Camping in the NHAL State Forest in Wisconsin

If you’re looking for that quintessential Northwoods camping experience with big trees, lakes, and wildlife, camping in the NHAL State Forest is it. The Northern Highland–American Legion (NHAL) State Forest is a beautiful space in northern Wisconsin.

A brown pit bull in camping themed pajamas sitting among pines trees along the shore of Carol Lake while camping in the NHAL State Forest in Wisconsin

Camping in the NHAL State Forest

There are many options, so this truly depends on what you’re looking to do and what type of amenities you want. Most of these campgrounds have sites you can reserve.

Modern Campgrounds

Want to be able to shower and use a regular flush toilet? These are the campgrounds you’ll need to check out. There are no electrical hookups, but you can get a free permit to run a generator if that’s your thing.

  • Clear Lake
  • Big Musky
  • Firefly
  • Crystal Lake

Rustic Campgrounds

Just the essentials—hand-pumped water, pit toilets, and no electricity. However, these campgrounds usually offer wider site spacing than the modern campgrounds. This is what we opted for. Six campgrounds in this list (East Star through West Star) were non-reservable as of Fall 2020.

  • Big Lake
  • Buffalo Lake
  • Carrol Lake
  • Cunard Lake
  • Indian Mounds
  • Plum Lake
  • Sandy Beach Lake
  • South Trout
  • East Star Lake
  • North Trout Lake
  • Razorback Lake
  • Starrett Lake
  • Upper Gresham Lake
  • West Star Lake
Two pit bulls in fleece sweaters sitting between two large pine trees on the shore of Carrol Lake while camping in the NHAL State Forest in Wisconsin

Primitive Campgrounds

Just the basics—tent clearing, fire ring, picnic table, box latrine.

  • Allequash Lake
  • Bittersweet Wild Lakes Area
  • Clear Lake
  • Day Lake
  • Nebish Lake
A view from a wooden dock looking out at a small, tree-filled island on Carrol Lake

Backcountry Camping in the NHAL State Forest

For those looking for even more solitude and adventure, you can request a permit for backcountry camping.

Camping with Dogs at Carrol Lake

While having a shower sounded luxurious while camping, we wanted a small campground—this meant fewer amenities, fewer people, and more seclusion (for the dogs and us). Carrol Lake won partially due to availability when we made our reservation and because it has some tremendous walk-in sites.

Two pit bulls in fleece sweaters sitting between two large pine trees on the shore of Carol Lake while camping in the NHAL State Forest in Wisconsin

Don’t worry; you’re not going to be hauling gear across a football field. It’s more like walking the length of your house (if you have a small, 1300-sq-ft house like me). Easy peasy.

Our site, 102, had a lot of room and a lovely view of the lake. If all the sites there had been open, I might have chosen 103 because it had a little more grassy space and a more open view. However, it was slightly closer to the boat ramp (not that the boaters were noisy, or at least it didn’t sound like it from 102). Site 101 was a bit uphill from us, so more seclusion, but closer to the road. Even from our site, you could occasionally hear cars (noisy ones).

Two pit bull dogs in fleece sweaters on a dock with trees in the background at Carrol Lake lake in Wisconsin
A tan, orange, and grey 6-person tent surrounded by pine trees at a campsite at Carrol Lake Campground in Wisconsin

There were also regular campsites you could pull right up to and a few other walk-ins at the other end of camp. I don’t think those walk-ins had a great view of the lake. Plus, on our side (101-103), we were closer to the docks and dog-accessible waterfront. The actual beach area farther into camp does not allow dogs.

Carrol Lake is just a few minutes from town (Woodruff) and Clear Lake Campground, which has a ranger station and access to firewood.

Note: Pets must be on a leash. A State Parks and Forest sticker is required for camping (throughout the NHAL State Forest).

Brats cooking in a pan over a campfire, a great meal while camping in the NHAL State Forest in Wisconsin
A person sitting along the Carrol Lake lakeshore framed by pine trees and deciduous trees

​Hiking in NHAL State Forest

Our camp host gave us a great local newspaper guide filled with things to do, from local shops to local hikes. The Wisconsin DNR also has a great breakdown of hikes in NHAL State Forest. Try to check in with local guides whenever you can, whether it’s your camp host, a ranger, or some locals in town. They typically have a better grasp of current conditions and what’s accessible, plus they may have some “locals only” trail knowledge they can pass on.

A woman an a hiking trail surrounded by many green leafy trees in the NHAL State Forest in Wisconsin

While we spent part of our trip exploring the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness in Michigan, we did some local hiking as well. We headed up to Escanaba Lake for the first part of our day and then explored Minocqua in the second half. The Escanaba Hiking Trail offers several loops, from 2.36 to 8.48 miles. The trails are well-maintained and relatively wide. There is some logging regrowth you’ll hike through, but most of the time, it’s just beautiful forest views along with an occasional lake sighting.

Also, bring mosquito spray. There were zero bugs at our Carrol Lake campsite, but we encountered quite a few on the Escanaba hike.

