hiking Wisconsin

Hiking the Spring Green Preserve

October is what we deem “Leafer Season” here in Wisconsin, meaning on the weekends our country roads, small towns, farm stands, and orchards are packed with people flocking to see the change in foliage.

I’ve lived in this state my entire life and yet I still find myself falling into the seasonal shenanigans. (ooh! Alliteration and a pun! Get it…FALLing.)

One of my favorite pilgrimages is to the small town of Spring Green, WI. Famously known for the original Taliesin building created by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. They are also known for American Player’s Theater, one of the best Shakespearean theaters in the world. It’s a quaint and quirky town of less than 5000 people, yet it manages to boast an economy of restaurants, coffee shops, several artisan studios, and specialty shops.

I grew up in a town not far from Spring Green, but spent much of my life there and had friends whose parents lived there. It feels more like home to me than my actual home town in a lot of ways and I think that’s because of the overall artsy, hippy culture that thrives behind the farms, local branch of Culver’s, and the kids wearing River Valley Blackhawks gear (the high school mascot).

Spring Green boasts a lot of beautiful places to enjoy nature, beyond sitting in the woods watching Macbeth or A Mid Summer Night’s Dream. It’s nestled right on the Wisconsin river with not only the river itself, but the bottoms and many ponds that surround it. There’s even Tower Hill State Park, a small but interesting natural area that has an original shot tower still on the premises.

While we had plans of visiting the park, I had actually wanted to explore a slightly lesser known natural area called the Spring Green Preserve. It’s a parcel of land run by the local branch of the Nature Conservancy. The reason this place is so special is that there are very few like it in our state. It’s a mix of desert and black oak barrens in an entirely un-glaciated region, meaning it is in the same state it has been for thousands of years. You can see cacti and lizards along side cranes, deer, and other wildlife. It’s truly unlike anywhere in the area, minus a couple of untouched areas of Lone Rock, WI which is very tiny town located just down highway 14 from Spring Green.

The last time I had visited the preserve was my senior year of high school for my AP Environmental Science class. I had remembered enjoying all the new natural areas I had not realized were in places I drove past on a regular basis. This is one that for those who know, really enjoy visiting it and for those who don’t, it’s just a pretty ridge off in the distance.

My partner and I took some back roads to Spring Green from Madison to get in the beautiful rolling hills covered in trees starting their annual turning into yellows, oranges, and fiery reds. It’s not peak turn at the moment, so there was still a fair bit of green. Nonetheless it’s still a gorgeous drive.

The driftless region of Wisconsin runs deep for those of us who have lived here a long time. It’s untouched by the ancient glaciers that manipulated so much of our state. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in the rolling hills of Kentucky in some areas of the state. Not quite mountains, but there are some really breathtaking views in the driftless that make you appreciate the quiet beauty of Wisconsin. Something many don’t appreciate as they consider the Midwest to be flyover territory.

That’s ok, we’ll keep it our own little secret.

Upon our arrival to Spring Green our first stop was the Spring Green General Store. A hippie haven with a great cafe, an ever changing mural on its side, and a nice shop with eclectic offerings. I always seem to find a little something there that I love. This trip it was a natural toothpaste I like that comes in a glass jar rather than in a tube. It’s difficult to find and only a couple of stores in Madison carry it and they don’t always have it. That’s the magic of the Spring Green General store, it just knows.

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KJ posing for me in front of the infamous graffiti wall.

We ordered up lunch. I with a vegetarian chilly, deluxe with all the accoutrements. My partner ordered a vegetarian burrito. Both delicious and warm and just what we needed to fuel up for our hike.

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A literal cornucopia displayed outside the General Store

Before we made our way to the preserve, we stopped in a couple of artsy shops across the street. There’s a little mall of shops and cafes on Albany Street. We saw some lovely pieces and I kept mental notes of things for the holiday season.

