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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Sand sculpture contest at Whitefish Dunes State Park. © Courtesy of Carolyn Rock
Sand sculpture contest at Whitefish Dunes State Park.

© Courtesy of Carolyn Rock

April 2008

Seal of approval

Gold Seal awards honor the best and favorite experiences at state parks, trails and forests.

Kate Zurlo-Cuva

The 2007 Winners | Best Groomed Ski Trail
Best Picnic Area | Best View of a Waterfall
Best Mountain Bike Trail | Best Electric Campsite
Best View of a Moonrise | Best Playground
Best Interpretive Display | Best Walk-in Campsite
Best Prairie | State Park Heroes

Recognizing the beautiful and praising the unique: it's an enviable task whether you are sizing up horse flesh, the buffet line or the landscape. A great joy for the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks (FWSP) is dreaming up ways to enhance experiences at parks and trails. These volunteers plant the seeds of these improvements, roll up their sleeves, then share the fruits of their labor with other enthusiastic travelers. A cornerstone of all these Friends groups is taking a little time to celebrate their successes.

Each summer, the Friends invite the campers, bikers, hunters, hikers and anglers to vote on their favorite features at the state parks and trails they visit. Votes are cast at Friends of Wisconsin State Parks, counted up and Gold Seal awards are presented each year at the Friends annual meeting in mid-October.

"We look forward to recognizing and highlighting the state's terrific and unique features," notes John Waring, FWSP President. "Our mission to promote, protect, preserve and restore the parks and trails is enhanced by pointing out what visitors tell us made their visits extra special. We hope we can get kids out to parks for the first time as well as help adults relax and relish their childhood memories in the outdoors," adds Waring. Here are favorites you picked in 2007. Consider them "best bets" for sure-fire enjoyment throughout the seasons. If you'd like to cast your lot on highlights for the next Gold Seal awards, just visit the Friends website during the summer season and click on the Gold Seal icon to weigh in. Voting is open to all park visitors.

The 2007 Winners:

Best Groomed Ski Trail

Kettle Moraine State Forest – Lapham Peak Unit, Delafield. The 17.2 miles of ski trails winding through glacial terrain are a mecca for both serious and amateur cross-country skiers in southern and southeastern Wisconsin. Trail difficulties are rated blue, green and black; blue are the easiest for newer skiers. A good rule of thumb for training athletes is if you can do four black loops in a day, you are ready for the American Birkebeiner ski race.

There is always at least one set of classic tracks on the ski trails. Wider areas have two sets to accommodate both skaters and striders. The trails intersect so that skiers can return quickly to the start, if they need to. For evening skiing, 2.5 miles of the trails are lighted. Trail maps are available at the office, shelters and along the trails. Parking is available at the two trail heads and both heated shelters have restroom facilities. Last year, the Friends group completed its second step of trail improvements by raising $100,000 to provide snowmaking equipment that will ensure the trails are in good shape for those years when natural snowfall is weak. In 2005-06 with Friends help, the area maintained a one-kilometer practice loop with artificial snow.

In addition to the rolling terrain through the woods, these trails traverse savannas, prairies, pine plantations and wetlands. Along the way, you may see hawks, owls, turkeys, deer and a wide variety of animal tracks. In the thawed out season, the area is equally popular for its five miles of mountain biking trails. The Friends are also involved in prairie restoration. They eradicated buckthorn and honeysuckle from trails to knock back these invasive species to restore clear views of the mature trees and prairies.


Best Picnic Area

Devil's Lake State Park, Baraboo. This massive 9,500-acre playground features 500-foot high quartzite bluffs and more than 300 acres of deep blue lake stretched out before you. The main picnic area on the South Shore and two sites on the North Shore offer tables, water, grills and access to plenty of space. In addition to the amusements in your picnic basket, the park offers a swimming beach, fishing, scuba diving, boating, 17 hiking trails, naturalist programs, rock climbing routes, canoe and sailboat rentals and concession stands. It's just a beautiful, open, relaxing place year-round with plenty of parking for both day users and campers. Pick a table in the full sun or shade. If the beanie weenie you brought has lost its luster, just cozy up to your new best buddy at the next table who had the good sense to grill steaks, sauté onions and pack enough s'more fixins' for a crowd!

