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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Where the wild places are: Get lost in nature around Dane County
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Credit:Carolyn Fath

Summer is a classic time to get away from the asphalt jungle, but that doesn't mean you have to make reservations and pack your bags. Anyone in Madison is just minutes away from some impressively preserved natural areas tucked in and around the city. In no time you can leave the pavement behind and begin exploring some of the remarkable landscapes that south central Wisconsin has to offer.

The Madison area gets high marks for the exceptional character of its landscape. It's got the telltale signs of a 20,000-year-old visitor from the north, the last of several glaciers that crept down out of Canada and stopped right in our backyard, where they dropped off boulder-filled piles of loose dirt, some over 100 feet high. Abundant lakes, streams and wetlands combine with rich woods and remnant prairies, creating an outdoor tapestry that has inspired the likes of naturalist Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, the late U.S. senator and Wisconsin governor who founded Earth Day. And just to the west of town lies the Driftless Area, a more ancient landscape that remained untouched by the last three glacial advances, resulting in a rugged terrain and some unique wildlife communities.

Most Madison nature-lovers know about the big stars in our local eco-galaxy. There's the UW Arboretum, Cherokee Marsh, Picnic Point and, of course, our lakes. But within Dane County, there are lots of lesser-known venues, some of them only a few square blocks in size, where organizations are working to preserve or re-create parcels of wilderness to give us a glimpse of the area as it existed before European-descended settlers arrived.

Depending on how rough and raw you like your nature, you can pick among mowed trails, trackless woodland, marshes or grassland, and you can identify your destination with a few minutes of online searching (see sidebar).

Closest to home, the Madison Parks Division maintains about 6,000 acres of parkland. Many of the larger parks have unmowed natural areas within their borders, and 1,600 acres within the city are kept as conservation land. This conservation parkland is managed to preserve native plant communities, wildlife and natural landscapes. In order to offer a more unspoiled experience, play equipment, picnic tables and sports complexes are not on site.

The Madison Parks website lists 14 conservation parks, with descriptions of their size and features. There are also photos and a map to locate each one. But don't stop there. It's absolutely worth it to check out some of these gems in person. And don't be fooled into thinking the more acres in the park, the more isolated you'll feel when you get there. Some of the smallest are the most transporting.

Heritage Sanctuary on the far east side has fewer than 11 acres. This area was subdivided in 1971 and slated for development. The surrounding area had already been developed, leaving only the wilder area that served as a drainage corridor for the region. One basement had already been poured when a newly formed garden club brought an impressive inventory of native plants to the attention of the city in time for the established lots to be purchased and preserved at the 11th hour.

But this little sanctuary, which protects perhaps the city's richest trove of woodland wildflowers, is at risk again. It's being threatened by stormwater from street drains that can rage through the heart of the park, leaving erosion and disturbance in its wake. City engineers are working on a plan to divert these floods. When you only have a few acres to begin with, you can't afford to let any of it go down the drain.

Approach Heritage Sanctuary from Cottage Grove Road and head north on Meadowlark Drive. Park on the street by the sign and follow the split-rail fence into the sanctuary beneath a canopy of oak and shagbark hickory trees. In the spring, wild geranium, jack-in-the-pulpits, may apples, trillium, flowering dogwoods and ferns create a carpet of woodland flowers.

The yards of the properties the city was too late to purchase back up to the sanctuary on both sides, and occasionally they are visible. In places it's less than 50 yards across, which means you are never far from civilization.

Each urban wild place has its own signature city sounds, and at Heritage Sanctuary, you can't escape the drone of lawn mowers. Still, the winding path will draw you into a microcosm that represents a long-lost landscape that once surrounded Madison.

Even in some of the larger conservation parks you can't escape a brush with development. Just a few steps after entering the 60 acres of Edna Taylor Conservation Park from its parking lot on Femrite Drive, you'll find yourself in a bucolic wetland landscape of woods surrounding a marsh and open water ringed by cattails. Take a few more steps and you are looking at a condominium complex to the east.

Avert your eyes from the development and follow a path across the marsh to a glacial drumlin, an Irish term for little hill. These long, whale-shaped hills were formed by the last glacier, and they're plentiful in southern Wisconsin. The path leads into a diverse oak woodland and savanna community. This trail complex will lead you to some Native American burial and effigy mounds. There's a separate entrance off Femrite Drive to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, which uses this area for extensive environmental education projects.

