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Heading north of Sauk City on Highway 12, you see the Baraboo Hills arising to the north—round, wooded bluffs looming bluish in the distance. A short turn off the highway and you enter a glacial remnant ecosystem. The hollow’s cold air drainage and location in one of southern Wisconsin’s largest blocks of forestland make Baxter’s Hollow a haven for rare plant and animal species. The clear stream running through the property alone holds seventy-eight species of caddisflies. White pine, hemlock, maple and birch provide a dense and diverse tree canopy on this 5,696-acre property. Which is all to say that Baxter’s Hollow, the Nature Conservancy’s largest property in Wisconsin, teems with beauty year-round. In spring, colorful wildflowers such as trillium, Jacob’s ladder, hepatica and shooting star blanket the forest floor, as bright neotropical songbirds return here from Latin America. In summer, you might hike along one of the fern-flanked trails as cool natural springs bubble away at your feet. In fall, look for woodcock pecking at worms from rust-colored leaves and white-tailed deer skulking in dense alder thickets. Winter finds the hollow hushed in snow, with waterfalls of all shapes and sizes forming on swift Otter Creek—the perfect excuse to poke around in snowshoes. The solitude and dense forest make you feel as if you’ve stepped deep into boreal Canada or high up in the Rocky Mountains.
Some forty miles south of Devil’s Lake, on the Iowa-Dane county line, West Blue Mound is southern Wisconsin’s highest point at 1,716 feet above sea level. It once served as a landmark for settlers heading west during the area’s lead rush in the early 1800s and is now the focal point of Blue Mound State Park. Stand atop one of the park’s observation towers and see just how commanding this view really is—with Madison visible twenty-five miles to the east and the wooded bluffs of the Wisconsin River corridor snaking off to the west. More than just views, Blue Mound State Park offers great trails you can sink your boots into, amid a forest of hardwood trees and spring-fed streams. Get a feel for the life of Native Americans and early settlers by hiking the Willow Spring Trail, which leads to a flowing spring used as a year-round water source. Try steep Ridgeview Trail for impressive vistas of the surrounding area. Roughly fifteen miles of designated bike trails allow two-wheel enthusiasts to enjoy the park. (Interestingly, Blue Mound State Park is accessible via the Military Ridge State Trail, as is Governor Dodge State Park just to the west, so ambitious bikers can make this part of a longer, car-free trek.) Hungry and thirsty after all that exercise? Head over to the Grumpy Troll in nearby Mount Horeb for a specialty pizza and a cold microbrew. Blue Mound State Park is an easy twenty-five-minute drive west of Madison along Highway 18/151. Cave of the Mounds, a few miles south of the park, offers a completely different kind of hike—a cool jaunt through subterranean passageways adorned with stalactites and stalagmites.
Another gem of the Baraboo Hills, Devil’s Lake State Park is Wisconsin’s most-visited state park for a reason—spectacular views, a pristine lake, an array of hiking trails and rock outcrops that date back some 1.6 billion years. In fact, the very existence of Devil’s Lake is a testament to geology. Debris from the retreating Wisconsin Glacier some 15,000 years ago dammed up what was then a river valley, which then filled with water to form the lake we know and love on this storied property. History buffs might be interested in knowing that this property has been, at different times, a resort, a winery and even a watering hole for elephants from Barnum & Bailey Circus. Established as a state park in 1911, Devil’s Lake now boasts twenty-nine miles of hiking trails, a nature center, boat livery and a concession selling treats. Trails run the gamut here from nearly level to very steep. Hard-surfaced Tumbled Rocks and Grottoes trails are great for those pushing strollers or folks with limited mobility. Potholes, CCC and Balanced Rock trails gain five hundred feet of altitude in less than a third of mile—enough vertical gain to get the heart pumping. Ambitious hikers can follow the Ice Age Trail circuit around the park and log in some fourteen strenuous miles. Fat-tire enthusiasts do their thing on the Uplands Trail Loop and the connector trail to Steinke Basin. If all that hiking makes you crave water, you’re in luck. You can take a swim in the spring-fed lake, one of the area’s best swimming holes. If you have a notion to paddle, rent a canoe or kayak from a kiosk on either side of the lake. You can even borrow a fishing rod through the park’s free tackle loaner program. If you get skunked, grab a fish fry and cold brew at the concession on Friday nights. For a little Wisconsin culture along with your nature, visit the nation’s largest collection of circus wagons at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo.
