It's hard to believe it's been 3.5 years since The Park Next Door went live. I was gathering photos long before that time, but the leap to the world wide web was an exciting event for me. Over the past few years we have traveled countless miles, on the road, and on foot. Averaging 2-3 hikes per week, often more. I'm always on the lookout for bits of nature I haven't seen before. Semi-secret spaces hidden within local surroundings. And I am still, after all this time, amazed at the beauty that surrounds us here in Wisconsin. I love returning to these spaces in each different season, to see how they change and evolve. Quiet and cold. Bloom and fade. Sunny and gray.
This week we crossed the 100 location/listing mark. In fact, we're now past 100! Over 100 places to commune with nature. Parks and preserves, botanical gardens, sculpture gardens, neighborhood parks, beautiful cemeteries, and animal sanctuaries. Adventure goes local, Wisconsin! I'd like to give a shout out of thanks to our readers, and to those of you who share with us your favorite nature spaces. Many of these have become favorite hikes.
There are many new places to explore on our ever-growing list. But today I'd like to share with you some of our absolute favorites so far. Go ahead, put them on your list.
Washington Park in Autumn
Washington Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed and supervised the creation of New York City's Central Park. Maybe it's the fact that I learned that prior to visiting the park, or maybe it just has that Central Park vibe. Last fall it definitely had that Central Park in Autumn feel. There's a kind of urban romance to it. I've been to Central Park once, but it wasn't in the fall. So, for now, Washington Park will have to do. And that's fine by me.
Stigler Nature Preserve in Winter
Stigler Preserve is located smack dab in the middle of a New Berlin industrial park. But it's a great, and nearby, escape from city hustle and bustle. In winter the trails are easy to follow, and a surprising number of American Robins over-winter here. If you're looking for an easy winter walk in nature, Stigler is a great fit.
Scuppernong Springs in Spring
Scuppernong Springs is one of my favorite hikes in the Southern Kettle Moraine. There are plenty of hills with expansive views of the landscape, lots of birds, and in the spring, when everything is waking up, it's just brilliant. Sunset views along the trail here are magnificent.
Wadewitz Nature Camp in Summer
While Wadewitz Nature Camp is beautiful all-year long, summer brings a vibrancy that's hard to beat. There are well plotted trails that traverse through woodlands and prairie, and the birding is terrific. In fact, that's the initial reason we first made the trek. I took one of my all-time favorite bird photos here - a gorgeous Cedar Waxwing. Since that day we've been back several times, in every season. It has yet to disappoint.
Three years ago I noticed several posts on Facebook about a Sunflower Festival taking place near Middleton, WI. I was intrigued. But by the time I remembered to look it up, I was too late. The festival had passed, and the sunflowers were beyond their peak. The following year I made a point to add the event to my calendar so I wouldn't miss it. It was definitely worth saving the date!
Pope Farm Conservancy is 105 acres that sit on top of three recessional moraines in the Town of Middleton, Wisconsin, where three different watersheds come together. In addition to six prairie restoration projects, a Native American garden, eight miles of walking trails, and numerous picnic areas, late summer brings Sunflower Days, with 9 acres of blooming sunflowers (roughly 500,000) beneath bright summer skies.
The conservancy is worth a visit any day - it's open daily, sunrise to sunset. But 9 acres of peak sunflower blooms are a sight to see. And, so, Sunflower Days is held each summer season during peak bloom.
People come from near and far to witness this sunflower show. Birds come for the seeds. Last year I saw several Indigo Buntings darting in and out of the fields. Many different grassland birds frequent the conservancy as well.
This year peak bloom is anticipated for mid-August. Sunflower Days will be held from August 12-20. The event is free, but plan ahead - read up on the event, rules, parking details and more at the Pope Conservancy website. You're also encouraged to visit their Facebook page for updates as the event gets closer.
Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the view, wear your hiking shoes and tackle the trails, or just come for the sensational sight of 500,000 sunflowers in bloom. But bring your camera. You're gonna wanna get a picture of this.
Sometimes you just want to see a waterfall. And, maybe not have to drive 3 hours from Milwaukee to see one. Believe it or not, there are waterfalls in the Milwaukee area, and some within an hour of the city as well. They might not be the biggest waterfalls; sometimes, quite honestly, little more than a trickle. But if you're really hankerin' for a waterfall view, check out these local sites.
Wehr Nature Center
No visit to Wehr Nature Center seems complete without visiting its waterfall. Located within Whitnall Park, it's nearby, has over five miles of trails linking the Center with Woodland, Wetland, Prairie, Oak Savanna and Lake. There are birds, turtles, ducks, fish, deer, and more to be seen along the trails. Trails are well maintained, and everyone at the Center itself is very helpful. A hot day spent by the cool waterfall is a day well spent. For more information, visit http://www.friendsofwehr.org/
Located along the parkway going through Whitnall Park, adjacent to Boerner Botanical Gardens, are two small waterfalls. One stems from a small pond (frequented by ducks and geese), the other is across the street from the same spot. Not as dramatic as the falls at Wehr Nature Center, but scenic and peaceful just the same. This area is a birding hotspot, so keep your eyes and ears alert. Lots of birds visit this area during spring and fall migration, and several nest here as well. For a map of the park, click here.
Sauk Creek Nature Preserve
I just discovered Sauk Creek Preserve last summer. Just outside of Port Washington, less than an hour from Milwaukee - once on the entrance path, you hear the rushing waterfall. There's a bridge over the creek with a great view of the waterfall, and trails before and after the bridge that lead to the waterfall and the creek. Woodland and prairie trails draw you in, and wildlife is abundant. The day I was there I saw several Indigo Buntings, a hummingbird, and several other songbirds. Dragonflies, deer, and wildlflowers abound as well. For more information, click here.
Even those familiar with Greenfield Park, in West Allis, are often surprised to find out that there is a waterfall there. I'd been hiking the trails there for years before I discovered it. The waterfall isn't big, but it is scenic. And hidden from the road through the park. So you'll need to look for it. It's on the north side of the street, across from the east part of the lagoon. The waterfall flows into the small lagoon on the north side of the street. In the past year or so the parks department has cleared away some of the trees and debris surrounding the waterfall, so it's easier to get to. The water flow is often heavier after a good rain. There are some nice hiking trails just to the west of the waterfall, too. For a map of Greenfield Park, click here.
It took me a lifetime to realize what I'd been longing for. As a child, a young adult, and a grown woman, I longed for something. I can remember stepping outside at night, on some warm, breezy, summer evening, and feeling a longing, a sadness even, stirring inside me. In my teenage years I thought I was yearning for love. Teenage angst and all. But now, decades later, I realize that what I have been yearning for all along has been a connection to nature. Near as my backyard, a neighborhood park, the local nature preserve, the view from a Lake Michigan pier, the sound of a Robin singing at dawn, and again at dusk.
Waxing nostalgic, I recall childhood days spent at my grandparents cabin near Amery, Wisconsin. We would fish from the dock or go out in the fishing boat with my dad. We'd swim in the lake, or go for a walk down the dirt road and wander in the woods. We slept on the enclosed front porch of the cabin and would wake to a view of the lake. To the sounds of American Robins singing in the trees. That glorious early morning wake up song. To this day the song of a Robin is an all-time favorite. No matter where I am, in the city or in the woods, the Robin sings and I listen.
This is not to say that I have ignored nature until now. On the contrary, I have traveled to many parts of the United States and marveled at the glorious landscapes. The mountains, deserts, rivers, streams, woodlands and swamps. I have camped in the mountains of New Mexico, and hiked in the Badlands of South Dakota. Reveling in the beauty of these places. But still, the longing.
