Having grown up in Madison, you would think I’d be more familiar with the parks in the southwestern part of Wisconsin. You would be wrong. As I’ve mentioned, my parents aren’t exactly outdoorsy types (unless you count sitting on the porch with cocktails – that’s technically outdoors, right?). My mom hates cold weather, is terrified of snakes, and thinks “roughing it” is a hotel without room service. My dad once took me camping; the two of us stayed in a huge tent (each with our own full-size cot) and brought a generator so we could run a box fan all night*. Awesome? Yes. Outdoorsy? Not so much.
Until I met my husband, I could count the number of state parks I had been to on one hand. I’m pretty sure I had only been to three: Governor Nelson State Park in Madison (a few times), Lake Kegonsa State Park (for a Girl Scout summer day camp), and Parfrey’s Glen, part of Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin Dells (as part of a field biology summer school course; one of those classes you take for fun… or because your parents tell you you’re taking a course and your only choice is which one). So when my hubby and I both had things to do in the greater Madison area Saturday night, I was all over his suggestion that we head to Mirror Lake State Park for a stroll on Sunday.
With its sandstone bluffs, a beautiful beach, and almost 20 miles of hiking trails, Mirror Lake State Park, situated in the Baraboo/Wisconsin Dells area, is approximately 2200 acres of serenity. While the park is located in a tourist-heavy area of the state (and has more than 150 campsites), the lake’s name comes from its propensity to be so still that not a single disturbance mars its surface; if that’s not serene, I don’t know what is.
Okay, brief history/geology lesson: Wisconsin was largely covered by a huge glacier about 10,000-20,000 years ago. The region that wasn’t is generally referred to as the Driftless Area, so-called because it lacks the stuff glaciers leave behind after they’ve gone (aka “glacial drift”). Mirror Lake State Park is in the corner of the Driftless, but that doesn’t mean the area wasn’t affected by the glaciers. Take Dell Creek, for example. It begins in nearby Juneau County, flows southeast into Sauk County, and then makes a right angle near Reedsburg and continues northeast through Mirror Lake. Geologists think that outwash from the nearby glacier ultimately resulted in the creek’s odd path; before then, the creek probably kept going to the southeast until it found the Wisconsin River. Many a gorge was created by Dell Creek, so thanks, glaciers!
Now, back to the park.
With our two dogs in tow (or, in some cases, leading the charge), we took off down the Newport Trail, which was festively decorated with tiki torches for their upcoming Candlelight Ski, Hike, & Snowshoe event. While several trails are open for hiking in the winter, a fair number are either unavailable in the off-season (such as the awesomely-named Time Warp Trail) or are designated as cross country ski trails (no hiking allowed) while snow-covered. Thankfully, the Newport Trail was open for business.
While probably not as cold (and certainly not as windy) as our walk along the Milwaukee Lakefront, it was not a particularly balmy day. This was less of a problem for us, and more a problem for our 9-pound fur-child, Penny Lane. My husband was kind enough to carry the little one when she was too cold or too tired (or too stubborn) to keep up with the rest of us, leaving me free to take photos.
From the Newport Trail we hopped on to the Northwest Trail, hoping to get to Fern Dell Gorge, a state natural area (designated in 2003) that exists entirely within Mirror Lake State Park. Based on our later calculations we almost made it to the gorge, but we didn’t quite make it. Aside from the “Wrong Way” signs along the trail (which we may have ignored), it also started getting steeper and hillier. We weren’t exactly at the top of our games on Sunday (me having pain from Saturday’s lakefront walk and him suffering the repercussions of a wild night out), so we decided to turn back around while we were still in good enough condition to make it back to our car.
It was a nice, peaceful two (or so) mile walk through the park; we walked past a few campsites, got a feel for the place, and saw some cool things. Among the many boot and paw prints in the snow, we also noticed deer and turkey tracks. There were some really beautiful (and trippy) patterns in a few patches of ice. And we ran across a pair of ducks who were out enjoying what little open water there was and then settling down on the ice (which seems uncomfortable to me, but I’m not a duck).
As with Tower Hill State Park, I definitely want to return to Mirror Lake, both in warmer weather, as well as during winter again (the gorge is supposed to be particularly lovely with a fresh blanket of snow). For now, I’m just happy that we got out to do some walking in Wisco.
If you’re planning to visit Mirror Lake State Park, here are a few things of note:
- In addition to its 150+ campsites, there is an accessible cabin on the property. Also available to rent is the Seth Peterson Cottage, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commissions.
- To see what trails may be open during your visit, be sure to check the appropriate map. Some trails on the summer map aren’t available on the winter map.
- Pets are allowed in most of the park (beaches and picnic areas excluded), but have to be on a leash (8 ft or shorter). And for the love of everything, pick up after them.
- Hiking trails range from .3 miles to 2.4 miles, so you should be able to find something no matter your experience level. For those who prefer two wheels to two feet, there are also biking trails in the warmer months.
And, as always, here are some links for more learning!
Wisconsin DNR – Mirror Lake State Park
Wisconsin DNR – Fern Dell Gorge
Mirror Lake State Park Visitor Guide
Driftless Area History (Town of Wheatland)
*For the record, my dad and I both suffer from tinnitus so we need the white noise to help us sleep. I still take a fan camping, but it’s smaller and battery-operated.