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Wisconsin State Parks open camping season near capacity

A state Department of Natural Resources leader gives tips on where to find a campsite through the busy summer months

The Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest includes large expanse of hardwood and conifer forest.
A strip of the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest in northern Wisconsin. Jonathan Kulk/DNR

For outdoor enthusiasts around the state, the month of May often marks the unofficial start of Wisconsin’s summer camping season.

Birds are chirping. Flowers are blooming. And Wisconsin State Parks are opening seasonal water systems like flush toilets and showers. The Memorial Day weekend is typically in high demand for campers.

Missy VanLanduyt oversees recreation partnerships for the state Department of Natural Resources. During a recent appearance on WPR’s “Wisconsin Today,” VanLanduyt said the holiday weekend was close to 90 percent booked across all campgrounds.

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“We are seeing pretty significant demand,” she said. “There was a brief dip in 2022, but it’s still continuing to rise, which is incredible.”

Higher interest in campsites is part of a trend that began with the COVID-19 pandemic, VanLanduyt said. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report on DNR camping data found that bookings on public campgrounds have risen by nearly 10 percent since 2019.

As of this month, VanLanduyt said nearly three-fourths of summer campsites are booked. But aspiring campers who wish to book sites shouldn’t lose hope yet, she said. While it may be a challenge to find weekend sites at popular parks like Devil’s Lake State Park, a new DNR program this year notifies people via email when sites open due to cancellations. Vanlanduyt also recommended checking local Facebook pages if campers are posting their late cancellations.

But as long as people are willing to travel a little, there are likely same-day campsites available most weekends, according to VanLanduyt. Campers just may need to travel a little further than the parks around major metropolitan areas.

“There’s so much to enjoy across the system at our state parks and state forests that you really can’t go wrong with sitting around a campfire, enjoying some hiking or bicycling and just being outside,” she said. 

VanLanduyt especially likes to highlight the “hidden gems” of public campgrounds. For Memorial Day, she said campers’ best bet for securing a spot would be at the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest in northeastern Wisconsin. Thousands of sites are available for booking across the 236,000-acre property, and between the multitude of trails and over 900 lakes, the location can meet most recreational interests.

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