The sprawling Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest encompasses more than 232,000 acres in northern Wisconsin. The State Forest was designated to protect the headwaters of the Wisconsin, Flambeau and Manitowish rivers and its boundaries comprise the highest concentration of Wisconsin’s lakes.
Four of those lakes; Prong, Bittersweet, Smith and Oberlin, are collectively known as the Bittersweet Lakes, a State Natural Area within the Forest. And while there’s not many State Natural Areas you can camp at, this one you can. These lakes are small, undeveloped, and are sometimes considered a miniature version of Boundary Waters because of the short overland portages needed to lake-hop to each of the four. And of course, since there are no motorboats or motors allowed, this quiet and remote setting is a perfect place for an intimate overnight paddling excursion.
Paddling Style: Flatwater Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Lakeside
Availability: First Come, First Served + Reservable Designated Sites
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: No
Camping Fee: Yes | Camping Permit: No
There are five primitive sites which are reservable from May 1st through Labor Day. After which, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’re choosing the latter, you must register at Clear Lake Visitor station prior to take-off. If you’re looking to reserve a site through the reservation system, the park you want to choose is the “Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest”, then “South Campgrounds”. All campsites have a tent pad, picnic table and fire ring. Sites are limited to a maximum of six people and may be occupied for up to 14 nights.
The recommended landing is off Highway 70 at Prong Lake, where you’ll need to hike-in your boat and gear. Between the lakes, you’ll also need to shuttle at the marked portage trails to get to the next lake. The portages between the lakes are relatively short, but consider some wheels for easier-wheeling if you think you’ll need it. And though these are small lakes, they are still remote, so share your plan with others and be prepared to practice pack-in, pack-out, Leave-No-Trace ethics.
Paddling Bittersweet Lakes:
The four lakes are relatively small, which offers an intimate flatwater paddling experience (the longest from end-to-end isn’t even a mile-long). Within these wild lakes, you’ll no doubt see eagles and osprey which frequently hunt for food in the lakes. As you should too, since walleye, pike and panfish are plentiful. One unique aspect about the forested surroundings are that the red, white pine and hemlock trees are the oldest groves within the expansive Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, which is why it’s been preserved as a State Natural Area.