If you can put up with the Dells, you’ll love Mirror Lake

Morning coffee and park guide

State parks are family, and we love them unconditionally. But sometimes it’s harder to tolerate the hangers-on who family members bring along as baggage.

That’s the case with Mirror Lake State Park, which is like your cool brother who has a lovely wife. Let’s just call her Rocky Arbor State Park, and let’s just NOT talk about her father, the highly successful but brash and overbearing guy whose name is Wisconsin Dells.

OK, let’s.  You can’t discuss Mirror Lake without the conversation turning toward the obnoxious father-in-law, who, truth be told, has his good points.

So this week’s column will be about bad weather, good shelter, wonderful trails, high prices and everything else that comes with a foray into Wisconsin’s most beautiful and overpopulated tourist attractions.

Plan B for “beautiful” 

The intent had been to drive Thursday to Devil’s Lake State Park, south of Baraboo, and hope we were lucky enough for a first-come, first-served camping spot before another busy weekend.  A week before, the online reservation system had shown no reservable sites available at Devil’s Lake, but there were still multiple sites available at Mirror Lake, just up the road.

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Knowing what we know about non-reservable sites, we figured we at least had a shot. They’re often available during the week, but we needed a backup plan.

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Time to start asking questions about Rib Mountain proposal

Some potentially bad news confronted me last week, reminding me of what we should all do when that happens: ask lots of questions, and head for the mountains.

Or the mountain.  Because I’m writing literally, not metaphorically.

I am not talking about the possibly apocalyptic farce that is our so-called election or its aftermath.  I’m talking about Rib Mountain State Park, which apparently is still the target of ski-slope expansion plans.

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Who’s planning it?  Why?  Is it viable?  What will it do to our beloved state park?  On balance, will the costs be greater than the benefits? Who exactly will this benefit?

Most importantly – should we go hike more trails over there right now?  The answer to that is yes. Continue reading

Hoffman Hills Recreation Area: Lovely destination, or just rest stop

6Trips to the Twin Cities area are always fun for me and my family, but even though Minnesotans are right up there with Sconnies when it comes to good Midwestern manners, the big city still seems to sicken plenty of folks with various forms of affluenza, common coldness and rudella, among other diseases.

So, if you’re headed in that general direction and need a breath of fresh air and a slice of natural beauty before hitting the urban jungle, consider the Hoffman Hills Recreation Area as a stopover.

Least visited?  Not this past week 

I’ve mentioned Tim Brewer’s guidebook, Wisconsin’s Outdoor Treasures, as a source that has yet to steer me wrong.  Because I was making a trip to Hudson last weekend – which as far as I’m concerned is merely an extension of Minneapolis-St. Paul despite being on the eastern bank of the St. Croix River – I followed Brewer’s advice for a visit to Hoffman Hills.

Just north of Menomonie, this small state park is characterized by Brewer as one of Wisconsin’s least visited, even on weekends – perhaps because its scenery is less spectacular than so many other northwestern Wisconsin natural areas.  But it does have relatively tall and steep hills, as the last glacier to cross Wisconsin didn’t hit the area.

Apparently I hit it on just the right – or wrong – weekend.  The 707-acre park’s main parking lot, which appears to hold just under 40 cars, had exactly two spaces left when I arrived.

There’s a slightly larger overflow parking lot down the road, on the edge of the Catherine Hoffman Hartl Memorial Wetland. I don’t know how many cars were there, but given the number of people I saw and heard in the park, it probably had a few.

A large party of adults and kids enjoyed a group picnic and playing games in the open space just past the parking lot.  No matter. Once I hit the Tower Nature Trail, billed as a two-mile loop to the park’s 60-foot observation tower atop a high point in the park, things quieted dramatically.

Although I could frequently hear exuberant, youthful shouting ringing through the hills from more than one direction, the peaceful woods enveloped me.


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Hoffman’s well developed trail system seems to funnel everyone toward the tower atop one of the highest points in Dunn Count.  The park’s topography, excellent signage and the cleverness of the trail system seem to make it almost impossible to get lost. Virtually every trail offshoot still heads in the general direction of the tower and rejoins the path to the top.

At the same time, those offshoots meander to quiet, wooded areas of the park that allow both privacy and longer hikes with plenty of scenic variation.

Because I had less than two hours before I had to get back on the road, I was acutely aware of staying on a relatively direct path to the top. I also noticed that I never lost my bearings.

Each time I came to a trail juncture offering alternative paths, I could correctly guess which trail I needed to take for efficiency’s sake before confirming it on the map.  I also saw that, given more time, I could always take the less-efficient choice and still be heading in the same general direction.

