Thursday, July 5, 2018

The 2 Best State Parks to Learn About Wisconsin's History

Wisconsin’s “roots” history is just as beautiful and fascinating as its geographical history. There are properties we automatically associate with polarizing land features that draw us to them, like the stretching Niagara Escarpment that protrudes from the side of High Cliff State Park, Devil’s Lake’s quartzite bluffs, the sprawling and lush wetlands at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area, or the root beer colored waterfalls that cascade downward into basalt chasms at Amnicon Falls. But in recent travels over the past few years, I’ve discovered an entirely new purpose of exploring our public lands; to experience and educate myself about the rich history that shaped Wisconsin today. 

We might not always assimilate the phrase “outdoor recreation” with the word “history,” but we should, because there are two state park properties in particular that open the door to the past. But Let’s look at Aztalan and Tower Hill, all of which are places you need to put on your summer adventure bucket list.

Aztalan State Park

Disclaimer: when you arrive here, you’ll immediately question whether or not you’re still in Wisconsin. Aztalan State Park blew my mind, and with being only minutes from I-94 on your way to Madison or Milwaukee, stopping here is a must. At 172 acres alongside the Crawfish River, this park preserves a series of surviving pyramidal mounds towering up from the ground that were used by the Aztlans. From A.D. 1000-1300, the Aztalan people lived in this Middle-Mississippian settlement. In 1850, our own Increase A. Lapham (ala, Lapham Peak) came to survey these lands and discovered more than forty mounds including the park’s largest one, Earthen Mound, where religious ceremonies were shielded from public view. Archaeologists over the years have since dug up two small copper masks and found evidence of two large pits that held provisions like corn and grains. Walls of tall stockades (rows of posts dug into the ground) line the perimeter of this past village. Spend a couple hours slowly walking back in time, or cast a rod and fish alongside the river. On your way out, check out the Aztalan Museum nextdoor to the park, run by the Lake Mills-Aztalan Historical Society.

Tower Hill State Park

Combine a trip to Governor Dodge State Park, Blue Mound State Park, or the puzzling House on The Rock with a quick detour to impressive Tower Hill. I absolutely loved this park, so much. Open 365 days a year, tiny Tower Hill State Park is tucked away alongside the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River and has a campground with eleven rustic, non-reservable (first come, first serve) sites. The park gets its iconic name from a preserved -- and wildly cool-- 60-ft wooden shot tower built into the side of the hill. It’s an easy fifteen or so minute hike to the top, and the views of the surrounding driftless area are spectacular. Lead mining was booming here during the 1800s, and miners Thomas Bolton Shaunce and Lacom Smith dug a 90-ft long tunnel from the river bank’s finishing house into the nearby sandstone hill, to a shaft that rose 120-ft upwards to the top of the smeltering house. Here, 75-lb bars of lead were melted in cavernous kettles, filtered, and dropped some 180ft down the shaft, into a pool of water, cooling into hard, shots of usable lead. Finished shots were collected, loaded up on boats and shipped east, while unfinished shots were hauled back up to the top, melted, and dropped again. Incredible history at this little gem of a park!

Cheers,
Robby

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