Havenwoods State Forest

Illness, weather, busy schedules, and life (in general) have all gotten in the way of my walking lately, but at last, we were able to get out and about this weekend! Well, a bit. We got out Saturday morning, but then I ended up with a migraine that afternoon, and then we got some more snow, so… I guess some things never really change, so you just have to work around (or within) them.

Saturday morning we headed to the north side of Milwaukee to visit Havenwoods State Forest. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it; I hadn’t heard of it, either. In fact, an internet search suggests most people are unaware of its existence (more than a few results refer to it as a “hidden gem”). And when I first told my husband where it was located, he wasn’t too keen on heading there. But I was tipped off about Havenwoods by my therapist, and I can’t imagine she would knowingly send me into a dangerous area, so off we went.

Havenwoods State Forest is Wisconsin’s only urban state forest, which sounds like an oxymoron (and very well might BE one). Nonetheless, it is 237 acres of woods and wetlands in the midst of northern Milwaukee with more than 6 miles of trails (both for hiking and biking), four ponds, two creeks, a nature center, and a ton of history.


WW Sign
Biking? Yes. Boozing? No.


Havenwoods was initially a hunting ground for local Native American tribes and then became farmland in the 1800s as a part of the Town of Granville. (No big surprise there, right?) In the early 1900s, Milwaukee County decided to build a “new and improved” House of Correction on the land. Most inmates were there for a month or less, but each was given a job during his (or her, as there were a few women as well) time in the big house. There was an on-site chair factory where many prisoners worked, the products of which were later sold under the name “Granville Furniture Co.” Many others worked on the prison farm, which accounted for the majority of the 420 acres that made up the property at the time.

World War II saw a sharp decrease in the number of prisoners being held as more men and women were redeployed to support war efforts. The federal government began leasing the property shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (to use for interning people “guilty” of being born German) and over the next 20 or so years the military used the property and buildings for a number of purposes; a portion of the land even housed one of the Milwaukee area’s eight anti-aircraft missile bases.

When the site was closed in the early 1960s, the property was, more or less, abandoned. It was declared “surplus property” in 1967 and while several proposals were made, it took quite awhile to come up with an official plan for the land (which had, in the meantime, became a hotspot for vandalism and other illegal activity). Ultimately the decision was made to designate it as a nature area and Havenwoods officially became our first urban state forest in 1980.


The environmental education/awareness center, built in 1986, is located approximately where one of the prison buildings once stood. Fun!


On Saturday, the trails at Havenwoods were a bit rough due to recent temperature fluctuations. Snow had melted, refroze, melted, refroze… and was on its way back to melting. Throw in the tracks of hikers (some with chains or spikes), snowshoers, dogs, and wildlife of all sizes and we were in for some uneven (and slippery) trails. There were spots that were a bit sketchy, but we took our time and paid attention to where we stepped, so we got through just fine.

I had done a bit of research before we hit the trails and found that Havenwoods is a great spot for geocaching with 10-15 caches hidden around the property. I remembered this about 10 minutes into our visit and decided to check the app to see if any were nearby. As luck would have it, we were about 500 feet from a cache and closing in. We had to go a bit off-trail (though it’s difficult to tell where exactly the trail begins and ends when everything is covered in snow and ice), but we found it! We decided to quit while we were ahead and call this our victory for the day.


WW Robot
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot cache from the Classic Toy Series!

As far as the human population goes, we had the park mostly to ourselves. We saw one other pair of people walking along a nearby path, but I think that was it. In terms of wildlife, we had a few additional encounters. We heard and saw evidence of woodpeckers in the trees. Same goes for the squirrels, who had left hulls at the bottom of several trees. We came upon two deer in a clearing, but once they figured out we were there (and sticking around), they headed into the safety of the forest. We had hoped to come across an owl, but our visit wasn’t really at the right time of day for that. However, we did see a number of other birds, including chickadees, cardinals, and a kestrel.



WW Deer
Oh, deer!


Overall, Havenwoods is a nice escape from the city, without actually leaving the city. Sure, you can see (and sometimes hear) the city from certain parts of the trails, but it’s in a more subtle way than you might imagine. We’d be walking along and I’d just catch a glimpse of traffic going by and think, Oh yeah! I’m still in the city! I would guess that it becomes even less noticeable when the trees are full and further obstruct the view. I plan to test that theory by returning to Havenwoods this spring; after all, inquiring minds want to know!

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Looking for your own escape to Havenwoods? Here’s some info:

  • Because it’s a state forest, rather than a state park, Havenwoods State Forest is free to visit, no sticker or permit required. The trails are open daily from 6AM to 8PM.
  • Finding Havenwoods can be a bit tricky, so have your GPS/phone ready for help, or look up directions ahead of time on the DNR website.
  • Dogs/Pets are allowed on some trails, but not all. Be sure to grab a trail map/guide and pay attention to trail signs to see where your furry friends are welcome.
  • Not all of the trails are paved and those that are may not be clean and clear. I would encourage you to wear boots or hiking shoes… or, at least, shoes you don’t mind getting wet or muddy (just in case).

And now, a few parting links!
The many lives of Havenwoods (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
A Little-Known Milwaukee Gem: Havenwoods State Forest (Milwaukee Public Radio)
Trails at Havenwoods State Forest (Wisconsin DNR)
Friends of Havenwoods


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