Now that the holidays are behind us, I've been taking a breath and looking back at the past year. All the nature adventures, park strolls, and hikes in all four seasons. Last March was the 8th anniversary of The Park Next Door. At that time, there were 180 listings on the website. I set a goal to reach 200 by the end of May, and surpassed it by a few. At the end of 2022, there were 233 listings on the website, in addition to several new special features.
That's 53 new adventures taken, not including repeat trips to several local parks and preserves. I managed to fit in a few longer day trips, including a weekend trip to Door County last fall. Not a single outing disappointed. The weather may not have always cooperated, but no matter. Wisconsin is truly a natural beauty, no matter the weather or season.
In no particular order, here are some of my favorite highlights of 2022.
Discovering the ancient beauty of the Niagara Escarpment as it winds its way through the state, led us to three gorgeous parks: Ledge County Park, in Horicon, Oakfield Ledge State Natural Area, near Fond du Lac, and Cave Point County Park in Sturgeon Bay. Each one had it's special features, and natural drama.
Heading northeast to the Manitowoc/Two Rivers area, we visited three amazing landscapes. Van Der Brohe Arboretum, a retired golf course blossoming into a new nature preserve and arboretum; Cherney-Maribel Caves County Park, another beautiful park along the Niagara Escarpment with caves you can tour; and Woodland Dunes Nature Center & Preserve, a premium bird watching spot and educational center. There is so much nature to be enjoyed in this part of Wisconsin, I will definitely be going back.
The ongoing work of community members came together to create nature trails, preserves, and personal healing, at three first-time hikes. Eagle Nature Trail has been a labor of love in the community of Eagle, since 2009. Belle Reynolds Nature Trail in Oakfield has community roots beginning in 2002, and the Conservancy for Heritage & Healing was 17 years in the making, with its grand completion ceremony taking place in 2022. Here you will find not only nature trails, but a tranquil healing garden, and a unique chapel perfect for finding some moments of solace and peace.
Looking to add a bit of art to adventure led to two separate excursions. The first, at the height of summer blooming, to West Of The Lake Gardens in Manitowoc. The gardens infuse elements of mid-century modern design, and Asian garden design along the bluffs of Lake Michigan. There's definitely
a Hollywood in the 50's vibe here, along with some of the most well plotted out gardens in the area.
A second art in nature adventure took us to Steven's Point Sculpture Garden and nature trail in Steven's Point. In the early days of fall, the trail was colorful, and the art installations along the walking trail were unique in design and placement. If you're in the area, don't miss it.
An October hike at Hobbs Woods Nature Area in Fond du Lac, was one of the most memorable hikes of the year for me. Not only is Hobbs Woods incredibly beautiful, but we were accompanied on our hike that day by a local black cat. We covered about two miles on our hike with this Unexpected Companion with us every step of the way. It was, for me, a kind of magical experience. I think about it often. I'm certain she lives at a neighboring house or farm, and I hope to see, and hike with, her again one day.
Late summer and early fall introduced me to some amazing flower farms and cutting gardens in the area, and brought on an obsession with Zinnias. What an astoundingly beautiful flower! I can't wait to plant a cutting garden filled with them in our garden this coming summer. I doubt it will keep me from visiting the flower farms, though. The vast array of beautiful blooms they grow are a visual feast. Most of the flower farms have pick-your-own sunflower fields as well. It's hard not to be cheerful when walking through the tall maze of a sunflower field. Here are a few of my favorites.
I wouldn't go out of my way to plan a trip to Door County in the rain, but when rain happens, what can you do...my first trip to Door County was on a blustery, cold, rainy weekend in early November. Most of the bright fall color was already gone, but some of the russet tones were hanging on. And a walk through wet, leaf-laden woodland trails was manageable. The beauty of the state and local parks I visited still shone through, and I definitely plan to return. Whatever the weather. There's so much to see and do in Door County. If you haven't gone, I highly recommend it.
On the local...fall in Wisconsin is a sight to see. So I'm going to wrap up this favorites list with a few of the glorious local parks that were golder than golden this past autumn. They are beautiful, of course, in all seasons, but you might want to put them on your list of must-dos for next fall.
Kinsey Park, in Brookfield, is a small neighborhood park, with an exceptionally beautiful woodland trail behind it. It was absolutely stunning this past October. Lizard Mound State Park, in Farmington, was so incredibly dressed in gold this fall I gasped when we arrived. The autumn colors truly defined the sacred burial mounds in such a stunning way. The Forest Exploration Center, in Wauwatosa, is a popular spot in all seasons. But if you don't get there in fall, well, you're missing out. The Mukwonago River Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, in Mukwonago, is often known as Rainbow Springs (it was once a resort). The lake at the river unit here is as clear as can be, and the fall colors along the trail and surrounding the lake are truly gorgeous. I know it's only January, but I'm looking forward to next fall!
