Thursday, December 20, 2018

Searching for the sandstone gems hidden away at Mill Bluff State Park

I explored a new state park I've been super intrigued by: Mill Bluff!

On way home from a weekend spent kayaking, hiking, and camping at nearby Buckhorn State Park, I headed thirty minutes west to visit another new-to-me state park I've been aching to get to for a long time: Mill Bluff. Part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve (yes, your annual National Park passes are good here), Mill Bluff State Park is wedged right alongside I94 as you make your way west across Wisconsin. 
Home to many prominent rocky bluffs that jut out from the surrounding woods, 1,600 acre Mill Bluff offers a few hours worth of excellent hiking and exploring. The main usage areas are on the western side of the highway that runs right through the park, where there are trails that loop around Mill Bluff itself and climb to the top. Elsewhere in the park and a minute or two drive east, are other tall rocky bluffs each with names that no doubt, intrigued the area’s first explorers and surveyors, like Wildcat, Bear, and Sugar Bowl.
The main day use area, small first-come first-serve campground, reservable shelters and hiking trails are located on the southern side of I90/I94. If you visit Mill Bluff during the shoulder season, late September to early May, the main gate may be closed, so park along Funnel Road which runs north and south through the property. When you arrive here, you'll be island hopping. Way back some 12,000 years ago during the Ice Age, these tall rocky formations jutting up from a floor of pines, were actually islands of sandstone in the middle of a massive, cold glacial lake.
In the shadows below along the base of Mill Bluff there's a 0.5-mile long interpretive nature trail that circumnavigates the rocky bluff. It's definitely worth a bit of trailblazing upwards to see these magnificent walls of sandstone buttes in detail, but don't climb on them, I later found out that's actually illegal. Towards the terminus of this trail that circles around Mill Bluff and connects you with a staircase to the top, you'll rise into this tunnel of dense pines. The first thing that popped into my head was this favorite, powerful quote from legendary naturalist and founding father of our National Park System, John Muir, "Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world." I paused, smiled, and kept hiking.
120 feet on top of this state park's nomenclature- Mill Bluff, there are two observation points at either end of the bluff, ready to reward you with expansive views peering north at the nearby Bee Bluff, Camels Bluff, Wildcat Bluff, Devil's Monument and Cleopatra's Needle formations, and easterly views of prime Wisconsin rolling farmland.

There's just something mysterious and stimulating about seeing towers of rock jarringly rise up and above the treeline, especially since a fair amount of the bluffs in the park's perimeter cannot be directly accessed without straight trail-blazing. Looking on the map, I kept wanting to go chase these hard-to-reach bluffs after identifying near the park's northwest corner a steep bluff called Wildcat cloaked by thick forest wall. My curious mind lit-up with wanderlust excitement and I drove past it, stepped to the edge of the woods and gazed up at Wildcat.
I cannot wait to return to Mill Bluff, camp for a night or two, and do my best to experience these other, trail-less bluffs. I took a detour from writing this post and hopped on Google Earth to fascinate myself even more with these off-the-beaten-path bluffs. Please, due yourself a favor and add this special state park to your bucket list.


Learn more about Mill Bluff State Park here.
See a map of Mill Bluff State Park.