Sunday, April 3, 2016

Hike heads through rare Wis. sand prairie

The threatened red-shouldered hawks can be found in the sand prairies and
oak openings of Wisconsin's lower Chippewa River.
Topo map of  Lower Chippewa River State Natural
Area footpath.
Day hikers can explore a rare prairie and savanna in western Wisconsin at the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area.

The state natural area actually consists of several disconnected sites along the Chippewa River, stretching across three counties. Many of those sites are inaccessible, but one interesting area than can be walked is northwest of Caryville and makes for an interesting 0.4-miles round trip hike.

To reach the trailhead, from Wis. Hwy. 85 in Caryville, take County Road H north. Turn left/west into the state natural area's parking lot; if you cross the Chippewa River bridge, you've driven too far.

While there’s no designated trail, an out-and-back footpath through the sand prairie and oak openings runs straight from the parking lot’s southwest corner to a small, sparse grove of trees; simply follow the line of the tallest trees in the grass to the grove about 0.2 miles from the lot.

When Europeans first arrived in Wisconsin, the state has more than 7.7 million acres of native prairie; most of it was plowed under for fields or built on for homes. Today, a mere 8000 acres remain.

The LCRSNAs aim to preserve Wisconsin’s few remaining prairies and savannas along the Lower Chippewa River. The collection along the river contains a full 25 percent of Wisconsin's existing prairies and savannas.

Such state natural areas protect a wide range of disappearing animals. In fact, six state-threatened species – the Acadian flycatcher, cerulean, hooded and Kentucky warblers, red-shouldered hawk, and yellow-crowned night heron – all can be found in the LCRSNA. It is one of three places remaining in the world where the endangered Pecatonica River mayfly still exists. Meanwhile, the rare blue suckers, crystal darters, goldeyes, and the paddlefish prefer sections of the Chippewa and Red Cedar rivers next to prairies and savannas.

Upon reaching the grove, turn back for the parking lot.

A segment of the Chippewa River State Trail also runs along the southern edge of the same state natural area.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.