By Josh Mayer
The frozen depths of winter do not put a damper on my explorations of our great state’s natural areas. In fact, the effects of the climate provide opportunities for new adventures and new perspectives on SNAs that I have already visited, in some cases, multiple times.
Many people are familiar with Parfrey’s Glen, a picturesque sandstone gorge cut into the Baraboo Hills that was designated as Wisconsin’s first SNA in 1952. Found within Devil’s Lake State Park, the glen is often a busy place during the warmer months, with limited parking for visitors. For a different scene, come during the winter and marvel at the snow resting on rocky ledges and majestic conifers. The creek is frozen in many places and, with a little care, can allow new vantage points.
Natural Bridge State Park is a lesser known park, but is home, of course, to Natural Bridge & Rockshelter SNA. Found north of the town of Leland, approximately 15 miles west of US Highway 12, I have found this place to be a beautiful location to photograph at any time of the year and winter is no exception. I would recommend a visit here in the afternoon so that the sun will be at your back as you photograph the 35-foot tall arch. The park has always been a good birding site for me as well, perhaps due to its limited foot traffic.
Pewits Nest is another site that is often overrun with visitors during warmer months. I first visited here in 2009 and nary a soul was seen. Return visits just a couple of years later came upon full parking lots and dozens of people jumping from the rocks into Skillet Creek below. I worry for their safety as well as for the protection of the natural area. Returning in winter, the crowds are smaller in number. The frozen creek with sandstone walls is very photogenic this time of year, but I would also recommend following the creek south and west for some neat views as well.
Pine Hollow is definitely one of the lesser known sites and I wasn’t sure what to expect from a winter visit. Instead of approaching from the described route, a more interesting area of the site is best approached from Pine Hollow Drive, which leads to an easement owned by the Nature Conservancy and drops you right into the gorge. Heading downslope, you will reach the bottom and look up at gorgeous sandstone and quartzite cliffs topped with hemlocks. If you catch the weather right, the cliff walls will be decorated with icicles.
Hemlock Draw is another lesser known site owned by The Nature Conservancy. Found off of Reich Road, be sure to park south of the mailbox as the road turns sharply west, so that you do not block the farmer’s access to his fields. The trail here leads through the forest and meets up with Honey Creek. At points, the trail becomes difficult to follow as it zig-zags across the creek, across felled trees, and over rocks, but stay with it until the creek turns east for the best view of the cliffs and the namesake hemlocks. If you visit here in the warmer months, you might not even see the cliffs as you follow the creek because they are covered with trees and other vegetation.
Honey Creek is a wonderful site jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. As you might expect, it is a fantastic birding hotspot, especially during spring migration. It also provides wonderful displays of spring wildflowers. The overall feel of the site for me in winter is similar to Parfrey’s Glen. The cliffs here are on one side of the creek or the other as opposed to both at Parfrey’s. Note that unlike the sites described above, crossing the creek is necessary for further exploration of Honey Creek. Fear not, though, as the creek is just a few inches deep, safe ice typically forms in the winter, and there are ample stepping stones on which to cross.
Winter has a way of revealing the forms of the landscape that you might not otherwise see. The lack of green everywhere and the absence of bright forbs truly simplifies the visuals. You really get a sense of the glacial power involved in forming these areas. Each site tells a different story and is a unique experience no matter the season.