Walk a prairie full of flowers, cool off with a hike in the woods, paddle on lakes or streams, bike twisted paths through autumn colored leaves, or ski loops that take you across prairies and over moraines. County parks provide an amazing variety of outdoor opportunities, and should you decide to explore the system, you will travel from one end of the county to the other across the seasons.
Beyond where you call home lies the Dane County Parks system. More than just 28 recreational parks, the system includes lands and corridors, such as forests, natural areas, cultural and historic sites, as well as wildlife areas. There are shelters, playgrounds, dog parks, canoe launches, campsites, and disc golf courses. All of these added to further connect you and me to the land and water resources of Dane County.
I do a lot of hiking in the spring and summer. As days get nicer, I want to get outside. Spring walks tend to feature areas where plants are budding or bursting out of the ground. On the north side of Walking Iron Park, the starting point for trails is a prairie known for its pasqueflowers and prairie smoke. Start here and finish your walk along the creek or in the forested areas of the park. Fortunately, the county has been able to preserve, create, and restore some prairie remnants across the system, assuring that you and I have the opportunity to see these and other varieties of indigenous plants.
For more lengthy summer walks, drive to Indian Lake Park. The trail system serves all seasons and is extensively used in the winter for cross-country skiing. I like the change in elevations, the multiple loops available, and the Ice Age Trail, which meanders through the park. At the end of the day, wander up to the 1897 historic chapel for a view of the park and the sunset.
More recently, I discovered Donald Park in the southwestern edge of the county. Donald Park has great trails, as well as trout streams and springs. There is also an old homestead site. Extensive bridal trails mean longer hikes. On a summer’s eve or weekend, I’ve hiked until the light fades and then picnicked underneath the stars. I look forward to future explorations at McCarthy Youth and Conservation Park and the other bridal trail parks.
On a hot, sultry summer evening after working in front of a computer all day, pack a picnic supper and head to Brigham Park on the western side of the county to catch the sunset and late light lingering over the Wisconsin River Valley. For something closer to Madison, Pheasant Branch Conservancy has a loop around the wetland and into the prairie at the north end. Climb up Frederick’s Hill for a great view of a rising full moon and you might be serenaded by a local coyote pack.
Another favorite for warm evenings is Festge Park. The view south and up and down the Black Earth Creek drainage is beautiful. The evening might be punctuated by calls from cranes below. And more than once I have stayed to watch for meteors as this park offers great views of the sky with minimal light pollution.
As summer kicks in, foraging for berries becomes a priority for some. Foraging falls squarely under the county parks’ missions of connecting people to the land and water resources. The berry season starts with black caps and moves to black berries in early August. Blackberry pie is a tradition in my family. Berries, mushrooms, nuts, and edible fruits are all fair game.
Starting spring and lasting through summer and fall, trails are shared with bike riders. I envy the nine miles of single track trails that wind through CamRock County Park. As a hiker, I love narrower trails that provide some intimacy with the land. Watching mountain bikers navigate the twists and turns and elevation changes, I know that they are having fun and appreciate the landscape and what it offers.
CamRock, a linear park extending between Cambridge and Rockdale, can also be explored by water. Launch on to Koshkonong Creek and see the park from the water. When asked where people like to swim, Stewart Lake Park comes up as a favorite. Stewart Park, established in 1935 as the first Dane County Park, underwent a successful lake-lift several years ago to improve the lake. The surrounding park includes trails for hikers, cross-country skiers, and, of course, facilities for picnicking and spending a day at the lake.
Any activity is even more beautiful in the fall. The colors of the hardwood forests make every outing special. Remember your most shaded walks of the summer and return to see the trees in their glory. I like to return to Indian Lake Park for a long walk in the woods and a picnic supper. Prairies take on different colors and seed heads become birdfeeders. Migrating birds enjoy the lakes and the habitats provided, so it is a good time to be out with a pair of binoculars.
Winter is a great time to see your favorite park in a different light or explore a new one. It is also the time when you can actually figure out through tracks and other signs which animals share your favorite space. Add a little fun to a hike or snowshoe by including a “treasure” hunt—eyes and cameras only. Armed with a list of winter features to look for, from animal tracks to snow and ice features, what might seem like a bleak landscape comes to life.
What I enjoy most about winter walks is the quiet. Fresh, fluffy snow absorbs sound in addition to adding the magical touch to trees and grasses. Put on a pair of snowshoes and you can easily walk trails and frozen lakes. There are lots of trails to choose from in the parks. This extensive trail network becomes a cross-country skier’s heaven with a few additional amenities. Indian Lake has a special warming hut for people enjoying the park’s natural winter playground. For bikers, CamRock Park is exploring fat biking, bikes with extra-wide, low-pressure tires, on some of its trails.
Whether you live in urban Dane County or rural, the park system provides us with a broad diversity of recreational opportunities. And with more frequent calls to increase the time we spend outdoors because of the health benefits, the parks remain central to our quality of life. Go out in any season and enjoy and appreciate our wonderful parks.
Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at greenconciergetravel.com .