It became a serpentine hike covering nearly 14 miles of prairie, marsh, mud, rubble, talus, forest, steep climbs, deep gorges, waterfalls and swamps but in the end we did it. We hiked border to border from the furthest end of the Sauk Prairie Recreational Area on the banks of the Wisconsin River to nearly the northern border of Devil’s Lake State Park where we left our car at Steinke Basin. While I must admit most of the “adventure” happened during the Devil’s Lake portion of the hike, the Sauk Prairie Recreational Area shows a lot of potential…
Part 1 – Sauk Prairie Recreational Area
The Sauk Prairie Recreational Area is about a 3,400 acre portion of a much larger decommissioned army ammunition plant. One look at the property map makes it quite clear that the public/DNR section came as the result of too many cooks in too many kitchens, serving too many masters. [Property Map] Folks who visit the SPRA for outdoor recreational purposes are going to struggle to mind the seemingly hodge-podged borders between DNR, USDA, & Ho-Chunk Land. The rumor is that the DNR got the land no one else wanted, thus the hodgepodge & disconnected islands.
Of course like many of us who live in the area, we’d been hearing story upon story of how this land would be used once the army moved on. Most said it would simply become part of Devil’s Lake State Park which seemed the obvious choice. There was talk of a large restored prairie where buffalo would once again roam. It was imagined that folks could drive through the gates and suddenly feel like they were in Yellowstone where Buffalo, black bear, deer, wolves & bobcats, badgers, coyotes and foxes would roam freely. Can you imagine it? People would drive from all over the midwest to see this amazing natural attraction. Well, that’s certainly not where we’re at.
Still, we do have new public lands and it still opens up the possibility for a nearly “backcountry” hiking experience right here in central Wisconsin. Something I’d been waiting years to do. Looking at the crazy map I choose the longest continuous route through public land I could find from the southern end of the Sauk Prairie Recreational Area through Devil’s Lake State Park. As much as we could along the way, we would stay off the roads. We chose this time of year when the land is still mostly drab simply to make it easier to hike off trail and to avoid ticks, mosquitoes and snakes as much as possible. We avoided the later two, but not the former.. I have lots of new tick bites! For what it’s worth, we never saw another human being the whole day.
We began our hike on the banks of the Wisconsin River. Well, not exactly. . . We first had to park along Highway 78 about 3/4 of a mile from the river, then hike around a fence and into some pretty thorny woods until eventually, we reached the banks of the river. Again, there is no trail or path. You simply push through. Once at the river, the farthest border of the SPRA, we turned around and began the hike in earnest. The DNR portion of the Wisconsin river bank holds a small ephemeral stream within an overgrown, but picturesque gulch. I’ve been told that the long term goal here is to put in a road and a boat launch. I don’t know, it’s kind of nice the way it is.. (A trail would be nice!)
Once we made our way back to Highway 78, we crossed the road and found ourselves blocked by a fence. How you actually get into the “open” public land from the eastern side without climbing a fence, jumping a gate or crossing USDA land is a mystery that we’ll leave you to solve, but for our part we were eventually hiking north through the larger portion of the SPRA.
Staying off of the roads and walking the Sauk Prairie Rec. Area does give you a real sense of openness and potential. At this moment in time it is both beautiful and desolate, a bit apocalyptic and sometimes foreboding. As you make your way over disintegrating roadways and through broken foundations it’s impossible not to feel that you’ve somehow warped into a future where the last remnants of the human race has turned to dust. As you walk, you also can’t help but consider the history of the land. Not just the Badger Ammunition plant where many of our older, local, family members once worked, but further back still. You can imagine the sense of loss for the Native Americans who were pushed off this land by settlers. How they must have felt as they watched their prairie turned over to create farmland. Then the army came and pushed off the farmers to turn their productive farms into a small city, supporting our war efforts but leaving devastation and contamination in their wake. Even today with topsoil stripped away and remediation in place, the land is far from recovered. And what next? Today we argue whether to attempt to restore it properly or to insert ATVs and shooting ranges. This endless conflict of will seems to be fated to this slice of Wisconsin landscape.
But for the moment, at this precise and probably limited time in history, as your feet push through the grass, there are only vultures sailing the blue skies above and a brash, northerly wind in your face.
Trekking across the open terrain, visitors will certainly get a sense of being “out there”. Even in April the hike is hot as the grasslands and remaining rubble store the heat. It seemed somehow fitting for us to see 13 turkey vultures circling overhead while we walked. From the southern end of the property, the wide open plain stretches out into a far distant forest where the Baraboo bluffs rise to meet a big open sky. In between there are lonely pines, stands of cedars, quiet woods, small ponds and wetlands. And yes, there are birds everywhere! It’s big in scale, beautiful, breathtaking, and feels uniquely “western” for this side of the Mississippi. This is a place where alone on a sunny, silent morning, you will feel more human.
A quick online measurement would tell you that traversing from the Wisconsin River to the northern border of the SPRA (Avoiding no-go-zones) comes in around 5 miles. (The Uplands Trail at Devil’s Lake State Park comes in around 4 miles.) Really, it’s a bit more than that when you consider the various weaving and backtracking you need to do as you make your own way through the various environs.
Hikers who are going off-road will need to avoid an asbestos remediation area and a landfill. These areas are clearly marked by signs and fencing. When in doubt, there are always roads nearby that will take you around closed areas. We also made use of abandon railroad tracks to work our way through some areas, however don’t count on the maze of abandon railroad spurs to lead you out. They often loop and dead end where buildings or other equipment once stood. There is a single railway that runs through the property from the south-central border to the north-east corner. This section will one day (we hope) become part of the The Great Sauk Trail.
With stops for snacks, photographs and to watch birds, we crossed the SPRA in about 2.5 hours. At that point we found ourselves facing another tall fence with the most challenging portion of our adventure still ahead of us. That of course will be the next blog post..
If you plan to visit the Sauk Prairie Recreational Area soon, here’s what I can share; Vehicle admission stickers are not required. The sense I have is that the SPRA is open for hunting and begrudgingly to everyone else. This is not a “GRAND” opening, but a “Soft, I guess. If we have to..” opening which is not being overly promoted. If you drive in, you’ll need to enter the gate from Highway 12. There is really no parking area or any infrastructure of any kind. There are no restrooms, no water, no staff or facilities. Bring your own everything. There are no trails and the roads and property lines are not always clearly marked. There are some dangers, some flagged, some not. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend going off-road to most people. What I would recommend is biking the roads. It’s flat and perfect for families. You may also ride horses on the roads within the SPRA. Oh, and yes and the bird watching is excellent!