On December 9, 2010, 12 inches of snow fell on Madison, Wisconsin, in a blizzard that broke the city's one day record for the white stuff. My wife and I really wanted to get some early snowshoeing in, and that sure made it possible.
We had gone on our first snowshoe adventure in Peninsula State Park in Door County several winters before. Challenging the big snowy expanses and picking our way along Lake Michigan's iced-up shore left us hankering to do it again. A few years passed before that December blizzard beckoned us to rent snowshoes and poles and explore some local spots. Apparently, we weren't the only ones with that idea in mind.
That Friday afternoon, I went to Rutabaga the Paddlesport Shop and was lucky to snag the last two pairs of rental snowshoes there. Early the next morning we were on the road to Blue Mounds State Park. This 1,100-acre park sits tops out at 1,700 feet - southern Wisconsin's highest point - just 45 minutes west of the city on State Highway 18. It offers great hiking and biking in the summer and, as we discovered, some fine wintry exploration as well.
We didn't have to limit ourselves to the trails, although we did spend a lot of our time on the packed paths getting used to walking again on the equivalent of aluminum and nylon tennis rackets. We followed the well-trodden paths of previous snowshoers as they wound among the trees.
It was a cloudless day and the snow-covered forest floor shimmered with crystalline light. We could make out a variety of snowshoe prints on the trail, from the smaller Western-style shoes similar to the ones we were wearing to the long, cross-hatched marks of wood and sinew Beavertail shoes. Occasionally, far off through the barren trees, we'd spot another snowshoer on this winding trail, a vapor of warm breath wafting behind him, or the more quickly-moving silhouette of a cross-country skier.
It was easy to step-glide along the well-used snowshoe trail. But when we ventured up to the windswept top of the Blue Mound, where a pair of observation towers are located, we got a good lesson in what snowshoes were really invented for: breaking a trail where no trail actually exists.
From where we parked the Subaru, it was only a couple of hundred yards to the edge of the hill. There you could look out over mile after mile of valleys and the brawny Baraboo Hills, a study in muted grays tinged with white. But crossing the foot-deep windswept crusted snowpack was really hard work. When I was in the lead, I had to struggle with each step since the crust couldn't bear my weight and I sunk calf-deep into the softer snow below. Kathy, following in my footsteps, had it a little easier. When I followed in her tracks to take in a different vista, I took advantage of her hard work.
The Indian Marker Tree Trail is the premier snowshoe route in the park. It is a loop that follows the topography of Blue Mound. Indians of the area used this trail to climb the hill that was an important spiritual touchstone for them. The marker tree, bent by these early travelers to point the direction to follow on the trail, is said to be some 150 years old. Access to this trail from the West Observation Tower parking lot. The trail leads about 1.3 miles through gently rolling terrain. This trail may go unused at times in the winter, making it difficult to follow the route unless you're a north country Daniel Boone. One trail guide reminds the snowshoer to always keep the hill on your right. Fortunately, today, someone had already broken a trail, and we were able to find our way easily. Be prepared, though, for one tough climb that gains 100 feet of elevation in some 300 feet.
The Uplands Trail at Governor Dodge State Park crosses a pool table compared to the Blue Mounds track. We pulled in to the park in the early afternoon after a short drive from Blue Mound and chose this area after talking to park ranger. The trailhead is right next to the park entrance and office. It was only 2 p.m., but shadows were already lengthening and we figured we'd better park and get snowshoeing.
Governor Dodge is 5,270 acres of parkland located north of Dodgeville on State Highway 23. There is a bit of rolling terrain on this 2.5-mile trail but much of it is a flat trek around a sprawling farm field. It winds in and out of the trees bordering the field, so you can choose the woodsy edge for a bit, then opt for a stretch in the cornfield to practice your trail-breaking technique.
The trail starts out across an open plateau that looks out over a snow-covered landscape of bare deciduous trees and a few lonely hemlocks and leads your eye to Blue Mound rising in the distance, before it takes you around the big field. The sun was still brilliant out in the open areas, making sunglasses essential. But under the cover of the trees, we could already sense the onset of cold dark evening. We spent most of our hike just inside the tree line, skirting the dazzling white of the meadow we were encircling.
In contrast to the last time we had been on this trail late last summer, with grasshoppers flying up beneath our feet and hawks soaring overhead, today was pure white stillness.
We found gopher, rabbit and deer trails and scat as we tramped through the snow, and, most impressive, the perfect imprint of the outstretched wings of a large raptor, a hawk or an owl, sculpted in the snow alongside the path. But the only other life we saw was one pair of snowshoers, a young couple starting out on the trail as we headed back to the car. We wished them luck in finishing their hike while there was still daylight.
We were back at home in Madison shortly after dark, where we spread out a map to make plans for Sunday. We decided on Indian Lake County Park, a nearby destination. The next morning we drove north on US Highway 12, then west on Wisconsin Highway 19. We were familiar with this area from summer hikes and birding trips, although we had never visited when it was snowbound.
