Hiking Across Wisconsin: Top 5 Nature Preserves

By Amy Bayer
Staff Writer

There is something peaceful about hiking through an area so beautiful and unique that a group of people want to protect it. When I see signs for nature preserves, conservancies and wildlife refuges, I am compelled to hike and explore, and because Wisconsin is known for its natural beauty and outdoor activities there are plenty of places to see.

I’m happy to live in a state that takes its natural resources so seriously that the people here strive to protect as much of it as possible. It makes for incredibly scenic hikes. Here are my favorite natural sites for Wisconsin hiking:

1. Pheasant Branch Conservancy – Middleton

Whenever friends visit from out of town, I like to take them to the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton. There is a tranquility and beauty about this popular natural destination.

The wide limestone trails make it easy for bikes and strollers, and the bridges and boardwalks are picturesque. One of the trails winds to the top of a hill with scenic views of the conservancy below.

Hiking the peaceful trails, it’s hard to believe this special place is located off one of Middleton’s busiest city streets.

2. Schmeeckle Nature Reserve – Stevens Point

Maintained by the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the Schmeeckle Nature Reserve has several miles of trails and boardwalks including the Frog Chorus Trail, which erupts in sound every spring when hundreds of frogs emerge onto the scene.

I attended the university for a semester and was fascinated by how many animals I would see on every hike in the area. All of the trails in the reserve have opportunities to watch wildlife, as well as explore different landscapes like marshes, prairies, wetland and forests.

One of the trails is even a part of the Green Circle Trail that loops around Stevens Point for those who are interested in a longer hike or bike ride.

3. Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge – Horicon

During my travels, I frequently pass by the Horicon Marsh, which is so large it stretches from Horicon to Waupun. It’s no surprise that it’s the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S., and the 33,000-acre property is maintained by both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin DNR.

You can take a 36-mile bike or auto tour of the property, or there are hiking trails at either end of the refuge, with incredible boardwalks on both sides to guide you through the marshes. I’ve learned the best time to see wildlife is at dusk or dawn; however, you can pretty much see birds any time. I once even walked next to a sandhill crane, who was out for a leisurely stroll.

4. Houghton Falls Nature Preserve Bayview

The hiking trail at Houghton Falls is only 1.5 miles and the route is easy, but the natural features are stunning and well worth the trip. The trail, which is designated for hiking only, winds along the edge of the Echo Dells gorge, which has charming waterfalls in the rainy season, and then ends with panoramic views of Lake Superior and Chequamegon Bay.

The preserve borders the Houghton Falls State Natural Area near Washburn, and they share access to the gorge. The last time I visited was in autumn, and even though the waterfalls were dried up for the season, the fall colors and views of the lake were breathtaking.

5. Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge – Trempealeau

If you’re looking for another great place to see wildlife and view panoramic natural beauty, Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge is the place to go. It’s located within an area known as the Mississippi River flyway and has hiking, biking and driving tour loops. 

During my last visit I parked at Kiep’s Island boat landing and hiked around the island and dike across the backwaters of the Mississippi River with flocks of birds soaring all around. You can also hike to the base of Trempealeau Mountain, which rises above the refuge to the south, and if you enjoy biking as well, the Great River State Trail crosses the refuge for even more to explore.

 

These five areas are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wildlife refuges, nature preserves and conservancies in Wisconsin. I could list five separate locations for each type, plus arboretums and state natural areas. I would love to hear your recommendations for your favorite hikes in natural areas!