Tag Archive | State Park

Something Great in the Hoosier State (after all)

I left northern Wisconsin after a half-day of work, hoping to arrive in northern Indiana before making camp for the night.  I picked a spot on the map that was both far enough from the Chicagoland area to mean I was really on vacation, and that had a little campground symbol.  This place was Tippecanoe River State Park, and it turned out to be just far enough out of urbanity that my eyes had trouble staying open by the time I got there.  It also turned out to be a pretty cool stopover.

Large oaks in an open woods

Large oaks in an open woods


Arriving in the middle of the night, this state park did not seem very promising, from an “experiencing nature” perspective.  Although a Tuesday evening in October, the campground was quite busy.  Busy with large RV’s, generators running because temperatures were near freezing, and decorated for Halloween.  Apparently there is some sort of annual competition for the best Halloween decorations at this park.  And by “decorations” they apparently mean copious lighted objects, string lights, flashing lights, and other light-type apparati in the orange-and-purple spectrum.  Think your neighborhood’s obnoxious Christmas decorations… in October… in a campground.  Not that appealing for those of us in a tent, but so be it.

By morning light, though, the party lites lost their luster (and got turned off), and there was time for a quick walk to stretch the legs before getting back in the vehicle and driving south.  Turned out to be not so quick, partly because the trail system was a little bit confusing, and partly because it was so darn



cool.  The park had a variety of ecosystems, from floodplain forests along the Tippecanoe, to a wetland impoundment, upland white oak woods, grassland, etc.  Most of my hike meandered through the oak woods, and even into a (very) small section of “barrens.”  A few white pines grew here and there in the area, at the southern end of their range, and white oaks grew alongside post oaks near the northern end of their range.  The barrens had many of the same trees and wildflowers that we see in sandy soils of central and northern Wisconsin – neat to see, a few hundred miles to the south.  From a land management perspective, it was immediately apparent that the park staff were doing an excellent job of maintaining an open woods, and keeping invasive plants under control.  Go Hoosiers! (Might be the first time I’ve said that).

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors... several weeks behind northern WI!

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors… several weeks behind northern WI!

Wetland at Tippecanoe.  They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats... but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

Wetland at Tippecanoe. They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats… but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

If walking around a labyrinthine trail system in deep sand looking at trees isn’t your bag, I’ve heard from a friend that the Battle of Tippecanoe historic site is also in that area.  I missed it in the middle of the night, but if I had it to do over again, I would want to stop there.  Check it out and let me know how it is!


Day Trip

On Monday night, I had a nice dinner that featured some very good, but very rich sausage on a cheese flatbread.  As a result, my digestive juices were still working on it the next morning, and everything that reminded me of those sausages seemed to give extra vigor to the process.  That wouldn’t seem to be a problem, but as I was driving through south-central Wisconsin, I was assaulted by signs like this in, approaching, and around nearly every town:

I decided that, sausage signs notwithstanding, a leisurely road trip through the area would be in order, hopefully to be capped off by a hike when I was feeling more lively.  As I pulled into Lodi, WI, I thought that I might grab a bite to eat (at a small cafe just down the street from this meat market… and involving no meat products), and take a trip down memory lane.  We used to come to Lodi occasionally as kids for two reasons: so that we children could see Susie the Duck, and so that my mom could go to the antique shop.  I noted on the way in that there were new banners on the lampposts approaching downtown that touted Susie, so I swung by to say, “hello” for old time’s sake.  Alas, although she is still present as an icon in the town’s

Susie the Duck

signage and collective consciousness, she is no longer a downtown fixture herself.  “Susie,” used to be ensconced in a nest box at the point where Spring Creek flows through downtown Lodi, at a little park between two underpasses.  We would go and watch her sit there, or maybe swim around a bit, and if we were lucky we could talk my mom out of a dime so that we could split a handful of corn toss for her.  The park has been renovated, the nesting box removed or repurposed, and I saw only male mallards swimming in that stretch of creek.  Her sign still stands, though, and Susie the Duck day continues to be an important part of Lodi’s calendar!

There are a few other, much more accommodating, parks in Lodi, all along the creek that has been channelized to flow along the main street (appropriately named Water St.), through downtown, and out the other side.  And my mom would be pleased to know that, although it has changed ownership a few times, the antique store in an old church is still there (I didn’t go in, though, because I have too many memories of the hours spent there as a young’un)!