Foamy, cascading waters, rustling pines and hand-hewn paths make a trip to Copper Falls State Park in Mellen a best bet. © Don Blegen
Foamy, cascading waters, rustling pines and hand-hewn paths make a trip to Copper Falls State Park in Mellen a best bet.

© Don Blegen

Best View of a Waterfall

Copper Falls State Park, Mellen. The rugged woods and rock terrain carved out by the rushing waters of the gorge of the Bad River coupled with the ageless architecture of the CCC work from the 1930s creates a landscape that transcends time at Copper Falls. The park was established in 1939 and carries the name of the 29-foot falls that marks the first drop of the Bad River as it flows through approximately two miles of steep-walled canyons. Downstream, Tyler Forks joins the main branch of the Bad River plunging nearly 28 feet into the canyon over Brownstone Falls.

The Doughboys Trail, named for the World War I veterans who first put down the path, is the most popular trail in the park. This 1.7 mile path takes you along the rim of Bad River Gorge and offers views of Brownstone Falls and Copper Falls. Although the falls can be seen from several locations along the trail, two wooden platforms provide the most spectacular views of Brownstone Falls and Tyler Forks Cascades. On either side of the swift-flowing water, the rock walls rise 60 to 100 feet. It's especially beautiful during fall color when sugar maple, red maple, basswood, ash, aspen, white and yellow birch put on a splashy show that contrasts with the verdant hues of hemlock, balsam fir, red and white pine, spruce and northern white cedar, all common along the trail.

Admire the rustic, historic architecture along the trail. Bridges, stone stairways, benches and buildings were constructed by the CCC workers. A notable beauty is the hand-hewn log structure at the beginning of the trail known as the "combination building" because it is home to a covered pavilion and indoor concession area.

Best Mountain Bike Trail

Blue Mound State Park, Blue Mounds. The addition of a new trail in Pleasure Valley now forms an 11-mile loop of almost entirely single track bike trail at Blue Mound State Park. The trails are very hilly and take full advantage of the mound with varying elevations above the surrounding hills and farmland. The four-mile Overlode Trail has many challenging rock features, more than any other trail in the area. Late in the season, beautiful fall colors dapple the trees along the Overlode Trail that winds through a maple forest. The trails at Blue Mound are especially popular because they were built by bikers and meet many of the mountain bikers' single track needs and challenges. Shower and bathroom facilities are available for park visitors.

Best Electric Campsite

(Tie) Wyalusing State Park, Bagley and Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek.

The Wisconsin Ridge Campground at Wyalusing offers campsites with panoramic views capturing the Wisconsin River Valley where it converges with the Mississippi. The campsites are perched 500 feet above the Wisconsin River, which makes campers feel like they are perched in the clouds, viewing eagles and hawks as they soar at eye level above the Wisconsin River. The Wisconsin Ridge Campground offers a modern shower building, several hiking trails and a new playground all within easy walking distance. The Homestead Campground at Wyalusing offers larger and more secluded campsites. The 34 electric sites in the Wyalusing campgrounds are flat and especially suited for trailers or motor homes.

Peninsula State Park has 467 family campsites in five separate campgrounds. All campsites are within a short walk to the waters of Green Bay and a large number of these sites along the shore provide breathtaking views and spectacular sunsets. The water view campsites in north and south Nicolet Bay campgrounds are among the most sought-after campsites in the whole state park system. Visitors should request these sites 11 months in advance to reserve them during the May through October time period.

All but 12 campsites are within walking distance to many unique amenities including the Nicolet Beach, food, bicycle and boat rentals, the White Cedar Nature Center, the Amphitheater and American Folklore Theatre, two full service playgrounds, and three picnic areas. In addition, all campsites are linked by the Sunset Bicycle Trail system and provide easy access to a wide range of hiking trails. Most of Peninsula's campsites are wooded and separated from other sites by 75 to 100 feet. One hundred sites at Peninsula have 30-amp electrical output. All campgrounds have newly modernized toilet and shower facilities.

Best View of a Moonrise

New Glarus Woods State Park. New Glarus Woods is located on one of the highest hills in Green County and is surrounded by mature hardwoods. The area gets very dark in the evening and its rural location has little light pollution from urban areas.

"The moon crests the trees and is first visible from the main picnic area in a large gap in the forest," notes Park Manager Steve Johnston. "It always seems too large to be real." The Group Camp Area is the best place to view the moon arc above the canopy, as it floods the area with light from the Milky Way, planets and meteors.

