Friday, December 25, 2015

Tour of Wisconsin’s major trees, observation tower await day hikers near Menomonie

Observation tower, Hoffman Hills State Recreation Area
Map of Tower Nature Trail, courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.
Day hikers can see a dozen major trees that dominate Wisconsin forests while heading to a 60-foot observation tower in Hoffman Hills State Recreation Area.

The roughly two-mile Tower Nature Trail sports a lot of steep ups and downs, so preschoolers and young elementary children may have trouble making it all the way on their own. It’s a good workout for moderately fit adults, but the payoff – in views and better health – is worth the effort.

To reach the trail, from Exit 45 on Interstate 94 east of Menomonie, Wis., 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.

You’ll find the trailhead is at the center of the parking lot’s east side. The trail is fairly smooth and wide, usually consisting of mowed grass, though some of the slopes are sandy. It’s mostly shaded.

From the parking lot, the trail heads up then downhill though a stand of birch and maple with an understory of ferns. During autumn, the yellow birch and red maple leaves make a splendid display.

The two trees dominating this section of the trail played an important role in Wisconsin history. Native Americans from this area used birch bark to make canoes, wigwams, baskets and cups. The maple was used by pioneers for furniture and today is a major source of syrup.

As the trail heads downhill, it enters a large stand of red pines. Also known as Norway pines, the tree is named for a town in Maine, not the country, as it’s native only to North America.

At 0.4 miles, the trail reaches the Whispering Pines Group Camp, an open area with a shelter, water pump, pit toilet, and fire pit. Head north at the four-corner trail junction in the camp.

Increasingly rare white pines
The trail continues uphill for another 0.4 miles, with the trail transitioning from red pines to maples. At the next trail junction, go right/east then in about 500 feet go left/north. Watch for blue jays and chipmunks and in the trail sand look for white-tailed deer tracks.

White pines can be found amid the maples in this section of the trail. During the 1800s, white pines were extensively logged off the Wisconsin landscape. What lumberjacks didn’t finish, modern industrialization may complete; white pines are extremely sensitive to air pollution and are rapidly disappearing.

Ridgelines can be followed along two side trails at two different spots in this area. Each adds about 0.45 miles to the hike, though, as they loop off and back onto the main trail.

As the Tower Nature Trail closes on the highest elevation in Hoffman Hills and the surrounding landscape, red oaks begin to dominate. Watch for the aptly named red squirrel, which likes red oaks, and if you’re hiking during early autumn, listen for the plink of falling acorns as they hit the ground.

The red oaks soon give way to white oaks, which brings you to the hill’s crest. At the top is the 60-foot Greg Schubert Memorial Tower, erected during the 1980s by the U.S. Army Reserve.

From the observation tower’s top platform, you can see about six miles in all directions on a clear day. A pretty quilt of farm fields and woodlands stretch below the hill in all directions.

Skirting a meadow, prairie area
Continuing west from the tower, the trail is largely downhill from the tower. Look for sumac, with its red fruit in fall, in the understory.

At the next trail junction, go right/west. You’ll loop around the hill side as losing elevation, passing quaking aspen and then hawthorne and dogwood along the way. Continue straight through the next junction. The route eventually re-enters the stand of red pines that stretches a fifth of mile to the group camp area.

Turn right/west at the next trial junction. You’ll skirt a meadow to your left and a wooded area sporting white ash trees on the right. An extremely hard wood, white ash is used to make baseball bats.

In about a 1000 feet, turn left/south; if you go straight, you’ll end up in the overflow parking lot. The trail’s last 1000 feet pass through a birch stand. To the right between the thin trees you can spot a prairie area across the park road.

At last the trail ends in an open grassy area with picnic tables, water pump and restrooms. The main parking lot is south of the open area.

Be forewarned that a number of trails branch off the main route, so keep an eye on trail markers and posted maps to stay on course. Should you accidentally take the wrong turn, the trail typically will loop back, but you’ll easily add a half-mile or more to your walk.

These adjoining trails do provide an excellent opportunity to teach older children about map reading. They can follow a printed map of the recreation area, and when you see a trail marker, ask them where you are on the map then compare it to the signage, which nicely includes a “you are here” star.

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