Canoe & Kayak Camping Wisconsin: Lake Michigan State Water Trail
The entire Lake Michigan Water Trail encompasses 1,638 miles along Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan’s shorelines. Wisconsin’s section spans 523 of those miles and is largely unfinished, but ultimately, the plan is to offer paddlers evenly-spaced access points (including restrooms) every five miles and campsites every ten.
Lake Michigan was designated as Wisconsin’s first official State Water Trail, chosen as one of the Wisconsin’s Department of the Interior’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiatives to bring local governments and tribes together to help the public gain broader access to our natural resources. The Grand Economic Development Plan encourages local agencies to promote tourism throughout Wisconsin. The idea is that cities, towns and public/private agencies will use this trail to promote themselves, even going as far as providing signage and whatnot. It’s a great idea because the Great Lakes are phenomenal and the economic impact could be great. The related hope is to get local communities in other states to get involved to improve access and clean up beaches which would result in grants for regional signage, advertising, etc., to promote this recreational opportunity.
The Wisconsin section of the trail spans from the Upper Michigan border between Menominee and Marinette, down through Green Bay, around the Door Peninsula (including the shorelines of the state-owned islands like Washington, Rock, etc.), and then down the entire eastern coast of Wisconsin to the Illinois border south of Kenosha. Therefore, it’s obviously diverse and offers plenty of hidden treasures amongst the well-known and well-trodden scenic and historic sites. Gorges, limestone cliffs, caves, coves, sand dunes, marshes, estuaries, cedar, birch and oak-lined stretches, inlets, outlets, bays, islands, shipwrecks, harbors, small towns, industrial shorelines, Milwaukee metro – that’s only a sample of how varied it really is and why it’s impossible to capture this trail as one specific type of experience.
In its current state, it’s not entirely kayak-camping at its easiest, but there are some accommodating sections for multi-night trips with nearly a dozen parks along the way. That said, you have to be an expert sea kayaker (and planner) to even consider this endeavor. Lake Michigan – like all the Great Lakes – are not for weekend warriors. Only experienced paddlers with the proper experience, training, equipment and eye on the weather should ever attempt to paddle Lake Michigan no matter how calm it looks without being prepared. Unexpected wind and waves strike at a moments notice and the temperature of the water is to be taken seriously. But if properly equipped, this rather ambitious “trail” is well-suited to bite off in sections at a time despite its current work-in-progress status, since there are many great routes and access points. And when/if the trail is ever really finished, there should be even more welcome paddle-camping options for experienced kayakers in the future.
Paddling Style: Great Lakes Paddling
Best Suited For: Sea Kayaks
Camping Location: Lakeside + Near Lakeside + Island
Availability: First Come, First Served + Reservable Designated Campground Sites
Type: Primitive + Rustic + Modern
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: Yes
Camping Fee: Yes (Varies) | Camping Permit: No
While there are innumerable boat launches and access points, there are currently only ten public campgrounds along the entire trail. Some are city, county or state parks so the variety of amenities and fees vary greatly. They also offer varying degrees of sites on the water and range greatly from primitive to facilities with electric. Private camping opportunities are also available on the trail that are worthy of consideration for practical convenience (but we do not note these on our maps).
We recommend using the maps provided by the DNR which are linked to each section of the Wisconsin Trail below. They are are really useful in planning a bird’s-eye view of your route prior, which is important as the spacing between campground options differ immensely. Also, do note that just because the trail exists along the shoreline, it doesn’t mean the shore is public. No, there’s plenty of private property, so only use designated or public access points and campsites.
Paddling the Lake Michigan State Water Trail:
With a trail 500 miles long, it’s no surprise the environment naturally ebbs and flows with Wisconsin’s geography and industrial makeup. In addition to the water levels which are currently at their highest they’ve been in years, there’s much commercial and recreational activity on these waters to consider, so caution is required.
One housekeeping note. We mapped 492 of the official 523 miles on Google Maps so you may wonder about the missing 31 miles. Well, the paddling mileage for the entire trail is a literal measurement of the coastline around ever nook, cranny, reef, island and tiny island within Wisconsin’s property. The measurement is more scientific than how someone actually paddles – nobody paddles on the exact edge of the shore, so we loosened things up with ours. Refer to the DNR Maps for complete trail accuracy.
Green Bay West Shore
Miles: ≈77.5 | Map
The western shore of the Green Bay trail winds its way from Wisconsin’s geographic border starting at Marinette, down past Oconto and eventually makes its way into the urban and heavily-industrialized Green Bay before turning north again. There are three camping opportunities along the way, Bay Shore South, being a particularly great option.
Green Bay East Shore
Miles: ≈64.5 | Map
Starting at Bay Shore, the Green Bay East Shore trail heads northeast up the Door County Peninsula before making a detour into half of the Sturgeon Bay corridor and then back up along the bay towards the take-out in Egg Harbor. Along the way, Potawatomi State Park makes for an ideal overnight option before heading into downtown Sturgeon Bay.
Northern Door Peninsula
Miles: ≈148.5 | Map
Since the lengthly Northern Door Peninsula trail covers the majority of what makes Door County so unique, this could and would, take numerous nights to see everything (and it’s not really something to really rush as it’s so scenic). Not only the often rugged coastline, but the many islands surrounding are considered part of the trail – islands like Chambers, Washington and Rock Island State Park (which is a wonderful destination in its own right). This segment has some incredible camping options too – all State Parks. The aforementioned Rock Island, but also the sprawling Peninsula State Park and Newport State Park which has many sand-swept lakeside sites.
Sturgeon Bay to Two Creek Buried Forest/Point Beach State Forest
Miles: ≈64.75 | Map
From Whitefish Bay Road, the Sturgeon Bay trail briefly extends down the peninsula and then back into downtown Sturgeon Bay before returning towards Algoma and past Kewaunee before officially connecting with the next section at Point Beach. Point Beach is the only public location on the entire stretch that offers camping.
Point Beach State Forest
Point Beach to Sheboygan/Kohler-Andrae State Park
Miles: ≈45.5 | Map
The Point Beach leg travels 45 miles along the shorelines of Two Rivers, Manitowoc, the rather scenic Whistling Straits golf course and Sheboygan before ending (or beginning, we suppose) at Kohler-Andrae State Park which makes for a great lakeside option.
Kohler-Andrae State Park to Northern Metro Milwaukee
Miles: ≈45.5 | Map
From the landing at Kohler-Andrae State Park, this section changes complexion mightily before taking-out at Bradford Beach in the upper east side of Milwaukee. It makes for an interesting quiet-coast to suburban, then urban paddle. Heading north in the other direction, a great overnight trip starts at Port Washington and heads north to Kohler-Andrae State Park. From Port, you could paddle nine miles, then camp at Harrington Beach State Park, and then paddle twelve more miles to the take-out at the State Park.
Southern Metro Milwaukee to Illinois
Miles: ≈45 | Map
Southern Metro Milwaukee to Illinois is obviously the last section of Wisconsin’s trail and it’s a fascinating beginning along the dense urban waterfront. Traffic is heavy in this area – commercial, industrial and recreational – so be prepared. The trail is easily its most urbanized along the way as it travels past Racine, Kenosha, and finally to the last public access just before entering Illinois territory. There are no public camping options along this part of the trail, but if the plan is to be believed, that will change in time.