Monday, April 24, 2017

13 Best Places to Go Camping Near Milwaukee

May is almost here! The beer gardens across the 414 are opening and so are the nearest campgrounds! The weather is getting nicer and I'm craving some tent time. I'm not the only one feeling this way, as I've had a decent amount of people reach out to me asking where some of my favorite places to go camping close to Milwaukee. Currently I'm in the process of moving out of my apartment and into a new place down in Shorewood next week. I'm excited both for a change of pace and scenery but also to be done living out of cardboard boxes, especially those cardboard boxes that have all of my outdoor gear packed away in them. Needless to say, as soon as I'm unpacked, I'm hitting the road and going camping.

READ: Trekking the 414: Best Places to Hike in Milwaukee

Lucky for us Wisconsinites living in the brew city, we have thirteen (!) options of places we can easily drive to to camp for a spontaneous night, weekend trip or week-long vacation. The following is a list of places-- both state and county parks-- that offer car camping sites, all within about an hour drive of downtown Milwaukee. If you're feeling even more backcountry adventurous, try the epic backpacking sites scattered throughout units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The Lapham Peak Unit in Delafield has an incredible, remote backpacking site, call the park office to book it.

Expect to pay anywhere from $12 to $20 per night for a non-electric site, $20-$30 for one with electricity. Make online reservations in advance at for state parks and here for Waukesha County Parks. All county and state park campgrounds listed below do require a daily or annual admission pass. Support your public lands, yo!

  1. Pike Lake Unit, Kettle Moraine State Forest (pictured above)
    Distance from Milwaukee= 50min
  2. Mauthe Lake Recreation Area, Kettle Moraine State Forest
    Distance from Milwaukee= 1hr and 3min
  3. Harrington Beach State Park
    Distance from Milwaukee= 39min
  4. Naga-Waukee County Park
    Distance from Milwaukee=  30min
  5. Long Lake Recreation Area, Kettle Moraine State Forest
    Distance from Milwaukee= 1hr and 7min
  6. Kohler-Andrae State Park
    Distance from Milwaukee= 1hr and 5min
  7. Menomonee County Park
    Distance from Milwaukee= 37min
  8. Ottawa Lake Recreation Area, Kettle Moraine State Forest
    Distance from Milwaukee= 46min
  9. Mukwanago County Park
    Distance from Milwaukee= 40min
  10. Pinewoods Campground, Kettle Moraine State Forest
    Distance from Milwaukee= 41min
  11. Richard Bong State Recreation Area
    Distance from Milwaukee= 43min
  12. Big Foot Beach State Park
    Distance from Milwaukee= 58min
  13. Whitewater Lake Campground, Kettle Moraine State Forest
    Distance from Milwaukee= 59min


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Gear Review: Coleman Butane Stove


Last week the lady and I took a camping trip to a state park property close-by for a quick, one-night getaway. When packing and pulling all of my gear together, I realized I had a ton of backpacking gear which is great for....well, backpacking trips and backcountry adventures. Backpacking gear isn't exactly the most efficient or useful for classic car camping which we'd be doing at beautiful Pike Lake Unit nestled in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. We'd be cooking a pot of chili and garlic bread for dinner and then cheesy eggs and bacon the following morning. There was no way my little pocket-size backpacking stove was going to cut it for two-people meals.

For years, I've said to people looking to get into camping and hiking, that mega stores like Walmart and Target sell excellent basic outdoor gear. And it's so true. So I headed up to my local Target the night before we left to find a real, actual car camping stove that you can cook on. I ended up spending under $20 on a Coleman 1-Burner Butane Stove.

