Friday, November 27, 2015

Hiking area being restored as unique prairie

Parnell Prairie Reserve
Aerial map of Parnell Prairie Reserve trails
Hikers at the Parnell Prairie Preserve west of Somerset, Wis., can see an ecosystem in the making as a long-abandoned dump is reclaimed. In fact, you might consider repeated trips here during the years ahead to watch the prairie spring alive.

The preserve is fairly new, opening in 2010 as a park jointly operated by the Township and the Village of Somerset. In all, you’ll walk less than a half-mile on its trails, though there are some side loops that allow you to add a few extra steps if you’re up to it.

As you’re walking across an open meadow, there’s little sun cover; because of this, morning and early evening are best for hiking. Regardless the time of day, though, you’ll definitely want to bring a hat. The preserve is open 5 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

To reach the preserve, from Somerset head west/south on Wis. Hwy. 64. At the village’s edge, turn left/west onto 180th Avenue. In about 2.5 miles, at 38th Street, 180th Avenue goes right/north. At the T intersection, go right/east onto 44th Street, which curves and becomes 45th Street. As the road straightens, turn right into the parking lot.

Town dump far below your feet
None of the trails are named, and are mainly loops sharing common segments. You’ll find getting lost will be difficult, though; the preserve is an open area and largely bordered by trees.

The trailhead of this recommended hike is at the northeast corner of the parking lot that goes straight east into the prairie. Mowed trails cross rolling terrain.

For 21 years – from 1967-88 – this site served as the Somerset “town dump.” The area previously had been farmed by Albert (Alley) Parnell, whose forefathers were among this region’s original pioneer families. After the dump closed, officials covered the 5.5-acre refuse site with two feet of fine-grained soils and then six inches of topsoil. The land sat vacant for several years, then in 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began restoring the prairie you’re now crossing.

In about 250 feet, the trail comes to a junction. Go left/northeast with the trail curving to the preserve’s north side. As walking, you may notice the dirt beneath the grass is particularly poor for Wisconsin. This medium textured and moderately coarse soil is typical of outwash plains created as the glaciers retreated from this area some 10,000 years ago.

Endangered ecosystem
After about 200 feet, you’ll come to another junction. This time, go right/southeast for 150 feet. The soil and flat terrain make good growing conditions for cool season prairie grasses. The current restoration plan calls for making the entire area look like some of the small prairie remnants along the railroad tracks bordering the preserve’s south side.

At the next junction, go right/south. This takes you to roughly the center of the preserve. After 100 feet, the trail swerves northeast.

The area specifically is a dry mesic prairie, in which tall species such as big bluestem and Indian-grass typically dominate. Herbs also are commonplace. Such prairies used to run all through southern Wisconsin, but most were plowed under decades ago for farmland. Less than 1 percent of the state’s dry mesic prairies remain.

In 400 more feet, you’ll arrive at another junction. You’re now at the preserve’s eastern edge. Turn right/southwest to begin the loop back home.

Birds, butterflies abound
Though the restoration has only begun, you’ll probably spot some of the animals that typically live in a dry mesic area. Butterflies are abundant in summertime. Among the many birds are barn owls, bobolinks, dickcissel, eastern and western meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrow, greater prairie-chicken, Henslow’s sparrow, and the upland sandpiper. Common mammals include Franklin’s ground squirrel, prairie vole, and the white-tailed jackrabbit.

For the next 750 feet or so, the trail meanders as roughly paralleling the preserve’s eastern and southern woodline of pines. At the junction, go left/west (i.e. straight). The trail curves toward the woodline; if a sunny day, you're likely to get some good cover here, and your location gives you a good, broad view of the sweeping meadow.

When the restoration is completed, the prairie likely will appear just as it did in the mid-1800s to Parnell’s ancestors and other pioneers of this area. Indeed, a government survey report from August 1847 reports that the area’s southern edge was void of trees and had second-rate soil.

After another 300 feet, the trail cures north. It’s another 150 feet or so to the parking lot.

Learn more about nearby day hiking trails in my Day Hiking Trails of St. Croix County guidebook.