The scenic gorge at Pewit's Nest in Baraboo. (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The scenic gorge at Pewit's Nest in Baraboo. (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Take a fall hike through some of the state’s hidden treasures.

Wisconsin’s state parks are having another bang-up year thanks to the pandemic-driven urge to get outside in nature. But the state also has some 700 hidden gems: State Natural Areas preserved for their scientific importance and scenic beauty. They don’t have the amenities of state parks, but they tend to be way less crowded and great for getting away.

Baraboo Hills Boasts the State’s Largest Number of Natural Areas

This ancient mountain range, located about an hour north of Madison, boasts one of the state’s greatest concentrations of state natural areas. There are 26 natural areas in Sauk County alone. Here are a few to consider:

Parfrey’s Glen, a Canyon in the Baraboo Hills 

One of the most visited is Parfrey’s Glen, located between Merrimac and Devils Lake State Park. Even on the hottest summer days, a hike along the icy stream that flows beneath the mossy walls is like a vacation to the north. Plus it’s fun to take the free Merrimac Ferry to get there.

Pewit’s Nest, Where a Hermit Lived in the Baraboo Hills 

This deep canyon west of Barabo was once home to a hermit who lived in a suspended home. According to one history, he lived like “a gnome in a cavern.” His “abode was some ten feet above a deep pool of water. This dwelling resembled the nest of a phoebe (or peewit, an earlier name for this bird), hence dubbed by early settlers the ‘Peewit’s Nest.’’’ The canyon is a popular place to take a dip in the summer or see spectacular leaves reflected in the pools in autumn.

See the Natural Side of Wisconsin Dells

Yes, before there were fudge shops and water slides, tourists came to the Dells to ooh and ahh at the stunning cliffs, towers and canyons of the Wisconsin River. Fall is one of the best times to paddle the natural area of the Upper Dells because there are fewer jet skis and tour boats, especially on weekdays. Put in at the Cambrian Outlook and take out at the boat landing in Wisconsin Dells for a 4-mile paddle of the upper Dells.

Spring Green Preserve: A Desert in Wisconsin

Just north of Spring Green along Highway 23 and Jones Road, you’ll find a bit of the desert southwest here in Wisconsin. Prickly pear cacti bloom on small sand dunes and you might spot a black widow spider and reptiles who aren’t found elsewhere in Wisconsin. The Jones Road trail winds up to a bluff with a view of the Wisconsin River Valley.

Outside of Sauk County, a few Other Splendid Natural Areas

Lulu Lake is a Wilderness Near Milwaukee

An undeveloped, 95-acre lake in the southern Kettle Moraine, Lulu Lake offers a chance for a wilderness adventure close to the cities of southeastern Wisconsin. You can put in at the public boat landing on Eagle Springs Lake and paddle up the connecting channel to the state-owned natural area that includes Lulu Lake. The lake is fed by the Mukwonago River and is surrounded by bogs that are home to rare plants.

Giant White Pine Grove Shows a Primeval Wisconsin

If you want to imagine what Wisconsin looked like before the lumberjacks got here, the Giant White Pine Grove is a great place to hike among huge white pines, along with giant hemlocks. It’s located in Forest County not far from Three Lakes.

Dells of the Eau Claire: A plunging canyon of water

Another great spot to see giant trees of 250-year-old vintage, and a canyon with a cascading river, is the Dells of the Eau Claire. Contrary to what you might guess, it’s not near Eau Claire nor Wisconsin Dells. You’ll find it east of Wausau, and it’s a Marathon County Park, so it has a few more amenities than most state natural areas. It’s a splendid place for a fall hike because of its sugar maples, mountain maples and birch.

Ancient pines bask in the sun in this image captured in Giant White Pine Grove in Forest County. (Photo by Joshua Mayer courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

What the Ice Age Left Behind: Ridgeway Pine Relict

When the glaciers receded to the north, they left behind White Pines and other northern species in the cool deep valleys of the driftless area of Southwest Wisconsin. Beneath the dramatic sandstone cliffs, you find northern species like pipsissewa, shin-leaf, wintergreen, huckleberry, and Canada mayflower. There are two trails that don’t connect. One off of Iowa County Highway H leads to the remains of an old cabin and a dramatic rock cliff. Another loop trail off Ridgevue Road is also popular for snowshoeing in the winter.

Want to Know More?

If you’d like to learn more about Wisconsin’s natural areas, there’s a 2021 documentary airing and streaming on Wisconsin Public Television called “Wisconsin’s Scenic Treasures: Southern Vistas.” A second part, on the natural areas of northern Wisconsin, is in the works.