By Erika Jensen
A maple woods carpeted with trout-lily, the tangy smell of fresh earth, the rustling of earthworms slowly tilling the soil; a marsh-marigold standing out against the melting snow; a Jack-in-the-pulpit thrusting up through the earth, alone near a chocolate-dark tree stump—these are some of the visual treats Wisconsin hikers may find in spring.
The walks listed here unlock a secret garden of spring ephemerals, wildflowers that grow in the first warmth of spring, before the tree canopy leafs out and blocks their sun, and vanish in the undergrowth of the forest floor later in the season.
Across Wisconsin, in locations mostly unknown to the general public, some State Natural Areas harbor a profusion of spring wildflowers. At the 10 sites described here, hikers will often find themselves alone, which adds to the appeal of these spots. These SNAs are mostly undeveloped; while some have walking trails, many do not.
Spring hikes have definite advantages. There are few bugs, and less undergrowth to wade through.
When to go? A good rule of thumb is to look for spring ephemerals when bulbs start to bloom, generally late April through mid-May, and through mid-June farther north (exact times depend on weather).
Two things to remember: Before entering and leaving a SNA, be sure to brush off clothing and turn out pockets and pant cuffs to prevent garlic mustard and other invasive weed seeds from hitchhiking on your clothes. And never pick any wildflowers on these public lands—leave them intact for others to enjoy.
This second-growth hardwood forest contains some very old and large specimens. The area’s ample supply of spring wildflowers includes maidenhair fern, nodding trillium, bloodroot, bellwort, and Jack-in-the-pulpit. Exposed sections of bed-rock, up to 50 feet tall, rise from the forest floor.
From the intersection of highways 13 and GG in Mellen, go southwest on GG about 8 miles, then northwest on FR 187 (Mineral Lake Road) for 0.7 mile, then north on FR 188 (Hanson Road) for 1.6 miles to where the North Country Trail crosses the road. Park along the road and walk due north a quarter-mile to the southern boundary of the site. The North Country Trail skirts the southeastern tip of the SNA as it heads in a northeasterly direction.
Dells of the Eau Claire, located within the Dells of the Eau Claire County Park, is both a great place to see wildflowers and a good place to explore some unique geological features along the river. The rocky gorge provides a series of waterfalls, miniature eddies, and potholes formed by swirling gravel and water. Deep, loamy soils support a phenomenal number of spring ephemerals. Under a canopy of hemlock, sugar maple, and yellow birch, you’ll see spring-beauty, trout-lily, hepatica, and just about every other common spring wildflower. Take Highway Y west and south from Hogarty, about 3.3 miles to a parking area south of the river and west of the road.
This forest is one of only a few genuine old-growth mesic (an area of medium moisture) forests in Wisconsin, and the spring ephemerals are rich and abundant. You’ll see some very large sugar maple, basswood, and hemlock, and get a sense of what the Wisconsin wilderness once looked like. The understory is quite open, so you can walk around freely, but there is no trail system. Wildflowers include spring-beauty, trout-lily, Dutchman’s-breeches, blue cohosh, nodding trillium, rosy twisted-stalk, and bloodroot. From the intersection of highways 2 and 70 in Florence, go west on 70 for 10.5 miles to a parking area north of the road.
Wander up the hills and into the pockets of the kettles of this SNA in the Kettle Moraine State Forest—Northern Unit and you’ll see plenty of wildflowers. In one low-lying area I found a colony of skunk-cabbage, which, in early spring, can actually melt the surrounding snow and ice. Flower species include hepatica, snakeroot, large-flowered trillium, red trillium, May-apple, and bellwort. Small paths crisscross the area and the forest understory is open, which allows hikers to walk around easily.
Head southwest out of Dundee on Highway 67 for 0.4 mile, then south on Highway G for 2.1 miles. Turn east onto Highway SS for 0.9 mile, then head south on Highway GGG for 0.1 mile to a parking area and historical marker west of the road.
This small park offers a superb late-April display of trout-lily, which completely covers the forest floor in some areas. Other notables are wood anemone, bloodroot, Jack-in-the-pulpit, meadow-rue, and spring-beauty. Return in May to see large-flowered trillium and wild geranium. In spring and summer, you might hear sandhill cranes yodeling high above, on their way to the nearby Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. From highways 151 and 49, head west through Waupun. Turn north onto Highway MMM for 0.8 mile to the parking lot. A trail to the west winds through the park.
Managed and owned by The Ridges Sanctuary, the Logan Creek property offers several habitats, including an upland beech maple forest and a wetland forest dominated by cedar and hemlock. The best time to see spring wildflowers here is mid- to late May, when a profusion of spring-beauty, Dutchman’s-breeches, toothwort, large-flowered trillium, trout-lily, and more than a half-dozen varieties of wild violets carpet the forest floor. A trail system makes hiking easy. Bring your binoculars to take advantage of good birding opportunities. From Jacksonport, take Highway 57 south. Turn left onto Loritz Road. Drive in about three-quarters of a mile and look for two stone pillars with an iron gate marked “Tree Haven.” Park and walk around the gate to find the trail.
This rich southern mesic forest contains mainly sugar maple and basswood. You won’t find trails here, but this SNA is easy to navigate since there’s almost no underbrush. In mid-May, you might see woodland phlox, nodding trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit, hairy Solomon’s-seal, and red baneberry. Earlier in the season, you’ll find a good display of trout-lily. All in all, look for dozens of species of plants, including the rare cuckoo-flower and putty-root orchid. From the intersection of highways 12 and 136 in West Baraboo, go south on 12 for 1 mile, then west on Highway W for 3.25 miles, then north on Farview Road. Park on the road and walk east into the site.
In this floodplain forest along the Sugar River, pools of water and rich deposits of silty soil provide habitat for a number of wildflower species. In high-water years this site can be challenging to navigate, but in drier years it’s well worth the visit. Bring your rubber boots and splash through the pools to see woodland phlox, wild chervil, Virginia water-leaf, and a host of other woodland plants. What makes this place special? Vines like river bank grape, woodbine, and common moonseed climb the trees and evoke the atmosphere of a cathedral. From the intersection of Highway K and Beloit-Newark Road in Newark, go west on Beloit-Newark Road for 4 miles. Turn south onto Nelson Road 1.6 miles to a parking area east of the road and south of the Sugar River.
A 300-foot-tall bluff of erosion-resistant quartzite is the setting for this SNA. Dotting the floor of this forest, which is dominated by sugar maple and yellow birch, are wild columbine, blue cohosh, ferns, violets, trout-lily, bloodroot, and an incredible array of large-flowered trillium in mid-May. Follow trails through the site, or to a more developed section of the park with picnic tables and restrooms. From Arpin, take Highway E south for 1 mile. Head west on Bluff Drive for 1.1 miles to the park entrance. The natural area covers the eastern portion of the park.
Located within Wildcat Mountain State Park, this SNA borders the Kickapoo River. Walk along the Hemlock Trail, following the river (look for interesting sandstone cliffs), and climb to an observation point some 450 feet over the river for stunning views. Spring wildflowers are plentiful, and include wild-ginger, showy orchis, declined trillium, and Virginia bluebells along the river bottom. The best time to view this site is usually during the first two weeks of May. Take Highway 33 east and south from Ontario for about 2.5 miles, then head southwest on Park Road for 0.6 mile to the picnic-area parking lot.
This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Trails magazine. Erika Jensen is a flower and vegetable farmer in Waupun.