Sunday, July 10, 2016

Trail heads to Wis.’ largest natural arch

Leland Natural Arch. Courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.
Map of Indian Moccasin Nature Trail.
Day hikers can see Wisconsin’s largest natural arch on the Indian Moccasin Nature Trail.

The trail in Natural Bridge State Park runs a third of a mile round trip. To reach it, from Baraboo drive south on U.S. Hwy. 12. After passing through Bluffview, turn right/west onto County Road C. Turn right/north into the park’s entry road on Lehr Drive.

From the parking lot, take the trail across the picnic area into the woods. At the first junction, go right/north. The Leland Natural Bridge is just a couple of bends ahead.

The bridge measures 35 feet high with the opening in the arch 25 feet wide and 15 feet high. The rock for the arch began forming some 1.6 billion years ago when sediment was deposited at the bottom of a sea that covered this region. Over hundreds of millions of years, it was covered by sediment that hardened into sandstone. Pink quartzite pebbles in the sandstone came from about a half-mile to the north, where waves eroded a pinnacle or sea stack and washed them here.

Despite the rock’s immense age, the arch actually is fairly new. Repeated freezing and thawing of water in the sandstone cracks – encouraged by the rough climate when a glacier stood a mere 12 miles away about 15,000 years ago – weakened the sandstone over thousands of years until the hole widened to its current shape and size.

A rock shelter sits below the arch. Humans have used the shelter as early as 10,000-11,000 years ago. Remains of more than 50 mammal species also have bene found here with elk and mountain lion among the more exotic finds. The shelter measures 50 feet wide and goes 30 feet deep, one of Wisconsin’s few caves.

Initially just a camping site for prehistoric hunters, by about 7000 BC, the rock shelter was permanently inhabited. In the 1890s, a dance floor was constructed below the arch with a bar built into the rock shelter opening.

Modern, 21st century humans in the form of tourists can’t enter the shelter or climb on the arch; a rail fence separates the trail from the rock formation.

After taking in the sights, retrace your steps back to the parking lot. Alternately, you can continue on the nature trail, which winds into the wooded hills for another quarter mile to a pleasant vista of the valley below.

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