Science has spoken: A walk in nature is good for kids and adults alike. And, learning about our state’s plants, animals and insects in real time can be more instructive (and interesting!) to children than reading about them in a book. Check out these seven Wisconsin hiking destinations the whole crew can tag along on.
Ferry Bluff, Sauk City
Named for a former river ferry crossing, this towering bluff is home to eagles in winter. In summer the 300-foot exposed sandstone cliff is a popular lookout. It’s a steeper climb than the others listed here, but the short 0.3-mile trail is crushed rock with some timber steps and mostly shaded until the top. The reward for your efforts is a bird’s-eye view of an undeveloped portion of the Wisconsin River Valley and its sandbars, as well as an eye- level look at vultures riding the thermal updrafts.
Harrington Beach, Belgium
An oft-overlooked escape north of Milwaukee, this state park features an easy trail around an old Quarry Lake, with a few interpretive signs marking the ruins of a former mining community that was once here. The trail is shaded and the breeze off Lake Michigan tempers the heat on a summer day. A mile of sandy beach on the big lake is great for a picnic. Throughout the summer the Northern Cross Science Foundation hosts several astronomy evenings at the on-site observatory as well.
Horicon Marsh, Horicon
Split between state and federal management, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States offers boardwalks, level trails and lookouts from which you can spot the abundant resident and seasonal birds. Waterfowl are a guarantee and blue herons nest here in summer. The state portion features the Explorium, an interpretive center with hands-on displays. The federal side has its own interpretive center, and the floating boardwalk through the cattails shouldn’t be missed.
Lapheam Peak, Delafield
This unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest offers miles of trails of varying length and difficulty. The 1.8-mile Plantation Path is an accessible, paved interpretive trail through prairie and wooded areas. Cut-off trails can shorten the loop for shorter legs. Nearby is also a butterfly garden, a great place to linger amid wildflowers and watch the winged residents flutter about. The park’s central 45-foot observation tower provides a sweeping view from the highest point in the county.
New Glarus Woods, New Glarus
From trails of 0.4 and 0.8 miles to the full 4.2 Havenridge Trail (pick up the trail guidebook at the park entrance or office), this state park is the king of interpretive hikes. In addition to being part of the Wisconsin Explorers program, the park loans Discovery Backpacks to families hitting the trails. Topics include trees, bugs, birds and raptors, and each pack provides activities, materials, equipment and more for children of all ages. After the hike, stop off in New Glarus for ice cream and fudge at Maple Leaf Cheese & Chocolate Haus.
Pike Lake, Hartford
The Astronomy Trail in this unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest provides interpretive signs for the planets along its route through the forest. A separate 0.8-mile, self-guided nature trail starts from a parking lot at the park’s center. Add the observation tower atop Powder Hill, the swimming area on the lake, and a half-mile accessible boardwalk trail along the lakeshore, and you have the makings for a great family outing.
The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor
This nature preserve outside Door County is home to a simple system of level trails and boardwalks amid some unique terrain. Named for partly overgrown sand dunes that mark the historical changes of the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the Ridges Sanctuary is home to many birds, unusual plants and a rare species of dragonfly. Two range lighthouses stand on property, and one trail crosses the road to a small sandy beach on Lake Michigan. Guided hikes and admission are free for hikers under 18.
Known as the Wisconsin Explorer program, this state park challenge sets your child on a mission of games, crafts and scavenger hunts that revolve around nature and the outdoors. Kids earn patches as they complete each of the themed booklets, and booklets are grouped by age (ages 3-5, 6-8, and 9 and up). Pick them up at one of Wisconsin’s state parks, forests or recreation areas. You can also download the booklets at the DNR website (dnr.wi.gov; type “explorer” in the search bar).
Photo by Kevin Revolinski
This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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