Canoe & Kayak Camping Wisconsin: Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest
At first glance, the massive Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest looks like an overwhelming paddle-camp planning challenge (I mean, just look at our overview map below). Thankfully, however, the Wisconsin DNR provides six recommended routes that overlap and intertwine throughout the sprawling forest. These include river and lake paddling options with dozens of free, first-come, first-served primitive campsites located throughout the 232,000 acre State Forest, which was designated to protect the headwaters of the Wisconsin, Flambeau and Manitowish rivers.
We break down these six paddle trails below. Most are flat or quietwater paddles, while some require lake-hopping along portage trails, and others offer more traditional river paddling. These highlighted trips make for a great starting point to plan a northwoods getaway to tailor as you choose (and also a lot less daunting than our map suggests). In addition, there are also many sites located outside of these that make for easy overnight lakeside camping adventures.
Paddling Style: Flatwater Paddling + Quietwater Paddling + River Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Lakeside + Riverside
Availability: First Come, First Served + Reservable Designated Sites
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: No
Camping Fee: Yes + No | Camping Permit: No
With over eighty designated sites on the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest’s lakes and rivers, the possibilities are abundant for canoe and kayak campers. All sites are free, on a first-come, first-served basis, but access to them must be by boat and camping is limited to one night. (That is, except for the seventeen “Remote Reservable Campsites” which require a fee but also allow for a 14-day stay. More on that below.)
All campsites are marked and numbered with yellow signs and are outfitted with a picnic table and fire ring. For those looking for quieter outings, there are many lakes designated “No Motor” or Electric Motor Only”. Do note that sometimes a site may be closed due to the proximity of wildlife habitat or even a problem with black bears, so it’s always best to have a Plan B option.
There are also dozens of modern, rustic and primitive campground options throughout the forest that range in amenities. These usually make for a great pre- or post-paddling basecamp.
Paddling Routes of the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest:
The six recommended paddling routes offer many complexions of paddling. From flatwater lakes to quietwater rivers, and even a bit of light-whitewater (or lightwater as we call it). Some require portaging on trails which are marked with a yellow sign with crossed paddles. There’s multiple ways to adjust length of the longer trips since there are many access points throughout the forest. There’s also reservable and first-come, first-served options apart from these trails which are outlined below.
Trip 1: High Lake to Fishtrap Dam
Miles: 7.5-8.5 | Map
This is a great test-the-waters option for an overnighter since High Lake to Fishtrap Dam is largely lake-paddling. Starting at High Like, it winds its way to Fishtrap Lake and then through a windy narrower section in the lower waters near the Fishtrap Dam take-out. With sixteen sites along the way, there’s plenty of options to choose from on this short route.
Trip 2: Fishtrap Dam to Highway K
Miles: 6-6.5 | Map
The second trip begins where the first one leaves off at Fishtrap Dam. This one begins narrow and more riverlike until reaching Boulder Lake. This is another short segment that makes for a great daytrip or one easy over-nighter. At the far western end of Boulder Lake is where you’ll find three campsites as well as one at the take-out just before Highway K.
Trip 3: Highway K to Highway 51
Miles: 8.25 or 17.25 | Map
There are two options for paddling this section which is a combination of half-lake and half-river paddling. Starting at Highway K, you could simply paddle the short 8.25-mile river section and take-out at Island Lake landing, forgoing lake paddling altogether. Or you could stay at one of the half-dozen sites located near the take-out in preparation for day two. The Island Lake stretch is another 9-mile segment of almost entirely lake-paddling starting with the length of Island Lake, then through Spider, Stone, Rest, Vance and finally Sturgeon Lakes. It would also be possible to make this a two-night trip since there are three sites on Stone Lake, as well as a couple on Rest Lake. Do note that there is one required portage at the Rest Lake Dam.
Trip 4: Highway 51 to Murray’s Landing
Miles: 23.75 | Overview | Map
Trips 1-4 are largely sequential and this is the last of that continuous sequence. While the upper Manitowish alternates from lake to river more often, this section is true river-like with less lake-paddling. Throughout, the current is generally calm with only occasional riffles. After highway 47, the river becomes more isolated and secluded as it veers south, away from Highway 51. In fact, there are no landings after that point so once you pass it, you’re committed until you reach Murray’s Landing on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. That half of the trip is far more remote than the first half, and the environment is less marsh-like but often more open along wetlands with lowland vegetation. The river widens as it enters Turtle-Flambeau Flowage where it becomes more lake-like and open for a couple miles. This is a solid overnight trip and the most remote-feeling of all the others, especially after Highway 182, but you could opt to shorten this segment for a day trip and end at Highway 51.