For a completely different take on what 60 acres of city conservation land can get you, check out Turville Point. With a view of the Capital from across Lake Monona, this is the place for a deep-woods experience with a prairie opening in the middle.

If you haven't been there in a few years, it's worth a fresh look. The county has been clearing out the buckthorn and honeysuckle. They are also thinning out the ash stands in a preemptive strike before the emerald ash borer thins them for us. These efforts are making room for a profusion of both woodland and prairie wildflowers. A sharp eye can spot some unusual non-native plants as well, including several of the biggest Japanese tree lilacs in the state, remnants of the era when the Turville family operated a flower- and vegetable-growing business on the site.

The city conservation lands are open from before dawn to an hour after dusk. Visitors must stay on the trails, and with good reason. In these small, natural islands in an urban sea, the plants and wildlife need all the privacy they can get.

If you want to put more space between yourself and the perennial bank of barbecue grills, check out the Dane County website for a list of its natural resource areas. These lands are open to the public for hiking, fishing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, wildlife observation, nature study, and nut, berry and mushroom picking. However most of these natural areas don't even have designated trails to follow.

The county website includes maps that show each area's location and walk-in entrance. These natural resource areas prohibit motorized vehicles, bikes and camping. You need a special permit to take your dog, and you must keep it on the leash to protect wildlife.

"There may be some field roads people can walk," says Darren Marsh, Dane County parks director. "We don't put up signs or mow trails. These spaces are left in a natural state, and our efforts are confined to removing invasive species, especially in the prairie habitat. Prairie and oak savanna are a priority for us and have been for many years. Though they used to be prevalent, prairie is very limited in the landscape now."

Preserving and restoring prairies is a growing theme for the natural areas that surround Madison. In fact, in 2009 the Department of Natural Resources helped to establish the Southwest Wisconsin Grassland and Stream Conservation Area that comes within just a few miles of Madison's west side. The goal is to manage up to 12,000 acres through a process of acquisition and easement, over a four-county region that covers more than 700 square miles.

The Yahara Heights Natural Resource Site near County Highway M on the north side of Madison is one county-owned area that does have a simple trail system. This 385-acre site includes a 20-acre pet exercise area and a canoe and kayak launch.

The parcel follows the upper Yahara basin for over 3,000 feet. To enter, park just before the fence and walk along the outside of the pet exercise area. The trail winds along only about eight feet above the Yahara River water level.

As you continue down the trail you will pass 40 acres of oak savanna restoration and enter a woods. The trail winds through the woods, passing an effigy mound in the shape of a panther. You'll be following the same path Native Americans would have followed along the river to visit the mound. Unfortunately an old farm road long ago unceremoniously cut off the panther's head.

Volunteers make much of the county's environmental restoration possible, to the tune of 25,000 hours annually. Gayle Treadaway has been volunteering at the Yahara Heights site almost daily for 12 years. "It's a year-round thing," he says. "There is always something to do: clearing invasives, piling and burning brush, collecting wildflower seeds and sowing them. It's a work in progress."

Treadaway says Yahara Heights is a great place to see cranes up close. "We have quite a few nesting pairs in the marsh along the edge of the river. They keep coming back, and they've gotten used to seeing people on a regular basis."

That's the silver lining to getting one's nature fix in an urban setting. The wildlife that remains in these areas become accustomed to humans nearby and often let hikers come much closer than their rural counterparts will tolerate.

While the county oversees some memorable wild areas, the bulk of Dane County's natural areas are managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Wisconsin had the first state-sanctioned nature preserve program dating back to 1951, and became a national model.

Like the county natural areas, most state natural areas don't have maintained trails. You can walk where you want and bring your dog, but keep Fido on his leash from April 15 to July 31 to protect nesting birds. Hunting is allowed on these lands. Go to the DNR website and type in "2012 season dates" to see when hunters may be targeting their prey.

Until about 15 years ago, these areas were called state scientific areas and maintained primarily for research of native plant communities and rare habitats. But now you can go online and pull up information about all 653 sites throughout the state along with directions and a description of what you will find. There are at least 100 such sites within an hour's drive of Madison.

One of the closest is the Nevin Springs Fishery and Wildlife Area in Fitchburg. Acquired by the state in 1876 to use as a fish hatchery, its 14 natural springs feed into the Yahara River system. The Capital City Bike Trail cuts through it between Fish Hatchery and Syene roads. From a parking lot where the bike trail crosses Syene you can walk west along the trail for about 20 minutes until you come to a memorial bench on your left. About 40 paces back east of the bench, you will see a hint of a path that heads north under a big white cedar tree and into the woods.

