When it comes to creating your own “backyard adventures”, you may want to consider exploring the Hemlock Draw State Natural Area just west of Devil’s Lake State Park. Yes, even in winter!
Backyard adventures as we see them, are opportunities for you to push just a little beyond your comfort level and to explore new locations or familiar locations under new conditions. A change is as good as a rest and a winter visit to Hemlock Draw certainly fits the bill. One thing, if you are out of shape, Hemlock Draw will let you know!
Hemlock Draw State Natural Area is nearby, being just a 30 minute drive from Devil’s Lake State Park. The natural area, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy, covers about about a thousand acres on the north end of Natural Bridge State Park. This is just one of a variety of natural areas that are well known by the local outdoor community but rarely explored by visitors to our area.
Hemlock Draw’s claim to fame is really its amazing variety of birds (More than 40 species of breeding birds), plants and trees. In summer, birders will love it! There are also some interesting rock formations, a babbling brook and tall cliffs to check out as well. Still, it’s not for everyone. There are no bathrooms or even towns nearby! And the trails, well, let’s say, they are “rustic”. Pushing through brush and steam jumping are just part of the experience!
Today, let’s talk about visiting Hemlock Draw in the winter. While the plants and birds are the stars of summer, the winter months feature quiet solitude and the amazing landscape. This is the experience your snowshoes were meant for!
The word “draw” in this case means, valley or gorge. Hemlock Draw is heavily wooded and surrounded by steep hills and exposed cliffs. Being far from any large community it’s nearly silent within the gorge. Often the only sounds you’ll hear are the ones made by your snowshoes mixed with the burble of the stream. As you explore, keep an eye out for the ancient sea stacks rising from the floor of the valley, and the ice flowing from the rocks and high cliffs.
If you have an eye for animal tracks, you’ll find life is abundant in the draw. It’s easy to imagine stories to fit the tracks you’ll see. Coyote, deer and turkey tracks are everywhere.. And what about that BIG track that doesn’t fit any of the ones you know? Be sure to take a picture to show the experts later!!
Your first challenge when you arrive is simply deciding how to get in this time of year. You have two options. From the south-west, on Reich Drive, you can hike or snowshoe in at “ground level”. That seems easier until you realize that you have 3 stream crossings to manage along the way. In summer, these are fairly easy crossings.. In the winter, well, how can you be sure how thick the ice is? Or how can you tell where the snow-covered, frozen, stream meets the snow-covered sand? You can’t always, so getting wet is a real possibility. (Something I know about personally!!) And that risk, is the price of admission from the Reich Drive entrance. (In the pic below you can see where I broke through, and the tracks of my snowshoes when I had to get out!!)
Your other option is approaching Hemlock Draw from the top via Buck Fever Road. Aptly enough, Buck Fever Rd. is 4 wheel drive, high-clearance, faux-road in the summer. In the winter, Buck Fever Rd., is just closed. You’re only option is to park on the shoulder of Schara Rd and snowshoe the half-mile in from there. Oh, and yes, you will feel like you’re at the back-end of nowhere out there! You’ll want to keep in mind that at the end of your day, at your most tired, the return to your car will be all up hill!
Our winter exploration of Hemlock Draw took about 4 hours and we put about 4.6 miles on our snowshoes in the process. We went in from Schara Road so 50% of that distance was ascending. That said, we rarely had a moment to feel tired. Our attention was constantly pulled in new directions by everything from bird calls to animal tracks, to ice floes dripping from high cliffs. If you love being outside in nature, you’ll love your day at Hemlock Draw. It’s a world apart.
If you go, I’d suggest that you take plenty of snacks and water. The exploring mixed terrain in winter can be physically draining. You’ll notice the air temperatures in the gorge will often be much colder than the surrounding area. Wear layers that you can add and remove clothing as necessary throughout your day. If you have any questions, feel free to message us via Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss the video at the top of the page!
- Visit Hemlock Draw – The Nature Conservancy
- Hemlock Draw – Map
- Hemlock Draw State Natural Area – WI DNR