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7 Natural Wonders of Wisconsin
Last Updated: 3/7/2013
In a state known for its love of the good earth and clean waters, we thought it would be fun to come with a list of the Natural Wonders of Wisconsin. We could have made the list twice as long, but for some reason seven seemed like the perfect number. These “Mother Nature-made” wonders are the setting for some of the best outdoor recreation in the nation.
Calling to the explorer in all of us, this national park is a grouping or “archipelago” of 21 wilderness islands dotting the cold waters of Lake Superior and more than a dozen miles of shoreline with some of the most pristine remaining sandscapes in the Great Lakes region. National Geographic Explorer magazine named it a top place to visit. There are old-growth forests, windswept beaches and cliffs. There are sea caves to explore, carved out over thousands of years by the rhythmic waves. When the winter weather conditions are right you can hike out to the caves to behold frozen waterfalls and chambers glistening with thousands of icicles.
While beautiful from the shore, you must see them by boat or, even better, set foot on an island and camp at one of the 60-some rustic sites. Transportation options are varied – sea kayak, sailboat, power boat and excursion tour boat. A grand tour on the Apostle Island Cruise Service lasts about three and a half hours and you’ll see the islands and one of the best historic collections of lighthouses anywhere in the country. This area is also shrouded in the lore of vicious nor’easters and shipwrecks, making it a popular spot for scuba divers to explore the remains of the Sevona, Lucerne and Pretoria.
Often the backdrop for wedding couples to figuratively take the plunge, the 165-foot tall Big Manitou Falls in Pattison State Park near Superior is the fourth tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. Impressive stats to be sure. The water comes from the Black River meandering 22 miles southwest of the park on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. As it passes through Pattison, its first drop is actually 31 feet over Little Manitou Falls. Then it reaches the awe-inspiring Big Manitou Falls.
According to Pattison State Park superintendent Kerry Isensee, the best vantage point to see Big Manitou is from the south, where two overlooks provide heads-on views of the waterfall. He also mentioned you can get much closer to Little Manitou Falls for “a more personal experience.” There are more than eight miles of hiking trails and a mix of campsites in the park. There are naturalist-guided hikes through the year, which is a great way to get acquainted with the landscape here that takes you high and low.
Let’s start with credentials. Cave of the Mounds in Blue Mounds is designated a “National Natural Landmark,” yet it may be easier to remember it as the “jewel box” of America’s major caves, named as such for the delicacy of its formations. The main cave began forming more than a million years ago as acidic water dissolved the limestone bedrock. A lower portion of the cave was formed by rushing waters of an underground stream. Every drop of water entering the cave carries with it dissolved calcium carbonate, which leaves calcite crystals on the cave ceiling, walls and floor. It can take upwards of 150 years to deposit one cubic inch of these crystal formations.
The cave was accidently discovered in 1939 when workers removing limestone from a quarry blasted into rock, revealing this stupendous underground cavern with rooms, galleries and nooks and crannies. Today, more than 25,000 students visit the cave each year. Choose a hot summer day to visit – the cave has the same temperature every day of the year, a cool 50 degrees. General Manager Joe Klimczak noted that they’re still discovering more passageways. “The cave is still unveiling itself to us and we’re just a blip on the geologic timeline.”
Devil’s Lake State Park, not far from Wisconsin Dells, is the most visited state park in Wisconsin. Each year hundreds of thousands of visitors enjoy the 360-acre spring-fed lake, the 500-foot bluffs teetering over it and the 30 miles of trails that comprise the trifecta of this natural wonder.
Scientists believe the bluffs were formed 1.6 billion years ago, making them one of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America. Part of the Baraboo Range, this “ancient rock and roll” consists of hill ranges surrounding a canoe-shaped depression. The ranges are resplendent for their plum-colored quartzite, a metamorphic rock formed from sandstone put under great heat and pressure. It’s a strong, dependable rock for experienced rock climbers. Sue Johansen, the on-duty naturalist, suggests visitors make a point to hike the east bluff to see Balance Rock and Devil’s Doorway, two oddities created by Mother Nature.
If one Wisconsin lake is wonderful, then how would you describe 28 lakes, all interconnected no less? The Chain O’Lakes deep in the Northwoods of Wisconsin is the largest inland chain of lakes in the world. The depth of these lakes varies widely from one to the next, providing sufficient space for whatever floats your boat, be it water skiing, wakeboarding, pontoon cruising, canoeing, kayaking or fishing.
Now here’s a little secret on the Chain O’ Lakes: While the lakes themselves are 100% natural, it was the work of humans that connected all of them. Dams were built to dam up the Wisconsin and Eagle Rivers as a way to connect the lakes to serve the logging industry and generate electricity.
The Chain O’ Lakes crosses Vilas and Oneida counties and a number of the lakes border the Nicolet National Forest on the east shoreline of the chain, and this is wooded land that will never be developed. There are abundant boat landings along that shore for anglers hoping to catch bluegill, perch, northern and the granddaddy of all freshwater fish, the musky.
The locals call it “The Ledge,” the limestone cliff that runs through High Cliff State Park, situated on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin’s largest lake. Mind you, this is no ordinary limestone cliff. It’s the Niagara Escarpment, it’s a 440 million years old cliff that begins in Wisconsin and extends 1,000 miles to Niagara Falls. In fact, without the Escarpment there would be no Niagara Falls. In Wisconsin, this major land feature is rich with fossils, old native forestland, rare plant species, caves, waterfalls, bat hibernacula, and is a migratory stop for birds in the spring and fall. This rock corridor also has petroglyphs, pictographs and effigy mounds, clues to the state’s Native American past.
As you drive into the lower part of High Cliff State Park, you’ll have a clear view of the entire cliff. There are nine miles of hiking trails in the upper park, along with another nine for horseback riding. There’s also more than a mile of shoreline along the lake with sandy beach, marina and public launch. No trip to High Cliff is complete without scaling the Lookout Tower in the upper park where you can see 30 miles to the north, west and south.
Horicon Marsh has the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the nation. It’s located in southeast Wisconsin and is best known as a migratory stop for vast flocks of Canada geese. But it’s more than just geese. It’s home to more than 290 species of birds, including the largest nesting population of redhead ducks east of the Mississippi. It is here that you’ll also find the largest nesting rookery in Wisconsin for the great blue heron. The majority of the marsh is wetland ecosystem, a shallow, peat-filled lake bed scoured out of limestone by a massive glacier. But there are upland habitats too like prairie and woods, providing the needed diversity to support the many types of wildlife through the seasons.
Gear de rigueur for your visit to Horicon Marsh is a pair of binoculars to bring the wildlife closer to you without disturbing them. You can observe American white pelicans dive, Forester’s terns take flight, wild turkeys feed, and yellow-headed blackbirds call to each other. And be sure to get out on the marsh by boat, canoe or kayak. That’s the advice of Marc Zuelsdorf, whose family, starting with his father, has been conducting tours of Horicon Marsh for nearly 50 years at the Blue Heron Landing.