Late May and into June

As mid May became late May, the bird migration slowed down. There were no longer warblers of every species rummaging for grubs in the forest canopies.  A few flycatchers were passing through and that’s about it. The days and even the nights grew hot as we entered a week-long heat wave. The weather was unpleasant but I still wanted to get outside. What’s a guy to do?

Well, I went to Parfrey’s Glen of course. I head there at least once every year, and in a variety of weather, but the only post I’ve done in the past was in December of 2016. Back then the landscape was barren, the only green coming from the pines atop the cliffs. What a change from December to May! Everything was leafy and the canopy was dense and the forest floor shaded. The water I avoided in the winter felt refreshing as I walked through it in my water shoes. The creek was the best “trail” for parts of the hike and that was fine by me.

Parfrey’s Glen
The lion’s head

While I didn’t see much in terms of warblers and shorebirds in the past few weeks, I have had better luck with herping than I have the rest of the year. I’ve been seeing quite a few turtles besides for the standard painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), including a few large female common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and eastern spiny softshells (Apalone spinifera spinifera). My herping highlight so far has been to finally see my first eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). The sun was growing low on a mild day and I was walking near the edge of a woods looking for firewood. I was not the first to see it. One of my fire buddies pointed it out first and I didn’t know what species to expect when I looked over. It was not a long snake, maybe about as long as a large garter, but thicker. It was brown overall with dark reddish blotches in a crisp, uniform pattern.

Fun fact about non-venomous snakes: many of them mimic rattlesnakes in order to convince would-be predators to leave them alone. How do they do this? When it realized we saw it, it headed into dense cover and began vibrating its tail. The sound against the dead leaves isn’t a dead-ringer for a rattlesnake, but it’s close enough. I’m too smart to be fooled. Nice try, snake.

Surprisingly that was my first snake of the year. Hmm. Better late then never.

Eastern spiny softshell turtle doing its best impression of an aquatic pancake
Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)- a warbler that breeds in marshes and low prairies of the state

The calendar still says its spring, but I know better. The seasons are a continuum rather than an abrupt change. Bird migration is dying down. Mosquitoes are everywhere (I know, right?). The trees are fully leafed out. This might not be summer yet, but it sure is the lead-in to it.

Ridgeway Pine Relict SNA, 3/17/18

I like hiking off trial. Yes, it’s harder than walking through a groomed area, but that’s the point. You have to push through brush. You have to look at the lay of the land and plan each twist and turn. You have to prepare for the possibility that even though you know where you are, you still don’t know exactly where that is.

Yesterday I went hiking at the Ridgeway Pine Relict State Natural Area with the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group. Five of us showed up for what ended up being my most adventurous hike of the year so far. The SNA covers almost a square mile of land, but don’t let that make you think the SNA square- it follows Driftless Area valleys. It’s a steep hike down from the prairie restoration on the ridge to the relict, but it’s worth it. The forest, a mix of deciduous trees and pines, is a sparkling jewel. A pine relict is a type of forest that is left over from a colder time when the glaciers were leaving Wisconsin. As a result, relicts often resemble the vegetation you’d expect farther north. Like others in the area, the Ridgeway Relict in in a sheltered valley.

One of the trails heading down into the valley

There is an old logging road that leads partway down from the Ridgevue Drive parking area, but it doesn’t go very far. As with many SNA’s there is no designated trail. At some points there are deer paths or worn routes from previous hikers but for the most part it was up to us to decide where to go. The trickiest part of navigating the SNA is that it doesn’t perfectly follow the valley floors and we’d wind up hitting private property. To figure out how to get around these areas, we had to know where in the SNA we were. A combination of a parcel map (provided at the trailhead) and GPS was helpful. Even with that, we still disagreed about our exact location sometimes. That’s just part of the experience.

The highlight of the hike for me was the rock formations. Composed of warmly-colored sandstone, they dotted the hillsides. Most were on steep slopes and hard to get to. I’m glad that while I was growing up I was able to gain experience on this type of terrain; it reminded me of when I was a kid and would play in the woods in western Dane County. I’m definitely going to go back and explore the hills and rocks more. I think spending several hours there someday soon would be a good idea.