This myth of constant joy and wonder during the holiday season is just that, a myth. Life is filled with ups and downs, blissful moments and tragedies. The Christmas season is not exempt from the trials and tribulations of life. And yet...
When it came to Christmas, my mom was a holiday queen. She loved to put up holiday decorations. She delighted in things that sparkled. She often put up more than one tree. One for inside the house, and another, smaller tree, on the front porch. And she never forgot anyone. Did we always get what we asked for? No. But no one went un-gifted at Christmas. Stockings were filled. Oranges, chocolate, candy canes, a trinket or two. Lifesavers, slipper socks. Simple things. But thoughtful.
As I got older, I would enlist my sisters to help me put together stockings for my parents. It bothered me that they weren't included. I guess my mom's desire to include everyone sunk in for me somehow. I can recall, in the aftermath of gift opening, a puzzled look on her face. Usually followed by a comment on how there was supposed to be one more gift for...fill in the blank... She'd go upstairs, and you could hear her rummaging through her closet, maybe her dresser. It was there somewhere. Sometimes she found it, sometimes she didn't. No matter, really. We were far from well-to-do, but my mother put plenty of effort and thought into gift-giving.
Life isn't perfect. We have a lot of work to do in this world to make it a better place. To protect the planet, and heal ourselves. Tasks that shouldn't require a Christmas holiday to motivate us to be kinder, gentler, more forgiving. But this is where we are. And if the month of December brings twinkling lights, Christmas carols, and a heightened desire to put some good out into the world, I'm on board with that.
Because somewhere within this hectic, mad, fairytale of a holiday, is a true longing. A longing for a future with heart, soul, healing, and kindness. We don't get to where we are going without remembering where we've been. It's all part of the process. And, though those we love may not be here with us now, they take the journey we're on within us. Which may be the best gift we can ask for.✨
Easy does it. Sometimes the easiest gifts are the best ones. Give the gift that keeps on giving all year long with annual park stickers, passes, and nature center memberships.
Books and Publications: You can't go wrong with books and magazine subscriptions that focus on a persons interests. Following are just a few suggestions.
Specialized Gear: There are some great Milwaukee area shops that can help you find the right gear for the outdoor enthusiast on your list.
SUPPORT THE PARK NEXT DOOR AND FIND GREAT GIFTS FOR YOUR HOLIDAY SHOPPING LIST
Several of the annual Milwaukee area favorites are back again this year, with plenty of other festive displays throughout the state. Be sure to watch your local news sources for information on festivities in your area as well. Here's wishing you a cheerful holiday season!
Winter Wonders - Whitnall Park/Boerner Botanical Gardens
This holiday event is back for year three, with new displays, concert lighting, and a whopping one million lights. Features new dramatic lighting techniques and displays set throughout the 1.4 mile-long drive-through route at Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnall Park.
Open Nightly, with special sponsor events and giveaways each weekend. Check the schedule for details. Recommended to purchase tickets online. Peak wait times on Fridays, Saturdays, and holiday weeks. For lower wait times, visit Sunday-Thursday evenings after 7:30 pm.
Open 5-pm to 10-pm every night through January 1, including holidays. This is a drive-thru only display. Admission packages vary. Visit the tickets page for more details.
19 more holiday light events across the state
Life likes to remind us that we are not in control. We can try our best to be prepared, to plan ahead. But sometimes, yup, it just rains. My first weekend trip to Door County was in early November, and accompanied by gray skies, strong winds, and lots of rain. I checked the weather forecast every day prior to my trip. The degree of wind and rain varied, but the forecast of rain did not.
The rain held off on my early morning drive up, but finally gave way when I reached the Algoma Pierhead along Lake Michigan. I stopped to take a few photos of the lighthouse beneath stormy skies, then headed further on to Sturgeon Bay.
I had sketched out a wish list of places I wanted to visit. A travel log that was ambitious for even the best weather, and high energy days. But with continuous rain, and a shortage of daylight, I made adjustments as I went.
My first stop in Sturgeon Bay was Potawatomi State Park. The park is large, 1200 acres, and the drive along the roads that wind through the park is especially scenic.
Once past the entrance station, I took Norway Road to Shoreline Road, following it until I reached the parking lot of the nature center and park store, which is in-between the north and south campground areas.