There are seven remote and secluded primitive campsites on this section. Three are located between the Highway 51 Landing and Highway 47. There are four more between 47 and the take-out at Murray’s Landing. This is a popular canoe-camping river so be prepared with a Plan B incase your intended site is taken. There is also an outfitter that services this section.
River’s Edge Lodge and Outfitters
TRIP 5: White Sand Lake to Trout River
Miles: 8-25 | Map
White Sand Lake to the Trout River is all over the board as far as options. The many landings, campsites and length options make this well-suited for a 1-, 2- or 3-day trip. It begins in a cluster of lakes (White, Lost Canoe, Escanaba and Palette) which are all connected by short portage trails, and where primitive sites are numerous. (Do note that Escanaba and Pallette lakes are research lakes and require a special fishing permit that has to be returned by the end of each day.)
Exiting Palette Lake, there’s an interesting portage over a road (yes, a road – not a bridge) to continue “downstream” on Stevenson Creek which often has beaver dams to portage over/negotiate past. Once at Trout Lake, there are sites along the western shore. You could choose to take-out at Bardon Road Landing or continue on a lengthy 11-mile segment on the Trout River. There’s only one primitive site located on that segment, however. For completists, or those looking for that third day, you can continue past Wild Rice Lake (and landing) and head north through Alder Lake where there are two campsites, and then through Manitowish, Spider, Stone and finally, Fawn Lakes to complete the final 6-mile segment.
Big Lake Campground
Crystal Lake Campground
East Star Lake Campground
Firefly Lake Campground
Muskellunge (Musky) Lake Campground
North Trout Lake Campground
Plum Lake Campground
Razorback Lake Campground
South Trout Lake Campground
Starrett Lake Campground
Upper Gresham Lake State Forest Campground
West Star Lake Campground
Trip 6: Wisconsin River – Cloverland Drive to Bridge Road
Miles: 6.5-25 | Overview | Map
For most, this is the closest they’ll get to paddling the headwaters of the Wisconsin River, and it’s really the tale of three different kinds of paddling styles since it transitions from river to lake paddling on the large Rainbow Flowage, and then back to an even livelier river. This naturally provides a varied 2-3 day paddle-camping adventure for those with moving-water experience. Of course, you could opt for either if you wanted to, but the variety is one of the more unique paddle-camp options within the forest.
The first 6.5 miles on the Wisconsin begin as a narrow and heavily-wooded river with many boulders in the stream to negotiate. The river widens on the approach to the County O bridge, after which the current slows upon entering the long and large Rainbow Flowage. The next 7 miles on the flowage are all flatwater, but you’ll likely encounter motorboat traffic especially mid-summer, so expect some wake. After the flowage and required portage at the dam, there’s another 11.5 miles of traditional river paddling as the Wisconsin regains its narrower width. The current regains momentum and in high water can be challenging for novice paddlers as there are many rocks and boulders to navigate, as well as one Class I called Rainbow Rapids. The river eventually slows near the take-out after a series of back-and-forth oxbows.
There are seven remote primitive campsites on the upper Wisconsin. Three are located just before County Road O, one just after, one on an island on Rainbow Flowage and two more are located on the last 11.5 mile stretch after the dam.
Other Remote Reservable Campsites
Miles: 6.5-25 | Map
There are seventeen Remote Reservable Sites spread across five lakes; Allequash, Clear, Day, Nebish and the Bittersweet Wild Lakes State Natural Area. (The latter is one we also recommend as its own canoe and kayak camping destination.) Reservable from May 2st through Labor Day, they are all paddle-in and require fees, but they may be occupied 14 days. After Labor Day, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis. We recommend reading the DNR’s primitive camping page where you’ll find specific camping information, as well as GPS coordinates to campsite locations. Do note that Clear and Little Bass Lakes require a special fishing permit.
Other Remote First-Come, First-Served Sites
Miles: 6.5-25 | Map
There are twenty-two other first-come, first-served campsites throughout the forest located on a dozen different lakes – perfect for flatwater paddlers. These lakes make for easy and quiet getaways as there’s only a few sites, at most, at any given lake. All are free, and the same regulations and facilities can be expected as anywhere else in the forest, except for the Remote Reservable Sites with regards to fees.
Maps + Guides:
Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest Canoe Routes Map + Brochure
Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest Property Map Overview
Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest Property Map North
Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest Property Map South