Friday, March 30, 2018

Fall hiking at New Glarus Woods State Park

In the mid-1800s, flocks of Swiss immigrants settled in New Glarus. Now proudly wearing the title of “America’s Little Switzerland,” it’s a town of 2,166 people, built on Swiss heritage and spirit with nearly every building donning a Swiss look appearing each came right out of Zermatt or Geneva. Even the chiropractor has “chiropraktiker” branded on its front. It’s home to New Glarus Brewing Company, maker of Wisconsin’s exclusive, infamous Spotted Cow cream ale. What’s literally across the road from the brewery? This tiny, 435 acre, gorgeous mix of prairies and hardwoods called New Glarus Woods State Park. This quiet state park was created in 1934 and plays home a catalog of diverse trees like the basswood, black walnut, elm, oak and hickory to name just a few.

I explored New Glarus Woods on a cool, gray Sunday afternoon in mid-November. At the time I only saw a few other people hiking around and the park's fall peak colors were surprisingly still hanging on. After entering in through the park off of highway 69/39, depart from the Sugar River Trail Spur that begins near the hike-in campsites. Once you pass site #28 on your right, veer left and take the Great Oak Trail, then head right again to join the Havenridge Nature Trail.

This 4.2 mile interpretive trail takes you through all the unique, diverse landscapes the park has to offer. At two more trail intersections, keep turning right until you reach a subtle clearing at trail post #31. You’ll now be briefly out of the hardwoods and trekking north on the Vista Trail, which takes you through a forest restoration area and down from the upper wooded area of the park to the lower part of the property.

At the bottom of the hill keep hiking right, with a row of pines and a few birch over your shoulder. The trail joins up soon with the Bison Nature Trail, another interpretive trail about 0.8 of a mile long. Go left. Here, you'll pass through a gorgeous maze of restored prairie filled with, along with many interpretive signs talking about bison and the importance, upkeep and history of prairies like the one you're standing in.

As you make your way through the prairie and back towards the woods, you should notice an exposed rock outcropping right where the trail rejoins with the .4 mile Vista Trail, hidden deep in the trees. Make your way back up the hill, look off onto the horizon and you should be able to get a view of the nearby town. At the top of the vista, go right again to continue on the Havenridge Nature Trail, as it weaves through yet more beautiful, rich forest. Soon the trail passes alongside the drive-in campsites and crosses highway NN.

Continue and turn right down a hill. About now, you’ll gradually start being able to see distant rolling farmland beyond the forest, and groves of impressive, tall shagbark hickories near trail post #21. Make sure you look up when trekking through this park! Continue following the trail downwards until it emerges into a mix of rich farm fields and pristine restored prairie. The remainder of the trail curves back up into an oak Savannah and under a ceiling of their puzzling, wild array of branches. At trail post #13 do not turn right, rather keep going straight. After one final dip through the bowl-like prairies skirting along the park's eastern boundary, the trail finishes through a patch of quiet woods and takes you back towards the entrance station.

Another great feature of New Glarus Woods is its incorporation of the Sugar River State Trail. This rails-to-trails trail spans some 24 miles from the park, through nearby New Glarus and then southeast to the town of Broadhead. Annual state trail passes are required for those biking on the Sugar River State Trail, which also connects with the Badger State Trail near Monticello. Its surface is a combination of crushed stone (for 23 miles) and paved asphalt (for 1 mile).