Across the road from the parking lot stood the entrance to the Ancient Shorelines Nature Trail. A half-mile woodland loop, it seemed like a good fit in the pouring rain.
I put on my rain gear, got out my umbrella, and ventured onto the trail.
There is a sense of peace and magic in surrendering to the elements, standing beneath a canopy of trees in a gentle rain, autumn leaves falling around you. An umbrella doesn't hurt either.
With daylight quickly fading, I finished the drive through Potawatomi State Park and headed back towards town to my lodging for the evening. I had a reservation at a retro-style motel in Sturgeon Bay called Motel57.
The rates were good, and, as it turned out, the room was clean, comfy, and had a bit of style. Chilled from the walk in the rain, I checked in, dried off, and took a quick nap to warm up before heading out to find some dinner.
I was hoping to do a little tourist shopping before dinner, but I had trouble locating the shop I was trying to find in the dark and rain. So, I opted to go straight to dinner at a local favorite spot.
Door County Fire Company is a Sturgeon Bay ale house and restaurant that resides in an original working firehouse dating back to 1907. When the fire department moved to a new facility in 2007, the original building was developed as a restaurant and event venue.
The ale house has a casual, comfortable atmosphere, and family-friendly, quick service. I enjoyed a burger, along with a non-alcoholic Kaliber by Guinness beer. Both were delicious!
Back to the motel for the night, I settled in to review my wish list, and get a good night sleep. Unfortunately, the forecast for rain remained, so I prioritized my list to locations that offered scenic drives with stop-offs for short walks and photo opportunities.
First on my list for day 2 was breakfast at Big Easy. A popular specialty breakfast spot in Egg Harbor, Big Easy is known for their fresh, warm beignets, breakfast bagels, coffee, and more.
I ordered the beignets (one made it home to my husband), and breakfast bagel sandwich, which came with the tastiest tater tots. So good! The breakfast sandwich could easily be shared.
I lingered over breakfast while the rain continued to pour, though the forecast now suggested intermittent downpours.
I debated a bit on my next stop. Shopping wasn't a priority on this trip, but it was a worthy option given the weather. I decided to head to Peninsula State Park, driving past some of the shopping in Fish Creek along the way. Then I would have an idea where to stop on my way back down the highway. Despite the rain, and it being past peak season, Fish Creek seemed to be bustling with plenty of travelers and shoppers. It looked promising. But on to Peninsula State Park...
There were two main features in the park I wanted to see - Sven's Bluff, and Eagle Tower. Shortly after entering the park , along Shore Road, I made a stop at Weborg Point. One of many camp sites in the park, it offers some lovely views of Green Bay, along with a fishing pier, picnic shelter, and a few other amenities in season. I took a few photos from the point and then headed back out onto Shore Road toward Sven's Bluff.
Traveling along Shore Road, I made the turn to Skyline Road, which climbs upward to Sven's Bluff. I pulled into Sven's Bluff Overlook as the rain tapered off for a few minutes. Though the views over the lake were misty and gray, the views of Green Bay and the coastline were pretty spectacular.
Situated atop part of a Niagara Escarpment Bluff, there are multiple hiking trails in the park that meet up with Sven's Bluff. Whether you're driving through, biking, or hiking in Peninsula State Park, you'll want to put this stop on your list.
Leaving Sven's Bluff, I once again drove along Skyline Road until it reconnected with Shore Road. It was along Shore Road that I arrived at my last park destination - Eagle Tower.
This 60-foot high tower on the peninsula's northeast shore, features an observation deck at the top with inspiring views of the park, the surrounding islands, the upper Michigan shoreline, and the village of Ephraim.
If the idea of climbing the 100 steps from bottom to top leaves you breathless, there is a more accessible, and incredibly scenic option. Take the 850-foot fully accessible boardwalk ramp from bottom to top. The angle of the ascending slope is never more than 5%, and makes it passable for wheelchairs, strollers, walkers, and hikers alike. There are level landings and benches for resting, and photo ops, along the way as well.
I was intrigued by the ramp for two reasons: I have difficult knees, and the view as you climb the ramp is like walking among the treetops. Not something you get to do everyday.
It was still raining as I walked up the ramp, and the winds had picked up. Wind gusts of up to 50mph were expected. Once or twice I grabbed the railing when the wind gust caught me by surprise, but it was more thrilling than dangerous. Though someone on the tower did lose a hat! The panoramic views promised, though, were absolutely worth it!