Best Playground

New Glarus Woods State Park. The playground materials and design fit into the look and feel of the old-growth hardwood forest that surrounds it. The slides, climbers, tunnels and bridges at the playground were designed for physical and imaginative play. The playground even includes a large open area that can be used to stage pretend activities. It adjoins a large stone sandbox and a short trail that leads to a series of large rocks for play. "The play area was designed with the philosophy of 'you must teach children to love nature before you can ask them to protect it,'" adds Johnston. "I feel that is the reason it was a Gold Seal winner this year." Although New Glarus Woods does not have running water for toilets or showers, it does offer three drinking fountains throughout the campgrounds and picnic areas.

Photo of volunteers © Friends of New Glarus Woods State Park
A ribbon-cutting celebrates the grand opening of a playground visitors have voted a "winner" at New Glarus Woods State Park.

© Friends of New Glarus Woods State Park

Best Interpretive Display

Devil's Lake State Park, Baraboo. The nature center at Devil's Lake is a traditional center with a twist. Park Naturalist Dave Bouché, along with numerous volunteer naturalists, interprets the human and natural history of the area. The stone building, built in 1925, was once a golf course clubhouse. Its cottage-style exterior, hardwood interior floors and vaulted ceiling provide a warm, welcoming feel. The upper level houses natural history and geology exhibits. "Live animals, glacial geology displays and 'What's Happening Now' in the world of plants are favorite exhibits at Devil's Lake as well as mounted exhibits on birds and animals of the park," explains Bouché. "Visitors are encouraged to feel many of the items especially on the touch table called 'Remains of the Day.'"

A reference area gives visitors space to peruse field guides and natural history resources. Pictures, displays and interpretive text guide visitors through a span of over 500 generations of human habitation at Devil's Lake. Native American culture, early European settlement and the fascinating "Hotel Era" of Devil's Lake are all part of the journey. A corner just for kids on the lower level offers containers full of natural surprises, games and books ready to be explored by curious children and their parents.

Interpretive programs are scheduled at the nature center seven days a week during the summer months and it's a favorite stop on school field trips in the spring and fall. A wildflower garden and birdfeeders next to the building add to the delight of nature lovers. A dedicated and knowledgeable group of local volunteers help staff the nature center during the busy summer months and they add to the welcoming feel of the center.

Best Walk-in Campsite

Rock Island State Park, off the tip of Door County. Rock Island has 35 campsites and two group sites in a traditional campground setting within a quarter-mile of the boat dock. Seventeen of the campsites have a water view and there are five additional Gold Seal award-winning backpacking sites on the opposite side of the island from the dock only a mile hike away. There are no showers on the island but drinking water and firewood are available.

Visiting Rock Island is a three-step process: first, visitors drive to the tip of the Door County peninsula on Hwy. 42, which ends at Northport. From here, they take the ferry to Washington Island where they can drive across to Jackson Harbor, park their vehicles and pick up a passenger-only ferry, Karfi, to Rock Island. There is a contact station at the dock on Rock Island where campers check in and receive information. It takes about 90 minutes to get from Northport to Rock Island, and in July and August the Washington Island ferry runs on the half hour from 8 a.m. to 6:45 p.m.

"Rock Island is a unique state park," notes Tim Sweet, President of the Friends of Rock Island State Park. "Not only is it exciting to take a ferry to get there, but with no cars allowed, your camping experience is guaranteed to be rustic."

"Traveling by ferry is a special experience and I believe the pristine resources on Rock Island have been especially preserved through this feature," notes Kirby Foss, DNR manager on the island. Additionally, this year, the Pottawatomie Lighthouse, located in Rock Island State Park, is turning 150. To mark this significant milestone, the Friends of Rock Island are hosting a Sesquicentennial Celebration on Saturday, May 17th during the annual Door County Lighthouse Walk. The event is open to the general public.

Best Prairie

New Glarus Woods State Park. The prairies at New Glarus Woods are a treat for all the senses. In bloom, wildflowers delight the eye in a varied palette of colors and textures. There is a wonderful scent throughout. Sounds of insects humming and working the foliage blend with bird song. Hawks soar above hunting the mice, shrews, voles and ground squirrels darting among the stems. In early morning and evening, birds, deer, woodchucks, fox, skunks, badgers and coyotes venture out of the woods.

