Saturday, October 12, 2013

Day hike through idyllic glades on WI trail

Pond on Catherine Hoffman Hartl Memorial Wetland Trail
Map of Catherine Hoffman Hartl Memorial Wetland Trail,
courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.
Day hikers can enjoy a walk through a restored prairie and around two tranquil ponds on the Catherine Hoffman Hartl Memorial Wetland Trail in west-central Wisconsin.

The 0.76-mile trail at Hoffman Hills State Recreation Area is a few miles northeast of Menomonie. In a county built in large part on its agricultural heritage, the recreation area and this trail offer a perfect escape back to nature.

To reach the trail, from Exit 45 on Interstate 94 east of Menomonie, take County Road B north. Turn right/east onto 650th Avenue, which eventually becomes County Road E. Follow County Road E/730th Street as it goes north. The highway zigzags to the park entrance, which is a little more than a mile north of 690th Avenue. Follow the park entrance road to the main parking lot.

Walk north from lot into the grassy picnic area, looking for the sign pointing toward the trail. Cross the park road, and you’ve reached the trailhead. The trails are wide and mowed with a few interpretive signs along the way.

Restored prairie
The trail skirts a restored prairie dominated by big bluestem grass. Big bluestem roots can grow up to 12 feet underground and the stem itself can grow up to 8 feet high. In September, the yellow stems of this field usually reach about five feet high, impressive to child and adult alike.

As late as the 1800s, such prairies were common in southern Wisconsin before pioneers plowed them under into farm fields. Patches of such prairie existed as far north as Dunn County with bison and elk inhabiting them.

The trail next edges a wooded hillside dominated by birch then curves north through the prairie. At 0.17 miles, a short trail leads to a rocky knoll with a bench that overlooks the bluestem.

Continuing north, the trail gradually becomes more wooded as passing quaking aspen. Keep an eye out here for some of the recreation area’s wildlife, including white-tailed deer, red-tailed hawk and mallard ducks – and if you’re lucky, even a great blue heron. You’re certain to hear a number of insects and songbirds as well. Several birdhouses sit off the trail.

At 0.3 miles, the trail heads under a set of majestic weeping willows. At the trail junction immediately after the willows, go left/west.

The trail then runs through an idyllic glade on the south side of a pond. Curve clockwise around the pond, and on its northwest side at the next junction turn left/west.

Second pond
As the trail cuts through wetlands, watch for a number of plants native to marshes in this part of Wisconsin. Among them are the arrowleaf violet, brittle gentian, great blue lobelia, marsh marigold, sweet Joe-Pye weed, and white turtlehead.

The trail then loops around a second, larger and prettier pond. Go clockwise through the glade. On the north side is a stem trail leading to a bench at the pond’s shoreline.

Follow the trail back through the wetlands to the first pond. This time, however, walk along the pond’s north side.

At the next junction, day hikers with a little extra energy can turn left/north onto a connecting trail for a couple of loops (the western loop is 0.6 and the eastern loop 0.68 miles) through the northern portion of the restored prairie area. These loops are a bit less maintained, however, so you probably won’t want to walk them unless wearing jeans.

If not doing those extra loops, return to your vehicle by going right/south and following the trail past the east side of the pond then back under the willows and through the prairie to the parking lot.

Learn more about Chippewa Valley day hiking trails in my Day Hiking Trails of the Chippewa Valley guidebook.