If you want to visit a park during the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, you'd better hurry before the snow flies.
You don't have to travel far to find one. Wisconsin is home to three beautiful places protected by the National Park Service—including the 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail that skirts Madison's far west side.
Continental glaciers at least 300-feet in height covered the northern third and eastern half of Wisconsin about 15,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated, they sculpted much of the state's geography, like Madison's chain of lakes and the rolling drumlin fields east of the city. Today, you can still see the huge boulders left behind as the glaciers melted and the narrow canyons carved out by torrents of meltwater rushing off the end of the ice sheet.
One of the best places to experience Wisconsin's glacial past is the Cross Plains unit of the Ice Age National Reserve, located on Old Sauk Pass south of U.S. Highway 14.
Established by the National Park Service in 1971 as part of the federally-designated Ice Age Trail, the Cross Plains Reserve includes hiking trails and interpretive signage that helps visitors appreciate the fascinating topography.
The 1,500-acre area contains an outstanding collection of glacial landforms, including a meltwater gorge and expansive views of both driftless (unglaciated) and glaciated terrain overlooking the Black Earth Creek valley.
Parking for the Cross Plains Reserve is available on Old Sauk Pass or along Timber Lane, off Mineral Point Road. Try biking on Old Sauk Road to the reserve if you want to make it a "biathlon" of both wheels and feet.
Established as a park in 1970, the Apostle Islands include a dozen rocky islands and a strip of mainland shore. The islands once supported several small communities through fishing and quarrying brownstone that was shipped to major cities such as New York.
Today, all the buildings have been removed, leaving the islands in a largely natural state that is ideal for kayakers or hikers. Numerous sea caves and pristine white sand beaches provide ample opportunities for exploration.
The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway includes more than 250 miles of the beautiful waters of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers in northwest Wisconsin. It was established in 1968 and is known for its outstanding canoe camping, especially for families who will find the river currents challenging but not dangerous.
The St. Croix River in particular passes high bluffs, green forests and rock gorges such as the rocks of the Dalles, a landmark known for the massive rock formation that looks like a human face.
Of course, it's probably not fair to compare the Dalles of the St. Croix with the dramatic scenery of the West.
I was lucky to recently tour both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, where the golden aspens of autumn were already contrasting with the towering evergreens and white snow falling on the high country. Breathtaking stuff.
The well-publicized anniversary of the National Park Service, established in 1916, has brought a flood of visitors from around the world to see the best of the U.S.
On my recent trip, the crowds were out in force. It was nice running into visitors from so many different places, including plenty of Midwesterners who drove out in campers and RVs.
And there was no shortage of "Sconnies," always conspicuous in their Packers and Badgers garb.
It was enough to make a local boy feel proud.
Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer whose journalism career includes 30 years at The Capital Times.