This was a super familiar sight, having come across loads of these when camping throughout Iceland this past fall. They're reliable, crazy easy to set-up and use, compact and cheap. At nearly every campground I stayed at across the land of fire and ice, travelers bundled-up in down jackets like myself fired these little stoves up to cook a hot meal out the back of their 4x4 or tent. Iceland tried and proven so I had no hesitation buying this. So let's get to the details.
The stove itself is powered by a 8,8-oz butane cylinder, which costs around $3. You'll need to purchase one as the stove does not come with one included. It's remarkably easy to use. Flip the side lid open, slide in the butane cylinder which then clicks into its holder. Shut the lid and flip the vertical switch down to the locked position. You've now got gas safely and reliably flowing into the burner. Turn the dial all the way down to the left until you hear a click- and the stove lights up. The dial is easily adjustable for desired temperature control. At high power it'll burn for almost 90 minutes at 7.650 BTUs of cooking power. A circular grate surface above the burner holds up to a 10-inch pan. Hardware is made of aluminum meaning it's very lightweight yet very stable too. It's also easy to clean post-meal. A plastic carrying case comes with the stove also doubles as a windshield. Sorry spring wind, you sure are nice but I want to devour some morning eggs before a day of hiking.
So for $18.99 (and another $3ish for a butane cylinder) you've got a perfect, easy-to-use stove for car camping or even tailgating delicious meals! Go pick one up and add it to your gear rack. It's clearly a victorious purchase.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Newport State Park, WI

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Photos by Jake Rivard.