Follow the faint trail, climbing over some downed trees, and keep working your way down an increasingly muddy path thick with deer prints. You'll know you are getting close when you see two huge, sprawling, open-grown oaks that have recently had the upstart white cedars cleared away from them.

It's a big spring with a sand boil, which occurs when water pressure wells up through the sand. You can watch the water gush up from under a glacial boulder, which would be a great place to sit down and cool your feet with fresh spring water on a hot summer day.

This area is not pristine, but it is wild. "We are working on some invasive species control," says Nancy Frost, a DNR wildlife biologist for Dane County. "Budgets are small right now. We are hoping we can do more in the future."

As for other state natural areas in the area, Lodi Marsh near Lodi is one of the more accessible. It includes not only a large open wetland but also a hill rising 240 feet from the marsh bottom with red oak, sugar maple and basswood forest on its north side and a small dry prairie on the southern slope.

Goose Lake Drumlins near Deerfield is a 760-acre refuge that includes all or part of six drumlins, a tamarack forest, two lakes and a bog that harbors pitcher plant and bog rosemary, which are both rare in Dane County. The state is doing some restoration work in this area.

Pleasant Valley Conservancy south of Mount Horeb is well worth a visit. In the space of 143 acres, you can see most native Wisconsin ecosystems, including oak woodland, oak savanna, dry and wet prairie, sedge meadow, open marsh and bubbling springs. Pleasant Valley's diverse ecosystem makes for an unusually rich home for butterflies, and the Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Association makes an annual pilgrimage here in June.

Many nonprofit organizations are also preserving wild places in the area. Most of them are hiding in plain sight.

The Ice Age Trail, a thousand-mile footpath roughly following the border of the farthest advance of the last Ice Age glacier, cuts through Dane County. This trail is a massive undertaking and is constantly evolving as volunteers clear new sections. The Dane County chapter has a website detailing the route with notes on route changes and current conditions.

"A lot of effort is spent on landscape restoration," says Andrew Bent, Dane County Ice Age Trail coordinator. "You take an old farm field and turn it into a beautiful prairie or a mixed woodland of dubious origins and turn it into an oak savanna - that takes work. There is an infinite need for active volunteers, and it's a great way to get outdoors as well as just going for a walk."

In the section closest to Madison, the boundary between glaciated and driftless regions runs from Lodi through Cross Plains and down to Verona. Some of Bent's favorite sections of the trail include Table Bluff near Cross Plains, Hickory Hill near Lodi and Montrose near Brooklyn, the newest section to be completed. He also likes to walk the Madison segment, especially in winter. It crosses an expanse of grassland, then weaves through the University Ridge Golf Course off County M on Madison's far southwest side, switching between exactingly manicured greens and cool green woodlands. "It's amazing how isolated you feel out there on a winter's day," he says.

If you want to travel not only back to nature but back in time, the Prairie Enthusiasts are preserving remnants of the great oak savanna and prairie that once covered this part of the state. Their website details the areas that are available to visit around Madison.

A good choice to get a sense of the vast solitude that confronted the settlers is the newly preserved Mounds View Grassland, 500 acres of rolling remnant prairie, active crop and pastureland, and cold-water streams. From Mount Horeb, travel west 3.5 miles on Hwy. 18/151, then south on County F 4.9 miles to Reilly Road (pay close attention to stay on F), then west on Reilly 0.5 miles until the road dead-ends at the preserve.

Mounds View Grassland offers quite a few amenities: information boards, a portable toilet and trails out into the grassland and through a woody ravine. You won't hear any highway traffic or lawnmowers out there, just the ever-present wind flowing across the grassy surface in a way that reminds you why the pioneers called the prairie an inland sea.

Let your fingers do the walking first
An easy way to find that remote spot involves a little virtual exploration to get your bearings. Here are links to many area wild places:

City of Madison Conservation Parks
Dane County Natural Resource Areas
Wisconsin State Natural Areas
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Leopold Wetland Management District
Ice Age Trail Alliance
The Prairie Enthusiasts
The Nature Conservancy
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
has published a handbook to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the State Natural Areas Program. This is a great resource to keep in your glove compartment.

[Editor's note: Nevin Springs is designated a fishery and wildlife area, not a State Natural Area.]

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