The world’s luckiest person has a deer stand on top of this rock

An added bonus is that I get to expand on the theme I started with my previous post. Blue Mound was in my line of site at the top of the hill on Ridgevue Drive and was only about 8.4 miles away. Since the two points both lie in a high area, there were other hills that got in the way of Blue Mound and it could only see it from the crest of the hill.

From foreground to background: prairie restoration, pine relict, nearby hill, Blue Mound
Blue Mound is marked in blue, the approximate point I was standing on the road is marked in red

A View of One Hill from Another

On Saturday I had the privilege of hiking at Gibraltar Rock near Lodi with my friend Zach. It’s a short but beautiful hike through mixed woodland, and at the top we were greeted with a gorgeous view from the cliff. I’ve never spent more than several minutes up there, but I’d like to stay up there for an hour or two on a summer day sometime.

What interested me the most on my visit as that you can see Blue Mound from up there. I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Blue Mound is the highest point in southern Wisconsin (1719 ft. above sea level) and it’s visible from many locations. Still… it’s pretty fascinating that you can see from southwestern Columbia County into eastern Iowa County. This led to an idea that I’m more than happy to act on: a series of blog posts on places you can see Blue Mound from. What better way to celebrate this local landmark than to get pictures of it from all angles?

Let’s start it off:

The first picture is zoomed in quite a bit. In actuality, the hill was just a tiny part of the horizon…

Can’t see it? Click on the image to see it full size.

Being nerdy enough to want to represent these two hills using a map, I did exactly that.

Blue Mound is represented by a blue dot in the lower left and Gibraltar Rock is represented by a red dot in the upper center. The two points are about 25 miles apart.

This will be just the first of a handful of posts of this type I will make throughout the year. I’ll take a lot of pictures from close points, but I’m also curious to see what farther places, like Gibraltar Rock, the hill is visible from. I’ve even heard rumors you can see Blue Mound from Devil’s Lake State Park. Stay tuned!

Maquoketa Caves State Park

Let’s talk about place and memory. Have you ever been somewhere once and revisited later only to realize your memories were off? We create a mythology around places we’ve been. This mythology plays over and over in our heads and morph into something that is not an accurate representation of a physical reality. I experienced this a few weeks ago when I went caving in eastern Iowa.

Maquoketa Caves State Park is a small park, but it packs over a dozen caves in a tight cluster. They range from larger caverns, including a few that the tallest adults could stand up in, to tight squeezes not everyone could fit through.

Looking out from Match Cave

Let’s talk about comfort levels. Although I have some experience with caves, including Maquoketa, it is very limited. I have a bit of claustrophobia, but it’s not bad. Some of the caves made me slightly nervous, but slightly nervous is okay. You don’t want to be so scared you panic but if you don’t push yourself you won’t have any fun. I entered a few caves twice, letting myself go farther the second time around. My favorite of these was Barbell Cave. It was a bit farther of a walk from the parking lot than many of the caves, but it was worth both trips. On my  first entry, I learned the cave had a high opening, about eye level, that I needed to hoist myself into. After that there was a wide, curving crawl that led to a small room that was big enough for a few people to sit tightly in. There I saw another room, but it was separated from me by a tight squeeze. I was not up to it yet. On the return I was ready, though even the kid who popped out when I got there said it was tight for him. I went for it anyway and yes, it was tight on the hips. It took me several seconds to slide through. Once I did, I found myself in a large room, big enough for a small get-together if none of the party-goers were too keen on standing fully upright. Upon turning off my headlamp (it’s good to do this when you’re stopped to save the battery) I was enveloped in the darkest dark. You can go to the middle of nowhere on the surface and wait for the sun to set, but as long as you’re above ground you won’t see darkness like this. It wasn’t even black- it was beyond that. As extraordinary as it was, I have to admit it gave me the willies. After a few minutes of quiet darkness I turned the light back on and squeezed back into the land of sunshine.