The tower is open seasonally from May 1 to October 31. However, from November 1 through April 30 it may be open, weather permitting.
I was there on November 5. It was passable in the rain, not sure I would be brave enough to try the climb over ice or snow. But if weather permits, it's worth the climb. Whichever climb you prefer.
I left Peninsula State Park wet, windblown, and feeling good. Despite the inclement weather, I had still managed to experience these fantastic destinations, and was fully impressed by the surrounding natural beauty of the park. And I was not alone. Rain was not keeping everyone away.
There were many folks out there enjoying the park, even in the cold, gusty rain. I guess that shouldn't surprise me, this is Wisconsin after all.
I left Peninsula State Park and headed back south towards Fish Creek to do a little shopping. It drizzled for a while as I made my way through a few shops in town, picking up a few souvenir gifts along the way. Beach People Fish Creek was my best find.
And just as I arrived back at my car to head towards my final Door County destination, the sun came out. I checked the weather station on my phone. It was predicted to rain in an hour. Just in time for me to arrive at Cave Point County Park.
In a way, I had saved the best for last. Or at least the most dramatic for last. Cave Point County Park is a must-see on just about any Door County list I read while researching for my trip. And it did not disappoint. I arrived late in the afternoon, without much daylight left, and the gift of sunshine that popped out when I was leaving Fish Creek was fading. Ominous gray clouds were moving in fast as I pulled into the parking lot. The winds had picked up, and suddenly it was raining again. Though more of a drizzle to start. It was getting much colder, too.
But I, along with a growing group of other travelers, had arrived just in time for Lake Michigan's show. The winds were picking up quickly, gusting. Maybe close to that 50mph winds predicted. Cave Point, like the other parks and shorelines in Door County, is part of the Niagara Escarpment. The cliffs and ledges at the park not just scenic, but jutting, big, sturdy, and ancient.
I moved towards the ledges, and the sound was loud. Waves racing towards the cliffs and crags, busting up against the rock and splashing well over the top of 20-foot cliffs, spraying anyone standing nearby. Between the mist, the rain, the wind, and the spray of the waves, it was nearly impossible not to get wet. Which did not seem to bother anyone one bit. There was a lot of gleeful shouting, and plenty of laughter. And plenty of picture-taking as well.
There is a short walking trail near this part of the park, but the excitement was on the cliffs, and it was turning dark. I stopped to use the facilities before heading out. Exiting the restroom the crowds had already gone. The park was dark, and the waves were still loud. I was tempted to head back towards the cliffs. I was exhilarated by the whole experience. But common sense won out. I was alone. And, it was time to head home.
But I would be back. 🍂
Autumn melancholy is setting in. The brilliant colors on the top photo, from just two weeks ago. On the bottom, just today. It happens so fast. I've tried hard not to miss it. The changing colors, the birdbaths full of robins and waxwings on their way further south. I am going to miss them so.
The changing of the seasons constantly reminds us to enjoy the now the best we can. Life is fleeting. Moments are upon us, then gone.
Commit to memory the warmth of the sun on your face through the car window. The sound of the breeze rustling through the trees. The timbre of your loved ones voice saying good morning, or good night.
Touch the flowers in the garden that have yet to fade, and know that when they do, that they will come again. But you will miss them.
Adore the smell of autumn. Thank goodness it lingers long after the leaves have fallen. Like the scent of someone you miss long gone.
Yes, a little melancholy, at the prospect of letting go. But ever forward we go. Nature shows us the way. A constant reminder to keep focus, but be ready for the unexpected. The good, the bad, the in-between.
It's right there in the name. Nature. Natural. What has gone will come again. Life. Death. Rebirth.
Fall. Winter. Spring. Summer. Repeat.🍁❄️🌷☀️
It could be that every fall is like this. Passionate in its color palette, seductive and comforting at the same time. Maybe I just haven't paid enough attention in years past. Or been in the right place at the right time. But I'm of the mind that this fall, at least here in Wisconsin, has been especially colorful. Everything seems to be a little later, too. Two weeks, maybe? I don't know. I just know how it seems to me.
Most days I start out with a list of things I should be doing. But then, autumn calls, and I find myself out leaf peeping, looking for some serious fall drama. And, boy, have I been finding it.
In the past few weeks I have roamed through several of our local parks, oohing and aahing along the way. I've even been to a few spots more than once, and been amazed at the changes just a day or two (and a few cool nights) can make.
Early in October, we took a short drive to Fond du Lac to visit Hobbs Woods. The trees in the preserve had already begun to transform into the colors of the season: vibrant reds, oranges, and golds lining the trails, and floating along in Parsons Creek.