Of course, then I had to hit the other attraction that we usually included on the day trips to Lodi: the Merrimac Free Ferry.  The actual purpose of the ferry is for transportation across Lake Wisconsin, and I have used it to that end as well, but yesterday I was pretty much just taking it for fun.  The boat is pulled from one side of the lake to the other on a cable, and the trip takes less than ten minutes. About 15-20 vehicles can fit on, but some are usually larger vans or trucks (or towing boats).  Yesterday was extremely windy, and the choppy “seas” might have been too much for me if it had been a longer journey.

These girls are enjoying the trip as I did at that age

Once on the north side of the lake (actually a dammed flowage of the Wisconsin River), I thought that, being so close and all, I might just take a swing up to Devil’s Lake State Park.  The park is always amazing, but the real impetus this time came from a fellow blogger – Bob Zeller’s Texas Tweeties has been writing about the escapades of fledgling Great Blue Herons, and I wanted to see how one of our local flocks was coming along.  At the foot of the south face of East Bluff, a few dozen heron nests perch in the top of dying pines sandwiched between the CCC Parking Lot and the Outdoor Group Camp.  If you have never been in a Great Blue Heron rookery, you should definitely find one near you and check it out – the noise alone of all those big

A blurry photo of heron nests in the treetops. The accumulated acidity of their feces over the years is gradually killing off these pines.

birds is remarkable, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see them (or the chicks!) go about their daily routines.  Yesterday was extremely windy, with the tree-tops (and the nests in them) swinging well over 10 feet from side to side in the gusts, so the birds weren’t moving around too much.  I couldn’t find any chicks peeking out of the nests yet, but I would expect that many or most have hatched by now.  I drove out of the park to the north, and headed on my way.

Devil’s Lake State Park reminds me an awful lot of Yosemite for something in the middle of the Midwest – no wonder it’s the most-visited state park in the whole region!

Next stop, a few more miles down the road, was Baxter’s Hollow, a 5,000-plus acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy in the Baraboo Hills.  Dogs aren’t allowed in the preserve, so I stayed on the paved road with mine, looking at a couple of different species of native honeysuckle (uncommon in these parts) twining along the road, the babbling Otter Creek, and more.  This is the time of year when the early spring flowers are done and the summer ones haven’t yet bloomed, but I enjoyed my botanizing nonetheless.  If you head to Baxter’s Hollow (which I recommend), I suggest you take along a good and detailed map or atlas that shows all of the small rural roads in the neighborhood.  This area of Sauk County is beautiful, and a meandering trip along those roads can take you past century farms and amazing rock formations, over creeks and through wooded groves, and along some steep and winding roads.


The small community of Denzer at the foot of the Baraboo Hills

Crop rotation in Sauk County, WI

Alternating corn and alfalfa is a common technique in this area for minimizing erosion.

Corn coming up! They say that an estimated 95% of the corn crop is already planted as of yesterday, compared with 75% last year. It’s certainly early to see so much of it coming up already!

Wouldn’t you love this farm, at the base of Castle Rock?

I certainly enjoyed my meander over to the town of Plain and the small family-owned Cedar Grove cheese factory.  This is another spot that was a favorite jaunt for my family as kids, and we tried to get there while it was in production so that we could actually see them making the cheese through the big display windows.  Have you ever been to a cheese factory?  If so, then you would also have recognized the distinctive smell that greeted me when I walked in, even though cheesemaking was done for the day – it is somewhat sour and acrid, and would probably be a bad smell if I didn’t associate it with great things like fresh cheese curds!  I perused the cheeses – from specialty to scraps – in the shop and picked out a couple for gifts for the hosts I would stay with later in the week (and that I hoped they’d allow me to sample in their home!).  The Cedar Grove factory installed a “living machine” around a dozen years ago, which allows them to process all of their wastewater by using hydroponic plants and microbes to break down any additives before returning the water.  If you decide to head that way for some of their delicious cheese, I’d take a tour of the factory and living machine while you’re at it, because they’re pretty interesting.

Where is your favorite road trip?  Any special places in south-west or south-central Wisconsin that you love to explore?  Check out a map of my trip to get your own ideas!