There are two prairies at New Glarus Woods. The 40-acre prairie has a mile trail with benches for sitting and enjoying the prairie views. A self-guided interpretive trail with signs is currently being installed. The larger 55-acre prairie is located on the Havenridge Trail, which has a guidebook keyed to numbered posts along the route interpreting sights and sounds throughout the seasons. The prairie, along with the playground and moonrise at New Glarus Woods make it a terrific destination for visitors stopping by the quaint city of New Glarus.

State Park Heroes

In addition to the Gold Seals, the parks friends recognize a DNR land manager, a local Friends group, and a Friends member with State Park Hero awards each year. These awards showcase the terrific leadership and exemplary service of individuals and groups that selflessly support the State Park System. Those nominated give tremendous time, energy, dedication and love of special places that so many people enjoy in parks and trails.

Carolyn Rock, Park Educator at Whitefish Dunes State Park won Land Manager of the Year honors at the last ceremony. Whitefish Dunes on Wisconsin's Door County Peninsula is an 865-acre day use park that was set aside to protect the fragile dune environment. Whitefish Dunes has more visitors than any other day-use park in Wisconsin. The park features programs, exhibits and brochures on archaeology, highlighting eight significant Native American villages on the site that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the nature center offers displays on ecology, geology and human history of the park. Programs for all ages are presented year-round at the park, a special treat for those who visit the Door.

Carolyn is instrumental in all of these programs and activities at the park, works with the park's Friends group, and coordinates many events throughout the year such as the sand castle contest. As one supporter mentioned in her nomination, "Carolyn has single-handedly arranged for very popular interpretive programs at three of the five state parks in Door County during the past several years through her own significant efforts and with the help of very talented summer interns she has hired and mentored."

The Friends of Lapham Peak were honored as the Most Accomplished Friends Group meeting their ambitious goals of completing a new cross-country ski trail through the forest. Lapham Peak's glaciated topography provides excellent hiking, backpacking and cross-country skiing on lighted trails. Lapham Peak has a variety of sights and activities to offer, including hiking trails, a portion of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail with a reservable backpack campsite, ski trails, mountain bike trails, several prairie restoration sites and a butterfly garden.

Bob Birmingham (right) was named a State Park Hero for his work at Aztalan State Park. © Courtesy of Bob Birmingham
Bob Birmingham (right) was named a State Park Hero for his work at Aztalan State Park.

© Courtesy of Bob Birmingham

Former State Archaeologist and President of the Friends of Aztalan State Park, Bob Birmingham won the award as State Park Hero of 2007. Aztalan is a National Landmark as well as a state park with historic features marking the site of a Native American village from a society archaeologists call the Middle Mississippian. This was the most extensive and complex ancient society documented in what is now the United States, and Aztalan is considered a unique, pristine archaeological treasure of Native American culture that is recognized worldwide. Aztalan is believed to be the northernmost outpost of the Middle Mississippian culture whose members also built great pyramidal mounds and villages in Cahokia, Illinois; Ocmulgee, Georgia; Moundsville, Alabama; Marietta, Ohio; Emerald Mound, Mississippi; and similar sites in northern Louisiana, Arkansas, western Kentucky, western Tennessee, southern Illinois and southern Indiana.

To promote this rich history, the Friends of Aztalan State Park, under Birmingham's leadership, have sponsored promotional and fundraising activities including Aztalan Day Tours, with special lectures by prominent experts, and developed a line of park promotional clothing. Additionally, Birmingham produced and funded a DVD with Wisconsin Public Television titled Aztalan: National Historic Landmark that generated enormous publicity for the park. View the video at Aztalan State Park.

The 2008 Gold Seal awards event will be held on November 7th at Governor Dodge State Park and will bring together the network of over 80 local Friends groups of state parks, trails, forests and recreation areas. The event is open to the public.

"Local Friends groups around the state show year-round dedication to these important lands. Their service is an invaluable contribution to the people of our state," comments Bill Smith, acting state parks director. Last year, more than 6,000 volunteers provided over 140,000 hours of services, and made over $800,000 in contributions. Friends not only protect important and unique natural assets but also create memories that transcend generations of park and trail users in Wisconsin," Smith says. The work of Friends groups comprises fund-raising, building support for resource protection and advocating for public lands – a valuable asset to all visitors who enjoy recreating in our great outdoors.

Kate Zurlo-Cuva is Friends group coordinator for DNR's Parks and Recreation program .