That was the narrowest fit of the day. Some of the caves were much larger. Wide Mouth Cave and Ice Cave were both memorable in the sense that they both looked the most like caves in cartoons, with large rooms that led directly to the outside. Ice Cave was the taller of the too, but even though I couldn’t stand up in Wide Mouth Cave it still could have accommodated a large amount of people.

Wide Mouth Cave

The largest cave, and one of the biggest draws, was Dancehall Cave. It is a long, wide cave that I was able to stand up in most of the way. It is also the only artificially lit and paved one at the park. There were three grandiose openings to it and some of the chambers were large enough to be, well, dancehalls, as they were used in decades past. Many of the visitors stuck to these large chambers. However, there were smaller tunnels off to the side and these held the most interest to me. As I mentioned earlier, memories are not always accurate. I had an image of a cave at the park that I’d had for years. I thought it might be one of the side tunnels. Thing is, I had only been to Maquoketa once before and that was almost two decades ago. That’s quite a time for a brief glimpse of a cave to evolve into a memory that matches nothing I’ve seen in real life. I didn’t find the mythical cave I was looking for.

That’s okay. The side tunnels were great and were not as crowded as the main route. They involved more physical exertion too: there were changes in elevation and places where I had to crawl. Fun! One route led to a balcony of sorts above the main chamber where I sat and ate while watching people below. Another winded for a few minutes until I got to a drop-off several feet above the chamber where I started.

One of the entrances to Dancehall Cave

There were a few caves I didn’t go in. Up-and-Down Cave didn’t look like much so I didn’t enter. Turns out there’s a tunnel in it that goes longer than I thought. I didn’t enter Dugout Cave because I was was told to skip it by a couple exiting it. Apparently it was a tight squeeze with not much reward. I also skipped Wye Cave because it was crowded when I finally got there. There is also a long tunnel within Dancehall Cave that I didn’t explore. That one and Wye Cave, both long ones, would be better to do with a small group anyway.

Rainy Day Cave- the wettest cave with its own little creek

So what did I do on this trip? I made memories that will change with time and pushed my boundaries. Both are good reasons to have gone and both are even better reasons to go back in the future.

Road Trip Part IV: Copper Falls State Park

Welcome to my final post about my July 2017 road trip. Sorting through my photos took a lot of time, but almost a month after my vacation I’m finally done. This is much harder than it sounds; the process requires thinking about which pictures would best sum up each place and sorting through dozens, or even hundreds, at each park. I took more at Copper Falls than any other place I visited on my journey, as it was the only park I spent multiple nights at.

How would I describe Copper Falls to a southern Wisconsinite? I would say it’s the Devil’s Lake of the north. It’s a well-known park, and deserves to be because of the splendid views. While Amnicon Falls has a cozy feel, Copper Falls State Park is a land of deep gorges and lofty views. Like Devil’s Lake, the views attract a lot of visitors. The trails were crowded when I first went during the day, but starting at about 5 in the evening the traffic slowed way down. I ran into very few people at this time and hardly any starting at about 7. Packing a meal I could easily eat on the trail paid off because everyone else was eating back at their campsites.

This gave me a lot of time to enjoy the numerous overlooks without feeling like I’m hogging the view. My favorite views were from the backside of the falls, watching the water cascade down. There was so much energy in the water’s rush toward Lake Superior. The water is colored a warm brown with tannic acid, but that is not how the falls get their name. The name also has nothing to do with the color of the rocks. Instead, it comes from failed attempts at copper mining in the area. That is a fact I learned from the many interpretive signs along my hike. I have to say the colors are interesting though, and I do not blame myself for thinking the falls were named for them before my visit. The color of the water is especially nice; it’s like watching beer tumble into a glass.

Along my hikes, especially the more solitary ones, I was wary of bears and other regional megafauna, but I never saw any. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a black bear (Ursus americanus) from the distance. Instead, a saw a few red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and black squirrels (a color variation of the eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis). On a side trip through Ashland county I didn’t encounter any moose (Alces alces) but I saw several white admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis) butterflies along a stretch of gravel road.