Glossy Magnolia leaves outshine the towering loblolly pines and 80 other tree species at Big Thicket National Preserve

Oct 30- 31, 2010

Miles 8369 – 8748

Stowell, TX to Little River, AR

After crossing the Bolivar Peninsula, I headed more or less straight north, and got to the Big Thicket Preserve in the late afternoon.  I immediately recognized both that it would be a very interesting place to explore and that it was getting too late to do it that day.  I opted instead to find a place to spend the night, and by the time I had done that I was on the north side of the preserve.  After two months on the road, I was itching to be back home, and never got to explore the area… but you will be sure to see it on my upcoming “top ten list of places I want to go back to!”

Loblolly Pines

What makes the Big Thicket Preserve so interesting to a plant geek like myself is that it is at the intersection of four major ecological zones of the country, and as such has an amazing variety of flora in a relatively small geographical area.   The headline of the preserve’s brochure reads, “Unusual Combinations of the Ordinary,” and if you haven’t gotten the hint from my past posts, this kind of fusion is what gets me the most excited.  I had driven north from the coast, away from the dry plains landscape of central Texas, through a hundred miles of lowland swamps and coastal bayous, and all of a sudden was seeing not only several

The Magnolia really made me feel like I was in "the south," as opposed to the southwest desert or coastal regions.

different species of pine trees but also magnolias, tupelo, sweetgum, cypress, and hickories, not to mention about ten different kinds of oaks – the Water Oak being one that I had never seen before.  That was only in a short walk that I did right in Martin Dies Jr. State Park!  An equal variety of herbaceous plants would have greeted me earlier in the year, and birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals of all sorts were hidden in the woods, swamps, and meadows around me.  Because of this diversity, the Big Thicket is a little bit different from other National Parks and Preserves in that it is not a large block of land, but rather several separate corridors totaling about 100,000 acres within about 1800 square miles!  Definitely plenty for everyoneto do… at least everyone who enjoys outdoor recreation.

Though reluctant to leave such a cool site, I trucked on into Arkansas, and spent a little while exploring Texarkana, where I had a good lunch at a café and got some great fudge at Shelly’s Bakery (oh, and an oil change, too… funny how you need a couple of those when you drive 10,000 miles).  I stayed at a fairly nondescript campground at Millwood State Park, next to a large impounded lake and some train tracks, a little ways northwest of Hope, where I headed on the next day…

As I rolled out of north-east Texas into Arkansas, the pine-lined highway was a precursor to the Ozarks ahead.

Birding is Fun After All!

October 30-31, 2010

Brazos Bend State Park, TX

Miles 8080-8273

I rolled into Brazos Bend State Park just before Halloween.  I had struggled with the decision, wondering whether it was worth stopping in just to see a few more alligators, which the park is known for.  I decided to visit for a couple hours, take a short loop hike and check out the ‘gators, than head north.  Instead, I wound up staying all afternoon, overnight, and half of the next day… and discovered how cool waterfowl could be!

They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, so I’ll just limit the narrative here to captions:

Alligator Retreating

Trees overhanging the trail
Swamp cedar roots sprouting from the muck

The alligator really was this close… and this big! But it wasn’t moving too quickly…
White Ibis
Fulvous Tree Duck – these were not only funny-looking but funny-sounding too, as they called to their flock of chicks! 
Black-crowned Night Heron
Ibis, Egrets, and Louisiana Herons       

Common Moorhen (Gallinule)
The whitetails down in Texas are naturally much smaller than our big bucks up north!

The Texas Revolution

Mission Espiritu Santo and the town of Goliad, TX, viewed from the Presidio La Bahia

October 25-26, 2010

Miles 7680-7866

Austin, TX to Corpus Christi, TX

En route from Austin to the coast, I passed through a region of great historical significance.  The small towns of Gonzalez and Goliad were key locations in the Texas Revolution’s battle for independence.

Gonzalez, along the Guadalupe River, was first established as a an American land grant colony within the Mexican state of Texas.  The settlers were given a canon by their Spanish rulers, in order to protect

Gonzalez, TX

the colony and the frontier from Indian attacks.  Ten years later, when revolutionary sentiment against the Mexican General Santa Anna began to circulate among the American-born Texans, the dictatorial government felt it prudent to take that means of defense back.  The people of Gonzalez raised a flag and a resistance, declaring “Come and Take It!”  In October of 1835, ten revolutionaries successfully fought off hundreds of Spanish troops, and retained their canon.  It now resides in the historical museum in Gonzalez, along with many other artifacts of the time, well-defended by a conscientious curator who is more than happy to dispense stories of Texas’s revolutionary period.

