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Lakes and rivers to explore by boat, canoe & kayak


  • Article
  • Boating
  • Lakes & Rivers
  • Paddling
  • Parks & Natural Areas

Here’s where to start your aquatic adventure, whether you’re out on a pontoon boat, canoe, or kayak.

Canoeing on the Wisconsin River in Vilas County WI

Vilas County is home to one of the largest collections of freshwater lakes in the world, so there’s no shortage of wonderful waters to explore. Here’s where to start your aquatic adventure in northern Wisconsin, whether you’re out on a pontoon boat, canoe, or kayak.

Boating: The Eagle River Chain of Lakes and Lac Vieux Desert

One of the Northwoods’ most well-known lake chains, the Eagle River Chain of Lakes is the largest freshwater chain of lakes in the world, encompassing 29 lakes between the Eagle River chain and the Three Lakes Chain to the south. The Eagle River chain offers a wide variety of boating options, from 1,000-acre Catfish Lake to 22-acre Lynx Lake. Boaters can access the lakes from many public boat launches, including sites on Catfish Lake, Cranberry Lake, Eagle Lake, Lynx Lake, and others. Learn more about Vilas County’s lake chains.

Lac Vieux Desert near Land O’ Lakes is where the Wisconsin River gets its start (you can see the headwaters at Lac Vieux Desert Reservoir Park on the southwest side of the lake), but it’s also a great lake for boating, offering a stunning 4,000 acres to explore. The lake straddles the border of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and is home to several lakeside resorts and campgrounds.

Kayaking: Allequash Lake and Island Lake

Allequash Lake, located south of Boulder Junction, is part of the Allequash Lake and Pines State Natural Area in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest. The 400-acre lake is divided into large basins, and the southern basin has a no-motor restriction, so it’s perfect for kayaking. Follow Allequash Lake Road east from Highway M to reach the boat landing.

Island Lake is an 865-acre body of water near Manitowish Waters in western Vilas County. It’s also located within the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, and it’s designated as a Wild lake, meaning motorized watercraft are not allowed.

Canoeing: The Wisconsin River and the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest

Want to get out on the water on one of the state’s most scenic and iconic rivers? The Wisconsin River starts in Vilas County and flows throughout the Northwoods, offering lots of great opportunities for paddlers. If you’re looking for some suggestions on where to launch your canoe, you can see some recommended itineraries here. Up for a longer paddle? Try one of the Wisconsin River Centennial Trips (see information for Trip 1 here and Trip 2 here).

As mentioned earlier, the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest is filled with lakes and waterways—it’s home to more than 900 lakes and over 300 miles of rivers and streams. Many lakes have “no motor” or “electric motor only” designations, so you don’t have to worry about speedboats zipping by and you can enjoy the undeveloped splendor of the Northwoods. The NHAL is also home to more than 70 canoe campsites and six suggested overnight paddling trips. Learn more here.