The Wisconsin State Park Crawl
Scenic views abound at Mill Bluff State Park. Wis. Dep’t of Tourism photo
Hiking with Alice Erickson
I moved unexpectedly to Wisconsin after graduating from college in 1974. Living in New Jersey, I was the proud recipient of an actuarial entry job in Manhattan. Before signing on and hitting the rat race, I came out to Wisconsin for a long weekend in June to visit my brother Dan, a teacher in Sauk City. We spent some of the best four days of my life at Devils Lake State Park, where we camped, swam and I tried my hand at rock climbing. I went back to New Jersey, turned down the job and beat a path back to Wisconsin – a decision I have never regretted. It’s 40 years later and I still deeply love the natural beauty that is so abundant in Wisconsin and its state parks.
I reflected more about state parks on a summer weekend intended to be a few days of biking with friends in the Trempealeau area. Saturday cooperated until the evening storms blew in. Sunday looked like it would serve up more of the same, so my husband, Dave, and I decided to pack up and explore Trempealeau’s Perrot State Park.
Mount Trempealeau as seen from on high in Perrot State Park. Wis. DNR photo
It was a quick jaunt up the gorgeous fern-filled West Brady Trail to the top of Brady’s Bluff – the tallest bluff in the park – topping out at 520 feet. We were greeted by an amazing view of the Mississippi River, railroad trestles, barges and Trempealeau Mountain (386 feet), which is the only rock formation completely surrounded by water along the Mississippi. We learned that Perrot State Park – founded in 1918 – is the second oldest in the state park system and that the French “La Montagne qui trempe a l’eau” (the mountain steeped in water) seemed to have a lot of naming rights. Enjoying the hike so much, we continued on East Brady Trail and then the Riverview Trail.
As we left Trempealeau, we fell into a discussion of state parks and points of interest on I90, other than McDonalds’ mocha frappes. Being climbers, we’ve always been fascinated by the bluffs near Camp Douglas. I heard many years before there was one you could climb, but year after year we roared by at 70 mile per hour. So our next stop was Mill Bluff State Park. We were not disappointed. A small, but beautiful, sandy swimming pond sits at the park entrance to greet visitors. After a chat in the ranger station, we were on our way up the 223 sandstone steps leading to the top of Mill Bluff (1,123 feet). This ambitious project was the result of the WPA and brings visitors to a quick loop around the bluff top and a terrific view from the observation deck.
A view of the Mississippi River from Perrot State Park. Wis. DNR photo
Getting serious, we decided to ramp it up and see just how many state parks we could hike on our way to Madison. Next stop, Buckhorn State Park. This park is just north of Mauston, unless you’re southbound on the interstate in which anti-Pythagorean signage has chosen to run you around two sides of a triangle (US 80 and US 58) instead of the hypotenuse (38th Street). It’s an amazing drive across the Castle Rock Lake bridge into the park. As for the park, after a rainstorm and then a sunny, humid day, let’s just say we wish we had brought our bug spray. We were ecstatic to find a tower on the map, thus continuing our trend of scaling peaks in each park. We zeroed in on the parking area, walked 50 paces from the car to find … an observation tower of about 10 steps – not even enough height to surpass mosquito range.
Hustling back to the car, we headed full speed towards Rocky Arbor, just north of the Dells. With many campsites accessible to RVs, we guessed this is a bedroom community for family fun at the Dells. It has a pretty one-mile nature trail winding along the short rock cliffs and near a swamp – again, bring the bug spray. It also had a great plastic mini-climbing wall for kids to traverse and grown-up kids to get the blood flowing through their arms after a long car ride. Being late Sunday afternoon, we had the place to ourselves.
Putting on our junior ranger badges, we headed for the familiar turf of Mirror Lake State Park, where we have previously hiked and skied. We managed to get off trail twice on the Time Warp half-mile Nature trail rated as “easy.” Evidently, we need to sign up for remedial junior ranger classes! Driving over to the other side of the park, we hiked the Echo Rock trail, which wanders to a beautiful lake overlook and then the real time warp trail – a bridge across a canyon leading to Frank Sinatra music blasting out of the PA system at the Ishnala Restaurant parking lot. Being a hot and humid day, we fantasized about a nice drink in the Ishnala bar overlooking the lake, when we realized we had left behind one of the ten essential items in hiking – the credit card!
The late afternoon moved in and we moved on to Devils Lake, the gem of the state park system. Many folks were still enjoying the water and picnicking, but the crowded part of the day had passed. We headed for the slippery quartzite bluffs, which have an extra coat of polish from years of hiker usage. Putting on our ice skates, we started up the Balance Rock Trail. We stopped at the top to review one of our favorite climbing areas and then traversed across the East Bluff Trail over to the north end of the park. There we found a lost runner – armed with a GPS – looking for the campground. Her lesson that day was your GPS may tell you how many miles lost you are, but it won’t tell you where the trail home is. A leisurely hike back along the railroad tracks paralleling the lake brought us back to our car.
Six down and one more to go. As the sun started to set, we headed across Lake Wisconsin on the free car ferry and meandered our way over to Governor Nelson State Park on the north shore of Lake Mendota. Another gem, with 500 feet of beach, restored prairie and ancient Indian mounds. By then the sun had set and we were without another essential hiking element – a flashlight – so we settled for walking out on the fishing pier and sitting on the bench to enjoy an incredible view of the Madison nighttime skyscape.
Nearing 10 p.m., it was time to think about dinner and leaving the stillness and beauty of these parks. But our day elicited a yearning to learn more about these treasures and we arrived home to whip out our Wisconsin State Park map to see what else we’ve been missing.