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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1996

Talking trails

Listen with your feet on the new nature trails in Wisconsin's state parks.

Diane Schwartz

Nature trails have many stories to share. Animal tracks, browsed twigs, nests and noises all tell who is in the neighborhood as you walk by. Now, 40 newly renovated state park nature trails reveal who and what crossed the same path in years past.

Trails in the north tell of lumberjacks and Ojibwa, of boreal forests and brilliant waterfalls. Trails in the south talk of prairies and oak savannah and hummocky glacial landscapes. Near Lake Michigan, trails ramble on about sand dunes, ancient glacial lakes, and white cedar swamps; to the west, trails speak of lead mining, the Black Hawk War, and ancient marine fossils buried deep in yellow sandstone.

On a hike with a trained naturalist, you'll learn about the geology, plants, animals and people that form the natural history of an area. But the naturalist isn't always available when you want to hit the trail. With the new interpretive trail signposts and labels, you can still enjoy a tale as you walk.

The Wisconsin nature trail system

Wisconsin trails have been telling stories for decades. In the 1960s, former State Naturalist George Knudsen wrote interpretive labels for more than 60 hiking trails on state lands. The trails, marked with familiar signs bearing Knudsen's original drawings and sprightly text, educated countless visitors about Wisconsin's native trees, plants and people.

After 30 years of use, the well-loved paths were showing signs of age. Hikers strained to read the labels and signs faded by sun, snow and rain. Other signposts describing specific plants lost their meaning as the landscape around them changed.

In 1994, Wisconsin State Parks embarked on a statewide overhaul of the nature trail system to reflect changes in the field of interpretation and to upgrade the aging signs. Present-day State Naturalist Laurie Osterndorf and the State Parks Interpretive Committee re-thought the goals for nature trails. Their vision included giving each trail a theme, and reducing the number of stops on each trail. Signs would be made of sturdy, long-lasting materials and feature attractive graphics and illustrations.

The trail themes selected are as diverse as Wisconsin itself. Native plant communities, forest ecology, biodiversity and human history unfold in the signs along the trails. In many cases, the original interpretive signs were simply modified in a new format to make the reader more aware of the theme. Now, each stop on each trail forms one "chapter" of a story.

Ready and waiting for you

Nature trails are ready to hike when you are. Trails provide opportunities for day hikers and campers to learn at their own pace and on their own time. Most trails in the system have 10-12 evenly-spaced stops along an easy-to-hike one half- to one-mile route suitable for people of all ages.

People who use wheelchairs will find the Sentinel Ridge Trail at Wyalusing and the Paradise Springs Trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit perfect for a nature ramble. Trails accessible to people with disabilities have been included in the future development plans for many other parks as well.

State parks have two kinds of self-guided trails: some are labeled with signs, others are numbered with marker posts that correspond to stops listed in a brochure. Trails interpreted with brochures will have a box of pamphlets at the trailhead; pick one up and stop at the numbered posts along the trail to read about a highlighted feature. You're welcome to keep the brochure as a souvenir, or to pass it on to friends and family. Or, you can return the brochure to the box when you're done and leave it for the next hiker.

It wasn't easy constructing attractive trail signs and outdoor exhibits capable of surviving harsh weather, heavy visitor use, and occasional vandalism from humans and critters alike. All labels are sealed tightly between Lexan and aluminum plates. Each label is placed in a rust-proof aluminum frame, bolted to a 4-by-4 post, and sunk deep into the ground. To blend with the natural surroundings, each label has a tan or grey background color. An average trail with 10 labels costs $1,000 to complete. Brochure trails vary in price, but are less expensive to produce than with sign-posts.

Trails to tweak your curiosity

Interpretive trails strive to pique your interest and help you see everyday things, like oak trees and acorns, in a different way. For example, Shady Oak Trail at Big Foot Beach has a wildlife habitat theme, which points out why oak trees and acorns are important wildlife food. Stony Ridge Trail in the Kettle Moraine Southern Unit has a glacial topography theme featuring an oak savannah remnant on top of a steep glacial deposit. At Natural Bridge State Park, you'll discover that native people once soaked and dried acorns to make flour for bread and to thicken soups.

