By Amy Bayer
Dane County is a unique blend of urban and rural. Home to our state’s capital city and largest university, residents are strong advocates for conservation efforts to protect the area's natural resources.
Madison alone has more than 50 major city parks, while the outlying communities have 30-plus county parks, 14 natural resource areas, six wildlife areas, four state parks/recreation areas and one county forest. There are multiple bike trails, lakes, dog parks, conservancies, public gardens and hiking paths, including several sections of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, as well as the trail’s headquarters in Cross Plains.
After exploring one of these natural wonders, you’ll want to keep going until you’ve seen them all. Here’s a list of seven scenic natural wonders to start your adventure.
This park is one of Dane County’s largest and is an outdoor adventurer’s delight, with hiking and cross-country ski trails, sledding hills, a great lake for fishing and paddling, and a segment of the Ice Age Trail. The park is hilly and wooded and offers a wide variety of terrain for outdoor activities.
A winding trail leads to a historic chapel built in 1857, located on a hilltop that provides a breathtaking view of the lake and surrounding valley. The park also has a pet exercise area located adjacent to the small boat launch at the entrance on the west side of the lake.
The diverse landscape on this 160-acre site provides a majestic hill with a panoramic view of the capitol building, the downtown Madison skyline and Lake Mendota. Below the hill to the south are the Pheasant Branch Creek wetlands and several springs that provide fresh water for Lake Mendota.
From open fields to wooded hills, there are so many opportunities for hiking, biking, and bird watching in this natural setting that it’s hard to believe the property is bordered on three sides by the city of Middleton.
Donald Park, located just outside Mount Vernon, encompasses 480 acres containing oak woods and rock outcroppings with scenic overlooks and springs.
The park is known for its trout streams – Deer Creek, Frye Feeder, and Mount Vernon Creek. Hiking and equestrian trails weave through the landscape and provide a natural setting while there are benches and picnic tables available to relax and enjoy the abundant wildlife.
This wildlife area offers more than 2,200 acres of grassland, marsh, meadow, bog and forest. Because its unique landscape is home to drumlins created by the receding glaciers, a part of the property has been designated as the Goose Lake Drumlins State Natural Area.
The entire property is a productive wildlife habitat, and is home to ducks, pheasants, deer, otter, mink, turkey and sandhill cranes. While there are no designated trails, the open fields and woods make for beautiful surroundings to view wildlife and for seasonal hunting.
Following a segment of the Koshkonong Creek, this 422-acre county park is located between the villages of Cambridge and Rockdale. There are three separate multi-use areas within the park with access to hiking trails (including the 2.4-mile Cam Rock Trail), a single-track mountain bike trail and cross-country ski trails. The area around Shelter No. 3 offers a beautiful vista of the surrounding valley.
6. UW Arboretum
Right in the heart of downtown Madison, the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum offers a unique reprieve from the urban atmosphere and includes the oldest and most varied collection of restored ecological communities in the world. Among the tall grass prairies, savannas, wetlands and numerous forest types, the arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection.
The property comprises of more than 20 miles of trails and boardwalks open to the public for hiking, as well as a series of trails available in the winter for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Located within the city limits of Mount Horeb, Stewart Lake County Park was established in the 1930s, making it the very first Dane County Park.
Visitors take a switchback road down into a valley which is home to the glassy-smooth Stewart Lake. The lake draws paddling and fishing enthusiasts, and the wooded park itself attracts cross-country skiers, hikers, and has a public beach.
Check out these seven statewide natural wonders, and keep an eye on TravelWisconsin.com as we roll out more articles on scenic wonders by county.