WHERE THE WILD PLACES ARE: GET LOST IN DANE COUNTY

Here is a story I had a great time researching and writing that just appeared in Isthmus, Madison’s edgy weekly.

Summer is a classic time to get away from the asphalt jungle, but that doesn’t mean you have to make reservations and pack your bags. Anyone in Madison is just minutes away from some impressively preserved natural areas tucked in and around the city. In no time you can leave the pavement behind and begin exploring some of the remarkable landscapes that south central Wisconsin has to offer.

The Madison area gets high marks for the exceptional character of its landscape. It’s got the telltale signs of a 20,000-year-old visitor from the north, the last of several glaciers that crept down out of Canada and stopped right in our backyard, where they dropped off boulder-filled piles of loose dirt, some over 100 feet high. Abundant lakes, streams and wetlands combine with rich woods and remnant prairies, creating an outdoor tapestry that has inspired the likes of naturalist Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, the late U.S. senator and Wisconsin governor who founded Earth Day. And just to the west of town lies the Driftless Area, a more ancient landscape that remained untouched by the last three glacial advances, resulting in a rugged terrain and some unique wildlife communities.

Most Madison nature-lovers know about the big stars in our local eco-galaxy. There’s the UW Arboretum, Cherokee Marsh, Picnic Point and, of course, our lakes. But within Dane County, there are lots of lesser-known venues, some of them only a few square blocks in size, where organizations are working to preserve or re-create parcels of wilderness to give us a glimpse of the area as it existed before European-descended settlers arrived.

Depending on how rough and raw you like your nature, you can pick among mowed trails, trackless woodland, marshes or grassland, and you can identify your destination with a few minutes of online searching (see sidebar).

Closest to home, the Madison Parks Division maintains about 6,000 acres of parkland. Many of the larger parks have unmowed natural areas within their borders, and 1,600 acres within the city are kept as conservation land. This conservation parkland is managed to preserve native plant communities, wildlife and natural landscapes. In order to offer a more unspoiled experience, play equipment, picnic tables and sports complexes are not on site.

The Madison Parks website lists 14 conservation parks, with descriptions of their size and features. There are also photos and a map to locate each one. But don’t stop there. It’s absolutely worth it to check out some of these gems in person. And don’t be fooled into thinking the more acres in the park, the more isolated you’ll feel when you get there. Some of the smallest are the most transporting.

Read the rest here.

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3 replies

  1. Thanks for your kind words, Dan. I do feel that I live in a quietly spectacular part of the world and thank my lucky stars that my parents brought me to Wisconsin when I was 10. It’s been my homing beacon ever since. (When I was studying journalism in college, the program was divided into news reporting and public relations. I wasn’t interested in PR unless I could be writing about something I believed in – and one of the places I remember thinking I could happily do PR for was the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.)

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