Hiking the paths less traveled near Madison

Hiking is all the rage these days.
dad with two kids hiking along the trail
Black Hawk Unit of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway
Photo by Rebeca Radix

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” —“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, 1916

If there’s a silver lining to the global COVID-19 pandemic it might be our increased appreciation for the great outdoors. Trapped in our homes through the spring — as we each did our part to flatten the curve of further infection — we inevitably became desperate for fresh air and greenery. A warming sun coaxed us from our dens, like so many woodland creatures, and we breathed deeply — even if it meant doing so from behind our protective face masks.

But the collective relief we initially sought resulted in overcrowding (as well as littering and vandalism) at some state parks, prompting Gov. Tony Evers to close 38 state parks for three weeks in April. In southern Wisconsin, popular state natural areas Pewit’s Nest, Parfrey’s Glen, Dells of the Wisconsin River and Gibraltar Rock remain closed primarily because the habitats are vulnerable to too much foot traffic, and because physical distancing on their narrow trails is all but impossible.

While most campgrounds reopened on June 10, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reserved the right to enforce limits on the number of visitors to some state parks, including Governor Nelson, Governor Dodge and the granddaddy, Devil’s Lake.

Although restrictions on gatherings are gradually being lifted across the board, the deadly coronavirus remains in our midst, and until there’s a readily available vaccine, many of us will remain uneasy about venturing into crowds. As we continue limiting our interactions with other people, we turn to nature for solitude, relief and connection.

Trail hiking — an activity long enjoyed by birders, fitness seekers and purposeful loners — is our new national pastime.

So to both encourage people to get outdoors and discourage them from concentrating their enthusiasm on a few public recreation areas — and risking that particular parks suffer more damage from overuse, requiring their closure once again — we’re listing alternatives to the more popular trails.

three individuals, one a small child, overlooking a bluff with trees

Devil’s Lake State Park

In our research we sought out Madison resident and travel writer Kevin Revolinski, author of “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Madison” — which came out with an updated third edition in June. Revolinski agreed that introducing would-be hikers to trails they may not previously have known existed would help disperse their numbers, ease pressure on particular habitats and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Nevertheless, Revolinski feels conflicted. “When I make recommendations, there can be consequences. If I put something in a book, maybe a lot of people start going there.

“I encourage people to seek out some of the really quiet places, like state natural areas. But that concerns me, too. For somebody who really likes to explore and leaves no trace, to go into one of those is fantastic.”

Also the author of “Hiking Wisconsin: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hikes,” Revolinski said there are unparalleled hiking opportunities within the north-central Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and, even farther north, on the North Country National Scenic Trail. But driving to such hiking destinations requires forethought and planning.

“There is that concern that you are potentially a vector for the virus if you go north,” he says. “But if you filled up your tank in Madison, brought your own food, drove three hours away, hiked in the woods and came home, I don’t think you’re endangering anybody. It’s when you’re eating in restaurants up there and visiting friends and going grocery shopping. Then you start to enter the realm of furthering the pandemic.”

Plenty of solitary and serene hiking can also be found close to home, Revolinski says. Even at Devil’s Lake.

“So many people just hit the same places,” he says. “They go up the bluffs, they come back down the bluffs. But there’s so much more beyond and deeper into the park and outside the park, especially on the Ice Age Trail.”

There’s More Beyond the Doorway

The Well-Trod Trail
Devil’s Lake State Park, East and West Bluff

bluff overlooking water

Photo by Shutterstock

Only a fraction of the nearly 3 million annual visitors to Devil’s Lake State Park just south of Baraboo make the steep climb to Devil’s Doorway, get their photo op and return by way of the same knee-jarring stone steps. But that is still a lot of people who are often backed up, like climbers on Mount Everest, waiting to reach the overlook.

wooded area

Photo by Getty Images

For the few who venture deeper into the vast, wooded state park, the crowds disappear. It is possible to hit both bluffs, trace the edge of the Johnson Moraine and follow the Ice Age National Scenic Trail clear to the town of Merrimac on Lake Wisconsin. That’s a mostly shaded, scenic and serene hike that rewards hikers for venturing beyond the park’s iconic landmarks. But it is also an 18-mile hike you would need all day to complete.

Off the Beaten Path
Black Hawk Unit of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway

dad with two kids walking

Photo by Rebecca Radix

Located 25 minutes south of Devil’s Lake is the Black Hawk Unit of the Lower Wisconsin River. This is the site of a battle in 1832 between Native Americans led by Chief Blackhawk and a larger contingent of pursuing U.S. militia members. Effigy mounds provide evidence that people lived there thousands of years earlier. A 9.5-mile double loop trail through mixed forest and prairie with a scenic overlook on Ferry Bluff allows visitors to take in the history of the area. While birders know Black Hawk is a place for rare sightings of avian species, few other people visit. Basic amenities, such as portable toilets and running water, are nevertheless available.

Covert in Columbia County
Swan Lake State Wildlife Area and Rowan Creek Fishery Area

Single person standing in a field

Photo by Romulo Ueda

Visitors to the largely undeveloped Swan Lake State Wildlife Area a mile east of Portage can expect portions of the 3.8-mile out-and-back trail to be overgrown and difficult to discern. The path through cattail marshland, however, leads to a gravel road and on to an island teeming with waterfowl, muskrats and deer. Poynette-area anglers know Rowan Creek is one of the state’s best streams for brown and brook trout, so that’s who you are most likely to encounter (if anyone) within the Rowan Creek Fishery Area. A couple of footbridges aid your travel along the Rowan Creek Trail to Pine Island and back — a 2.8-mile loop.