White admiral

The falls themselves are part of the Bad River (Copper Falls) and the Tyler Forks (Brownstone Falls). Copper Falls is 29 feet high and Brownstone Falls is 30. In addition to the falls there are also smaller cascades, rapids, and a geological feature known as Devil’s Gate.

Copper Falls
Copper Falls, second view
Brownstone Falls, front view
Looking down from Brownstone Falls
Tyler Forks (foreground) flowing into the Bad River
Fallen logs in the gorge
Devil’s Gate (background) and an island with cairns

Upon leaving Copper Falls State Park I made the long drive back to Madison.

I did not leave the state on my week off as I had originally planned on doing, but I found spectacular landscapes nonetheless. I had wanted to go up north again for a while now, but I hadn’t known it was the right time until it happened.

A popular picture spot at the park

Road Trip Part II: Amnicon Falls State Park

On the third day of my road trip I arrived at Amnicon Falls SP, and it is now one of my favorite parks. Situated on the Amnicon River in Douglas County, this is the smallest state park I visited along my way. That might be part of why it was my favorite stop for a few reasons.

This is not a high-traffic park, at least compared to ones like Devil’s Lake or Copper Falls. Walking around, I did not have to worry about walking into the frames of several photos, even during the busy times. By the waterfalls I was always guaranteed that I would be able to find a place to sit by myself.

With the park being so small, all the falls are within walking distance of each other. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good hike, but it’s neat having a park where everything is, well, right there when you come in. I really mean that when I say it: the park lobby is next to a decent set of rapids. I was briefly distracted by them before I went inside to purchase a site.

The three biggest waterfalls are Upper Falls and Lower Falls on the north channel and Snake Pit Falls on the south channel. Between the two channels is a rocky island that allows good views of all the falls (though the views of Upper and Lower Falls are also great from the other side of the river). What I liked about the setup at Amnicon Falls is that you can get as close to the river as you want. There are no guard rails and it is very easy to walk out to it. I could do things like eat lunch by the rapids or take a seat by Lower Falls and just watch the water rush by with a roar. Getting into the river itself is technically not allowed, but that didn’t stop another visitor from entertaining me with his cliff-diving feats at Snake Pit Falls. I wouldn’t recommend diving, and I didn’t do it myself, but I can’t say I wasn’t impressed.

Lower Falls
Lower Falls from a different angle
Snake Pit Falls with a diver
Upper Falls

Out of these three falls, Snake Pit was my favorite, and not just for the name or the diver. It does not have the volume of the other two falls, but its twists and turns captivated me, as did the deep, bowl-like pit and narrow gorge it flows into. Snake Pit was the hardest to get a decent look at from all angles, which made it the most intriguing. What goes on in the narrows? The cliff diver might know but I do not.

Road Trip Part I: Perrot State Park

On July 16th I headed out on a “slow tour” of Wisconsin, traveling the state over 6 days at a pace that let me explore places I’d merely passed through before. This was not my original plan. I had wanted to badly explore South Dakota, but with the temperature there hovering around 100, I thought heading north sounded a little better.

And so I began my journey. I started off in the Driftless Area, the part of Wisconsin (and Minnesota and Iowa) that was not leveled by the glaciers that covered the rest of the region thousands of years ago. The land there is much less flat than the rest of the state and when I was a kid I loved driving across bluffs and through steep valleys on the way to visit relatives. I still enjoy the scenery. Much of the first few days was spent exploring small town but I camped for one night at Perrot State Park. I had some time to explore the park on my second day.

Perrot is a smaller park, just under two square miles, but it packs in a lot of beauty per acre. The quintessential stop is Brady’s Bluff, which also happens to be an SNA. I woke up early on the 17th and hiked the steep hill just as dawn was beginning to creep in. The lower half of the bluff features dense woods with ferns and sandstone cliffs. The top of the bluff is a whole different story, with prairies and drier woodland. And man, what a view!

