A Camping Weekend on the Mississippi River
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Spend a weekend hiking up bluffs to views of the Mississippi and kayaking in the nearby National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. This camping trip is less than 4 hours away from Chicago!
Jump ahead to a section below:
Day One (Friday) Drive to Wyalusing Park and Stargaze
Day Two (Saturday) Hike and Kayak in Wyalusing State Park
Day Three (Sunday) Hike in Pike’s Peak State Park in Iowa
Drive to Wyalusing Park and Stargaze
Wyalusing State Park is on the Eastern side of the Mississippi River near where the Wisconsin River and Mississippi River join. It has campsites with river views, hiking with elevation gains, telescopes for stargazing, and a kayak rental site in the park. The kayak launch in the park provides access to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.
For a road trip dinner stop on the drive there, see Where to Eat. I outline a Friday fish fry option in Platteville, Wisconsin.
When you arrive at the park, buy firewood and ice if you need them. Note that the firewood at the home located outside of the park entrance is less expensive than the firewood inside the park. Buying firewood inside the park goes towards supporting the park though.
At the park entrance, pay the car entrance fee ($11/night) and pick up a park map. The park is also known for its birdlife and offers a brochure with a checklist for finding birds during your visit. We were able to spot a Pileated Woodpecker, Bald Eagles, and more during our visit.
Once it is dark, ther park has an astronomy observatory I recommend visiting. It is located near the park entrance, on a hill with clear sky views (not obstructed by trees like many of the campsites). There is a local group, the Starsplitters, that will occasionally set up telescopes and events for stargazing as well. From May through October they offer a 1 hour astronomy program on Saturday nights at 8:30. Check their website for their calendar of events or to contact them for a private event.
Hike and Kayak Wyalusing State Park
Start the morning hiking the Sentinel Ridge Trail, a 3 mile out and back hike with 900 feet in elevation gain. The trail offers multiple viewpoints of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers converging. Throughout the hike you will also pass areas with Native American burial mounds, from between 500 BC to AD 1250. Stop and read the posted signs for additional history and information on them.
If you are staying at the Wisconsin Ridge campsites, start on the Bluff Trail directly from the campsites and connect to the Sentinel Ridge Trail from there. My friends and I started on the Bluff Trail and took the additional side trail to see Treasure Cave. We ended up hiking around 4.5 miles total, out and back combined. Treasure Cave is worth the stop. On the trail leading to the cave you pass through a photo-worthy narrow rock formation. The cave is large enough to crawl through in areas and once inside there is a “window” with views of the river.
If you aren’t staying at the Wisconsin Ridge Campsites, then I recommend starting the Sentinel Ridge Trail at the boat launch. There will be a sign for the trailhead beyond the train tracks.
The best views of the hike are close to the Wisconsin Ridge Campgrounds. By starting at the boat launch you work your way uphill on the hike and then end at spectacular views before turning around. Sadly when you start at the campsite you see the best views early on and then have the majority of uphill climbing midway through the hike.
There are multiple other trail options in the park as well, a park map is below.
In the afternoon rent canoes or kayaks from the State Park. The rentals are located near the concession stand in the Wisconsin Ridge Campground. They charge $15 for the first hour and $10 for every hour after that. You pay for the kayaks and pick up your life jacket and paddle at the concession stand. Then drive down to the boat launch to unlock your kayak or canoe and launch it directly from there. The park staff mentioned rentals are usually available in the spring and fall, but they often run out of rentals in the summer months.
The kayak launch leads you into the backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. If you have your own kayak or canoe you are allowed to launch it from the park as well. The park rentals aren’t allowed to enter the main channel of the Mississippi, but personally owned kayaks can. There are options to take the North trail, South trail or to explore the Glen Lake area where the boat launch is. The canoe trails are well marked with blue diamond-shaped markers on the trees. If you are unsure which way to turn, look up and ahead to spot the next blue triangle in the distance.
There are three trail options for kayaking and canoeing:
The North trail takes about 45 minutes to kayak out and back.
The South trail takes 1.5 hours to kayak out and back.
If you bring your own kayak, there is the option to kayak a full loop that combines both the North and South trails along with kayaking in the Mississippi River. We were told it takes about 4 hours for the full loop.
While kayaking we were able to spot multiple Bald Eagles, so be sure to look up at the top of the treeline. We also spotted a muskrat and a couple herons. Pack binoculars for close up views of the bird life.
If you are staying at the Wisconsin Ridge Campgrounds, around sunset time, walk to the Point Lookout viewpoint. Walking out of the campsite, it’s the first right on the paved road. It’s roughly a 5 minute walk depending on your campsite location. Watching the sunset over the water shouldn’t be missed!
Hike in Pike’s Peak State Park Iowa
Pack up your campsite and then drive 20 minutes to Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa. This is another park along the Mississippi River, but on the Western side. The drive to the park takes you over the Mississippi River and through a couple small historically preserved towns. We particularly liked the downtown of McGregor and if you have time I recommend stopping to explore its small shops.
At minimum, visit the park’s main entrance (the Homestead parking lot) and the viewpoints there. The views of the Mississippi from the Pikes Peak State Park were our favorite of the trip. If you feel like more hiking, there are multiple options that I have outlined below. Study the trail map to decide how far you want to go and which trails to prioritize. All of the trails in the park can be connected, but the ones along the water have the best views.
