Entering the 9,150-acre Sandhill Wildlife Area, located just north of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, feels something like entering Jurassic Park. Sandhill, with its imposing 17 miles of 9 ft tall fence and gated entry give you the impression that anything could happen when you begin your driving tour. I mean, they have Bison!!
Well, that’s where things have to be put into perspective. Even with all that fence, the 12 to 20 bison who call Sandhill Wildlife Area home live within a smaller, 200 + acre enclosure within the larger park. They won’t be roaming up to your car. Neither will a hungry T-Rex for that matter! On the upside, that means that you are free to get out of your car and bike the 14 mile driving tour or hike the many trails. At Sandhill you’ll find a variety of environments to enjoy including; wetlands, swamps, forests and oak barrens.
Another thing you’ll find throughout Sandhill is a lot of wildlife. The real trick, as it always is when viewing wild animals, is to start early (Just after sunrise) or to go out in the late evening. Early in our morning visit we came across 2 young deer having their breakfast and enjoying the morning sun. We stopped the car along the road, shut off the engine and watched them for a while. Although they did check us out at first, they quickly got back to enjoying their morning. After a time, a doe came running up, seemingly surprised that her fawns hadn’t bothered getting away from us. From the edge of the glade, she snorted and stamped for a moment before giving up and tearing back into the woods. She certainly had their attention, but in the end, kids never listen…
We stopped to hike the very flat Swamp Buck Trail through some of the wetland areas and were amazed by all the dragonflies and damselflies along this trail! We saw a variety of birds, geese and wood ducks along the way as well. We could hear Sandhill Cranes in the distance, but didn’t see any on this visit. According to the literature, the best time to see Sandhills at Sandhill (I know…) is in mid to late October during the fall migration. Regardless of when you visit, if you can only hike one trail, this would be the one to do. The Swamp Buck trail is 3.5 miles one way and takes about 2 hours to hike in and back.
It’s worth mentioning here that most of the trails that we encountered at Sandhill were very basic single file type trails. On those damp mornings you can plan on being wet to the knees. You’ll also want to pack the bug spray!
Of course, the main reason most folks make the drive to Sandhill Wildlife Area is for the bison. (Or Buffalo if you must!). Sandhill keeps their small herd in a 260 acre enclosure where visitors are invited to climb a tall viewing tower to spot the bison out in the “wilderness”. It’s not always that easy however! Just like that scene from the original Jurassic Park where the T-Rex failed to show up on que, we spent some time standing on that tower wondering if they had any bison at all or if this was just a clever marketing ploy for an off-the-beaten-path wildlife area.
Eventually, we left the main viewing area and explored along the fences, keeping a keen eye open for anything out of the ordinary. I mean, If you were a bison would you be where all the people are or would you go try to find a little, quite out-of-the-way spot to enjoy your afternoon? It didn’t take long before we found them. It is a little unnerving when the bison notice you watching them. More so when they start moving in your direction. At least we had a tall fence between us! People out at Yellowstone National Park who approach these guys in the wild have to be totally crazy. I don’t care if you don’t know anything about wildlife, bison are big, strong and intimidating!
After spending time with the bison, we continued through the rest of the 14-mile driving tour seeing a variety of landscapes along the way. As it was getting into the warmest part of the day, most of the wildlife was settled down and not to be seen from the road. (When looking for wildlife, early mornings and late evenings are always best!) As we exited through our last gate, we were reminded how popular the driving tour in Michigan’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge is. There are many folks who just can’t get out and hike the trails any longer, or simply need a low-impact introduction to nature. Driving tours are fantastic opportunities to open up natural areas to a wider audience.
Sandhill Wildlife Area is located just over a mile north-west of Babcock, WI (1715 County Rd X, Babcock, WI 54413) and a scenic 2 hour drive north from Madison. I’d recommend including a visit to the nearby Necedah National Wildlife Area and making a day of it. For Wisconsin nature lovers, Sandhill Wildlife Area opens up another 9,000 acres to explore well within reach. And like I said, There’s bison!