Interpretive trails also help you appreciate the people who once walked the land long before the park was established. Jean Brunet Trail at Brunet Island shares the history of fur traders and voyageurs; Stonehaven Trail at Harrington Beach tells about a former limestone quarry and company town that once existed within the park; and Indian Mound Trail at High Cliff circles an outstanding group of panther effigy mounds. Who were the people who built the mounds, and what happened to them? Illustrations and photographs help you glimpse the past and learn how to read the landscape and the people who walked it.

A hike on a nature trail often is the first step toward a lifetime interest in the natural world. When a trail sparks your curiosity, stop by the park office. Most parks have brochures, field guides and books on topics related to trail themes. Or, ask to speak with the park naturalist who can direct you to a fireside program, guided hike, or the Wisconsin Explorer/Junior Ranger program for kids. Once you and a trail get to talking, it's going to be a long, fruitful conversation.

DNR Bureau of Parks and Recreation interpretive planner Diane Schwartz worked on the nature trail revision project and wrote many of the new labels.

Where to find the new trails

Most trails have 10-12 evenly-spaced stops along an easy-to-hike half-mile to one-mile trail. Hilly trails and wheelchair-accessible trails are noted.

Shady Oak Trail
wildlife habitat theme
Hike this half-mile trail to discover where wildlife live and what they eat.

Flintrock Trail
geology theme
Hike this hilly one-mile trail to find out how you fit into the geologic history of Wisconsin's driftless area.

Grassland Trail
grassland theme
Grasslands once dominated southern Wisconsin. This three-quarter mile trail interprets the importance of grasslands and the many changes that have occurred at Bong since European settlement.

Jean Brunet Trail
historical theme
Meet Jean Brunet, Ezra Cornell and other people from Brunet Island's past along this half-mile trail.

Island Canoe Trail
wetlands ecology theme
Guide your canoe through the watery wilds of Castle Rock Flowage. Pick up a brochure at the canoe landing for this 1.8-mile canoe trail.

Central Sands Trail
central sands ecology theme
Find out about the plants and animals that thrive on some of Wisconsin's sandiest and driest soils on this half-mile trail.

Wooly Mammoth Trail
glacial geology theme
Hike down the back side of an ice-walled lake plain to see the impact of stagnant ice on the landscape. This is a three-quarter mile trail with a steep climb; it intersects with the Ice Age Trail.

Three Bridges Trail
geology theme
Lava-formed rocks, steep gorges, roaring waterfalls and tumbling cascades await you on a hilly 1.5-mile trail, where you'll learn about the geology of this scenic Lake Superior park.

Big Pines Trail
northwoods ecology theme
The half-mile trail interprets northwoods ecology, plants and animals.

Pine Cliff Trail
driftless area ecology theme
Pine Cliff Trail features ancient hills, cliffs and valleys found only in the unglaciated part of southwestern Wisconsin. Hike the two-mile loop trail to discover one of the oldest and most diverse landscapes in the world.

White Cedar Swamp Trail
cedar swamp ecology
This 0.8-mile loop trail interprets the unique plants and animals found only in Wisconsin's rare cedar swamps.

Stonehaven Trail
historical theme
Harrington Beach State Park was once the site of a major limestone quarry and company town called Stonehaven. This trail reveals the former life of the park and how much it has changed over the years.

Passing Through: The People of Hartman Creek
cultural history theme
Eleven exhibits scattered throughout the park interpret the diverse human history of Hartman Creek. Visitors learn about prehistoric and historic Native Americans tribes, the first white settlers and all about the fish hatchery that once operated at the park.

Effigy Mound
mound-builders theme
Native people have lived at High Cliff for thousands of years. This one-mile trail interprets a series of Indian mounds and provides information on how the mound-builders lived off the land.

Tree Tales Trail
tree stories and identification theme
Every tree has a story. Learn unusual stories about the trees at Hoffman Hills on this two-mile trail.

Stony Ridge Trail
glacial geology theme
Walk in the shadow of the glaciers as you discover glacial features such as kettles, erratics and cobblestone paths on this half-mile trail.

Paradise Springs Trail
cultural history theme
An old spring house, trout pond and other ruins indicate the former life of Paradise Springs. Hike this half-mile trail to discover history. Wheelchair accessible.