I fell in love. Got married. Still the longing. We have pet birds. Many of them. It makes it a challenge to travel far from home. We started backyard birding. I was amazed at how many different wild birds show up in our urban backyard. Amazing. I wanted more. I discovered that our local city parks have birds. All different kinds of them. During migration season even more. More amazement. The exploring began in earnest, every weekend, and any day off, different parks and preserves, in search of birds.
But then, some days, you don't see many birds. And I began to notice other things. The color of the leaves on the trees. The different shades of blue in the sky. The sound of a river flowing. The buzz of a bumblebee on a flower, the vibrant colors of flowers in bloom, or the textures and shades of decaying plants and leaves in the autumn and winter. I began to notice that each season had more beauty than I'd realized before. It's not that I was blind. I just didn't get it. My perspective changed. My view through the lens changed. And the longing was finally identified.
I didn't have to travel across country to appreciate nature. To connect with nature. Nature's beauty is right here. It doesn't mean I won't travel. That there aren't other places I want to see. Adventures to seek. But I've learned an important lesson. Like Dorothy, I needed to go home again. The power had been with me all along. I traded ruby slippers for well worn hiking shoes, opened my eyes, and took a deep breath of the Wisconsin around me. There's no place like home.
Not every park or preserve is blessed with miles of hiking trails or sandy beaches. But every bit of green space is beautiful and bountiful in its own way. There are times when I want a varied adventure in my day trips. Or maybe I don't have a full day to spend. These are the days I double up on smaller preserves and parks. I look for two parks within a defined location, and get outside and explore. Here are a few of my favorite combos.
Trinity Creek Wetland Habitat and Grasslyn Nature Preserve
Trinity Creek and Grasslyn are two of my most recent discoveries. Just minutes from each other in Mequon, they are not large in stature, but they both have plenty to offer. I would start with Trinity Creek, as there's a bit more area to cover, and finish with a stroll through Grasslyn, and a bit of relaxation and contemplation on one of the benches along the trail. These are two "Treasures of OZ", and it's easy to see why.
Lulu Lake Preserve and Crooked Creek Preserve
Lulu Lake and Crooked Creek are within minutes of each other in the East Troy area. Both preserves are managed by The Nature Conservancy. Of the two, Lulu Lake is the easiest hike. So, I would start there, then move on to Crooked Creek. Both are great spots for bird watching. Crooked Creek can be muddy after a rain, but the trails are nicely marked, and the hills are a good workout. Both offer respite from a busy world.
Mauthe Lake State Recreation Area and Spruce Lake Bog
Mauthe Lake is perfect for a weekend getaway. Just over an hour from Milwaukee, you can immerse yourself in nature - hiking trails, beach, picnics, and camping. If you're spending time at Mauthe Lake, carve out an hour for a trip over to Spruce Lake Bog. It's a nice easy boardwalk trail bathed in green. Wildflowers, ferns, the sound of birds. About 15 minutes from Mauthe Lake, it's an easy side trip. And worth the effort.
Glacier Hills County Park and Bobrowitz Sculpture Garden
Bordering Friess Lake, Glacier Hills County Park encompass 140 acres of glacial formations, forest, wetlands, hiking trails, and a beach for swimming. A perfect place for a summer picnic, and a day of hiking, bird watching, and swimming. When you're done here, take a short drive to Bobrowitz Sculpture Garden for something a little different. Works of art displayed in a nature setting. This outdoor art gallery (all art created by Paul Bobrowitz) is brimming with creativity and whimsy (and all pieces are for sale). A visit to the sculpture garden is free, but donations are accepted.
I don't know about you, but when it comes to spending time out in nature in Wisconsin, I have a hard time deciding where to go. There are so many beautiful spaces in our corner of the state, it is so hard to choose just one. That's part of the reason I began The Park Next Door three years ago. And one of the things that drives my husband crazy. "Where are you taking me this weekend?" He often asks. And I tell him one or two places I'm considering, only to change my mind another two or three times before we head out the door. I've actually changed my mind while already in the car. Turn right or left? North or south? Oh, for pete's sake!
