The author, Jonathan Ringdahl, at Rock Island State Park.
64 parks in 365 days
Childhood memories inspire an adult challenge.
Last year, I set out to do something that would make the year memorable and asked myself, "What can I do that would be interesting to me that would stand out?"
I came to realize that visiting all 64 Wisconsin state parks would make for one amazing adventure. I have many fond memories from Perrot and Wyalusing state parks as a kid. I grew up on the shores of the Mississippi River in La Crosse. I wanted to expand my childhood horizons even further and create more memories in the state parks. I didnít know it at the time, but this journey would change me in so many ways.
First and foremost, I will jump into the adventures. There were so many! It is impossible to go into a state park looking for adventure and leave disappointed. I loved watching the seasons change.
The fall colors of the different Kettle Moraine State Forest units blew me away as did those at Rib Mountain State Park. Pictured Rock Cave in Wyalusing State Park went from a free–flowing waterfall in the summer to a 30–foot–tall popsicle in the winter. I remember standing so close to Willow River Falls that I became disoriented because there was only fast moving water in front of my eyes. Big Manitou and Little Manitou Falls in Pattison State Park are just so beautiful that visitors should make it a point to see both.
My favorite waterfall picture, of Brownstone Falls, came not long after sunrise in Copper Falls State Park. I was the only one on the trails that early in the morning. Stephenís Falls in Governor Dodge State Park is located in one of the most beautiful settings where you could put a waterfall. All of these waterfalls are treasures.
Any park along Lake Michigan captivated me as well. All of these parks provided amazing visits. I took pictures of the Rawley Point Lighthouse at Point Beach State Forest on a cold and rainy October night by holding my raincoat over my camera. I returned to the beach in the morning for the sunrise.
The next night in Kohler–Andrae State Park my dad and I watched two deer run across the sand dunes, a scene accentuated by Lake Michigan at sunset. That night my dad and I camped at Harrington Beach State Park and the temperature plummeted to 28 degrees. In the morning, our hike was truly special as we were able to watch a doe with two fawns feeding on vegetation.
The best trip on Lake Michigan and maybe of the entire year was out to Rock Island State Park. By the time Rock Islandís number came up for a visit, it was quite late in the season and the Karfi ferry would likely only run for a few more days.
On Friday night my parents and I rode the car ferry over to Washington Island. Saturday morning we prepped for our crossing to Rock Island. We went to the ferry dock to see Lake Michigan roaring. We were told the ferry was not crossing as conditions were not set to improve. Making a quick decision, I said we should go to the Door County parks we planned to visit on Sunday and come back tomorrow. That meant that Sunday was the make–or–break moment for my quest for 64. We rode the car ferry back to the mainland and hit 6– to 8–foot waves. It was the craziest ferry ride I have ever been on. It was only my momís second ferry ride of her life — the first being the day before. We rose before the sun the next day to catch the ferry back to Washington Island. All was calm and the Karfi was running to Rock Island. The dream was still alive!
Rock Island was amazing with the trees donning their colored fall jackets. I returned again this year for another amazing trip, this time kayaking to the island with my friend Michelle. Rock Island never disappoints and will always hold a special place in my heart.
My dad and I still talk about seeing double rainbows in the field at New Glarus Woods State Park. The rocks of Interstate Park rising out of the majestic St. Croix River is as beautiful a setting as my dad and I have seen anywhere.
Speaking of rocks, there is a big one at Natural Bridge State Park. The sandstone arch there is 1.6 billion years old. It is the biggest arch in Wisconsin. The other parks in the area also have some amazing rock formations. Parfreyís Glen next to Devil's Lake State Park is an amazing gorge. It is well worth the visit to see how beautiful it is inside this natural area. Fern Dell Gorge in Mirror Lake State Park is another fine example of the amazing formations in the area. It is on my snowshoe list every winter from now on!
While in Wisconsin Dells, I decided to drive up to Roche–a–Cri State Park for some photography near sunrise to capitalize on the great light. It was a fantastic morning for pictures. I took three pictures that ended up winning in the park's photography contest. What a beautiful park!
There were a few surprises along the way. Aztalan State Park was one of them. A Native American civilization in North America building a walled city was a new concept to me, and so interesting to learn about. My friend Mike and I also watched an impressive buck come down to the river for a morning drink.
My dad and I had a surprise guest greet us at a park. A walking stick was waiting on the office door at Nelson Dewey State Park. It was fun watching it crawl all over us. There were big savannah oaks at Lake Kegonsa State Park that I absolutely loved. My dad was a little anxious with me driving our car on a crazy dirt road in the Peshtigo River State Forest to see an overlook. I had a blast, my dad survived, the muffler is still attached and we have a good story.
During my visits, I also appreciated learning the history of our parks. Each park has so much history. I could write several articles on each one. I'll mention two examples. Heritage Hill is a great park, but unfortunately, a storm cut our visit short. I was literally chased from the park by a lightning storm with torrential rain. I had to protect my camera and made it back into my car just before the worst of the storm hit. I cannot wait to go back, though. The other is Mill Bluff State Park. Mill Bluff and the surrounding bluffs were islands in glacial Lake Wisconsin during the last Ice Age. I loved using my imagination when on top and at the bottom of the bluffs — to imagine being on an island or at the bottom of the lake.
I learned so much over the course of visiting all of Wisconsin's State Parks. The most important and surprising piece of knowledge I gained was how diverse our park system is. There is such an array of habitats, geological features and history enveloped within our state parks. This uniqueness and specialty of our state park system is why we owe previous generations who have preserved it a debt of gratitude. I am so proud to say these parks are "our" parks because of their work. Wisconsin should take pride in such an amazing system.
Visiting all 64 state parks has changed my life. I learned about some of Wisconsin's great outdoor enthusiasts and foremost writers on the natural world, such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about Gaylord Nelsonís contributions to Wisconsin as well. Only a special place like Wisconsin could have this effect on people.
Most important of all is that it was a family accomplishment. My dad joined me more than anyone else on expeditions. My mom occasionally tagged along with us too. I dragged my only and older brother along without too much of a struggle. His love for the parks was rekindled too. This goal would not have been possible without their support and help. I love them dearly and this dream would have only been a dream without them. I feel the essence of the parks is that they are a place to strengthen bonds with family and friends while making memories that can be talked about for years to come.
Jonathan Ringdahl lives in La Crosse. He is a senior therapist at Reaching Your Potential, working with kids on the autism spectrum. Jonathan is also a kayak trip leader and photographer. He enjoys biking, fishing, kayak, camping, backpacking, s'mores, swimming, snorkeling, bird watching, caving and just about anything else you can do in a Wisconsin state park involving eating s'mores and being with his dog Aries.