There are 49 state parks in Wisconsin but there’s only one that offers a true backcountry experience. And that’s Newport. Located way up along the eastern tip of Door County, Newport State park is home to 2,373 acres of pure wilderness nestled along eleven gorgeous miles of Lake Michigan coastline. Clearly, after reading the previous line of text you should already be planning your next trip. What set’s Newport apart from other state parks in mainland Door County like Potawatomi, Whitefish Dunes and Peninsula is its formal designation as Wisconsin’s only wilderness park. In simple terms, it has been and always will be minimally developed, allowing for nature and conservation to stride ahead without interruption. That sounds absolutely perfect to me. When the master plan was finalized in 1973, the following four objectives were set in place for Newport State Park.
  1. Keep all development simple and minimal
  2. Manage the park as a wilderness area.
  3. Implement a naturalist program.
  4. Encourage only low-impact recreation.
This concept of a protected wilderness park is something that truly fascinates me because it’s something we’re lucky to have and quite frankly, something we need more of in our park system. Newport attracts a different breed of travelers looking to recreate. A breed craving an escape into the outdoors and looking to fill their monthly wanderlust quota. A breed that would rather hike with a heavy pack on their back miles into the quiet woods away from noisy, developed campgrounds littered with RVs and pop-up campers. A breed that isn’t intimidated by the words ‘primitive’ or the thought of carrying-in your own drinking water. If this is you, you need to get to Newport.
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Four friends and I recently took a weekend trip up to Newport State Park, in the beginning of March to kick-off a new year of backpacking. We planned for weeks, chatting over the itinerary, where we’d camp each night, what meals we would eat and what essential pieces of gear would be in whose pack. When the time came, we put in for vacation re quests at work, loaded-up a station wagon and hatchbacks and headed north. This was the second time I had gone backpacking at Newport State Park. Something about this magical place left a very, very special impression on me three years prior, so I was stoked to return. This time with good company.
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We arrived Friday afternoon and after checking-in at the park office, we filled up with a night’s worth of water, strapped on our packs and hit the trail around 4pm. The plan for our trip was to camp at one site the first night and then hike around eight miles to another backcountry site in the northern part of the park the second. As the sun slowly started to set, we trekked on south along the Rowleys Bay trail towards camp one, backcountry site 12. It was like walking through a big snow globe with soft beams of golden sunlight trying to pierce through the thick, frosted pines above. If they were successful, patches of the trail we’d walk on put us in a brief, spotlight of warmth. It was mesmerizing. The trail continued along some 2.5 miles down the eastern shoreline of the bay and we eventually reached backcountry site 12. Out our tents we had wide views of both the sunset and preceding day’s sunrise. We all set up our one and two-person backpacking tents and as temperatures continued to plummet, getting a roaring fire going with whatever dry deadfall (fallen, dead trees or sticks) was a top priority. I walked a few feet away from our campsite towards the frozen shoreline of Lake Michigan. A sole trumpeter swan was floating around by nearby Vareny Point, almost camouflage with the surrounding snow and ice chunks. The sunset painted the sky with hues of vibrant orange, yellow and pink as it fell west. Sam boiled up some water and we were soon scooping once-dehydrated grub out of our bowls by the fire’s hospitable flames. It’s impossible to describe the stars at Newport. As soon as their backdrop goes black, millions if not, billions of bright, stars come out and dance away in a show up above. It is just, jaw-dropping. Newport State Park is currently in the works to be approved as a recognized. IDA International Dark Sky Park. It’d be the first and only state park in Wisconsin to have this designation, joining only a small list of other prized national and state parks across the world. While the pictures my friend Jake Rivard took to accompany this piece are nothing but breathtaking, you have to see it for yourself.
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Saturday morning was freezing, even despite the majority of us being prepared with an arsenal of solid down backpacking gear. We chatted over oatmeal, tea and dehydrated strawberries about how a temperature reading at one point overnight got to just two degrees, not including the bitter wind chill that had been weathering our faces for the past twelve hours. As last night proved, Newport is a gem of the Wisconsin State Park system. It was hard to write this post without wanting to shut my laptop off and just get back up there to experience it again. I plan to do so once Spring weather moves across the Midwest. After packing up our gear, we bid farewell to backcountry site 12 and began our three-mile hike back to the park headquarters where Mark, another close friend, would meet and continue with us to camp two located at site 16 about five miles away on the northern end of the park.
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After refilling with water, we cooked up a quick meal of rich, gooey macaroni and cheese in the parking lot out the back of Mark’s Honda CR-V. The five of us followed the Europe Bay trail north, along the frozen shoreline of Newport Bay and out along craggy, Lynd Point which provided elevated views of the chilly chaos in the water below. As we approached the point, we stopped in our steps, amazed at the rows of ice sheets stacked up against each other like big pieces of broken glass. I had never seen anything like it before and we all took turns picking up square pieces of perfectly intact ice, peering through them like windows. Jake captured a few slow-motion videos and high-speed pictures of us shattering the thin panels of ice with our gloved fists. We pressed on and headed inward from the lake in an effort to avoid the increasingly strong, bitter winds. At one point on the Europe Bay trail, the path carved through a maze of tall, rock. Almost like a slot canyon, covered in snow with a canopy of pines above. About 3.5-miles into the hike, we stopped to take-off a few layers and hydrate. Backpacking in ankle-deep snow with a loaded pack on your back while you’re suited-up in puffy down jackets and liners can be straight exhausting.