So, in an effort to make it easier for you to decide, following is a list of five places to consider for an outdoor Southeastern Wisconsin adventure this weekend.
Location: 4513 W. Bonniwell Road, Mequon, WI
These 155 acres of preserve were formerly owned by the order Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother. Purchased by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust in 2015, the preserve is fast becoming a local treasure. The Sisters' retreat cabin is still on the property, but not open to the public. The preserve has a one-half mile tributary that flows to the Milwaukee River, upland hardwood forest, lowland hardwood forest with ephemeral ponds cattail marsh, fresh (wet) meadow, and a small, restored grassland. There is space for a picnic, and an abundance of bird life. Parking is in a small lot next to Bonniwell Road. You'll need to walk a short distance along the dirt road in to arrive at the preserve.
Location: Stringers Bridge Road, East Troy, WI
I'd start out with a hike along the Beulah Bog trail and boardwalk, then finish with a picnic on the scenic Beulah Bluff. Both are great spots for bird watching, and the views from the bluff overlooking Beulah Lake are stunning, and peaceful. The locations are about five minutes apart, by car.
Location: 4907 Carvers Rock Road, Clinton, WI
This Rock County park, along Spring Brook Creek, clocks in at 53 acres. But it packs a lot of beauty into 53 acres. The 1.5 mile trail is sometimes steep, but worth the climb. There are plenty of picnic spots available as well.
Location: 2405 Door Creek Road, Stoughton, WI
Just 90 minutes southwest of Milwaukee, Lake Kegonsa is a perfect spot to spend a summer weekend. With a beach for sunbathing and swimming, trails for hiking and birding, and a total of 96 camping sites available, Lake Kegonsa is the perfect fit for a weekend away, or an afternoon picnic.
Location: 1664 Friess Lake Road, Hubertus, WI
From rugged, hilly hiking trails, to picnics, to beach, Glacier Hills has it all. Just 30 miles northwest of Milwaukee, you'll find wooded trails, birdsong, and sport courts and playgrounds to keep the kids busy all day.
Tick-tock, the days are flying by, and the holidays are fast approaching. You need gift ideas, fast.
Do you have nature lovers, birders, or hikers on your gift list? Check out the list (and links) below, for some great, quick, and easy ideas.
The gift that lasts all year...
A Wisconsin State Park Sticker
A subscription to Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine
A National Park Sticker
Nature Center Memberships:
Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
Wehr Nature Center
Boerner Botanical Gardens
River Bend Nature Center
Nature Centers across the state
Gifts for Hikers:
Explorer's Guide - 50 Hikes in Wisconsin: Trekking the Trails of the Badger State
Best Easy Day Hikes - Milwaukee
Ice Age Trail Guidebook
Hiking Boots, Socks and Accessories at Stan's Fit For Your Feet
Yaktrax Traction Devices for winter footwear
Mile, Mile & a Half - DVD
Wild - DVD
Into the Wild - DVD
Gifts for Birders:
The Big Year - DVD
Birders: The Central Park Effect - DVD
A Birder's Guide to Everything - DVD
Birding Field Guides
Kingbird Highway - by Ken Kaufman
Zooburbia - by Tai Moses
The Urban Bestiary - by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Subirdia - by John M. Marzluff
Birdfeeders, seed, and supplies
Cameras and Outdoor Photography Workshops
Camera Monopods and Tripods
This summer I set out to find some new (to me) adventures in nature. My goal was to find them within 30-60 minutes of Milwaukee. Turns out it was an easy reach, as Wisconsin is blessed and abundant with the beauty of parks and trails across the state.
Stigler Nature Preserve
A traveler, singer, novice photographer, and nature lover. I've been keeping closer to home these days, and truly discovering the beauty that lies in The Park Next Door.