Wisconsin is home to many natural wonders, from waterfalls and river bluffs to islands with ancient sea caves. But there’s one extraordinary oasis that you may not have heard of that’s located in the southeast part of the state—Horicon Marsh and National Wildlife Refuge.
Named for the Algonquin word meaning land of clean, pure water, the peaceful landscape of Horicon Marsh serves as a stunning backdrop for making memories with your favorite people. Just over an hour by car from both Madison and Milwaukee, it’s the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States and offers an unforgettable experience for nature enthusiasts, photographers, birdwatchers, families and anyone looking to spend time in a serene and captivating landscape.
Read on to discover five reasons why Horicon Marsh is a must-stop on your next Wisconsin getaway.
1. Horicon Marsh is A One-of-A-Kind Ecological Wonder
Horicon Marsh stands out as both a special destination in Wisconsin as well as the U.S. and the world. The United Nations has recognized it was a Wetland of International Importance for its essential role as a thriving ecosystem for wildlife and plants while many other wetlands are being destroyed.
Divided into a national wildlife refuge to the north and a state-managed wildlife area to the south, both sections offer different types of trails, visitor centers and more. And both sections play a unique part in the migration of many kinds of birds, making it a true birdwatcher’s paradise. Visit yourself and you’re sure to spot some of the more than 300 species—from majestic great blue herons and graceful sandhill cranes to rare warblers and waterfowl in their natural habitats.
Plan your trip in May to be a part of the annual Horicon Bird Festival, where birders of all experience levels are invited to join guided hikes, photography classes, paddling tours, live bird demonstrations, family activities and much more.
2. You Can Enjoy A Picturesque Part of Wisconsin's History
The 32,000 acres of calm open water, cattail marsh and forested islands that make up Horicon Marsh were, like much of Wisconsin’s landscape, carved out by glaciers in the last ice age. Since then, it has been a haven for an abundant variety of fish, birds and other wildlife species who thrive in wetland habitats.
The marsh also has a long history of human inhabitants—evidence has been found of Nomadic hunters arriving here as early as 12,000 years ago. They were succeeded by other prehistoric Native American cultures, including Mound Builders that constructed mounds that can still be seen today in areas around the marsh. Sadly, many of the mounds were destroyed in the late 1800s when settlers attempted to turn the marsh into useable farmland. These efforts soon failed and nearby communities made great efforts to restore the marsh to the flourishing environment it is today.
You and your group can get a glimpse of preserved mounds at nearby Nitschke Mounds Park that has 39 animal effigy, conical and linear mounds believed to have been constructed around 800AD - 1100AD.
Immerse yourself in even more fascinating history of the marsh in the Explorium at the Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center through interactive exhibits that are fun for all ages. Kids will love winding through a realistic glacial cave, taking photos with giant animal sculptures and taking a simulated boat ride through the marsh. And be sure to say hello to Marshall the snapping turtle who lives in a tank in the kids’ activity room!
3. There Are Endless Ways to Enjoy the Marsh Together
Whether you’re planning an outdoor adventure with friends or a picnic with the family, Horicon Marsh will provide the perfect scenery for an unforgettable outing. The Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center serves as an excellent starting point, providing maps and knowledgeable staff to help you plan your perfect adventure. Be sure to also get a photo with Curly the magnificent wooly mammoth sculpture that weights 3.5 tons and stands outside the Visitor Center.
Journey out to explore hiking trails that wind across forested islands and across a floating boardwalk as you take in the sights and sounds of a flourishing habitat. Bring bikes along for a refreshing cruise with your crew. In the winter, the marsh offers a peaceful landscape for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
One of the best ways to experience Horicon Marsh is from the water. Blue Heron Landing in the town of Horicon offers multiple kinds of boat tours including birdwatcher and sunset tours that make for magical experiences with your favorite people. You can also rent kayaks and canoes here to steer your own adventure—with an optional shuttle service to pick you up down the river.
4. Come for an Event, Stay for the Scenery
Each season brings with it new and exciting events at Horicon Marsh that make for one-of-a-kind outings with friends and family. From guided night hikes focused on sounds of the marsh and wild edibles classes for foragers to learning the ancient practice of cattail weaving and other art courses inspired by the beauty of the landscape, attending these events offers deeper ways of learning about the unique environment while sharing special moments with your favorite people.
5. There's Even More Fun to Have Outside the Marsh
In between your adventures in Horicon Marsh, there are many delightful spots nearby to discover with your group.
Just to the east in Mayville, stop in at Open Door Coffeehouse—a café that offers more than meets the eye. In addition to serving delicious drinks, this nonprofit offers free programs for the community with the mission of supporting families, so with every sip you’re supporting something good.
For an overnight trip, the newly renovated Audubon Inn combines historic charm with boutique accommodations that will ensure your stay is a special one. Lounge in the Beaumont Bar and enjoy easy access to downtown Mayville and close proximity to the marsh for the ultimate getaway.
Learn more about birding hotspots in Wisconsin—don't forget the binoculars!