Treasure Cave at Wyalusing State Park.
An adventure into history
Wyalusing State Park brings wonders of the past to modern explorers.
Story and photos by Randall Paske
Why Wyalusing (pronounced Why-ah-LOO-sing)? The land on which part of the Wyalusing State Park is located was settled by Robert Glenn in the 1840s. The Glenns moved to the area from Pennsylvania and subsequently became a prominent name in the township.
The closest village, just south of Wyalusing State Park, was called Wyoming. In 1851, the village needed a post office. The postmaster, having become aware of another town in Wisconsin with the same name, went looking for a new name. Glenn remembered a small town in Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River, near the Endless Mountains. The townís name was Wyalusing.
So, why not Wyalusing? Hence, the small town that was once called Wyoming changed its name to Wyalusing, an English version of a Native American word that means "where an old holy man dwells."
It was always Glennís dream that his homestead be turned into a park.
In 1911, the Nolan Commission named four areas of Wisconsin for state parks. Finally, in 1917, Glennís dream became reality and his homestead was named Nelson Dewey State Park after Wisconsinís first governor. It was renamed Wyalusing State Park when Nelson Dewey State Park near Cassville became a state park.
Wyalusing State Park is bordered by the Wisconsin River to the north and the Mississippi River to the west.
Point Lookout stands much as it did when Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, along with five voyagers, paddled two canoes down the Wisconsin River and into the Mississippi River in 1673. Point Lookout overlooks the confluence of these two mighty rivers, once major routes for the explorer.
Todayís modern explorer walks along a blacktop, accessible path to Point Lookout. Adults return to Point Lookout and remember earlier times when, as children, they sat atop the stone fence, which was erected by the Works Progress Administration in 1939. On occasion, young couples begin their lives together, expressing their love for one another, getting engaged and married as the sun sets in the west.
Eagles and turkey vultures soar on invisible rivers of wind high above as visitors gaze over the second oldest city in Wisconsin, Prairie du Chien. As the sun sets, and nightfall arrives, the twinkling lights of the city intertwine with the stars, lending a mystical quality to the land of the old holy man.
Point Lookout stands 500 feet above the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. It is located midway along two bluffs, the Wisconsin Ridge and the Sentinel Ridge. Four other lookouts along the edge of the bluffs offer a different perspective of the busy waterways where pleasure craft and towboats share the river during the summer.
It is not unusual, especially in the fall, to find a layer of fog between the valley and the top of the ridges. The soft white carpet of fog ebbs and flows. As the sun rises in the east, slowly, it dissipates, leaving a new day.
The only monument in the United States dedicated to the extinct passenger pigeon is also found in Wyalusing State Park. The monument was erected in 1947, just 30 years after the last passenger pigeon flew over what is now Wyalusing State Park. It is only fitting that the monument is located on Sentinel Ridge along the Mississippi River.
In 1997, the monument was rededicated, and at the rededication Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, said, "The most important challenge the human species has is the challenge to preserve the integrity of the ecosystems that sustain all life – plant and animal." The Friends of Wyalusing State Park assisted in the celebration.
The Friends of Wyalusing was formed in the late 1990s with 16 members. Since its inception, the mission of The Friends of Wyalusing is to support the visitor experience by enhancing the connection between nature and the park visitor.
The Spirits of Wyalusing Past is the culmination of events by The Friends of Wyalusing. Interesting, colorful, historical tidbits of the area are presented by the "Spirits of Wyalusing Past."
The "Spirits" are portrayed by members of The Friends and other volunteers who have talent and a willingness to portray a character. The "Spirits" are located on the 500 foot bluff, overlooking the lights of Prairie du Chien and the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. Families reserve camping spots a year ahead for this event. Local scout groups and camping families decorate and carve donated pumpkins. The lighted pumpkins and Tiki torches are placed along the .5-mile trail part that follows the Wisconsin Ridge. It is not unusual to have more than 250 visitors attend this event.
Wyalusing State Park has two main campgrounds: Homestead and Wisconsin Ridge. Homestead Campground derives its name from the Robert Glenn Homestead.
The Wisconsin Ridge campground offers campsites along the ridge, facing the Wisconsin River Valley. These sought-after sites are in high demand during the camping season. Many campers are content to sit in lawn chairs or picnic tables and enjoy the swooping turkey vultures, the cry of an occasional eagle and the views of the river valley below.
Across the valley an occasional private airplane lands without a sound at the Prairie du Chien Airport. Fishing boats dodge around the Wisconsin River sandbars like tiny dragonflies. A canoeist paddles between the railroad trestles over the river. A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train loaded with freight cars soundlessly snakes its way through the valley below. The camper can relax and imagine what the real spirits of Wyalusing past thought as they trekked along the trails of Wisconsin Ridge.
Wyalusing State Park is also a birdersí paradise. During migrations, people can be found gazing into the tree tops, binoculars focused on a bird only seen at Wyalusing. People of all ages travel hundreds of miles to Wyalusing State Park and locate more than 90 bird species residing in the park during the summer and 100 more during spring and fall migration. Birding tours frequent Wyalusing State Park, one of Wisconsinís premier birding sites. Populations include prothonotary warblers, Bellís vireos, Henslowís sparrows, wild turkeys, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, turkey vultures and bald eagles.
But the species that brings birders to Wyalusing each year is the yellow-throated warbler. Wyalusing State Park is the only location in Wisconsin where this species (listed as endangered in Wisconsin) is sure to be found every year – maybe not by everyone or every time one visits, but it will be found by some birders every year.
The Hugh Harper Indoor Group Camp is one of only three indoor group camps in the Wisconsin State Park system. Hugh Harper Indoor Group Camp is the largest. The four dorm buildings can house up to 27 people each. Each dorm is divided into two sleeping areas (12 people each) with bunk beds. A center counselorís room can accommodate three people. There are two bathrooms in each dorm. Bathrooms have showers, toilets and sinks. Campers must provide their own sleeping bags or sheets, blankets, pillows, towels and toiletries. Two of the four dorms are fully accessible. Heat and hot water are provided. The main lodge houses the kitchen, dining and meeting facilities. The kitchen is equipped with large commercial appliances. A large charcoal grill is available just a few steps outside the kitchen. Groups must provide their own food, dish cloths, towels, paper towels and other kitchen supplies.
So are you still asking, why Wyalusing?
Why not? Wyalusing has over 21 miles of trails: foot trails, nature trails and bike trails. It has four known caves, more than five lookout points along the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, two other look-outs look west, a large picnic shelter with four fireplaces, a nature center, a concession stand, five smaller picnic shelters, an outdoor campground, two regular campgrounds, an indoor campground, canoeing, fishing, birding, an observatory, effigy mounds, burial mounds, monuments, cross-country ski trails and snowshoeing. Not to mention, terrific views!
Randall Paske writes a blog for The Friends of Wyalusing State Park. He lives in Prairie du Chien and is a retired teacher.