It’s quiet at Straight Lake.
The kind of nobody-else-is-here quiet you don’t usually find at a state park in Wisconsin.
As my mom and I hiked the Ice Age Trail through the western Wisconsin park last May, our biggest run-in was with a garter snake that caught me off guard. In about an hour of hiking, we saw only two other people. For that kind of solitude on a summer weekend, you usually have to go deep into national or state forest land.
“There are times I’m up there and I don’t see another soul,” said Matt Densow, the ranger and assistant property manager for Straight Lake. “You definitely feel like you’re out there in the wilderness.”
A few factors contribute to the serenity. As one of Wisconsin’s newest state parks — the State Department of Natural Resources purchased the land from the Brunkow Hardwoods Corp. in 2005 — it’s not as well known as its older siblings.
The land, which used to be a Boy Scout camp, doesn’t have any flashy natural features — just two pristine lakes, a few hiking trails including the Ice Age Trail, and a handful of walk-in campsites.
And although it has been a state park for more than a decade, it’s been developed for recreation only in the past couple of years — and minimally.
“Straight Lake was one of those [parks] that was determined to be a more silent-sports type of property,” Densow said, noting the DNR wanted to keep it as rustic as possible.
That included forgoing a visitor entrance building, which originally was part of the park’s 2009 master plan.
Motorized activities and even biking are prohibited at Straight Lake, about 75 miles northeast of the Twin Cities, and miles of quiet, empty trails beckon. Ten rustic walk-in campsites — spaced at least 400 feet apart — allow for a quiet overnight trip and supreme stargazing far from city lights.
The park feels a bit like Newport State Park, Wisconsin’s only wilderness park. That Door County park is minimally developed with only walk-in campsites.
“That’s kind of what we tried to go with,” Densow said.
Straight Lake’s main trail is a nearly 4-mile segment of the Ice Age Trail that traverses the length of the 2,000-acre park, following the shores of Straight and Rainbow lakes and the Trade and Straight rivers.
The trail passes through a forest filled with red and white oak, basswood, red maple and white pine. Some of the trees in the remote forest are nearly a century old.
It also passes through a tunnel channel, one of the best examples of such a geological feature in the Midwest. When a glacier covered this area more than 10,000 years ago, a fast-moving river flowed beneath the ice, carrying sediment with it out of the receding glacier. After the glacier was gone, the wide, deep channel remained.
A few other short trails wind through the property, including the nearly milelong Straight Lake Trail that starts at the picnic area and winds along the southern shore to the first-come, first-served campsites. Glass containers are prohibited in the park, and campers need to bring in their own water or be prepared to treat water from Straight Lake. Densow said the park is working to have solar wells up and running this year.
Straight and Rainbow lakes are popular with anglers, but motorized boats and gas-powered augers for ice fishing are prohibited. Rainbow Lake has an accessible fishing pier.
The area is prime for bird-watching, with sightings of trumpeter swans, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks and the Midwest’s largest population of cerulean warblers.
In wintertime, trails are open to hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, although they’re not groomed. Densow advises winter visitors to use a vehicle with four-wheel drive to access the park, as the two parking lots that are plowed (at the picnic area off 120th Street and on the northern end on 280th Avenue) may take time to be cleared after a storm.
Densow said the park is busiest in spring and fall, when ticks, mosquitoes, flies and other insects aren’t as bothersome.
And while it’s not a very busy park now, he does expect more people to discover the quiet little enclave as word spreads and the DNR adds signs on Hwys. 8 and 35.
But the “nice quiet rustic property … is not going to be anything like a Willow River or Peninsula,” two of Wisconsin’s most popular state parks, Densow said.
From Interstate 35 out of the Twin Cities, take Hwy. 8 at Forest Lake into Wisconsin via Taylors Falls. Then take Hwy. 35 north to Luck, Wis., and Hwy. 48 five miles east to the park. Find the main parking area off 120th St. and 270th Av.
Vehicle admission stickers ($11/day, $38/year nonresidents) are required for accessing Straight Lake. Purchase one at a self-registration station at the park.
Hiking distances to the park’s campsites range from 400 feet to a third of a mile from a parking area. They are self-registration ($16) and first-come, first-served. The park is carry-in, carry-out, with glass containers prohibited. More information is at dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/straightlake.
The park is about 30 miles northeast of popular Interstate State Park in Wisconsin and Minnesota. That park, at Taylors Falls, Minn., features a dramatic gorge along the St. Croix River, with riverboat cruises available in warmer months.