to spend some quality time exploring Wisconsin's natural wonders.

Take the East or West Bluff Trails and prepare to be amazed. The views are second-to-none as you climb and descent the rocky bluffs overlooking Devil's Lake.

Even in the fall, Devil's Lake can get real crowded real fast, so for an alternative, consider a visit to Mirror Lake or Rocky Arbor State Park, both located just outside of Wisconsin Dells. Crowds are much smaller and it might be much easier to get a campsite at one of those parks and make Devil's Lake a day trip.

Havenwoods State Forest
Milwaukee

Yup, a state forest, right here in the city.

This former Nike missile site has been converted into a 240-acre park with six miles of trails, passing through grasslands, thick woods and wetlands, There's also an educational center complete with live animal and nature displays, a perfect place to spend a cool day with the little ones.

The park is open daily from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. The education center is open weekdays from 7:45 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and from 9 a.m. until noon on Saturdays.

As an added bonus, you don't need a state parks admission sticker to visit Havenwoods, so take advantage of this free opportunity.

Interstate
St. Croix Falls

Wisconsin's first state park is also one of it's best.

Millions of years ago, the St. Croix River carved a gorge through the upper portion of the state, leaving behind giant, basalt cliffs, potholes and other rock formations.

Today, that gorge, known as the Dalles of the St. Croix River, is the centerpiece of Interstate Park, which gets its name from its location on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border and a park of the same name on the Minnesota side of the river.

Interstate has 85 campsites in two separate campgrounds and nine miles of hiking trails, with many running right alongside the river. The park is a heaven for rock climbers, who are able to scale the cliffs on either side of the river.

Depending on the time the year, you can also take advantage of canoe and kayak rentals from private vendors in St. Croix Falls, or across the river in Taylors Falls, Minn.

It's a six-hour haul from Milwaukee, but if you have some vacation time to burn up before the year ends, make the trip. It's more than worth it.

Kettle Moraine State Forest-Lapham Peak Unit
Delafield

Part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, Lapham Peak is located about a half-hour from Downtown Milwaukee, just off I-94 on County Highway C in Delafield.

The park is small, put has roughly 20 miles of hiking trails and a 45-foot observation tower that provides an amazing view of the glacial topography of the Kettle Moraine region.

Bring your bikes, bring your pets, bring your skates and even your horse – there is room for everybody here.

Lapham Peak is close enough to Milwaukee that it makes for a great weekend day trip or even a little escape after a long day at the office. If you haven't been there yet, you're truly missing out.

If you're willing to spend a little time on the road, consider these parks, all just a few hours from Milwaukee:

Potawatomi State Park
Sturgeon Bay

The much larger Peninsula State Park, located just a ways up the Door Peninsula in Fish Creek gets much of the attention but Potawatomi, located just south of Sturgeon Bay is a hidden gem in the park system.

Make your way up the 75-foot observation tower for a stunning view of the park and Green Bay. On especially clear days, you can see all the way across the bay – roughly 16 miles.

Potawatomi has 123 campsites, 40 of them with electricity, and approximately 10 miles of trails – including about three miles of the Ice Age National Scientific Trail.

Wildcat Mountain
Ontario

The massive park, located on a ridge high atop the Kickapoo River Valley is a wonderland for hikers. There are more than 25 miles of hiking trails, 15 miles of horse trails and for those looking to get on the water, some wonderful canoeing opportunities.

A hike to the top of Mount Pisgah offers some splendid views of the surrounding hills and valleys and a good chance for nature lovers to see some amazing wildlife.

The park is also very near three of Wisconsin's State Trails, the 400, the La Crosse River and the Elroy-Sparta, so there's really something for everybody.

Wyalusing
Prairie du Chien

This is probably my favorite park in the system. Wyalusing encompasses more than 2,500 acres atop 500-foot bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers – a breathtaking sight at anytime of the year but especially so during the autumn months.

There are 109 campsites (34 with electricity), 14 miles of hiking trails, 7 miles of mountain biking trails, a 2.5-mile nature trail and an amazing canoe trail that takes you into the many sloughs and backwaters of the Mississippi.

Located just a few miles south of Prairie du Chien, Wyalusing is about a three-hour drive from Milwaukee, the perfect distance for a quick day trip or a weekend getaway.

Talkbacks

rabid652 | Sept. 6, 2011 at 4:01 p.m. (report)

Our favorite state park (that we've been to) is Harrington Beach on Lake Michigan. It's far enough from Milwaukee to have small crowds and clean swimming (usually). Short hikes, beautiful picnic areas and a new campground also make this park within an hours drive from the city an excellent getaway for a day or entire weekend.

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tammyvh | Sept. 6, 2011 at 12:25 p.m. (report)

The state parks are a great place to be. I've spent all summer camping at many of them and don't plan to stop til it's too cold and/or there's a few feet of snow on the ground. Just wrote a blog yesterday about it. (myadrenline.blogspot.com)

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