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We finally reached site 16 and set up camp two for the night. The site was gorgeous, atop a sand dune with beach access just steps from our fire pit. We kept an eye on the forecast throughout the day and were prepared for wind, but when we arrived at our backcountry site, the gusts were treacherous, dropping the already-low temperatures down even lower. Instead of setting up our four tents atop the sand dune ridge, we found a clearing below the pines just below a steep hill that would help to block out the harsh gusts blowing west off the lake. Soon camp two looked like a small town of small, colorful backpacking tens all in a circle. We secured our tents to the ground as best as we could and sought out whatever big pieces of fallen trees or branches to place at the base of our tent vestibules, in a continued effort to minimize any frigid blasts of wind that would penetrate through into our tents as we slept.
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The sun began to fall and after dinner, we decided to craft a makeshift fire pit by our tents, at the base of the steep hill for warmth. Starting a fire up above near the sand dune ridge was impossible due to the ferocious wind. I walked down towards the water with Jake who had setup his tripod and was experimenting with various long-exposure settings on his camera. The moon was blinding bright, reflecting off sharp pieces of ice resting up against one another near the shoreline. but once again we were treated to a front-row star show. Standing there looking up at billions of stars, you’re reminded of just how small we really are in such a big universe. Cliché, yes, but when you go there and look upwards, you’ll agree. Seeking the flames, we headed back up the dune to camp to join the others. For the next few hours we all sat close around the tiny fire, passing around dehydrated apple slices and a flask of cold Jose Cuervo. We talked about the stars, the wind bashing the trees together up above, future trips, life outside the backcountry and all things in between. The winds continued to pick up and we headed to our tents. Some read by headlamp, others crashed right away burrowed deep in their down sleeping bags.
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The next morning, I heard my watch beeping somewhere in the abyss of my down sleeping bag. I scurried to find it, its orange glowing face read 6am. I called out to Jake that I was getting up to go down and see the sunrise. The wind was still aggressive and temperatures were only slightly more bearable than the night before. Opening the tent door to grab my boots out of the vestibule which was flapping rapidly I looked over at one of my Sawyer water filter pouches which had frozen overnight. I climbed the path up the hill and headed towards the shoreline, hoping to catch the last few minutes of a never-disappointing Door County sunrise. I stood there, completely awestruck. Once the others awoke, we boiled up some water for a final feast of oatmeal and dehydrated fruit, tore down camp, erased the area clear of any of our trace and strapped on our packs for the return hike back. We were already joking about craft beers and butter burgers for lunch at the closest pub we could find.
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Jake delicately set-up his tripod for a group photo. Our five faces weathered, tired, crusty and smelled like thick smoke- but we all wore a sentimental smile signaling the completion of an epic winter backcountry adventure.


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Monday, April 3, 2017

The Blog Gets Some Spring Cleaning

Greetings and happy Monday!

You may have noticed that this blog has changed drastically! Call it a little bit of Spring cleaning. I've been getting way more traffic to the blog the past few months and thought it was overdue for an upgrade. Some of the posts that used to be on here aren't appearing anymore because I'm either re-wording and re-formatting them or just deleting them all together as they may just be irrelevant to the blog's goal. I'm also going to be re-posting a lot of my writing and photos from when I lived in Vietnam six years ago. Content and throwback posts from my Guatemala and Mexico trips will come soon after. Getting my hands tied-up with HTM coding and CSS design is like learning some abstract foreign language for the first time, so with patience will come exciting things on here!

Quick-update on life outside the blog. I turned 27 the other week! Whoa! It was a wonderful few days celebrating with all the best important people in my life. People I am so grateful for. I rang-in the start of a new (birth) year with knee surgery last week. This past summer while on-the-clock at one of the state parks I work at, I got hit by a car while walking to our contact station. An SUV blew a stop-sign at around 20mph, I flew up on the hood and slammed on to the ground- destroying my right knee. The driver got a ticket and admitted to both blowing the stop sign and looking over his shoulder-not forward. That happened in June of 2016. My doctor and I spent months trying injections, shots, different medicine...everything but surgery which I did not want to have for a second time. But cracks in the bone, bruising on the ACL and damaged cartilage to name just some of the damage needed more than just a temporary 'band-aid'. So I had surgery last week and it sucked, but I'm slowly getting better and soon I'll be off crutches, in PT and back to actual fun physical activities. Do you know how sad it was to cancel two rock climbing trips? The surgery is supposed to help eliminate much of the bone and cartilage pain issues, but the damage to my knee is permanent unfortunately. Thank God for worker's comp.

On another note, I'm moving in less than a month to Shorewood! On Milwaukee's north shore. Can't wait. Stay tuned on here for a some pretty sweet posts coming live within in the next few weeks.

P.S. is anyone else just craving a trip to Glacier National Park in Montana? I am. That'll probably be the destination for my big annual solo trip I take in the fall.


On the iPhone:


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Tower Hill State Park, WI

New adventures! 'Tis a little gem of our state park system, Tower Hill is. So you guys,  I've been so intrigued by this park and been wanting to check it out for a really long time. Now I have!

