Wisconsin is better known for its famous food and drink (beer, cheese, cream puffs, and kringle) than for its outdoorsy options, but hiking enthusiasts will find a huge variety of trails and terrain all over the Badger State.
From short urban hikes along the Lake Michigan coastline in southeastern Wisconsin to family-friendly boardwalk trails “up north”, just about any and every hiker will find a tremendous trail somewhere in this great Midwestern state. And whether it’s a quick, casual hike in a city park or a legendary multi-month trek across the state’s 1200-mile-long Ice Age Trail, you can always round off your adventure with a cold beer and a plate of hot fried cheese curds.
Seven Bridges Trail is a popular short hike near Milwaukee
1 mile (1.6km) round trip, 30 minutes, easy
Bordering the Lake Michigan shoreline in the suburb of South Milwaukee, is one of the best parks in Milwaukee, Grant Park. The park’s Seven Bridges Trail winds through unpaved trails and stone paths, along a bubbly ravine and tiny waterfalls, and up and down forested staircases. Wildflowers blanket the ground each spring and come autumn, it’s one of the best places for fall foliage in Milwaukee. Regardless of when you go, the forest is so dense that you’ll forget you’re still in the city. The trail has several offshoots so you could adjust the length of your route depending on your mood.
Given the trail’s beauty and easy access from the city, it’s fairly popular. You’re likely to see families with young children, couples out on a first date, wedding parties posing for professional photos, and friends taking selfies for social media. To have the trails to yourself, head here on a weekday morning.
The Ice Age Trail is Wisconsin’s epic through-hike
1200 miles (1931km) one-way, several months, difficult
Over 12,000 years ago, a huge glacial ice flow began sculpting the Wisconsin landscape. Today, a 1200-mile trail tracing the edge of the glacier is one of only 11 National Scenic Trails in the country. Established in 1980, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is shaped somewhat like a horseshoe and takes hikers from the Door County peninsula (the state’s “thumb”), south toward Milwaukee, west near Madison, then up and across the northern part of the state.
The trail is broken down into small sections, which range from two-mile stretches through flat prairies to 10-mile hikes that include significant elevation gain and technical difficulty. Many trail sections can be found on the AllTrails app, which typically also include distance, elevation profile, and pictures and reviews uploaded by other hikers. However, if you’re going to attempt a very long section of the trail – especially one that will require backcountry camping – strongly consider buying the Ice Age Trail guidebook to plan your trip.
Uplands Trail is Wisconsin’s most dog-friendly hike
2.5 miles (4km) loop, 1–2 hours, easy
Located in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, Governor Dodge State Park is one of the state’s largest parks and has over 5000 acres of steep hills, deep valleys, and 40 miles of hiking trails. It also has access to the 40-mile long Military Ridge State Trail, for those interested in a longer-through hike (or bike ride, as it’s a multi-use trail). The Uplands Trail passes through prairies, woods, and rolling hills and as one of the lesser-traveled trails in the park, you’re unlikely to encounter many other people. This is a year-round hiking option but it’s especially stunning in fall when the forest lights up with bright red, yellow, and orange leaves.
What makes this such a great option for canine pals is not just the hike itself, but the extremely dog-friendly nature of the park, which offers off-leash pet swim areas at each lake and designated pet picnic areas. Hikers can even bring their dog on rented canoes and kayaks and, of course, dogs are welcome at the campsites.
Big Bay State Park Boardwalk Trail is perfect for young families and wheelchair-users
1.5 mile (3.2km) in-and-out, 1 hour, easy
Wisconsin’s northernmost park, Big Bay State Park, can only be reached by ferry. The 20-minute ferry shuttles people (and cars) from mainland city, Bayfield, to Madeline Island, the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The waterfront park is popular for hiking, kayaking, and birding, as well as the mile-long Boardwalk Trail, which is a flat, accessible boardwalk winding through the woods and along the sandy shores of Lake Superior.
The Boardwalk Trail is well-marked, dotted with interpretive signs, and has wooden benches scattered along the route. Not only can the flat and even boardwalk accommodate wheelchairs, walkers, and strollers, but an accessible ramp and boardwalk connect an ADA-compliant campsite with the beach and picnic area. A beach-ready wheelchair with balloon tires is also available for use in the park, but you may need to reserve it ahead of time. Longer, slightly more challenging dirt path hiking trails blanket the forest, lake area, and coastline, but they are more difficult for wheelchairs and walkers to navigate.
Scuppernog Trail is the state’s best winter hike
5.3 miles (8.5km) loop, 2–3 hours, moderate
For anyone looking to experience a small (and slightly hilly) section of the Ice Age Trail, head to the Scuppernog Trail in the Southern Unit of Kettle Morraine State Forest. The trail is about 40 minutes west of Milwaukee and an hour and fifteen minutes east of Madison so it makes for a great day trip from either city but there are also campgrounds and remote backpacker shelters available.
While Scuppernog is a fabulous trail year-round, what makes it so special in winter is that the hardwood forest and pine plantations become picture-perfect when blanketed in snow. You’ll also usually find a few small pine trees along the trail that have been decorated with Christmas ornaments.
While the main loop hike is about five miles long, several short trails crisscross through the loop, meaning you could easily shorten (or lengthen) the hike. Also, as this is a section of the 1200-mile Ice Age Trail, you could easily extend your hike by tacking on adjacent trail sections. At the Scuppernog trailhead, you’ll find bathrooms and good signage that breaks down the length and difficulty of each route. Benches are also scattered along the trail in case you need a break or want to stop for a picnic.
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