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Where to get on (and in) the water in Vilas County


  • Article
  • Beaches
  • Boating
  • Fishing
  • Lakes & Rivers
  • Paddling
  • Swimming

Here’s a look at some of the best lakes and rivers for swimming, boating, and paddling in Vilas County.

Kayaking at the North Lakeland Discovery Center Manitowish Waters WI

With more than 1,300 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams, there’s no shortage of water to explore in Vilas County. Need some suggestions on where to go? Here’s a look at some of the best lakes and rivers for swimming, boating, and paddling.

See where the Wisconsin River starts

In northeastern Vilas County, you’ll find the beginning of one of Wisconsin’s great rivers. The Wisconsin River starts its 400-mile journey through the state at Lac Vieux Desert, a 4,000-acre lake near Phelps that sits on the Wisconsin-Upper Peninsula border. Head to Lac Vieux Desert Reservoir Park to find a historical marker and a scenic view of the lake. Learn more about the headwaters of the Wisconsin River here.

Explore the Northwoods’ chains of lakes

Is one lake just not enough for your aquatic adventures? You’re in luck—Vilas County is home to some wonderful lake chains that will allow you to explore several scenic waterways in one trip. The Eagle River Chain is the largest freshwater chain of lakes in the world and connects with the Three Lakes Chain to offer nearly 30 lakes and 175 miles of shoreline to explore. In northern Vilas County, boaters can explore Wisconsin and Michigan waters in the 15-lake Cisco Chain. Learn more about Vilas County’s lake chains here.

Canoeing and kayaking routes

Vilas County’s lakes offer endless opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding, there are also some iconic river routes to explore. As mentioned above, the Wisconsin River starts at Lac Vieux Desert and flows through Vilas County on its way south—see some suggested paddling itineraries for the waterway here. The sprawling Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest is home to more than 900 lakes, 300 miles of rivers and streams, more than 70 campsites only accessible by canoe, and six suggested overnight paddling trips. 

And don’t forget to download the free Map It Vilas County trails app, which will help you navigate the county’s trails on water and on land.

Beautiful beaches

Dip your toes in the sand at some of the Northwoods’ best beaches. As we mentioned, Vilas County is home to more than 1,300 lakes, so that means it’s likely you’ll be able to find a beautiful beach pretty much anywhere you go. Whether you’re looking to spend some time on Wisconsin’s clearest lake (Black Oak Lake at Black Oak Lake Park & Beach in Land O’ Lakes) or want to explore the waters of Eagle River’s world-famous chain of lakes (Eagle Lake County Park & Beach), you’ll find the perfect place to spend a summer day. Learn more about Vilas County’s beaches here.