I was startled by the contrast with many of my home-area favorites, such as Hartman Creek and state natural areas featuring the Ice Age Trail to our east, as well as Portage County’s Standing Rocks Park. There, I’ve become more easily disoriented simply because of the different physical layouts of those areas and the way trails are developed.

That’s not a criticism of those places – a great joy of nature is the privilege of feeling lost (assuming you don’t need to find your way somewhere quickly) and the challenge of knowing your location.  It’s just that Hoffman seems uniquely suited to wandering about on various loops and never stumbling off your path.

The tower offers fine, distant views stretching from the southeast to the southwest, with only direct southerly views being obscured by the park’s high hills. For about 320 degrees of a full circle, visitors to the tower see miles upon miles of landscape covering about 320 degrees of a full-circle view.

The most spectacular fall colors had apparently passed, but there was still plenty to see from up top, including large bands of golden yellow and all of the burnished shades of brown, copper, chestnut, chocolate and fading red, plus fields varying in color from emerald to straw. A few prosperous-looking farms and silos, distant hills and valleys, and plenty of blue sky lay all around.

Trails are wide enough for snow-grooming tractors, as the park is a popular cross-country skiing destination. It looks fun and challenging – perhaps a bit beyond my current skill in many places, as I’m not yet so great at stopping and controlling my downhill speed.  Hoffman has a few places where there are strenuous slopes for walking either up or down and plenty of more gentle inclines for walkers that would make for stimulating skiing and fantastic exercise.

Hoffman has a very nice group campsite with a small tiered fireplace area and an open-sided shelter with picnic tables partway up the tower trail.

Outside of the wetland area, the park is heavily forested and hilly, so the winding trails, changing elevations and fine trees (a dozen major types of oak, pine, hawthorn and others) make a great natural experience not too far from the big city.


(Originally published Oct. 28, 2016 in The Portage County Gazette)

Land and water fund, others still in danger


Last week was all about thankfulness.  Now, a week into the holiday season and with winter apparently ready to hit us full on, it’s time for a little crankfulness.

Being cranky is easy when we look outside to see a cold, dreary, dank, dark world. But doing something about a bad mood doesn’t have to be difficult.  In this case, I’m talking about counteracting our continued destruction of American outdoor values.

My son sam and brother-in-law Fernando enjoying a sunset on the Cape Final Trail on the Grand Canyon's North Rim in 2007. The Grand Canyon is one of many national parks that have received LWCF funding.

My son Sam and brother-in-law Fernando enjoying a sunset on the Cape Final Trail, Grand Canyon’s North Rim, 2007. The park is one of many funded by the LWCF.

Before we get there, a little scene-setting is in order.  I’ve been hoping recently for at least a bit of warmer, drier weather to finish up the fall yard and garden cleanup – getting rid of the decay and dead remains of that which once brought beauty and hope, the growth from warmer seasons when it’s easier to focus on good things in life.

In winter, we may be prone to looking around and detecting rot and putrescence that eventually freezes into a lump of useless, ugly blight.  You know what I mean:  Congress.

Not all of Congress. It’s primarily one guy, who also happens to be the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources –Rob Bishop of Utah.

Never was there a congressman whose first name more aptly described his relationship to the American people.

He’s the guy holding up reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program which for 50 years provided the country with many of its spectacular and well known outdoor recreation opportunities, along with immeasurable benefits to communities, regions and states that used the fund for park and recreation projects.

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1,631 words of outdoor thankfulness … and counting

Many faithful Gazette readers know the TV listings are now gone.  When Gazette managing editor Nate Enwald and I first talked about this column, he mentioned that at least for a few weeks, I could write up to 1,500 words if I wanted.  It would help fill the void when those listings faded to black.

Footbridge over the Eau Claire River, Marathon County

Footbridge over the Eau Claire River, Marathon County

I keep waiting for Nate to tell me to tap the brakes, but the last time I checked he said I should keep the pedal down.  That means, because it’s that time of year, I’m writing 1,500 words of thanks.

First things first: I’m thankful for the opportunity to do this column, meaning much appreciation goes to the people at the Gazette, a locally owned publication that covers real local news with local folks.

I’m writing for two reasons.  I love to write, and I love to get outside.  I don’t do either one enough, but the Gazette encourages me to do both.

And here’s a point of gratitude that needs to be right out front.  I’m thankful for the life and work of Gazette co-founder George Rogers, who I never met and who passed away in 2013, but whose influence on the community and on people’s love for the outdoors was clearly enormous.

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