Consider: 3,800 variegated acres stretching from the northern fringe of Fish Creek , past Strawberry Channel, past Eagle Bluff, past Nicolet Bay, and finally to Eagle Harbor and Ephraim . All of it magnificent. Deeded to the state for a state park in 1909, Peninsula State Park is the second-oldest park in the state system, and with no statistical manipulation the park is numero uno in usage in Wisconsin. (Heck, it even draws more folks per annum than Yellowstone National Park!)
The peninsula, rising 180 feet above the lake at Eagle Bluff, is a manifestation of the western edge of the Niagara Escarpment, here a steep and variegated series of headlands and reentrants. The ecosystem here is unparalleled. Near Weborg Point in the southwest, the Peninsula White Cedar Forest Natural Area is a 53-acre stand of spruce, cedar, balsam, and hemlock, and the boggy residual tract of an ancient lake.
South of Eagle Tower is the larger, 80-acre Peninsula Beech Forest Natural Area. Not only is this a primitive example of northern mixed hardwood, but it is a relatively uncommon stand of American beech. Within both confines is a handful of threatened species, including the vivid dwarf lake iris. Other rarities include gaywings, Indian paintbrush, blue-eyed grass, and downy gentian. Not impressed? You will be if you ever witness a sunset here!
As usual, the first European, Increase Claflin, was a squatter; he parked his cabin high above the Strawberry Islands in 1844. But Plano Indian encampments have been examined and dated to 7000–4000 B.C., and the Menominee, Fox, Winnebago, Iroquois, and Potawatomi Indians have all occupied littoral sites. The Native American presence—and for once, overtly harmonious relations—is symbolized by the Memorial Pole. This 40-foot totem pole commemorates Potawatomi chief Simon Khaquados, laid to rest here in 1930 before thousands of admirers. Unfortunately, the settlers didn’t love him enough to preclude building a golf course around his grave; the pole today sits between the number 1 and number 9 fairways.
Obligatory is the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse (920/421-3636) built during the Civil War by U.S. lighthouse crewmen as the second of Peninsula State Park’s lighthouses, a square tower about 45 feet tall attached to the keeper’s house. It stands atop the bluff and can be seen for 15 miles; the views from its top stretch even farther.
The prized assignment for lighthouse keepers in the peninsula, it had a commanding view and the best salary, the princely sum (for 1880) of $50 per month. Public interest prompted local historical societies to peel off 80 layers of paint and set to work refurbishing it in the late 1950s. Tours ($5 adults) are given in early summer and autumn every half hour 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, with shorter hours the rest of year.
Two 75-foot towers were erected at the park’s inception and used as fire-spotting towers (one was later removed because of dry rot). Eagle Tower was placed where it is simply because so many people wanted to spot a pair of long-term nesting eagles—the two for whom the bluff, the harbor, and the peninsula itself were eventually named. Ambitious visitors can take Minnehaha or Sentinel Trails in lieu of driving.
Before hiking, most visitors head to the White Cedar Nature Center (Bluff Rd., 920/854-5976, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. daily Memorial Day–Labor Day, shorter hours rest of the year) to walk a nature trail and view a host of exhibits covering the park’s natural history.
Deemed by the golf press one of the gems of Midwestern courses, this 18-holer is plunked right in the eastern swath of Peninsula State Park. (It was built by a group of Ephraim  businessmen in the early 1900s as a nine-hole course with sand greens.) Tee-time reservations are obviously necessary—as early as you can make them. Call 920/854-5791 for information.
More than 20 miles of hiking trails network through the park and along the shores of the bays. Fifteen miles of on- and off-road bike trails exist, and a state trail pass is required on certain marked routes. What may be the most heavily traversed recreational trail—Sunset Trail—roughly parallels Shore Road for five miles through marsh and hardwood and conifer stands. At dusk it is definitely not misnamed. An extra few miles take in the littoral perimeter of Nicolet Bay and lead back to Fish Creek  via back roads.
The toughest trail, but also the most rewarding, the Eagle Trail covers two miles skirting the harbor and a couple of natural springs and affords challenging scrambles over 200-foot bluffs. The easiest hike is the three-quarter-mile Minnehaha Trail, linking Nicolet Bay Campground and Eagle Trail.
You won’t forget a kayak or canoe trip to Horseshoe Island, which has its own mile-long trail. A bit rugged and definitely isolated, it’s a fave getaway.
Peninsula State Park has its own bike and boat rentals (920/854-9220) at Nicolet Beach.
Originally, camping was generally allowed in any direction the ranger waved his hand and cost from free to $0.50 per week. Today, the DNR receives up to 5,000 applications for summer reservations in January. At last count there were, let’s see, tons of campsites—469 to be exact, separated into four sectors, but it’ll still be tough to show up without a reservation and get one. Only one sector is open year-round.
Incidentally, this is one of the state parks that tacks on an extra fee for camping ’cuz it’s so damned used.