Extra also: Don’t forget to bring some local(ish) brewskis!

A golden yellow and orange sunset view of Carrol Lake in Wisconsin
A handing holding a blue can of beer and in the background are two dogs sitting among pine trees with a lake and sunset behind them

Backpacking to Whipple Valley

I’d categorize Utah as my freshy fresh 2017 love interest (the Supes are my local love, and Canada is my big love). There are lovely national parks in the state, but I’ve found that national parks only seem to have one or two relatively short trails that dogs are allowed to hike. On the other hand, national forests are prime-time adventure dog real estate! Backpacking to Whipple Valley would be perfect.

A woman with two dogs walking along a stream in a mountain meadow

Trail Details for Backpacking to Whipple Valley

For this trip, my eyes were on Dixie National Forest in the southeast corner of the state – Whipple Trail in the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, to be exact.

Trail length: 12 miles (O/B)
Elevation gain: 2,890 feet

Looking down at a white dog with a blue backpack and a brown dog with a green backpack
Looking out at a green valley below pine covered mountains


There is something to be said for planning far enough ahead. We’ll just get that statement out of the way right now.

A week before we rolled out is when I decided we’d be rolling out. The plan was to leave work early on Friday to drive the 7 hours to the Pine Valley Recreation Area. This is where you’ll find the Whipple Trailhead. We’d camp at a designated campsite. Then start hiking right away Saturday morning and sleep in Whipple Valley. Sunday afternoon, we’d hike down to spend the night at the campsite again. And then head home early Monday morning.

Not a bad plan for a regular weekend. But a horrible plan for Memorial Day weekend when everyone and their uncle’s cat decides to go camping and you’re trying to stay at a first-come-first-served campsite and work gets busy, so you can’t leave until Saturday morning.

Spoiler alert!
We still had a grand adventure!

A mountain stream cutting through the woods

The Hike up to Whipple Valley

We arrived in Pine Valley around 2:30pm. As expected, no campsites were available. Luckily you can park for free at the trailheads if you’re just hiking for the day or doing overnights on the trails.

A three-person family was gearing up as I pulled into a parking spot. We compared notes on what we knew about the trail: Rangers had yet to clear it. Downed trees across the trail. Potential snow at higher elevation on north-facing areas.

The weather was warm, and the elevation hit me a little harder than expected. But it was a beautiful hike with spectacular views and just enough shade to even out the warmth. The hounds were on their best behavior – or maybe the elevation was hitting them a bit as well.

There was no water on the trail until we hit a few streams halfway up. Here we ran into our second human encounter. A couple was setting up camp. They reported that they’d only gone halfway up the remainder of the trail before turning back because it was more challenging than the first portion. Super!

A grassy mountain meadow with snow among the trees along the edges, a view you may encounter when backpacking to Whipple Valley
A white dog and a brown dog looking out at sunset in a mountain meadow, a nice reward after backpacking to Whipple Valley

I kept on trekking, taking breaks often, thinking about how easy it would be to turn back or just set up camp at any of the other sites we came upon after that point. We reach the first pocket of snow tucked up under some pines. Then a patch, closer to the trail. Another blob covering half the trail. Just as we came upon the next set of campers, snow-covered the remainder of the trail as it headed from the summit area of the trail down to where the trail spilled out into the valley.

We hopped and slid down to the green space ahead. I stared in awe as we stepped from the trees into the grassy valley that opened up ahead. Green grass, tiny spring flowers, a stream down the center. There was still snow tucked away in the shadows of the tree line, rumpled up dirt where the snowpack had moved along, and water simply flowing out of the ground from the thawing process.

We located a narrow portion of the stream to cross and set up camp across the way. I could see two other campsites when we explored a bit more. The the family of three arrive a short time later. We wound down with a beautiful sunset and retired for the evening.

A white dog with a pink collar looking out at snow under the trees along the mountain meadow, a common sight when backpacking to Whipple Valley
A woman sitting on a blanket on a rock with two down in a mountain meadow, a great way to relax after backpacking to Whipple Valley

Shoulder Seasons

The houndy hounds were a bit chilly at night (it dropped below 40) because someone forgot their winter jackets – no names mentioned – okay, it was me!! I covered them in every extra piece of clothing or fabric I had. And I was extra thankful for the morning sunrays that were a toasty piece of heaven.

We explored the valley for a while before making our way back down the trail. Then we were greeted by a dead car battery. I was grateful for friendly hikers willing to give me a jump start. Also for my dad for making me carry jumper cables in my car at all times because the other hikers didn’t have any. If you take anything away from this post, take that: Always carry jumper cables in your car!

Even with a few detours to the original plans, I loved every second of our adventure. And I can’t wait to get back to Utah for another one. I definitely recommend backpacking to Whipple Valley!

A white dog and a brown dog looking out at a small stream in a mountain meadow
A brown dog with a green backpack in front of a water soaked mountain meadow
Backpacking to Whipple Valley