A view of nearby Trempealeau Mountain and the Mississippi
One of the steep prairies on Brady’s Bluff
Detail of the water, with the Trempealeau River being the smaller meandering in the foreground

After my morning hike, I didn’t leave the park just yet. The previous evening I had checked out Horseshoe Falls and I wanted to revisit it in better lighting. “Falls” is a misleading name because during my visit there was just a series of drips heading over the cliff, but it was beautiful just the same. Walking up to it felt like walking into an old, ornate cathedral.

Vines hung over the lip and moss grew in the wetter spots in what resembled cave formations. Two pillars of moss to the right of the main drip were roughly the size of my thighs.

Moss formations

I haven’t mentioned any wildlife yet. Animal activity slows down this time of year, especially when it comes to birds. I have a few butterfly pics that will be in later posts about this trip but I spent more time enjoying scenery than seeing a plethora of animals. Here is one exception: there is a colony of northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) at horseshoe falls. Their erratic flying and beeping added to the cathedral feel of the place. Were they perhaps the choir or possibly angels flying above any worshipers who entered?

Overall though my posts about my trip (and the pictures) will be focused more broadly on scenery than my typical emphasis on birds and other critters. That is only fitting for a trip that included stops at not only the bluffs of Wisconsin’s driftless area but also the world’s largest freshwater lake and several waterfalls farther north.

Parfrey’s Glen, 12-10-2016

Today I hosted a hike at Parfrey’s Glen. This narrow gorge is located in the Baraboo Hills and was the first area in our state to be designated as a State Natural Area. What I like about this hike is that the topography changes so dramatically in such a short distance.

The trail starts off as a flat pavement/gravel path.

The first change I notice is that once in thicker woods the path becomes less even and the valley starts closing in.

Then things really start to look, well, like a glen. The terrain gets rockier as you approach the gorge.

The inside of the glen is cozy, but wide at first.

Along the way there are always impressive ice formations this time of year. The one below resembles a rock fall.

The second part of the glen is a bit narrower. A special spot is a rock face that looks like a lion roaring. I always have to get a picture of it when I pass through. Thank you, Jon, for pointing this out to me a few years ago.

Near the end of the trail you have to climb over a pile of boulders. In the picture below you can see the remains of stone steps from when the glen was more accessible. The gorge even had a boardwalk up until the late 2000s when floods washed it away. The DNR has not rebuilt the boardwalk and I treasure the more natural vibe the place has now. The only downside is that crossing the stream (as you have to to move up the glen) can get you a little wet. That’s more of a problem now that the temperatures are below freezing than it is in the summer.

Just as suddenly the glen begins it ends in a small waterfall. The terrain becomes more open again as if the rock walls never existed in the first place.

The best thing about this being an out-and-back hike is that you get to experience the magic of the glen again heading out. As we headed back, it began to snow lightly. By the time we were about halfway back the snow intensified, bringing with it extra quiet and calm as we hiked out.

East Bluff Journey, 11-19-16

If you want quartzite cliffs rising 500 feet above a broad valley, the best place in Wisconsin to experience them is Devil’s Lake State Park. Today, along with the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group, I climbed the south face of the East Bluff.

The bluff from the parking lot
The bluff from the parking lot

We took Balanced Rock Trail up the bluff. It is a steep hike up a talus slope. Fortunately, there are stone steps along the way helping hikers ascend. The steps are made from the same rocks as the hill- this choice is as beautiful as it is practical and the steps do not distract from the landscape.

img_4478It is a quick rise. It is also more rugged terrain than I am used to seeing in Wisconsin. To me, Devils Lake feels like a miniature Colorado or other western location. Sometimes even western birds such as golden eagles and Townsend’s solitaires are spotted there. I have seen solitaires there in the past but had no such luck today.

Once you near the top of the trail, you encounter the balanced rock which the trail is named after. This pillar of quartzite sits on a side trail overlooking the valley.

