By Mark Crawford
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
Wisconsin naturalist John Muir was the driving force behind the creation of the National Park Service, which turned 100 years old in 2016. Honor his accomplishments and trace his footsteps with a tour along the John Muir Nature and History Route.
Muir was 11 years old when he came to Wisconsin with his family in 1849 from Scotland. They built a home in Marquette County, in an area midway between Wisconsin Dells and Oshkosh. “We settled in a fine wild region, beside a small glacier lake [Ennis Lake] bordered with white pond-lilies,” wrote Muir. He immediately fell in love with the Wisconsin landscape, starting him on his path to becoming an eminent naturalist and conservationist.
Not only does Marquette County's route describe key Muir-related sites, it also shows what life was like during the early settlement days in Wisconsin. Here are some sites from the trail to get you started:
Merritts Landing – Endeavor
Today called Endeavor, this tiny village is located on the Fox River, where you can launch your boat from two access points and view plentiful wildlife, including eagles, woodpeckers, trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes. In Muir’s time, the river was plentiful with wild rice and white water lilies. “No flower was hailed with greater wonder and admiration by the European settlers,” wrote Muir.
The Muir family often came to town to purchase supplies. Today, several historic buildings still stand. Other town highlights are a Vietnam veterans memorial and several colorful murals in Lions Park, which hosts the community's popular summertime Broiler Fest.
John Muir County Park – Montello
The highlight of the park is Ennis Lake, where the Muir family settled from Scotland. Muir never forgot the beauty of this land and tried several times to purchase it. “Even if I should never see it again,” he wrote, “the beauty of its lilies and orchids is so pressed into my mind I shall always enjoy looking back at them in imagination.”
Lucky for you, today this 125-acre National Historical Landmark offers a boat launch, gorgeous picnicking spots and memorable hiking. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail passes through restored prairie, meadows and woodlands as it circles the lake on its way across the state.
Observatory Hill State Natural Area – Montello
This lofty rock outcropping is the highest point in Marquette County and was a favorite childhood spot of the young Muir, rising 300 feet above the surrounding countryside and providing a panoramic view to those who climb it.
The hill is underlain by rhyolite, an erosion-resistant igneous rock. Exposed parts of the rock, estimated at 1.76 billion old, still bear the scars of the glacier that crunched overhead about 12,000 years ago. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is restoring the hill, returning the vegetation to what it was like back in Muir’s day.
John Muir helped construct the tamarack log road leading to this Presbyterian church built in 1865, and his father was among its earliest guest preachers. Stop by the church for a look at a preserved section of the road.
Just south of the church is the French Creek North State Natural Area, a large, notably preserved wetland that harbors the rare Bell's vireo songbird, Blanding’s turtle and the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly.
Back in Muir’s time, the Neshkoro area was bustling with grain and lumber mills, where the Muir family purchased lumber and shingles. Some of these mills have been restored and still stand today.
The town is known for its historic charm and the murals painted on the walls of some of its buildings. The tranquil Neshkoro Community Trail system winds through stands of hardwoods and red pines in Stan-O-Gene Park.
Refuel from your day of touring back in Montello with a meal at Mike & Cathy's Good Old Days or Charlotte's Cafe.
These are just some of the nearly two dozen sites on the route that filled John Muir with curiosity and wonder. Plan a visit to Marquette County to learn more about this famous conservationist and the part of Wisconsin that he called home, or check out the Wisconsin Historical Society's traveling exhibit and reading program on Muir.
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