Hike the Chinquapin Ridge Trail
The trail follows along the tallest bluff on the Mississippi River with lots of views. It is 5 miles out and back with 600 feet in elevation gain. It leads you to Pikes Peak, the tallest bluff on the Mississippi. There are several points with views of the Mississippi and multiple Native American burial grounds along the trail as well. Start the trail at the McGregor parking area. We had trouble finding this parking area, if you put “Point Ann” into Google it will take you there. There are no bathrooms or water at the McGregor parking area.
Hike the Point Ann Trail from the McGregor parking area.
When you start this trail from the McGregor parking area it is only 1.8 miles round trip. You hike directly up to the viewpoint and then back down.
Hike the Point Ann Trail from the Homestead Parking Lot
Starting at the Homestead parking lot, the Point Ann trail will be 4 miles out and back. It will pass by Bridal Veil Falls, an old rock quarry and Native American burial grounds and then ends at Point Ann with views of the Mississippi.
Combine the Point Ann and Chinquapin Ridge trails into a Loop with the Horn Hollow trail.
Start at the McGregor parking lot and hike up to Point Ann. As you are coming down from the point, follow the signage to turn off on to the Horn Hollow Trail. From there, connect to the Chinquapin Ridge Trail and end back at the McGregory Parking Lot for a 4 mile loop. I think this combination encompasses the best views of the park as you stay along the ridge of the river for most of the hike.
After hiking we stopped for lunch at a spot along the river that served local fresh fish. See Where to Eat for more details.
Additional Trip Add-Ons
If you want to visit the area for more than a weekend, or want to pack more into Friday or Sunday there are additional nearby options to explore:
Effigy Mounds National Monument- A nationally protected area with 200 Native American burial grounds. The mounds here were formed in the shape of bears and birds.
Mines of Spain State Park- An Iowa State Park with more hikes along the bluffs of the Mississippi River.
Cave of the Mounds National Monument-A natural limestone cave not far from Madison, Wisconsin. It is considered one of the most beautiful caves in the upper Midwest.
There are a few options for campsites in the area:
The park's campsites are located on top of a bluff with views of the Mississippi. This State Park has less hikes and no kayak rental option, so we chose to stay at Wyalusing.
Wyalusing State Park Campgrounds- Homestead Campgrounds
The Homestead Campsites are located in the center, wooded area of the state park
Wyalusing State Park Campgrounds -Wisconsin Ridge Campgrounds
These campsites are high up on a ridge. Half of them have direct views of the Mississippi River and Wisconsin River meeting. These campsites will book up the furthest in advance! Although the other half of the campsites don’t have the views, it’s a short walk from them to catch the view for sunrise or sunset.
Campsites will fill up months in advance, especially the campsites with river views. I recommend booking sites 4-5 months in advance. Kayaks and canoes can’t be reserved in advance, so there is nothing else you need to reserve ahead of time.
What to Wear and Pack
What to Wear
Hiking boots or shoes
Hiking sandals or water shoes for kayaking
Lightweight long sleeves and pants for nighttime or hiking- These will help prevent mosquito bites.
What to Pack
A daypack for hiking. The Arc'teryx Index 15 is my favorite.
A water bladder or water bottle for the hike
Bug Spray and/or bug bands
See Planning a Weekend Camping Trip for what to pack if you are camping for this trip
Binoculars for bird watching
What to Eat
Cheese Curds-Wisconsin is known for its fried cheese curds. A cheese curd is a younger cheddar that hasn’t been aged. It is separated out from the whey during the cheesemaking process. In Wisconsin they are served fried with a variety of flavors like jalapeño or garlic. A ranch dipping sauce often accompanies them.
Fish Fry- Wisconsin still has traditional Fish Fries on Friday nights and sometimes Wednesday as well. The fish fry tradition was started by religious settlers that didn’t eat meat on Friday but is now a Wisconsin cultural tradition without religious ties. A fish fry meal typically includes local beer battered cod, perch, walleye or smelt with tartar sauce, french fries and coleslaw.
Catfish Cheeks-The cheeks portion of the catfish are served fried with a tartar sauce or other dipping sauce.
Where to Eat
The Depot in Prairie Du Chien
If you want to have local fish while near the Mississippi, the Depot is the perfect spot. It is located in an old railroad depot and has outdoor dining with views of the river. We all enjoyed their fried bluegill plate and catfish cheeks. They also serve cheese curds, burgers, sandwiches and more. The staff was friendly and fun too. The restaurant is only a 5 minute drive from Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa.
2nd and Main (Also called Spirits Pub and Grill) in Platteville, Wisconsin
This restaurant was directly on our route from Chicago to Wyalusing State Park. It is a hybrid coffee shop, bar and restaurant that offers something for everyone. If you are traveling on Friday, their Friday fish fry was delicious. They also offer multiple varieties of cheese curds, Wisconsin beer cheese soup, pretzels with Wisconsin beer cheese and numerous local craft beers.
When to Go
This itinerary works well for spring, summer or fall. The temperatures are too cold for water based activities after that and many of the park services are closed mid October through May. The mosquitos in the area are most prevalent in June, July and August, so spring and fall trips help to avoid the worst of the bugs. The spring wildflowers also added to the beauty of our hikes, but the fall foliage is supposed to be stunning in the area as well.
Trip Dates: May, 2021
Additional Reading: Planning a Weekend Camping Trip, Camping Trips Near Chicago