Later that same year, “Texians” took control of the Presidio (fort) of La Bahia, outside of Goliad, and began the siege of San

Presidio La Bahia, near Goliad, TX

Antonio.  However, in March of 1836, the revolutionary Texians received a set-back when they were defeated at The Alamo (which I did not get to in my travels), and a retreat began.  En route, they set fire to the towns they passed through, including Gonzalez.  Just outside of Goliad, Mexican troops

At La Bahia

caught up with the Texians, and a group of men led by Col. James Fannin surrendered.  Rather than being detained as prisoners of war, they were all executed the following day, which caused significant resentment among the revolutionaries.   It inspired the remaining troops to greater strength, and on April 21, 1836, with the cry of “Remember Goliad!” they defeated Santa Anna’s Mexican army at San Jacinto.

Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza was born in the Texas Revolutionary town of Goliad, and went on to play a key role in the Cinco de Mayo victory of the Mexican Revolution

The Mission Espiritu Santo has been rebuilt on its Spanish foundations next to Goliad State Park, Goliad TX

The former grounds of the Mission Espiritu Santo

Today, Gonzalez, Goliad, and other East Texas towns are sleepy American hamlets with old-world architecture.  Yet the flags of the revolution continue to fly proudly over them, reminding passers-by of their glorious moment in history.

Meeting Mr. Elk

While visiting Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in northern California, I took a hike out to Fern Canyon (see previous post for pictures of the dripping-wet walls).  I hiked the longer loop of the trail out to the canyon and the Pacific shore, took a little break, and then headed back.  Along the way, I saw frequent (and recent) elk droppings, but no other sign of the creatures.  I’ve been in elk county for a few thousand miles now, and have yet to see one.  To be honest, it seems a little odd.  In a lot of these places, there are plenty of them, and I’m always hanging around somewhere cool as evening falls, so you’d think they’d happen along.

Well, in this particular case, evening was indeed starting to think of falling: the light angle was getting a little lower, a cooler breeze was blowing.  I was walking a little more quickly, trying to get off the trail and down the road to a campsite before dark.  After a couple days among them, I had gotten used to the enormity of the redwoods, and was no longer gazing all around me in wonder, but letting my thoughts wander a bit.

Suddenly I round a little corner and find myself nearly face-to-face with a bull elk!  That’s why you’re supposed to be aware of your surroundings, I guess.  He grunted at me a little, and I quickly backed up, making myself look big and talking to him all the while.  He didn’t really seem to be too perturbed, and I found that from the previous curve I actually had a pretty good view of him (i.e., I wouldn’t have had to surprise him if I’d have been paying attention).  He quickly went back to scratching himself with his HUGE rack of antlers, and stood around for a while.  I began to wonder what would happen if he decided not to move.  I didn’t particularly want to stand there for several hours.  Well, I thought, I can always just go around him, climb this little hill up to the ridge and then drop back to the trail when I’m past him.  There were some pretty good landmarks for how far I’d have to go: a huge redwood stump, a tree with burn scars.  Upon further examination, however, I realized that this would be no easy meander through the woods.  When redwoods fall down, they are still huge, and I would have to climb either over or around several of them.  The groundcover ferns were as tall as I was, and some parts of that slope were covered in dense brush, as well.  Of course, as the sun went behind the hills, I began to think of all the other wildlife I hadn’t seen yet on my trip.  What if, in climbing under an enormous fallen tree, I stumbled upon a bear, or even a cougar??  No amount of rationally examining the unlikelihood of that eventuality could get the thought out of my head, so I was glad when the elk began to amble farther down the trail.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Why is she so afraid of a little old elk?  A bear or a cougar, I could see, but elk are just like big deer, right?”  Hmm.  Maybe.  But a Roosevelt Elk bull can weigh over a thousand pounds, and this one was as tall as I am, with his rack spreading at least three feet from one pointy antler to another.  Another consideration: the rut was just beginning among these herds in northern California, and this guy wandering around by himself just might be a little frustrated.  I didn’t really want to mess with an aggravated and horny bull.  I waited a long while, until I had heard no sounds from the direction he’d gone for a good ten minutes.  I decided to venture slowly around the sharp corner to see if I could see any sign of the elk.