Balanced Rock

At the top of the bluff, I parted with the rest of the group and headed on a short walk over to Devil’s Doorway. It was a cold, windy day, but at the cliff face the air was calm. I was warm as I slowly ambled along enjoying the scenery. Curiously, the top of the hill has a thin strip of prairie vegetation before the forest takes over again. I followed the East Bluff Trail along the cliffs.


Some shady patches still had some snow in them.
Some shady patches still had some of the season’s first snow in them.
A beautiful view looking roughly southeast
A beautiful view looking roughly southeast

After a few minutes I made it to Devil’s Doorway. This rock formation is perhaps the biggest attraction at the higher elevations of the park. I have never been able to get a picture of it without someone else in the frame and this was true even on a colder day like today. But hey, I can’t really blame people for liking it.

Devil’s Doorway and a fellow park visitor

Wanting to keep things short, I took the next trail, the Potholes Trail, back down to the “ground level” of the park. Of the three trails that lead up the south face, this is my favorite. The part that really stands out to me is when the trail passes through a tight space between two large rocks. It has the feel of a miniature canyon.

Looking up through this narrow passage
Looking up through this narrow passage

After descending the hill, the trail that leads back to the parking lot is the Grottos Trail. It is flat and by most standards is an easy* trail but this feels especially true after hiking the East Bluff! It traces along the bottom of the hill and you look look up and marvel at the beauty from a different perspective.

*except for in the winter when it’s pure ice

Grottos Trail

At almost 16 square miles, Devil’s Lake SP is the largest state park in the Wisconsin. There is much to explore there and what I described in this post is only a small portion of it.

Viewlightenment at Ferry Bluff

Do you have a place out in nature that feels like a sacred temple to you? For me that place is Ferry Bluff State Natural Area. My parents have been taking me and my brother there for almost as long as I can remember and the bluffs there have special significance to me.

When entering the SNA, the road traces Honey Creek along the bluff wall until you get to the parking area where the creek meets the Wisconsin River. From there the best way to head is up. Before I even gain that much elevation I feel a rush of emotions- this is after all the trail I loved as a kid. After a single switchback and some steep strides I make it to the top of Cactus Bluff, the first stop on the way to Ferry Bluff. The forest makes way to a small, sandy prairie. But what really gets me is the view.


As with most days there were already several view enthusiasts up there when I made the hike on Saturday. I cannot say how much time I spent up there but I looked down from the bluff at every angle I could think of. I can say I know this place like the back of my hand but that is a lie. There is always something else to notice and it is worth my time to take it all in.

Looking west from Cactus Bluff

After a while it was time to move up higher. The view is just so much more “wow” the higher you go, and so I headed up to Ferry Bluff.

The view of Ferry Bluff partway up the trail from Cactus Bluff

The path continues on up the hills and is even steeper in spots than the first half of the trail. Some parts require climbing up some rockier terrain. One of the most beautiful parts is along a narrow prairie ridge.


Eventually the path horseshoes around to the top of Ferry Bluff and you realize just how low you were before.

Cactus Bluff looks like a little bump in the terrain from this view.

It was time to sit and enjoy the view.

Looking west from Ferry Bluff

The view is so much more incredible from up there. I can say I’ve felt some sort of “viewlightenment” every time I’ve been up there. On last week’s trip is was especially strong. Being up that high can bring upon a spiritual feeling in me. I think it has to do with how I can see all the details of a relatively large area at once. Below me were the river, the creeks, and all their islands. I saw eagles, human fishermen, and lowland forests. Beyond the riverway were the farms, towns, and Blue Mound. I was in the sky, not just staring up at it, but there was still an infinite stretch of space above me. When you see all of this at once it is hard not to appreciate the interconnectedness and beauty of the world since it is staring you right in the face. Soak it in.

I could have sat there all day.

After a while I knew I had to go back down. I was meeting my friend Nicholas shortly. He wanted to get outside too so I picked him up at his place nearby and we went up Cactus Bluff together. Views do not diminish when shared with others.