Saturday, November 16, 2013

Knapweed Trail skirts prairie restoration

Knapweed (Orange) Trail
Knapweed (Orange) Trail map

State park path rambles nearly
2 miles alongside meadow

Say “Wisconsin” and one usually doesn’t think “prairie.” But much of the southern portion of the state actually is part of the Great Plains, as are segments of three counties along the Minnesota border. Most of the state’s grasslands were quickly plowed under and converted to agriculture when pioneers arrived, however.

At Willow River State Park, just four miles from the Minnesota borders, day hikers can head alongside a project aimed at restoring some of that missing prairie. The Knapweed Trail, also known as the Orange Trail because of its color on park maps, runs for 0.9 miles one way.

Close to metro area
To reach the trail, from Interstate 94’s Exit 4 take County Road U north. In about two miles, County Road U ends at County Road A; go right/northeast at this junction. The park entrance road is another two miles on the left/west. After entering park, take the entry road past the park office, the roads to 100 Campground and 200 Campground, and one to the service building. At the Group Camp, turn left/south into the asphalt parking lot; if full, there is a gravel overflow lot on the road’s north side (If taking the Pioneer Trail loop option, at the hike’s end, you'll return to the gravel lot.).

The trailhead is immediately to the east of the parking lot road. A set of three trails are on the road’s south side; take the center one.

The trail heads through about 200 feet of woodland. In another 200 feet or so, you’ll reach a T-intersection. Turn left/east.

Restored prairie
From there, the trail skirts an old field being restored as prairie. Once returned to grassland, a variety of plants native to Wisconsin will dominate, including big and little bluestem, Canada wild rye, Indiangrass, junegrass, needlegrass, northern prairie dropseed, sideoats, switchgrass, and woolgrass. You’ll also be able to see a number of forbs, or flowering plants that aren’t grasses.

Among the plants you may notice – especially in late June to early July when it blossoms - is the purple knapweed, the trail’s namesake. Unfortunately, knapweed is an invasive species that actually threatens the prairie and other ecosystems.

Native to Eastern European, knapweed probably came to North America in the 1800s via alfalfa shipments. In 1980, it was found in a mere 26 Pacific Northwest counties – but just 20 years later it was in 45 states, including Wisconsin.

Knapweed likes dry areas, such as prairies, and usually takes roots in disturbed areas such as former farm fields. Its roots exude chemicals that prevent other plants from growing.

Owl calls
After a little more than a third of a mile walking alongside the prairie restoration area, the trail veers north back through woodlands between a service building and the park headquarters. If hiking near sunset, listen for great horned owls calling in the pine trees.

In a little more than a quarter mile, the trail crosses the park entry road, so watch for traffic. Then, about a fifth of a mile later, you’ll reach the trail’s end at the Pioneer (Yellow) Trail junction. The 100 Campground is to your right/east.

You have two options here: Go back the way you came or make a loop of it by taking the Pioneer Trail left/west. The Pioneer Trail is the shorter way to go by about a third of a mile; it heads through woodland, edges the north and west sides of 200 Campground, and then comes to the gravel parking lot immediately north of the lot containing your vehicle.

If treating the Knapweed as an out-and-back trail, the hike runs 1.8 miles round trip. The Knapweed-Pioneer loop is about 1.5 miles.

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