Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A guide to visiting Buckhorn State Park

Sunset views right on the water is what you get from many of Buckhorn State Park's campsites.

I love Buckhorn, it's a wonderful park in Necedah, the second biggest in the state, and very underrated. The second-biggest state park in our system is a goldmine for outdoor recreation. Located on a peninsula jutting into Castle Rock Lake, Buckhorn State Park is a hot spot for kayakers, hikers, campers, wildlife enthusiasts, and those looking to cast a rod. The park is home to two state natural areas, traditional and backpacking campsites, trails through oak savannas, a hopping beach, and sunsets nearly every night that would inspire the late Bob Ross to dream in awe. Buckhorn is a great park to call home for the weekend or spend a day out on the Castle Rock flowage.

The low-down on camping at Buckhorn State Park
Buckhorn State Park is one of the few parks in Wisconsin that offers a wide selection of backpacking sites for a more rustic camping experience. Ranging from a short 100-yd walk to a multi-mile long trek, there are 33 backpacking sites at nearly all corners of the park, the majority of which located right on the water. This means you can launch a kayak or canoe, just steps away from your tent door. Carts are available if needed to haul firewood or gear out to the remote site, but make sure to check with park staff for the combination. #8 is an accessible backpacking site. Buckhorn would be an excellent place to try out backpacking for the very first time or if you’re craving a quick, simple wilderness camping overnight.

A traditional, well maintained and laid out 59-site campground offers electric and non-electric sites, as well as a shower building with flush toilets. Sites #95 - 101, #103-104, and #68-77 are deeper back into a row of pines and more secluded. and I’d avoid sites #78-84, #87, #92, #54e, and #59 as there’s little privacy. There’s also an accessible cabin for rent, and four walk-to sites, the furthest being #26, the most secluded at 155-yds away from the parking lot.

How to explore Buckhorn State Park

First off, if you come during the warmer months, bug spray is a must. There are three main trails totaling about four miles, two of which are guided interpretive nature trails (the Central Sands Nature Trail Loop and Oak Barrens Nature Trail). As you enter into the park, stop and park at the lot near the observation tower. From here, the 1.5-mile long Oak Barrens Nature Trail slowly walks you through a fascinating Buckhorn Barrens State Natural Area, a protected space alive with a sandy soiled landscape filled with Jack pines, vivid prairie grasses, and oaks. At one time, there were some 4 million acres of rich barrens across Wisconsin. Now that number has diminished drastically, but conservation and land management have allowed barrens like the ones here at Buckhorn, to return thriving. 

From the Hunter Parking Lot A, an easy 1.2-mile long Patridge Trail weaves through another portion of the park’s wildlife area (and towards backpacking sites #17-19. Note, the Partridge Trail is shy on shade, so bring water as you trek through more barren terrain. It also connects to the 1.5-mile Turkey Hollow Trail which links up with backpacking sites #4-# and #13-15. I’d also recommend taking the time to hike the Central Sands Nature Trail, a 1.4-mile loop, with 10 interpretive signs to help you learn about how the lands at Buckhorn came to be. Plus, if you’re an arbor lover like myself, you won’t want to miss the rows of impressive black oak, with their thick, dark bark. 

Families with smaller children will enjoy the 0.4-mile long Turtle Trail that leads to a fishing pier at a small pond. Check out the tree-lined pond for some stillness, located along the short Savanna Trail that brings you from the campground area entrance (just north of the main boat launch) to the observation tower through a towering oak savanna.

A highlight of the Buckhorn is its interpretive canoe trail. Bring your own kayak, canoe, or SUP, or rent at the launch, and embark on an adventure along the 1.8-mile Island Trail. Pick up a pamphlet at the park office or near the canoe launch, loaded with information to coordinate with the 10 numbered stations you’ll pass. Allow for about an hour and a half to complete the loop.

Plan for a paddling excursion to two nearby state wildlife areas
The Yellow River Wildlife Area and Yellow River Oxbows State Natural Area, a 820-acre floodplain forest with winding rivers oxbow lakes, are open for exploration via canoe, kayak, or boat. Depart from boat launch D and make your way east and north into these silent, serene protected areas of wilderness for at-risk wildlife. Shallow channels weave through tall reed grass poking through the water, and you’re likely to see muskrats, carp, ducks, eagles, osprey, cranes and other birds so bring binoculars.


Updated 6/26/20