Sunday, December 4, 2016

A guide to visiting Natural Bridge State Park

With much gratitude, I’ve awed at a dozen or so natural arches and bridges across the country, mostly out west.

These are especially prevalent in some of Utah’s national park properties like Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands. Then there’s the motherload at Natural Bridges National Monument which is so cool. But good news for us Wisconsinites, we’ve got a great, small state park just outside of Baraboo that preserves one. Natural Bridges State Park is nestled away, hidden in the wooded Baraboo Hills otherwise known as Aldo Leopold’s stomping grounds. This state park has been on my bucket list for years now and gosh I’m glad I went to check it out.
Arches versus bridges
You’ve got arches and you’ve got natural bridges. In essence, they’re the exact same thing and each type of rock formation can look almost identical to each other. According The Natural Arch and Bridge Society, a natural bridge is a type of arch usually noticeably created by way of strong, flowing water underneath. A natural bridge can also be classified as such if the top of it is flat like you’d see on a man-made bridge, whereas most arches are more curved at their peak. Whatever you want to call these geological masterpieces, they’re incredible to see up-close in person. 

The backstory
This state park houses the largest land bridge in Wisconsin, spanning some 25ft high and 35ft wide. It’s beautiful and bold, carved away by centuries of air and water erosion. The top of the sandstone bridge stands nearly 40 feet above the trail. Below the bridge is also a large rock shelter that penetrates 30 feet deep into the rock. Here in 1957, archaeologists from the Wisconsin Historical Society found soot from fires, on the sandstone walls, clear evidence of human use dating back to between 9000 and 8000 BC. Also found were 75 different animal remains, including those of wolf, mountain lion, and elk. This rock shelter is one of the earliest known locations of human inhabitation in northeastern North America.

The low-down on camping at Natural Bridge State Park
So camping is prohibited at Natural Bridge as it’s a day-use only state park. If you’re looking to pitch a tent or park a camper, grab a site at nearby Devil’s Lake or Tower Hill State Parks both located about thirty minutes away.

How to explore Natural Bridge State Park

Natural Bridge offers nearly four miles of hiking throughout the park. Trails start at the parking lot where there are pit toilets and a self-registration station for admission. The Whitetail hiking trail takes you south of Hwy. C, through open prairies and more forest, but the park’s real treat, the land bridge rests in the northern half. Make your way to the end of the parking lot and follow the paved path through the picnic area until you reach the treeline, where the Indian Moccasin Nature Trail begins.

Here, keep venturing deeper into the woods and make your first right. Seconds later, you’ll see the towering natural bridge in all its might off to your right. Spend time walking below it, looking up and discovering the rockshelter below. Visiting the natural bridge in the winter, when it wears a veil of fresh-fallen, white snow is a real treat. For the sake of preserving the bridge itself and of course, practicing Leave No Trace, it’s strictly prohibited from climbing up and onto the bridge. Please, don’t do it.

Continuing along the nature trail from the natural bridge, takes you back, deeper into the park past interpretive signs that describe the almanac of trees and vegetation you’ll walk past. The trail traverses the ridges of many wooded hills and if you look out through the collection of tall trees, you’ll see big bunches of big rocky boulders protruding from the hillsides. There’s a subtle overlook that stems off from the Indian Moccasin Nature Trail, that if you can get to at sunset, will reward you with a memorable westward glow of orange, red, yellow, and pink floating across the treetops.

Return towards the main trail, and keep pushing along. The trail eventually makes its way back towards the main parking lot area, where you can continue on for a few miles to the other part of the property across the highway if desired.


Updated 6/26/20