A Beginner’s Guide to Wild Berry Picking in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region
The kids were a little puzzled when we decided to make berry-picking a summer family pursuit. Like many of us, they’d become accustomed to finding fruit carefully wrapped, priced, and labeled “fresh” at the local supermarket. We thought it was time to show them what fresh really means.
Looking out the car window at the green and lovely landscape of the Driftless Area in Wisconsin’s southwest corner, our son Brian furrowed his 10-year-old brow and said, “We’re picking berries out there? How do we find them?”
It seemed like a fair question. The rolling, wooded countryside of the Kickapoo Valley stretched out all around us like a green carpet holding unknown delights. But where, exactly, to find the luscious, sweet, and juicy fruit the area is known for?
The region gets the name ‘Driftless’ from the fact that it was the only area not flattened in the last glacial period, and so lacks the moraines and kettle lakes left elsewhere by the retreating ice sheets.
The resulting landscape of steep valleys cut through limestone, caves, sinkholes, cold streams and forests makes the region a favorite of outdoor sports enthusiasts of all kinds. But it also made us wonder if the best berry picking areas were tucked into hard-to-find nooks and byways. We needn’t have worried.
It does help that berry picking is so productive in the area that word gets out – not everyone keeps their honey-holes a secret. And a bit of searching, online and on foot, can put you right in the middle of glens thick with several varieties of wild blueberries, red and black raspberries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, tart cranberries and surprisingly sweet strawberries.
Scheidegger Forest - Verona
We found one such harvest haven in Dane County’s Scheidegger Forest, just southwest of the state capital of Madison. In fact, we had barely started our hike when Cecilia, our 12-year-old, gave a cry of triumph.
“They’re right here!” she said, wading into a thicket of blackberries in the transitional area where an open glen gave way to the woods. We filled several containers, leaving some for the birds, of course, finding that blackberries differ from the very similar black raspberries in being a bit harder to pluck off the vine.
Bures Berry Patch - Barneveld
Picking was a little easier at Bures Berry Patch, outside of Barneveld, one of any number of private you-pick patches scattered around the Driftless Area. “The berries pop right off,” Brian exclaimed, with a gentle tug on a plump, red berry still glistening with morning dew.
Like many such operations, care for the environment is paramount, and pickable treats aren’t limited to raspberries. Strawberries, sweet corn, asparagus, pumpkins and even rhubarb are also on hand seasonally.
Yellowstone Lake State Park - Blanchardville
Yellowstone Lake State Park put us back on the public lands berry-picking route. We found the transition areas between woodland and open wetland along the Wildlife Loop to be full of raspberries, blackberries and mulberries and several hikes throughout the park yielded a juicy harvest and purple sticky fingers whenever we paused to look for berries.
“They’re all around us,” Cecilia exclaimed.
“They are,” Brian added, a bit less enthusiastically as he worked to unhitch himself from a particularly grabby thorn. “Good thing I wore long pants and a long-sleeve shirt,” he said. We had learned that lesson from a few prickly early outings.
Pine River Trail - Richland Center
A bit farther west, we found the Pine River Trail south of the town of Richland Center. The 14-mile trail was a bit long for the kids to tackle all at once, so we explored it in different stages, timed, of course, to the ripening of wild berries.
Seasons of Berry Picking
Strawberry picking in Wisconsin is a great activity as spring begins to gather momentum, as succulent wild strawberries come on from mid-May. Trailside blackberries are reliable July and August treats – but we found a few early risers in late June. Raspberries were easy to find all the way from July to late September.
Our berry-picking season found us still out in October, in search of the delicious frost grape, common in Wisconsin. The kids shivered a bit, but by midday the sweaters came off and we located a patch of vines warming in the sun. It was perfect timing: frost grapes get their name from the fact that the first frost of the season that transforms their earlier tart taste – suitable for jellies, jams and wine – to just the right amount of sweetness for eating right off the vine.
That suited the kids just fine. After a summer spent searching for the Driftless Area's best berries, Brian finally answered his own question about where to find them. “It’s easy,” he said. “They’re everywhere!”
Explore more places in Wisconsin to pick-your-own berries, apples and more.