Where to find last-minute campsites in Wisconsin, from non-reservable sites to dispersed camping

Chelsey Lewis
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A tent is pitched at a campsite at Nelson Dewey State Park along the Mississippi River outside Cassville.

Wisconsin state park campgrounds have always been popular on summer weekends, with sites booking up sometimes as soon as reservations open, which is 11 months in advance. 

The campgrounds have been even more popular the past few years as the coronavirus pandemic pushed people to look for getaways outside and closer to home. Occupancy was up 12% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to Missy VanLanduyt, recreations partnership section chief for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Two weeks before Labor Day weekend, 85% of the Wisconsin state park system campsites were booked for the weekend, including all electric sites. 

The increased popularity has led some new campers to wonder if the campground’s reservation system is broken when it does not show any available sites for a weekend, VanLanduyt said. 

The system isn't broken, just busy.

Even if it looks like there are no sites available at state parks, there are options for finding a last-minute campsite. Here are some ways to find a spot to camp for the summer and fall.  

Same-day reservations 

Same-day reservations are available for all state property campgrounds, and if you're lucky, you might be able to get one if someone had to cancel theirs. Check availability at wisconsin.goingtocamp.com or by calling (888) 947-2757. 

All state parks require a vehicle admission sticker in addition to the camping fee. Stickers cost $28 for the year or $8 per day. 

Non-reservable sites in northern flowages 

As of 2022, all sites in northern Wisconsin forests are reservable. But you can find first-come, first-served (FF) sites in a couple northern flowages — although you'll need a boat to get to them.

The 40,000-acre Turtle Flambeau Flowage has 60 free first-come, first-served campsites on islands around the flowage. All of the sites have fire pits and wilderness toilets; a handful also have picnic tables. If you're traveling by canoe or kayak, head for the eastern fifth of the flowage, which is a voluntary no-wake quiet area. 

The Chippewa Flowage, an impoundment along the Chippewa River, has 11 first-come, first-served campsites accessible only by water, all with a fire ring, picnic table and wilderness latrine.

Rustic campsites dot the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage.

National forest campgrounds 

The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin has campsites at 42 recreation areas, both reservable and FF sites that are often easier to get than state park sites.  

Many national forest campgrounds that have non-reservable sites are more rustic, which means they have drinking water and vault toilets but no shower or bathroom facilities. 

The largest campground (and the closest to Milwaukee) is Boulder Lake near Langlade, which has 89 family sites and modern amenities, including three shower buildings. 

For up-to-date availability, visit recreation.gov and search for Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The website allows you to filter campsites by amenities and will provide availability for nearby national forest campgrounds in Minnesota (including the Superior National Forest) and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (including the Ottawa National Forest).  

For more on the CNNF, see fs.usda.gov/cnnf

County park campgrounds 

Many county parks have campgrounds that are often overlooked in favor of state parks.  

In southeastern Wisconsin, Waukesha County has campgrounds in Menomonee, Mukwonago, Naga-Waukee and Muskego parks. The Muskego Park campground was upgraded in 2020 and now includes some electric and ADA-accessible sites. For more information and reservations, see waukeshacounty.gov/camping

Marinette County, the Waterfall Capital of Wisconsin, has six campgrounds, some of which have reservable sites and feature those waterfalls. See marinettecounty.com/parks

RELATED:Northeastern Wisconsin is packed with waterfalls to explore

In 2020 Rusk County launched a new online reservation system for its four campgrounds that includes photos of each individual site. See parks.ruskcounty.org/parks/camping.

Other counties with public campgrounds include Dodge, Lincoln, Marathon, Marquette and Racine. 

Naga-Waukee Park in Waukesha County has 25 family campsites, 5 group sites and a view of Nagawicka Lake.

Private campgrounds 

There are a lot of private campgrounds in Wisconsin, from franchises like KOA and Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park to mom-and-pop campgrounds. Pick any popular tourist area, like the Dells or Door County, and you’re likely to find a handful of options. Use the Travel Wisconsin website (travelwisconsin.com) to search for campgrounds around the state.  

KOA has campgrounds in both the Dells and Door County, plus Glenbeulah, Hayward, Alma Center, Milton and Oakdale. They all also rent cabins with bathrooms (and some with full kitchens). See koa.com.

There are six Jellystone campgrounds in Wisconsin — all of which also rent cabins — in Caledonia, Fremont, Fort Atkinson, Sturgeon Bay, Warrens and Wisconsin Dells. See campjellystone.com.

Jellystone Park in Caledonia typically opens for the summer camping season on the first weekend in May.

Dispersed or backcountry camping 

If you’re willing to rough it, there is public land in Wisconsin where you can pitch a tent just about anywhere — what’s known as dispersed or backcountry camping.  

The CNNF allows dispersed camping 150 feet away from any trail or road and 200 feet from a water source. There are also some unofficial sites throughout the forest, including ones with shelters along the North Country Trail between Drummond and Mellen. You don’t need a permit to camp, but some parking lots in the forest have a fee. You also can park along the shoulder of most forest roads and hike in to camp — unless parking there would impede traffic, cause damage to natural surfaces or is prohibited by state or local law. For more on dispersed camping in the forest, see fs.usda.gov/cnnf

A shelter along the North Country Trail west of the Penokee Mountain Ski Trails includes a grill and fire ring.

Dispersed camping is also permitted in the Black River State Forest, at least 1 mile from your car and 100 yards from a designated trail or road. Free permits are required and are available on the DNR website.  

The Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest also allows backcountry camping. You must be at least half a mile from your car and not within sight of a trail or body of water. Free permits are required and are available on the DNR website

Camping is allowed without a permit on open sandbars in the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, which protects the Lower Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien. More sandbars are available when the river is lower, and you’ll need a canoe, kayak or other boat to access them (camping is not permitted along the shore). If you don’t have your own boat, a few outfitters operate in the area, including Wisconsin Canoe Company in Spring Green (608-432-5058, thebestcanoecompanyever.com) and WI River Outings in Boscobel (608-375-5300, canoe-camping.com). 

Contact Chelsey Lewis at clewis@journalsentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.

Related:10 remote campsites in Wisconsin for peace and quiet

Related:8 places to go backpacking in Wisconsin

Related:12 places to camp along water in Wisconsin