In contrast with the mostly empty parking lots and quiet, nearly deserted trails of the previous day, a party atmosphere prevailed here. Very popular as a destination for Madison families, it boasts cross-country ski trails, a sledding hill and a log cabin warming house. It also is home to a historic chapel built in 1857 by homesteader John Endres.
We decided to make the hilltop chapel our destination. We started up the hill on a gently rising trail until we reached a stairway of slabs of wood leading up the last and steepest section of trail to the chapel. The way hadn't been cleared so it was like snowshoeing up a steep slick ramp. Only the crampons on our snowshoes and a tight grip on the railings kept us from sliding back down the hill. A man carrying two tykes with a sled in tow was struggling down the stairs as we neared the chapel at the top. He had made a solemn vow to build a tabernacle atop the hill if his family, deathly ill with diphtheria, survived the epidemic in 1856. The family all survived, and Endres made good on his vow, constructing this tiny chapel of mortar and grey sandstone. His descendants later renovated the little building, adding a metal roof and the wire fence that still surrounds it. They replaced the original table inside with a wooden altar. In 1975, Dane County purchased the land and chapel and has maintained it ever since.
Above the chapel's low door, a cross had once been embedded in the stone. It was noticeably gone. I went into the little room, where a chestnut-colored polished wooden altar held a statue of St. Mary, a Bible, a basket of plastic rosaries, a guestbook (an old spiral notebook) and a ballpoint pen. On one corner of the altar the mosaic cross from the outside of the chapel sat waiting, probably, for someone to remount it in the spring.
I wrote a short request to the spirits which permeated the six-by-eight foot church on behalf of an old friend who was battling a serious illness. I hoped that if it had worked for Endres, it might work for my friend Frank.
Back outside, we saw some benches, now drifted over, that offered hikers and pilgrims a view of the land below. From the top of the bluff, a snow-covered hillside swept down to Indian Lake. Paper birch trunks contrasted with reddish green evergreen boughs in the foreground. Stubble from wetland reeds poked up through the snow directly below. The white emptiness of the lake was ringed by low hills that continued on to the horizon.
We decided we wanted to try to get back down to the parking lot without using the stairs again, so we set off across the top of the bluff. There was a trail of sorts, although only a few explorers had come since the latest snowfall. Even those few who had come before us must have decided to turn back because the trail ended at the edge of an unspoiled blanket of pure white. This was going to be the long slow way back, giving us some quiet time alone in the winter woods.
We slogged on for another 20 minutes. Vines and saplings grabbed at our poles and snagged our parkas. But we were committed to our quest to take the "road less traveled."
Then abruptly we came up against a wire fence. It stretched up and down the hill as far as we could see. We had no choice but to head down the steep hill. We also suddenly realized we knew less than we thought about snowshoeing, especially navigating through thick brush down a 30-degree slope. We tried various strange techniques to navigate the hillside, like using our snowshoes (and our butts) as makeshift sleds. We took a good beating physically and mentally getting down that hill, poles jamming up, blackberry vines clawing at us and crampons at times halting our progress without warning.
Finally, down through the sea of black tree trunks we saw a figure, skier or snowshoer, moving merrily along on the trail that skirted the bluff. Ten minutes later, we finally made it to the trail and set out in the direction of a few cross-country skiers. After a little while, we started to see more and more skiers. In the distance we could make out the sledding hill dotted with colorfully clothed children. The trail became broad and smooth and we took our snowshoes off and walked alongside the trail and down the last hill. Here the skiers got to finish their cross-country trip with a little downhill excitement. A family of three zipped by with a full head of steam. The two youngsters made it but their mom wiped out laughing.
By late afternoon, we dropped the equipment off at Rutabaga stoked by our adventures. It's a year later now and we're waiting for that first big snowfall of 2011.
Each park we visited that weekend had something different to offer. Other snowshoeing opportunities in and around Dane County include Devil's Lake State Park, south of Baraboo, and nearby Parfrey's Glen, a jewel of a little canyon that may not be open this year. A couple of summer floods have devastated the trail there, and one should check first before making the trip.
Cam-Rock Park, near Cambridge, allows snowshoeing on the Area 3 trail. It's a tight, twisting 1.1-mile mountain bike trail that is open for snowshoeing in the winter. Having biked it, I can imagine it's a real challenge on snowshoes. There's also a great sledding hill and shelter at Cam-Rock.
Token Creek County Park just north of Madison has a dedicated snowshoe trail on its Vallarta-Ast disc golf course. And, of course, if enough snow falls, Madison City Parks and Dane County Parks welcome snowshoers to explore anywhere but on designated cross-country ski trails.
In Madison, snowshoe rentals are available at Rutabaga, REI Coop and Fontana Sports. Rates range from $15 to $25 per day, with weekend specials available. All three stores also sell snowshoes and kits for do-it-yourselfers.
Check out Phil Van Valkenberg's book Wisconsin Winter Trails for more detailed information about these and other snowshoeing spots around the state.