Oops!  I sure did see a sign of him: not ten feet past the sharp bend, he had decided to lie down and make himself comfortable right in the middle of the trail.  He turned and glared at me, and I quickly backed out of sight again.  Well, he may be there for the rest of the night for all I know.  I guess I’ll just have to climb up and around according to the original plan. So I started up the hill, scrambling around and partially over the first fallen tree on the slope, and struggling to keep my footing on the branches buried by layers of decaying ferns.  My plan was to head more or less straight for the ridge-top, where I could keep a good eye on where I was going and where I’d been.  After crawling through some kind of animal’s trail through the brush, I emerged on the ridge… and the other loop of the trail!  I had known I was getting close to the junction, but hadn’t realized that it was just at the top of the hill.  Another reason to always carry a good map, even when you’re just going day hiking…

I continued down the trail at a steady pace, the anxiety of the last half hour behind me, but with a keen eye on the forest around me.  I made it out to the trail and down the road as the sun was beginning to set.  A few miles farther on, there was a meadow where elk commonly gather, so I pulled over to see if there was any activity.  I found a large herd calmly grazing, with several males surrounded by their harems, and some juvenile calves playing around between mouthfuls of lush grass.  In a smaller meadow on the other side of the road, a couple of young bulls were wrestling with their antlers.  After about ten minutes, they took a little break and then went back to it.  It was amazing to watch, but I was sure glad that I wasn’t the one locking horns!

Dear Readers: This is one of the most often-viewed posts on this site, and readers seem to often get to it based on internet search results.  So I’m curious:  Did you find what you were looking for here?  What information would be more helpful?  What was the most useful or entertaining?  Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

California Coast

Mile 4726 – 5071

California Border – Albion, CA

October 4 – October 7, 2010

There’s not a lot to say about the Coastal Redwoods of California.  Or, rather, the photographs can probably speak better than I can.  Even so, it’s hard to really show the scale of these enormous trees in photos – the ferns at their bases are often over 5 feet tall, and without other trees around, it’s easy to believe that I’m simply walking through old-growth oaks!

Along the trail in Jedediah Smith State Park

Driving into California from the north, coming down the Redwood Highway into Smith River National Recreation Area, I was keeping my eyes peeled for the Sequoia sempervirens, or Coast Redwood.  I kept thinking, “Over in the distance, that’s a big tree, maybe that’s one!”  Apparently during my seven years’ absence from California I forgot what a redwood looks like… because when I finally rounded a corner and found myself looking at one, it was unmistakable.  And almost scary – imagine driving down the highway at 70 mph and finding yourself face-to-face with a tree whose base is bigger than a semi truck!

Burls on a redwood - they are excellent at healing themselves. Note "small" (i.e., normal-sized) trees in foreground.

This tree suffered damage at some point and re-sprouted from half-way up its trunk, though the main tree also continued growing.

Redwood roots live a long time - trees that die above-ground often resprout around the old stump, forming "fairy rings" around an empty center once that stumps rots away.

Redwood roots poking up along the trail. New stems can sprout from these roots, quite a distance from the parent tree.

I spent an afternoon at Jedediah Smith State Park, hiking down the Boyscout Tree Trail, so named for the tree that was featured in a mid-century photo with thirty boyscouts posed in front of its massive base.  That night, I camped in a second-growth woods above the Pacific Ocean in Redwoods National Park, just south of the Klamath River.  The following day I hiked at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, down to Fern Canyon and the Pacific Ocean, through several different ecosystems and with impressive wildlife displays!  I

Fern Canyon

Klamath River meets Pacific Ocean

camped at Big Lagoon, before continuing my drive down the coast along Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.  After an early dinner and beer sampler at North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg, I watched the sun set on the coast, and then continued down to Oakland for a week of Bay Area visits.

Banana Slug on mushroom

This tree was burned many, many years ago but continues to grow healthily upwards!

Ouch! I'm glad I wasn't there when this one fell...

Check out this massive bull elk for perspective... and check out the next post to hear about my encounter with him!

Up in the hills, a little too far inland for the Coast Redwoods