Saturday, August 31, 2013

Burnett County offers great hiking country

Sandrock Cliffs Trail
Imagine a place of crystal blue waters surrounded by lush green forests, of friendly Mayberry-like villages, of where rare, elegant birds whose wings span up to seven feet grace the skies. If living in the Upper Midwest, such a place is within only a few hours’ drive. It’s called Burnett County, Wisconsin. 

Located northeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., along the St. Croix River, Burnett County sits in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Geographically, most of the landscape is part of Wisconsin’s central plain, a region flattened by glaciers and the outflow of its meltwater during the last ice age. The St. Croix River marks the county’s western boundary, cutting across the northern quarter where the Namekagon River joins it. Those rivers and the kettle lakes left by the melting glaciers today are the main draws to this region. The county’s topmost quarter sits in the state’s northern upland, a region that some 700 million years ago was an ancient mountain range towering as high as today’s Alps. Today, the base of those mountains is all that remains, and it stands at a slightly higher elevation than the central plains to its south.

Due to its remoteness, abundance of wetlands, and generally sandy soil, Burnett County was among the last areas in Wisconsin that pioneers settled. Though Wisconsin joined the Union in 1848, a half-century later the state still held 125,000 acres of the county for homesteading. The logging industry dominated the county through much of its early history, but in the latter half of the 20th century, a shift toward tourism began. Then Congress during the early 1970s established the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, consisting of both the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. At the dawn of the 21st century, the county remains sparsely population with fewer than 16,000 residents. In fact, it’s the only Wisconsin county to have villages and no cities.

Visitors will find several excellent parks and trails in Burnett County. Foremost among them is the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which runs 255 miles along two rivers, offering a plethora of boating, camping and hiking opportunities. Nestled against the riverway, Governor Knowles State Forest provides a nearly 20,000-acre wilderness buffer for it. More inland in Burnett County’s wetlands area is the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area, home of several endangered animals, including sandhill cranes and a pack of timber wolves.

Two major trails traverse the county. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail runs for 1200 miles across Wisconsin, roughly tracing the advance of the glacier that covered much of the state during the last ice age. It skirts Burnett County’s southeastern section with several other segments close by in Polk and Washburn counties. The Gandy Dancer State Trail, a former rail line turned hiking trail runs for 98 miles from St. Croix Falls, Wis., to Superior, Wis. It passes through Siren and Webster in Burnett County and at Danbury crosses a trestle bridge over the St. Croix River into Minnesota on its way north.

See these other blog entries about Burnett County hiking trails:
g Big Bear Lake Nature Trails
g Grantsburg area
g Sandrock Cliffs Trail
g Siren area
g Webster area

Find out about other trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.