Outside the town of Spring Green and located along the banks of the Wisconsin River is seventy-seven acre Tower Hill State Park. You drive through Frank Lloyd Wright country, passing many of his architectural masterpieces like Taliesin. I was crazy excited because today, me and a special, wonderful lady/best friend/adventure buddy finally got to explore it as it's been on my adventure bucket list. Similar to my fascination for National Park Service properties that showcase important pieces of history, Tower Hill does the same for Wisco history by means of a preserved shot tower and melting house where lead shot was made in the mid-1800s.

While Tower Hill is open 365-days a year, the main gate is closed during off-season (Columbus Day to mid-May), so you'll need to park by the park office and walk down the road a minute or so to enter. Once you're in the park, you'll make your way through the small campground with the majority of its sites along a clear creek or the bluffs above. There are eleven basic, non-electric, non-reservable sites and a pit toilet. I'm super stoked to return here come summer time and camp out, being a big advocate of smaller, rustic campgrounds rather than ones littered with massive RVs sucking-up electricity. Campsite 3 is nestled on the Mill Creek, which is perfect for launching a canoe or kayak just feet from waking up in your tent. Warm temperatures cued for dreams of paddling up and down the creek and then connecting onward to the Wisconsin, stopping at all the sand bars with a Lenienkugel Summer Shandy in hand. When you get past site 13, you'll see the trail the starts taking you up the hill towards the shot tower and smelter house. It takes about fifteen minutes to reach the base of the super-cool 60ft wooden shot tower, in which you continue climbing some steep steps towards the smeltering house above. Don't forget to look out to your left too! The panoramic views are breathtaking.

Lead mining was huge here during the 1800s. A lead miner from Galena, IL named Thomas Bolton Shaunce with the assistance of Malcom Smith started digging a 90-ft long tunnel from the riverbank's finishing house, into the hillside to 120ft-deep shaft that rose upwards through the sandstone cliff. Construction halted in 1832 when the nearby Black Hawk War came about and Shaunce and Smith joined the fight. After the battles, the sixty-foot wooden shot tower, visible today was complete, making the total shaft length a whopping 180ft deep. 75-lb bars of lead from Galena and Mineral Point were brought to the top smeltering house to be melted. Then, the melted lead was filtered through a ladle with holes in it. The hot, melted droplets of lead chilled tremendously as they dropped some 180ft down the shaft in the side of the sandstone cliff to a pool of water below. Workers would then remove the lead from the pool and draft them through the 90-ft horizontal access tunnel to the finishing house, where they'd be prepped and put on boats to be shipped east. When production was in full-kick, some 5,000 pounds of lead were dropped through the tower resulting in only about 800 pounds at most, being usable. The unsuitable rest of the lead, was then hauled back up to the top of the hill, melted again and thrown down the tower once more. Just incredible history here. Make sure to read all the complete history about the process here.

When we reached the top, I lit my backpacking stove, brewed up some water for two mugs of tea and soaked-in the jaw-dropping views. It was so, so, quiet. A peaceful break from the daily grind. We continued on down the Old Ox Trail towards the base of the hill, where the trail carves alongside the creek to the access tunnel. I rubbed my hand along the porous, vibrant sandstone cliffs as we approached the start of the tunnel which like mentioned above, extends some 90ft back into the rock. A bat hanging from the ceiling was our indicator to turn around as it was becoming pitch black. Neither one of us felt like getting rabies from a napping bat's bite. We followed the fairly challenging, winding trail back up the bluffs towards the park entrance. I kept gawking at just how cool it was to see the restored shot tower protruding from the rock and the amazing scenery off on the horizon. For years I've declared the Driftless Area to be my favorite part of Wisconsin and places like Tower Hill only prove it to be more and more true.

So load up your car, pack a lunch and go travel west to check out this hidden gem of a state park. While you're at it- get lost at the trippy 'House On The Rock' a few minutes away.