Tower Hill State Park

My first “planned” adventure was on January 6th. I use quotation marks there because I had actually planned to go to Governor Dodge State Park, but a little research suggested that the trail I wanted to walk might be closed for hiking since we actually had some snow on the ground. Instead, I decided on nearby Tower Hill State Park, which I’d not only never been to before, but wasn’t entirely sure I’d even heard of until I saw it on the list of state parks.

About a 45-50 minute drive from the north side of Madison, Spring Green is relatively unknown to anyone not from the area. At best, it is better known for things like House on the Rock, American Players Theatre, the aforementioned Governor Dodge State Park, and Taleisin (Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate). To me, it’s long been known as “That place where we always stop at the drive-in ice cream place.” As it turns out, it is also home* to Tower Hill State Park.

I posted this to Instagram, just in case I went missing…

The park is so named because there is a shot tower on a hill. (A little on the nose, but at least it makes sense.) The tower at the park is a reconstruction of the Helena Shot Tower, originally used to make lead shot in the early 1800s via the Watts Method. For a detailed look at the method you can check out this article, but here’s a brief rundown of the process:

  1. Take molten lead to the top of the tower.
  2. Pour the molten lead from the tower.
  3. As it falls, the lead breaks into little drops.
  4. The little drops of lead solidify mid-air.
  5. Catch the lead drops in some water.
  6. BAM! You’ve got shot.

A tunnel was dug into the sandstone bluffs so the shot could be moved from beneath the tower out to the Wisconsin River for transport. According to the sign at the park, the tunnel was dug by hand and without any surveyor’s equipment. While impressive, I opted to stay outside the tunnel.

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The sign reads: “This tunnel was used to bring the lead shot from the shaft to the sorting and grading house that once stood here. After sorting and grading, the shot was sacked and loaded on barges for shipment to St. Louis and other river towns. The tunnel was dug by hand and without the use of surveyor’s instruments.”

This was my first trip to Tower Hill, so I didn’t really know what to expect, except for the little bit I had read about it online. Basically, I knew that it was closed for camping in the winter, but open for hiking… and that’s about it.

The first thing you really see when you get into the park is what appears to be the foundation of a building. Actually, that’s exactly what it is. The land was bought by a Unitarian minister in the late 1800s to use for retreats, and the foundation that remains was part of a barn. Based on the quote from Reverend Jones, his mason was pretty particular about the construction of this barn. The guy clearly knew what he was doing, since the foundation is still standing (and looks pretty solid).

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“…such as would befit a cathedral wall.” Intense.

I took a handful of pictures and then continued down a path that led to the river. Movement to my right immediately caught my eye, and I glanced up to see a red fox bounding across the frozen water. Without my long lens on, I couldn’t get a good shot, but I didn’t want to scare him (or her) away, so I simply watched for a few minutes. Eventually, I dared to swap lenses and my presence was noted. I got two shots before he disappeared. Lesson of the day? Bring two cameras and make sure one always has the zoom lens attached.

No, really. There’s a fox in this photo. I promise.

I had the entire park to myself, so I just decided to wander a bit. I checked out a few campsites (including one that has a brick oven you can use) and then headed up the main trail. Eventually I came to a point where I could keep going along the path and head for the tunnel, or I could take a number of steps up to the shot tower. Since the steps were covered in snow and my foot was beginning to bother me, I opted for the tunnel path.

Shortly thereafter I realized it was a bit of a catch-22; there were just as many steps leading down to the tunnel as there looked to be going up to the tower. Crap. I steeled myself, held my camera close, and went for it. I did slip a few times (one time in particular was a bit sketchy), but I made it and I’m here to tell the tale, so all’s well that ends well. I made it to the tunnel, at which point your only option is to turn back around and either go back up the steps (no thank you) or follow the main path back toward the park. Guess which I chose.

To get back to the park/camp, the path goes pretty steadily uphill. It’s not steep or anything, but there’s nowhere to just kick back and relax for a bit either. I normally have an inhaler with me (exercise-induced asthma), but I’d recently relocated it and was left to huff and puff in the cold air as I made my way up the path. I managed, but if I was going to do it over again, I’d have made sure to bring my damn Albuterol.

The park really was quite peaceful, and parts of it were very pretty in the snow. However, I never made it up to the shot tower, so I would really like to go back to the park in the spring or fall. I’m glad I went, though, and I enjoyed walking through this little known part of Wisco.

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If you’re looking to visit Tower Hill State Park, here’s some info you might find useful:

  • This is a Wisconsin State Park, so you’ll either need a park sticker on your vehicle or you’ll need to get a day pass.
  • There is no camping here in the off-season, only hiking, so the main gate is closed right now. The buildings (including the shot tower) are also closed until spring.
  • There are about 2 miles of trails throughout the park. Due to the nature of the driftless area, there will be uphill and downhill sections.
  • Depending on which way you walk, there are a LOT of steps. If you go in winter or when things are particularly wet, the stairs might be slippery. There are handrails for the most part, but just be careful, please.

To learn more about Tower Hill State Park and its history, check out these links:
Wisconsin DNR
Wisconsin Historical Society

*The address for Tower Hill State Park gives Spring Green as its city; however, descriptions of where the park is usually say something like, “near Spring Green” or “southeast of Spring Green” so… whatever.

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