Scuppernong Springs Trail
cultural history theme
Hike along an old railroad bed and discover the cultural history of scuppernong springs, including marl plant ruins, an old railroad grade and more. 1.5 miles.

Bald Bluff Trail
cultural and natural history theme
Hike a half-mile to the top of Bald Bluff to discover a natural prairie and an historic Indian dancing ring.

Rice Lake Trail
wetland wildlife theme
Discover the plants and animals that live along a lake on a half-mile walk. Wildlife viewing platform available.

Lone Tree Bluff Trail
natural history theme
Hike up 89 steps through oak openings and then walk a quarter-mile for a view of glaciated outwash plain. You'll also ponder the fate of the lone tree.

Summit Trail
glacial geology theme
Take a short hike to the top of Dundee Mountain to see Cambellsport Drumlins, Lake Michigan and Dundee Kame.

Tamarack Trail
interrelationships in nature theme
Natural events and human actions change the world around us. Some changes are small, others are devastating. Hike this 1.5-mile trail to discover how one small change can make a big difference.

Woodland Dunes Trail
coastal forest theme
Learn why so many different trees grow along the Lake Michigan shoreline on this half-mile trail.

Creeping Juniper Trail
sand dune ecology theme
Let a half-mile cordwalk guide you through one of the state's unique dune areas. To protect the rare dune plants, this trail and its surroundings have been designated a State Natural Area.

Beaver Meadow Trail
wetland ecology theme
Wetland and water await you along the Beaver Meadow Trail. Learn how a spring works, see a fern garden, and walk in an ancient glacial riverbed along this one-mile trail.

Mill Bluff Trail
glacial Lake Wisconsin theme
Walk around the base of Mill Bluff (about 0.3 miles) and learn about the geologic forces that created this majestic bluff and the sandy land surrounding it. Then hike the stairs to the top of Mill Bluff for a spectacular view of other sandstone bluffs and Fort Douglas air base.

Wild Food and Medicine Trail
edible and medicinal uses of plants theme
Learn about the medicinal and edible uses of common forest plants such as oak, slippery elm and raspberries on this rolling 0.7-mile trail.

Indian Moccasin Trail
medicinal uses of plants theme
Find out how native people used everyday plants to create love charms, pass gall stones, make rope, and relieve the common cold. This one-mile trail passes by an ancient sandstone arch where native people lived some 10,000 years ago.

Raven Trail
northwoods ecology and history
Discover the many moods of the North on this 1.5-mile trail. One of Wisconsin's prettiest northwoods trails.

White Cedar Trail
deer ecology theme
Learn about the ecology of white-tailed deer on this half-mile loop trail. You may even see a deer or two.

Black Forest Trail
diversity of southern mesic forest theme
This trail takes you through a small remnant of sugar maple forest. Discover the diversity of this rare forest type on the three-quarter mile trail.

Woodland Shopping Center Trail
woodland indian theme
Learn how native Americans at Perrot State Park used plants and animals of the forest for their food, shelter and clothing.

The Swale Trail
ridge-and-swale ecology theme
The Lake Michigan shoreline is the only place in Wisconsin to see ridge-and-swale topography. Hike this half-mile loop trail to discover how glacial Lake Nippissing created the unusual undulating hummock near the beach.

Old Helena Landmark Trail
historical theme
Tower Hill State Park overlooks the scenic Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and is the site of one of Wisconsin's oldest settlements and a former summer retreat run by Frank Lloyd Wright's uncle, a Unitarian minister from Chicago. Parts of the trail are steep.

Mt. Pisgah Hemlock-Hardwoods Trail
diversity of remnant hemlock theme
Virgin hemlock and white pine tower over you on this 1.3-mile trail. Discover the beauty and diversity of this state natural area and see a spectacular view of the Kickapoo Valley. Steep climb.

Sentinel Ridge Trail
cultural history theme
Sentinel Ridge Trail tells the rich human history of this scenic ridge. The half-mile trail is accessible to people in wheel chairs and circles a series of prehistoric Indian mounds. Parts of the trail overlook the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. Wheelchair accessible.