Governor Dodge State Park is named after Henry Dodge, the first governor of the Wisconsin Territory. Like Blue Mound State Park, Governor Dodge also lies in Wisconsin’s Driftless region. This means steep wooded hills, narrow valleys, dramatic vistas and sandstone bluffs—a landscape never flattened by glaciers and the perfect place for hikers looking to get in some exercise amid beautiful scenery. Among the park’s forty miles of hiking trails, Lost Canyon is a favorite because of its access to a waterfall known as Stephens’ Falls and steep grades that will give your quads a workout. The ferny cool of the canyon is a bonus on hot days. Ambitious hikers can try the Outer Horse Trail—a fifteen-mile circuit that traverses the secluded interior of this 5,000-acre park and offers great vistas of ridges, valleys and meadows. Wildlife enthusiasts might catch a glimpse of critters such as foxes, beavers and wild turkeys. Foragers might find morel mushrooms and wild berries growing in season on the edges of woodlands. Cox Hollow and Twin Valley lakes make for a refreshing swim or quiet paddle, as the park allows only electric motors. They’re also top-quality lakes for bass and bluegill.
Hiking’s not limited to the woods and waters. Madison’s Capital City State Trail is both a great jumping-off point for larger trails—like the Military Ridge State Trail to the west, the Badger State Trail to the south and (once the connector loop is complete in the next few years) the Glacial Drumlin State Trail to the east—and a nice walk in its own right. Running along Madison’s southern border, this hard-surfaced trail can be picked up at different points, including Lake Farm County Park and the DNR service center in Fitchburg. Starting at Lake Farm Park suggests a jaunt along the pretty wooded shores of Lake Waubesa. A highlight here is a collection of ceremonial mounds on the Native American Archaeological Trail and a large chunk of restored prairie. If you pick up the trail at the DNR service center, walk east along Nine Springs Creek. Say hello to the sandhill cranes, wild turkeys, ducks, beavers, red foxes and a variety of other wild critters that call these woodlands and wetlands home. If you see bicyclists or inline skaters, give them a wave, too—they’re another user group on this popular trail. Be advised, though: The rigors of walking and nature study can exact quite a toll. Fortunately, some Fitchburg establishments are there to take care of you—from spicy Cajun at Liliana’s to Mexican at Casa del Sol to purveyors of good, old-fashioned gemutlichkeit like the Great Dane and Flying Hound Alehouse. Those with a yen to walk in the campus area can try the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path, tracing the shores of Lake Mendota from Memorial Union to Picnic Point. Slip some cash in your running shorts pocket so you can buy a cold Rathskellar Ale or Babcock Hall ice cream at the Union when you’ve finished your workout.
While much of eastern Wisconsin’s landscape is characterized by flat, fertile farmland, a 115-mile swath of land running roughly from Sheboygan to past Milwaukee is exceptionally rich in glacial landforms. Due to efforts by the state and concerned citizens, much of this was preserved as the Kettle Moraine State Forest (divided into Northern, Southern, Lapham Peak, Loew Lake and Pike Lake units). “We have an outstanding collection of landforms typical of retreating glaciers,” says Kettle Moraine State Forest–Northern Unit naturalist Jackie Scharfenberg. Scharfenberg recommends a stop at the Ice Age Visitor Center half a mile west of Dundee on Highway 67 for an educational film, then a walk on Summit Trail to see some of the glacial features: moraines (deposits of glacial debris), kames (cone-shaped hills), eskers (long, narrow ridges), drumlins (ridges shaped like upside-down spoons) and kettles (glacial potholes that have since become lakes or marshes). With some three hundred miles of trails and 30,000 acres of land, the forest offers trekkers a way to burn calories while learning a bit of geology. In the forest’s Southern Unit—an hour east of Madison via Interstate 94—Stony Ridge Nature Trail is tops for seeing glacial landforms. The steep Emma Carlin trail system is open to both hiking and mountain biking. Water lovers will enjoy the self-guided canoe trail on Ottawa Lake, the crumbling fieldstone remains of an old resort on the Paradise Springs Trail, and the Scuppernong Trail system that meanders along a creek flanked by pockets of marsh and prairie.
Horicon Marsh in east-central Wisconsin was formed about 10,000 years ago as the advancing Green Bay lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier carved out the Rock River valley and the accompanying lowlands that now make up this 33,000-acre wetland—the largest cattail marsh in North America. Alternately home to Native Americans seeking its vast natural resources, farmers attracted by its rich muck soils and an exclusive duck hunting club targeting the flocks of wildfowl that descended upon it twice a year, the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Area now plays host to a stunning array of bird species. While Horicon is best known for attracting tens of thousands of migrating Canada geese in spring and fall, it also hosts roughly three hundred other resident and migrant bird species including ducks, shorebirds, pelicans, herons, egrets, raptors and songbirds. Visitors to the northern two-thirds of the marsh, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, might walk the 1.5-mile Two Hawks Hiking Trail and visit Egret Floating Boardwalk. The Horicon Habitat Hike is a favorite of those traveling the southern third of the marsh, managed by the Wisconsin DNR. For a duck’s-eye view, try a paddle on the Horicon Marsh Canoe Trail or through boat tours at Blue Heron Landing. Begin your journey at the federal visitor center in Mayville or at the state visitor center in Horicon.And don’t forget your binoculars!
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