Just north of Spring Green and about 45 minutes south west of Baraboo, there is still a small slice of true prairie located within the Spring Green Preserve. The preserve is owned by The Nature Conservancy and protects just over 1,000 acres of what was once a 13,000 acre dry prairie. The area is often called the “Wisconsin Desert” which makes sense if you see the huge swaths of wavey sand barrens spotted with cactus in historic photos. Today the cactus still exist, but for the most part the land has filled in with tall prairie grasses and small colorful flowers that dot the ground in flecks of purples, whites and yellows.
The most dominant feature of the Spring Green Preserve is the barren bluff faces that stand on the northern border. This is one of the few places left in Wisconsin where you can see the bluffs as they would have greeted settlers over a century and a half ago. Back then the hills were dry, grassy embankments spotted with stony outcrops and the occasional oak or red cedar. It’s no wonder early Welsh, Scots and English settlers felt right at home. As settlers changed the cycles of the land, the bluffs began to fill with forest and become the rich green hills we see today. Within the preserve, Nature Conservancy volunteers work endlessly to hold back the forests to allow us a small glimpse into that past world.
The area was selected for protection by the conservancy because it holds some of Wisconsin’s rarest plant communities, including black oak barrens, sand prairie and dry bluff prairie which at one time covered wide swaths of the state. The first section was purchased in 1971 and the Nature Conservancy continues to add more land to the preserve whenever possible.
A short hiking trail, just 1.6 miles takes you through the prairie and then up to the top of the bluff. Due to the rarity of some of the plant and animal life it’s very important that hikers take extra care to stay on the thin, sandy trail.
Finding the preserve can be a bit tricky. While the barren bluffs can be seen from some miles away, drivers need to connect with “Jones Road” which runs east to west below the range. From Highway 60 north of Spring Green you turn north on Davies Rd just about a half mile from the intersection of 60 & 14. From Highway 14 turn north on Hwy 23, then travel about a half mile before turning right on Jones Rd. Then go just under a mile to find the preserve. The preserve & parking area are marked with a sign, but otherwise is easy to drive right by. (See map below.)
On a personal note, I’d spent some years wanting to get closer to those barren bluffs knowing they were one of the few places where you could still grasp what bluff ranges that I grew up in must have looked like so long ago. For me the dry prairie was something to see as an after-thought. That changed as I stood among the tall grasses where horizon lines disappeared and the wind rushed through my ears under the deep blue autumn sky. The prairie is foreign and surreal like standing on an alien world. You have to take a moment to let your mind and your eyes adapt to the subtly of it all. Once you can focus the prairie is loud with sights, sounds and color. There are tall grasses with stalks striped with almost rainbow colors like crazy candy canes. The crowns of the shorter grasses feel like goose down under your hands as you walk past. Out in the endless grasslands there are lots of deep reds and purples mixed with nursery room pastels of yellows and whites. Hidden all around beneath the canopy of grass lie green prickly pear cactus along with the bleached white skeletons of fallen red cedar. On the wind you can hear the yip of a coyote and in the grass you hear the ticks and hums of a million insects. If you can slow down enough to take it all in, it’s almost overwhelming. The Spring Green preserve is truly an amazing local natural area not to be missed!
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