Pros: Pleasant hiking. Interesting geology. Prehistoric intrigue.
Cons: Trails and signage have seen better days. Mosquitos like the park too.
This past Father's Day my kind and indulging family consented to join me for some hiking at Natural Bridge State Park in southwestern Wisconsin. It was our first visit to this park and fortunately the intermittent light rain and hot and humid 80 degree conditions didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm.
Natural Bridge State Park is tucked away on a quiet county highway in the middle of Sauk County, about 20 miles southwest of Baraboo and the more celebrated Devil's Lake State Park and about 45 miles northwest of Madison. Two tiny burgs are adjacent: to the west is Leland with two bars, one church, and one cemetery, and to the east is Denzer with one bar (the Ugly Coyote) and one church. I thought our drive up from Madison was quite picturesque and peaceful with a mix of farmland and heavily wooded areas as well as several towering sandstone formations.
The park itself straddles the highway and covers 530 acres with approximately three and a half miles of rough gravel and dirt trails. A wooded trail leads north from the small parking lot near the highway, climbs to the base of the arch, and then climbs higher to the top of a small bluff. The trail then descends sharply down with the aid of stairs back to the parking lot. The loop to the arch and back is just over a mile of rather rough hiking. My two kids - one teen and one tween - did fine with this short hike and I think that even rather small children would manage ok with some patience and assistance. The trail is definitely not wheelchair accessible. A different short trail took us to a 19th century log cabin and smokehouse that reminded my daughter of Little House on the Prairie. A couple dozen small signs along the trails discuss some of the medicinal plants used by Native American inhabitants, although at times it was often hard to tell if we were actually looking at the plants in question.
While the quiet countryside made for pleasant hiking, the actual goal of the trip was to see the arch. The arch itself has been a tourist attraction since the 1870s and has been afforded additional protection as a 60 acre State Natural Area within the park. The approach to the arch is so heavily wooded that it isn't until you are within a short stone's throw that you can actually see it. Unlike its famous cousins out in Utah, the 35 foot high arch's seclusion precludes any gorgeous photographic artistry. The arch opening is about 25 feet wide and 15 feet high, making it the largest natural stone arch in the US east of the Rockies. Additionally, it spans over a 60 foot wide and 30 foot deep cave where 10,000 year old Paleo-Indian artifacts have been discovered, one of the earliest known sites of prolonged human habitation in the northeastern US. The arch is formed of 1.6 billion-year-old sandstone that has been eroded over time by water, wind and ice. Fortunately, for the original Stone Age inhabitants, as well as present day geology nuts and nature lovers, the park is located in the Driftless Area, sparing it from the ravages of ice age glaciers, which would have undoubtedly ground the arch down to a pulp if given the chance. The arch is only accessible at its base and is protected by a wooden split rail fence, a necessary encumbrance given the fact that generations of visitors have been compelled to carve their initials into the sandstone.
As we hiked uphill to the arch in the dense woods, I was impressed by the almost complete absence of human-produced noise. No traffic or commercial annoyances, just a few quiet visitors, plenty of bird calls and the buzzing of an occasional mosquito. The arch sits quietly in the woods and it took a moment for me to realize that it was right in front of us. The massive piece of rock - composed of layer upon layer of sandstone - spans the dark cave below with authority, looking confident that it will last at least another 10,000 years. I noticed plenty of tiny plants growing directly on the rock that provide the arch some green camouflage, learning later that the arch is home to two types of rare shady cliff plants: cliff goldenrod and purple cliffbrake. In the peace and quiet it wasn't too hard to imagine what it must have been like to actually live in the cave as the Paleo-Indians did. They must have had some pretty tough winters. The trail took us further up to a breathtaking vista that looks down over the wooded valley below, displaying at least a dozen different shades of green. The combination of dense and quiet woods with the remarkable geologic and prehistoric attraction made for a very enjoyable and serene experience, rather remarkable for such a short hike.
The park is unsupervised, does not allow camping and no food or pets are allowed in the arch area. Near the parking lot we had the choice of three picnic tables for our post-hike lunch and the nearby - not too near - his and her pit toilets scored a solid B on the Driftless Pit Toilet Scale (DPTS). The only water supply is do-it-yourself with an old-fashioned, long handled water pump that gave my teenage son a workout. There are no trash cans as you are required to take all of your trash with when you leave, a rule that previous visitors appeared to have followed completely.
Unfortunately, it seems that the park has seen better days. I assume that due to a few decades of constant budget cuts, a low volume park like this receives only minimal attention. The trails and signage are in rather miserable shape and while this didn't detract from our visit much, it is a shame to see valuable public areas in decline.
A few more numbers:
A Wisconsin State Park sticker is required and can be purchased on site: $7 daily, $25 annual for WI residents, $10 and $35 for non-residents. The park is open year round from 6:00 am to 8:00 pm.
Overall a very satisfying adventure on a muggy Father's Day and I think the wife and kids had an enjoyable time as well. Natural Bridge State Park is a fun and unique way to spend a morning or afternoon, or even just an hour, if you're vacationing in the Wisconsin Dells or Baraboo area. It's an ideal place to visit if you're looking for pure peace and quiet with a touch of ancient prehistoric intrigue.
The picture of what appears to be a swamp that accompanies this review is not a picture from this park. A high-quality picture of the arch can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NaturalBridgeStateParkWI.jpg
Another driftless Wisconsin State Park: Blue Mound State Park