Friday, January 29, 2016

5 Best Places to Snowshoe Near Milwaukee

Winter is about half-way over folks, get out there and enjoy it!

Snowshoeing is probably the easiest, most fun and inexpensive winter hobby out there. Anyone can snowshoe just about anywhere there is a solid base layer of snow. Unlike cross-country skiing, snowshoeing is almost always free and gives you a lot more flexibility to explore places. You can't trek through thick, desolate pine forests on a pair of classic or skate skis. For whatever reason, snowshoeing has become increasingly popular with people my age in their twenties, and I'm excited about that. Many of my best friends now own snowshoes and frequently want to put them to use. 

Don't have snowshoes? Good news, they're not going to break the bank and you can find them at just about any outdoor recreation store like REI, Erewhon, Gander Mountain, Cabellas and even Mills Fleet Farm or Sport's Authority. Prices range anywhere from $50 all the way up until $2-$300 for a serious pair. Just make sure you pick out a pair that has bindings you like and fits your weight class (kids, adults, etc). I own a pair of MSR Evos that I love. Atlas also makes great snowshoes as well. For boots, I wear a set of waterproof, hiking boots with snow pants over them. You don't really need poles unless you're backpacking or in super deep snow or tricky terrain, but if you want to use poles, just find a pair of cross-country or down-hill ski poles. Extendable/collapsible trekking and hiking poles also work well.

Alright, we've got a few inches of fresh-fallen snow and you're begging to get outside to explore on them. Dress warm, and make sure your boots are strapped into the bindings correctly so that the boot's front toe won't repeatedly scrape or get stuck against the top of the snowshoe. That's how trips and falls happen. Flip over your pair of new snowshoes. See how there are numerous sharp metal teeth? That's what keeps you planted and tracked on ice or snow. Avoid at all costs walking on concrete, stone or asphalt with snowshoes to avoid serious damage. The webbing in between the rims of the snowshoes helps distribute your body weight equally and evenly, which makes it noticeably easier to walk through snow. Snowshoeing is essentially walking on snow, except with bigger, exaggerated steps. Make sure when taking steps, you fully lift up the front of your snowshoe to dig the front teeth into new snow or ice in front of you. Don't shuffle your feet. I'd recommend practicing in your back yard or going for a quick little hike in a nearby park to get used to the movements.

Once winter hits Wisconsin, I try and spend the majority of me time outside, a lot of that being on snowshoes exploring. Here are a few of my favorite places to snowshoe within a sixty-minute drive or so of Milwaukee.

Mequon Nature Preserve | Mequon, WI
It baffles me how many people have never heard of this place. Right over the Ozaukee/Milwaukee county border is this 438 acre hidden gem, and one of my favorite spots. The Mequon Nature Preserve is free to access and offers five unique trails that wind through diverse terrain including one stunning patch of forest called Gengler Woods (snowshoe through it at sunset and prepare to be t wowed). Towards the west of the preserve, there's also an 40ft observation tower. For a good hour-long snowshoe hike, I'll start at the Pieperpower Education Center, head north on the Cross Connector and make my way to Paul's Pond, where you'll find a boardwalk and the before-mentioned Gengler Woods. Looking for a short hike? Go east from the main parking lot and follow the 1/3 mile Trinity Creek Line that takes you through a pristine wetland. If you haven't been to the Mequon Nature Preserve, get there now.

Brown Deer Park | Brown Deer, WI 
Hands-down this is one of Milwaukee County's best and most beautiful parks. Brown Deer Park not only has groomed, designated skate and classic cross-country ski trails, but 362 open acres for you to also explore on snowshoes. There are two lagoons or ponds to hike around, thick patches of forests, open fields and hills including one massive one for sledding. I like to park along the road, get out and head toward the wooded center parts of the park and also to the scenic rising south end. Access to the park is free and you can have fun out in the snow until 10pm. Get a headlamp for adrenaline-filled commando snowshoeing at night with a heavy snowfall.

Doctor's Park |Bayside, WI
Guess what? Milwaukee has one of the best county park systems in the country. And it shows. Just up the road from Schlitz Audobon Nature Center is Doctor's Park. Located along the coast of Lake Michigan, 49 acre Doctor's Park is well-maintained and the perfect spot for a quick winter get-away to the outdoors for those living in Milwaukee's north shore communities. Once you arrive, take a walk down the hill through a gorgeous ravine to get to a quiet beach. It's cool to see some of Lake Michigan's waves frozen over into almost-ice caves at the shore. From the main parking lot, I like to strap on my snowshoes and hike east along the edges of the big, main field. You can easily spend 30 to 40 minutes snowshoeing along the treelines of the upper part of this park, treating your eyes to views down the bluff towards the lake or the many deep ravines. Access to Doctor's Park is free, check it out! Dr. Joseph Schneider, gifted the park to the City of Milwaukee in 1928 with this intent: "To my fellow citizens for recreation purposes." Spot-on, doc, spot-on.

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge | Mayville, WI 
This is a special place to me and probably one of Wisconsin's best-kept secrets. It's only an hour and eight minutes away from Milwaukee and is one of the few national wildlife refuges managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the state of Wisconsin. From December until spring time, you have...wait for it...22,000 acres to explore on snowshoe! Horicon NWR is a key player and safe-haven for migratory birds like ducks, cranes and Canada Geese. Apart form being a federally protected home to hundreds of different species and plants, there are several enjoyable recreational activities here too including hiking, cross-country skiing, wildlife photography, snowshoeing and biking. Head to the northern part of the marsh to access the hiking trails like the Redhead Trail and Egret Trail and auto tour area to start, then venture off deep into the marsh along the many impoundment dikes and paths to explore this breathtakingly beautiful refuge. Make sure to stop into the visitor center off of Headquarters Road to see the Raptor Display case, gift shop filled with a vast array of books and guides and many educational display exhibits. Access to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge is free for all and their visitor center is open during the week from 9am until 4pm.

Schlitz Audubon Nature Center | Bayside, WI
True fact- I absolutely love the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. I have ever since I was a young kid who lived right down the road from this amazing outdoor escape. Growing up, my family would go here literally every weekend for hours and on Friday night's we'd all head to the visitor center to learn about animals and hear legendary naturalist David Stokes sing on his acoustic guitar and tell stories dressed up as a bat. Pretty sure I still have one of his cassette tapes lying around. Needless to say, I owe a lot to SANC for introducing me to my love for the outdoors. The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center has some of the best hiking and classic cross-country ski trails around. Pick up a daily admission ticket ($5-$8) to gain access to 185 acres of protected forest, beach front along Lake Michigan, prairies and meadows, ponds and marshes, and ravines. You can easily spend hours snowshoeing around, checking out new places and exploring some of the 4.21 miles worth of trails. My favorite places to snowshoe are along the Woodlands Loop to get to Solitude Marsh, the North Ravine Trail, parts of the West Meadows Trail and around Mystery Lake. While you're there, make sure to stop in at the visitor center to see their educational exhibits or even attend one of the frequent Raptor Saturday events where you get the chance to learn and see up-close, hawks, owls, falcons, Loki the crow and maybe even an eagle!