As if the beauty of the trails and surrounding nature area weren't enchanting enough, we were joined on our hike by a local black cat. You can read about our guest hiking guide in my post An Unexpected Companion.
There are approximately 3 miles of trails winding through this 60-acre park and nature area. The outer trails are mostly easy-going, the inner trails that follow along the edges of Parsons Creek are a little trickier. Good hiking shoes recommended.
You'll find the quiet and the beauty worth the effort.
Always lovely, but especially stunning in fall, Malone Park, in New Berlin, was decked out in all the colors of the season. Leaves crunching under foot along the trail, chipmunks and squirrels busy collecting nuts for their winter stash.
The creek running through the park was mostly dry, collecting fallen leaves of orange, red, and gold instead of rain. If you're looking for a scenic autumn walk, Malone Park is an excellent choice.
Have you been to Schoen Laufen Park in Germantown, yet? If not, now is a spectacular time to go. Although it's not a large park, it is the perfect size to wander the easy trails and do some leaf peeping.
I took a friend along on a recent walk there, and we were both in awe of the tall trees and the colors bursting forth. Enjoy the peaceful views on your own, or take a friend along. Either way, it's worth it.
Let yourself be charmed by the scenic views at Kinsey Park in Brookfield. This unassuming, pleasant, neighborhood park, has a hidden secret. The woodland trails just beyond the children's playground are fast becoming one of my favorite go-to spots for a quick afternoon nature walk.
I've been there twice this fall, and the most recent visit was just golden! As evidenced by the title collage of this blog post, the forest is aglow. Need some fall color? You should go.
Every time I visit Jackson Park, I think I should come here more often. I'm glad I made it back for some seasonal color this October. Jackson Park is gorgeous adorned in autumn tones.
The trails throughout the park, and around the lagoon, are scenic. Perfect for relaxing on a park bench, or having a picnic on a sunny autumn afternoon. Walking through part of the Forked Aster Trail adds a bit of wilderness as well. It's clear why Jackson Park is a favorite among Milwaukeeans.
If you're wanting to wander through a forest, there's no place like home. Follow the yellow-leafed trail and find yourself immersed in wooded bliss within the Forest Exploration Center, in Wauwatosa.
This forest in the city is a destination in every season, but in fall, well, the magic falls from the trees. We went this weekend, and the golden splendor was everywhere.
We took a seat on one of the wooden park benches to rest for a moment, and to watch as the leaves danced their way down on the breeze, sounding a bit like softly falling rain.
There's definitely a cozy, magical vibe here. You're gonna love it.
Recently, a friend and I went to an art fair of sorts in Washington County. On the way there we passed Lizard Mound State Park. Since it was such a beautiful day, we decided to stop there on the way back home. I'm so glad we did!
Driving into the park, I had to gasp in wonder! The canopy of trees surrounding the parking lot was draped in gold! Vibrant and plentiful, the leaves were everywhere. On the trees, on the grass, on the parking lot pavement.
We took a walk through the wooded trail, past some of the sacred effigy mounds. Simply stunning. Something about the fallen leaves seemed to accent the Native-American burial mounds so beautifully. They seemed to define the shapes even more within the natural landscape.
Such a peaceful and sacred space. How lucky that we stopped, and were able to enjoy it. I was so enamored, I went back again the next day.
Please don't go. Stay, a little longer. Charm me, once more, with your bold and warm wardrobe of falling leaves. Your reds, and oranges, and golds. With the musky scent of you. With the sound of your voice blowing in the cool night breeze, and crisply rising from beneath my walking feet. With the distant call of migrating birds passing overhead beneath dark skies.
Keep me company while the days grow shorter. Temper the melancholy as I find a sunny spot to watch you fall, while I sip something warm. Put your branches around me as I mourn the fading of the flowers in my garden. Show me, kindly, how time marches on, beauty by its side. Teach me to find comfort in the brevity of your days, even though I want to hold on.
Sweet Autumn, I am grateful for our time together. I savor the moments of beauty spent walking the woodland trails, and your companionship creek side, as the waters flow, artfully clothed in your fallen bits and baubles.
I don't want you to go. I need more time. There's so much more about you I want to know. I want to see. I want to breathe. I want to feel. But I know it's not for us to say. Time marches on. And so do you. But I will be here waiting for you, come next September. And the next...🍁
A traveler, singer, novice photographer, humane gardener, and nature lover.
I've been keeping closer to home these days, and truly discovering the beauty that lies in The Park Next Door.