Shortly after we hopped in our car and made our way to the preserve. On the way there we ran into a closed rode due to flooding. It seems the area around the preserve that was developed either for farming or housing had been a couple of feet under water. So much so that a gaggle of geese seemed to have claimed it for their own. We had to brave a somewhat gnarly puddle to drive into the preserve, but the land on the preserve was oddly bone dry.

I guess that’s nature’s way of telling us humans, hah, told you you shouldn’t have messed with me. It’s true. If we leave the land untouched or manage it properly, it will take care of us. When it’s not, we have hell to pay.

We got suited up and started on our trek. The trail is primarily sandy almost all the way up until the oak barren. My partner had never seen a natural area like this in Wisconsin. I pointed out the prickly pear cacti that were growing alongside the trail. No lizards were sighted, but I know from experience they are there as are painted box turtles and other cool creatures.

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Mushroom! Mushroom!

The trail was pretty overgrown with tall foliage. I was happy to have grabbed my trekking poles. I went so long without using them, but when we had hiked Gem Lake over the summer when we visited Rocky Mountain National Park, I realized that my active person’s left knee wasn’t going to take the abuse it once did. Too many snowboarding and cycling crashes. So, I’m getting used to using them and learning how to utilize them to take the pressure off the knees.

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The protectors of knees.

Grasshoppers were in abundance. We tried our best not to step on any, but there may have been a few casualties along the way. (Eek, sorry!) There were also many small red dragonflies about. We don’t see many red ones near us as the lakes usually have blue or green ones. My guess is that’s a biological thing. A red dragonfly would likely draw more attention to itself on the water and get eaten much faster than one that blends in with the colors of the water. Out in the prairie, red things tend to blend in more.

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Making friends on the trail

The hike itself is only 3.2 miles, an out and back. There are no other trails in the preserve. That is, legal trails. Plenty of stupid human traces of people not respecting the land and cutting down the bluff.

The first half of the hike is all uphill. It’s a gradual climb up until the oak barren and then it’s a moderate incline up until you get to the top of the bluff at a beautiful overlook. We were dressed for much colder weather as it hasn’t been over 50 degrees all week. Of course we pick the day where it got nearly to 70 out to be dressed in layers and have wool socks on. It got sweaty fast, but we pulled a layer off and ended up being ok. The trail on All Trails is listed as Moderate difficulty. I guess I could agree with that as it was quite overgrown when we went and it’s sandy, but in comparison to other, more challenging stuff I’ve hiked I would say it’s an easy trail. I don’t think anyone who is fully capable of climbing up a hill would find it all that challenging. It’s probably actually easier in the summer when they do more trail maintenance. Not a humble brag or anything of the like, just in comparison to hikes in places with actual mountains, it’s not as challenging.

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Not quite turning all the way, but the birches were ready.

My hikes generally take much longer than they would because I enjoy nature photography and videography, so I annoyed my partner by stopping for a bit every so often to snap a photo off here or there. Eventually I could tell it was time to go, so we hustled back to the car and of course stopped at the Midwestern fast food mecca, Culver’s. We don’t eat there often, so when we do car trips, it’s kind of our special treat. The spicy chicken sando and cheese curds with diet root beer is where its at!

I would highly recommend checking out the Spring Green Preserve if you are in the area and have a couple hours to kill. The hike is not very challenging and the view at the top is totally worth it. You get to see a unique micro-climate that is becoming harder to find in Wisconsin and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the area is.

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Dry, sandy trail.

Thanks as always for reading. If I can get enough footage, I’ll likely get a short video up on the Spoke Haven YouTube so you can see a bit of the hike and the Spring Green General Store. Please follow, like, subscribe, and all that good stuff.

For up to date photos and glimpses of adventures in real-time you can follow @spokehaven on Instagram and @twowheelfitness for more health, wellness, and fitness related content.

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A view from the top. Although I realized I left my polarizing filter for my lens at home. Damnit!
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