Scenic and Secluded Sections

The Well-Trod Trail
Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area

two individuals sitting on a rock overlooking fields

Photo by Good Free Photos

Currently closed is Gibraltar Rock, where dramatic views of the Wisconsin River Valley from atop 200-foot cliffs are second only to the vistas from the bluffs above Devil’s Lake. And that’s what draws lots of hikers up the short winding path or the steep paved access road to the top. The path up is the Gibraltar Rock segment of the Ice Age Trail. But another similarly named and nearby stretch of the Ice Age Trail is recommended for those willing to hike farther and more remotely.

Off the Beaten Path
Gibraltar Rock Segment of the Ice Age Trail

Woman walking in a trail

Photo by Timothy Hughes

“This is less obvious. Is it more scenic? Maybe,” says Revolinski in his pitch for the 4-mile lollipop trail that starts at the dock of the Merrimac Ferry on the south side of Lake Wisconsin. Hikers can reach Gibraltar Rock proper by continuing east along Slack Road and then south on Highway V for a more epic daylong hike there and back.

Deeper Exploration

The Well-Trod Trail
Natural Bridge State Park Arch

family looking at a bluff with a dog

Photo by Nikki Hansen

This park — reached by turning west off Highway 12, halfway between Sauk Prairie and Baraboo, onto County Road C — is known for the geological feature in the park’s name. The sandstone arch, reminiscent of ones found out west, is 35 feet high with an opening 25 feet wide. Under the bridge is a shelter where archeologists have found evidence of occupation going back 10,000 years, making it one of the oldest settlements in North America.

Off the Beaten Path
Natural Bridge State Park Trail

Person walking up a trail

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Plenty of visitors are drawn to the park’s main attraction, but the rest of the 530-acre park is rarely explored. From the parking lot, it’s a short jaunt to the arch. Most people take a look at it and turn back. But beyond the arch is a 2.4-mile wooded loop that crosses Highway 12 before ascending another wooded bluff. “So that’s another thing,” Revolinski advises. “Explore deeper into the parks that may seem overwhelmed. Just go where the people aren’t.”

A Family Favorite

The Well-Trod Trail
Blue Mound State Park

kids hopping at a park

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Blue Mound State Park, 25 miles west of Madison, is a year-round favorite for many local silent sports enthusiasts — hikers, campers, mountain bikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers. Already the highest point in southern Wisconsin, two popular observation towers (currently closed because climbers cannot maintain safe physical distance from one another) provide panoramic views of farmland and forest stretching clear to the horizon. Below that a public swimming pool and splash pad (both of which are also closed due to COVID-19) bring lots of families to the park throughout the summer. Consequently, the trails circling the mound can be busy.

Off the Beaten Path
Brooklyn Wildlife Area

Little girl on the shoulders of her dad

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

The Brooklyn Wildlife segment of the Ice Age Trail is 6.8 miles out and back stretching the length of the Brooklyn Wildlife Area 15 miles south of Madison on County Road DD. From the start on the south end, several overgrown offshoots of the main trail go through open prairie and woods. Posted maps will keep you on track. At the north end you can either turn around or cross County Road D and add the 4.6-mile Ice Age Trail’s Montrose segment leading to a bluff-top overlook.

Another Spot South of the City
Magnolia Bluff Park Natural Area

family of four with a child on the shoulders of a parent

Photo by Paulius Musteikis

About 6.5 miles southwest of Evansville is the 120-acre Magnolia Bluff Park. At the first of two parking lots is the trailhead for a 2.4-mile loop to and from an exposed rocky bluff looking out over hardwood forest and farmland.

Avoid Crowds Closer to Home

The Well-Trod Trail
Lower Yahara River Trail

Group of people walking over a bridge

Photo by Patrick Stutz

Since the nearly mile-long, two-lane Lower Yahara River Trail boardwalk opened in August 2017, throngs of walkers and cyclists have crossed it. Linking the William G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park and McFarland’s McDaniel Park between Lake Waubesa and Upper Mud Lake, it is said to be “the longest inland boardwalk bridge constructed solely for nonmotorized transportation in North America.” Its novelty and utility have resulted in a great deal of traffic especially on sunny summer weekends. Although the boardwalk is sufficiently wide to allow for trail users to pass one another, they can still feel unavoidably close.

Off the Beaten Path
Lake Farm County Parkpeople sitting next to water overlooking a group of boats
Heading east on the Lower Yahara River Trail, one can turn right just before the boardwalk and instead stroll through Lake Farm County Park — part of the Capital Springs State Recreation Area — on the Madison side, where physical distancing is easier to maintain. Footpaths skirt the shoreline of Lake Waubesa, where plentiful waterfowl can be observed.

Bonus for Birders
Other great spots for birding by foot are, believe it or not, the lagoons of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District at the intersection of Raywood and Moorland roads. Within the same state recreation area, the pathways between the pools of water are wide so you can see other hikers coming and avoid them at a safe distance.

For more related to hiking, click one of the links below.

Physically Distant Hiking Etiquette

You, Too, Can Hike the Entire Ice Age Trail

Hiking Groups in the Age of COVID-19

Faster than the Average Hiker