Camping is a popular summer pastime and the options run the gamut in Wisconsin, from amusement park level activities and comforts to Daniel Boone level rustic camping.
Private parks abound, and the experience can seem like summer camp without the week-long commitment — everything you need to entertain the kids is on hand.
For best bang for the buck, it’s hard to beat Wisconsin's park system. Camping fees are low, facilities generally include flush toilets and shower rooms that are cleaned daily. And some of the extra services may surprise you. All the state parks offer a choice of rustic or modern electric sites. Additionally, the park system's Wisconsin Explorer program provides free materials and self-guided activities for three different age groups: ages 3-5, 6-8 and 9 and older, and many parks have rental or even free outdoor equipment.
Here are 10 spots ideal for families:
Mirror Lake State Park
A beautiful lake set amid forest and carved sandstone bluffs, this park is a natural favorite. Swim at the beach, play at one of three playgrounds, or hike or bike some of the 19 miles of trails. Canoe out under the towering cliffs using rental paddle equipment. The park even offers basic loaner fishing equipment for free. All the attractions of Wisconsin Dells — the many waterparks, museums, shops and restaurants — are a 10-minute drive from here. To the south is Circus World in Baraboo.
Kettle Moraine State Forest Pike Lake Unit
The park office employs a naturalist who provides guided hikes and educational activities. Pike Lake has a good beach for swimming and offers fishing with loaner equipment. The hiking trails include a self-guided trail, and check out Powder Hill observation tower with its incredible view of the lake and distant Holy Hill. The Astronomy Trail shows the relative distance between the planets and the sun. And a bike trail leads into nearby Hartford, where the kids (and adults) love the exhibits at the Wisconsin Auto Museum and ice cream at Scoop Deville.
Harrington Beach State Park
Less than a 45-minute drive from downtown Milwaukee, this 69-site park offers one mile of beach on Lake Michigan. Sites are mostly shaded, and there are even a few hike-in sites. An interpretive trail around the quarry lake tells the story of settlers who once lived here. There are laundry facilities and free loaner fishing equipment. Check the Northern Cross Science Foundation's calendar to see when the park's on-site observatory opens for some stargazing.
Smokey Hollow Campground
Located in Lodi, this private campground offers tent and RV sites, but also some on-site yurts and a covered wagon. Much of the 40 acres is shaded and features a large swimming pond with sandy beach on all sides. All campsites are electric, and facilities include metered hot showers and flush toilets, laundry, a general store, game room and even a Wi-Fi hot spot. Weekend themes include water wars to luaus. Group activities include movies, mini golf and a climbing wall.
Plymouth Rock Camping Resort
Racing fans are going to love this place: it’s right across from Road America. Choose from tent sites, cabins and RV sites. Water fun options include three pools (one has zero-depth entry), a hot tub and Little Elkhart Lake. Pedalboats and canoes are for rent, and sports include basketball, baseball, volleyball and mini golf. Each weekend offers a different theme. When the kids tire of hot dogs, dining options of Elkhart Lake are nearby. The town also has a Saturday morning craft fair all summer.
Blue Mounds State Park
A state park with a swimming pool? In fact, since June, visitors can expect two pools and a splash park. Additionally, the park offers miles of hiking with geologic wonders along the way, even a hidden creek and waterfall. Mountain biking trails run from easy to advanced, but for a smooth ride, the Military Ridge State Trail, on a former rail bed, passes along the edge of the park.
Evergreen Campsites & Resort
Set on Kusel Lake in central Wisconsin, this Good Sam Park has a swimming beach, but also two heated pools and a waterpark, plus mini golf, a train ride and gemstone mining. Bring a tent or rent a yurt or cabin. Activities for the kids are abundant on weekends.
Jellystone Park in Caledonia
About 20 minutes south of downtown Milwaukee, this park was recognized as the best of the popular campground franchise's 80+ nationwide locations in 2014. A waterpark, mini golf, pedal carts, Yogi Bear (and Cindy and Boo Boo) parade around. The park is serious about recreational programming with themed weekends and daily activities. A convenience store, snack shop and ice cream parlor are on-site.
Buckhorn State Park
Buckhorn offers sites on a peninsula with a sandy swimming area on Castle Rock Lake. Free loaner fishing equipment is available. Rent a canoe or kayak and paddle the 1.8-mile water trail. The park provides loaner GPS devices with geocaches recorded for both this park and Roche-A-Cri down the road. Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is close and one of the few places you can see the endangered whooping crane.
Peninsula State Park
This park is one of the most popular in Door County, with paved bike trails and 19 miles of hiking trails. Nicolet Beach on Green Bay has a buoy-marked swimming area, and you can rent canoes, kayaks and paddleboats. The nature center has a variety of programs, and be sure to visit the historic Eagle Bluff Lighthouse. A tourist favorite, Fish Creek, is right outside the park. You also can enjoy an outdoor movie at Skyway Drive-in.
Bonus: If you really want to rough it, camp at Rock Island State Park. No cars, no bikes, but miles of trail and scenic shoreline, an historic boathouse and lighthouse. Plus, see the amazing stars.
Reservations for all campgrounds are recommended. At state parks, use Reserve America atreserveamerica.com or 888-947-2757. If you are going last minute, call parks directly for availability. Weekdays offer the best chance. Click on “Get Outdoors!” on any state park website to see the nature programs and events.
Kevin Revolinski is a travel expert from Madison and author of several guide books, including "Best in Tent Camping Wisconsin" and "Paddling Wisconsin." Follow his blog at revtravel.com.