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Wyalusing State Park & Hardwood Forest

Back in August, Lisa and I went on a weekend camping trip to Wyalusing State Park. We camped here about 5 years ago when we first started dating so it was about time for a return trip!

About the Park

Wyalusing State Park and Hardwood Forest is a 2700-acre park located in southeastern Wisconsin, near Prairie du Chien. Perched atop the 500-foot-tall river bluffs, the park overlooks the confluence (where two rivers meet) of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. Wyalusing is a wildlife and biodiversity wonderland.

One of the things that makes Wyalusing so unique is the unbroken continuum of forest types that lie within the park boundaries. In simple terms, this means that there are an unbroken series of distinct forest habitats, all with their own unique mix of plants and animals. This doesn’t happen too often anymore because the natural progression from one forest type to the next usually gets disturbed by human development. Seeing the environment change from a river floodplain to drier hardwood bluffs and on to prairie meadows was really special.

Starting at the low elevations in the river’s floodplain, the forest is dominated by flood-tolerant trees like silver maples and cottonwoods. Silver maples and cottonwoods are two trees that are known for getting pretty big, and we were not disappointed! We saw some massive trees!

As you move up in elevation to the mid-slope, the forest shifts to a drier forest habitat dominated by red oak, sugar maple, and black walnuts. The park is famous for its large stands of massive black walnut trees. Lisa and I had the opportunity to marvel at the size of some of these behemoths while we were hiking.

Continuing upwards to the top of the slope and away from the cliffs, the forest opens up into verdant pockets of prairie meadows. We visited in early August so the fields were flushed with blooming yellow coneflowers, silphiums, and goldenrod. We also saw some butterflies fluttering around on this white boneset flower. (I think this is what it’s called, if anyone knows for sure what it is, let me know).

Campsite

We stayed at the Wisconsin Ridge campground site which is situated on the north end of the park. Half of the campsites are right on the north edge of the ridge and provide an amazing view of the river. The other half of the campsites are on the backside of the ridge, tucked into a dense hardwood canopy. That’s where we wanted our campsite to be! The campsites with a view are cool and all, but they are much closer together and have more people. Lisa and I are antisocial trolls (well, mostly me) who like to be tucked into the woods more than out in the open.

But what this campsite lacked in scenic vistas, it more than made up for with wildlife! We were in the thick of it right in camp! Within a few hours of arrival, we were visited by a little gang of young raccoons out looking for some food to steal. Public Service Announcement… make sure you always clean up your campsites and never leave food or food scraps out ever. It attracts animals and then they become habituated to eating your trash and it creates problems… PSA over.

We also had an encounter with a skunk! This was the first time I have ever seen a live skunk out in the wild. It made me a little nervous. Not that he was doing anything particularly menacing, he was just sniffing around looking for some tasty bugs to eat, but I didn’t know how to make him go away. I didn’t want to startle him and make him spray us out of fear, but I also didn’t want him hanging out near us forever. So, I decided to just awkwardly stand there staring at him. Luckily, Lisa moved a plastic tub around and the noise scared him away.

The most exciting thing we saw was a barred owl! It was beautiful (I’m a sucker for birds of prey)! We saw it perch in a tree barely 15 yards from us while we were having a campfire. Naturally, Lisa and I both pulled out our binoculars and proceeded to stare at the owl for the next 30 minutes. What’s even more amazing is that we saw it actively hunting! It would perch on a low branch, looking around until it locked onto something it saw or heard. Then it would silently swoop down into the leaf litter and try and grab whatever unlucky rodent it was hunting. Unfortunately, it was too dark for us to see clearly whether or not the owl was successful. But we still felt so lucky to have been able to watch the owl hunting so close to us. It was actually my favorite part of the whole trip!

Hiking Trails

When we visited the Wyalusing in August, we made sure went on a couple of hikes. One of our favorites from this trip was the Big Sand Cave and Little Sand Cave trails. You pass Big Sand Cave on your way to Little Sand Cave so I’ll count them as one trail. The trail is a lightly-traveled out-and-back that’s about 2 miles each way with about 360 feet of elevation gain, so I would call it a moderate difficulty trail. The parking area that accesses this trail is pretty small, so if it’s peak season, I would suggest getting there earlier.

The trail follows the contour of the ridge along a steep valley and takes you through a lush, hardwood forest. And best of all, the trail takes you to a rock feature, which is a key component of any good hike! And that clearly isn’t my geology bias showing… The Big Sand Cave is an area where the little stream has eroded the soft sandstone bedrock to create a little waterfall. Due to the lack of rain, the waterfall was no more than a small trickle. That was actually a blessing in disguise because we could walk right up to it and let the cascading water cool us down a little (it was a super-hot day when we went).

After we saw Big Sand Cave, we continued down the trail towards Little Sand Cave. As the name would suggest, it was pretty similar to Big Sand Cave, just smaller. I took the opportunity to stand under the waterfall again and cool off (I don’t do well in the heat).

We also hiked the Bluff and Old Immigrant Trails. They are a 3.4-mile loop with 650 feet of elevation gain, so it’s a moderate intensity hike. The trailhead was conveniently located about a hundred yards away from our campsite, so we didn’t even have to drive to it. The trail takes you from the top of the bluff, down to the edge of the Wisconsin River and then back up the bluff again. It’s a perfect way to see that forest continuum I talked about earlier. There are tons of beautiful, massive trees along the trail that are really amazing to see.

Wyalusing is an underrated park that’s intensely beautiful and unique. Whether you want to hike some trails, canoe the river, or see some huge trees, this park has it all! I hope you take the time to visit this Wisconsin gem! Happy camping!

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