By Josh Mayer, Foundation volunteer photographer and guest blogger
(All photos in post by Josh Mayer)
The time has come to our wonderful state when the temperatures have chilled and the precipitation is whiter and fluffier…or it will be soon. I used to think this meant that hiking season was over, but I have now come to realize that there are many great opportunities to explore in Wisconsin’s state natural areas. One of the more interesting features that I look for in a winter site is exposed rock. The beauty of snow hanging off of bluffs, outcrops, and precipices is a sight to behold. The following are among my favorite sites to visit in the winter:
Hulburt Creek Woods consists of three parcels of land embedded with Hulburt Creek Fishery Area on the outskirts of Wisconsin Dells. The western parcel off of Oak Hill Road is the easiest to reach with a nice, level walk through State Fishery Area lands to reach the parcel. The terrain around the creek here is fairly level as well, but still a pretty scene to observe when snow surrounds the creek. One of my goals this winter is to visit the eastern parcel off of Old Highway 12. I would anticipate reaching this parcel to be a bit more difficult due to the slopes and the longer distance necessary to descend to reach the creek. But this parcel provides several small valleys with sandstone ridges along the tributaries to Hulburt Creek and is certainly worth a little adventure for me.
The easiest of the sites described here for winter exploration is Putnam Park, found on the campus of UW-Eau Claire and it consists of two parcels a short distance apart. This past winter, after a stop to see the northern hawk owl spotted in the area, I stopped by the western parcel, complete with an interpretive trail, and accessible from parking lot #4. Here, you will experience a leisurely stroll through the forest, which is considered northern dry-mesic in places with red and white pine and southern wet-mesic with birch and maple. The winter highlight for me here was exposed bedrock and the topography as the forest sloped down to the river.
Marsh Miller Cedars was a logical next stopping point after Putnam Park. Though these sites are about 40 minutes apart, Marsh Miller Cedars is not accessible via land and this makes winter an opportune time to reach it. The frozen ice of Marsh Miller Lake, when thick enough, can be driven across to reach the SNA. The beauty of this site was in the snow on the branches, fallen logs, stumps of the primarily white cedar forest here.
Quincy Bluff and Wetlands is a massive site (nearly 6,500 acres) in Adams County. In the warmer months, a mosaic of natural communities are a wonder to explore. In the winter, I gravitate toward bluffs and the commanding views available from them. In particular, great views can be had from Rattlesnake Mound on the eastern side of the property on 14th Court. The lack of leaf cover at this spot really affords a great sense of how this mound (along with Quincy Bluff and Lone Rock) were once islands in Glacial Lake Wisconsin, the lakebed of which is evident in the flat terrain in all directions. This is a fantastic site to visit, no matter the season.
Fern Dell Gorge is found with Mirror Lake State Park. From within the park, the Northwest Trail approaches the Gorge from above, but the easiest access is off of Fern Dell Road where the gorge has faded away and the terrain is level. As you walk north, the gorge walls of Upper Cambrian sandstone begin to rise and you eventually find yourself looking up at 50-foot rock walls. The width of the gorge varies throughout, narrowing to just a few feet in one spot. But with snow all around, resting on rock ledges and frozen seepages provide a wonderful winter scene.
Dells of the Wisconsin River is the only SNA with portions found in four different counties: Sauk, Adams, Juneau and Columbia. There are numerous points at which to access the site, and each offers its own view of the Wisconsin River with sandstone cliffs rising 100 feet above the river. In other places, gorges that drain to the river provide a similar feel to Fern Dell Gorge. Two easy access points on the east side of the river are off of River Road in town as well as beautiful vistas off of 62nd Street on the west side of the river.
Here are a few SNAs that I have visited, but not during winter, that I think would be interesting sites to explore this time of year:
Apostle Islands Maritime Cliffs. A portion of this SNA is on the mainland and is more commonly known as the Ice Caves. Even if the lake ice is not safe to walk on, great views can be had from on the cliffs themselves.
Tunnelville Cliffs. This site is very similar in feel to Hulburt Creek Woods with sandstone cliffs along tributaries but also includes cliffs along the Kickapoo River.
In addition, several other SNA’s are described here.