Looking for nature – explore the Baraboo Hills

By Michael Carignan

There are reasons each of us lives where we do. For me living in the midst of the Baraboo Hills plays a large part in why I call south central Wisconsin home. There is no bad time of year to visit the Baraboo Hills but locals firmly believe that autumn color change in the Baraboo Hills is nothing less than spectacular. Exploring the bluffs’ many natural features is to many a hidden joy.

The Baraboo Hills, also called the Baraboo Bluffs and the Baraboo Range, are what is known as a monadnock or a worn down mountain range. More than 350 million years ago these hills were actually mountains jutting up from the surrounding plains. Over time erosion from weatherization, glaciation and rivers have worn them down to a base core of quartzite.

A roadside scene of fall colors in the bluffs from Klein Road just off of Co. PF.
A roadside scene of fall colors in the bluffs from Klein Road just off of Co. PF.

The range is 30 miles long, east to west, and 10 miles wide, north to south. The bluffs acted as the terminal moraine of the last glaciation period, which accounts for many of the beautiful natural features within the range.

Large tracts of land in the Baraboo Hills are protected and remain in forests. The State of Wisconsin owns large segments of the bluffs as does Nature Conservancy, Sauk and Columbia counties and other private interests.

Because there is so much publically owned or private land open to the public the Baraboo Hills are an excellent place to hike, bike, fish, hunt or tour.

A smaller foothill bluff along Balfanz Road just off of North Freedom Road.
A smaller foothill bluff along Balfanz Road just off of North Freedom Road.

Perhaps the best-known and most popular place to visit in the bluffs is Devils Lake State Park located three miles south of Baraboo. It is Wisconsin’s most visited state park with over two million visitors each year. But there are many other places to explore and in this article I will briefly explore just a few.

Parfrey’s Glen is located just four miles east of Devil’s Lake and is Wisconsin’s first state natural area. The path is .8 miles long and at its uppermost part, the glen reaches a depth of nearly 100 feet and embraces a mountain-type stream flowing through its floor. The Glen’s walls are sandstone embedded with pebbles and boulders of quartzite. This quartzite is conglomerate, sometimes called a “plum pudding” stone. The sandstone layers represent ancient sandy beach. Because the Glen has many unusual and rare flora it is a popular place for both the novice and experienced naturalist.

Another state-owned property that has gained great popularity in recent years is Pewit’s Nest. When Glacial Lake Baraboo drained, Skillet Creek cut a narrow canyon through the Cambrian sandstone, forming a series of potholes and waterfalls that are known as Pewit’s Nest. The property was privately owned until the mid 1980s when the state purchased it and designated it a state natural area. Pewit’s Nest has been a popular attraction to locals ever since its discovery. Only since being purchased by the state has it become more widely known.

The dominant feature at Pewits Nest is a 30- to 40-foot deep gorge formed during the retreat of the last glacier. Legend has it that an old hermit once lived in the caverns of the Nest on a ledge 10 feet above one of the deep pools below. Trails lead hikers to the top of the gorge to overlook the falls and to either end of Skillet Creek as it enter or leaves to gorge.

The two larger falls at Pewit’s Nest s seen from atop the deep cut gorge.
The two larger falls at Pewit’s Nest s seen from atop the deep cut gorge.

Pewit’s Nest is located on Co. W two miles west of Baraboo and Hwy. 12.

A look at the mouth of the gorge at Pewit’s Nest s seen from atop the ridge.
A look at the mouth of the gorge at Pewit’s Nest s seen from atop the ridge.

Nature Conservancy owns some large tracts of land in the bluffs that are popular with hikers and nature lovers as well. Three of the more popular tracts are Hemlock Draw, Pine Hollow and Baxter’s Hollow.

Hemlock Draw is located in the western portion of the bluffs just north of Leland. A draw or hollow refers to a valley or long narrow gorge between two clefts of rock. Of all the hollows in the Baraboo Hills, Hemlock Draw supports the most stunning contrast in vegetation. Hikers can see plant and bird species typically found in the northern areas of the state growing close to those typically found in southern Wisconsin. These northern species, such as hemlock and yellow birch, may be relics from the time, some 13,000 years ago, when the edge of a towering ice mass stood just a few miles to the east. Also found in Hemlock Draw are narrow pillars of rock, called “sea stacks,” which are a remnant of ancient times when the Baraboo Hills were a chain of islands in a vast sea.

The undergrowth in Hemlock Draw can be quite thick in summer but hiking in the spring once the snow is out of the woods or in the fall when flora is dying down make for a very pleasant hike.

Pine Hollow features a narrow, heavily wooded stream gorge with sheer cliffs and rock outcroppings of sandstone and quartzite cut into the Baraboo Hills. It is located north and east of Hemlock Draw.

Baxter’s Hollow, before Nature Conservancy purchased it, was the Klondike Campground located just west of the former Badger Army Ammunitions Plant. Otter Creek, a fast, clear, nearly undisturbed stream flowing over large quartzite boulders cut this scenic gorge through the Baraboo Hills. The stream supports trout as well as some diverse and unique insect fauna.

Most of the site contains a significant portion of the Big Woods, which is the largest intact contiguous southern dry-mesic forest, forest that occurs on loamy soils of glacial till plains and moraines, and on erosional topography, in Wisconsin with red and white oak, hickory, and basswood. In spring, the forest floor is blanketed with a wide variety of colorful flowers. In fall the colors and smells are intoxicating.

To get to Baxter’s Hollow take Kings Corner Road off of Hwy. 12, 10 miles north of Sauk Prairie or seven miles south of Baraboo. At the stop sign at Stones Pocket Road turn right to reach Baxter’s Hollow.

An eastern branch of Otter Creek just before it joins the main flow through Baxter’s Hollow.
An eastern branch of Otter Creek just before it joins the main flow through Baxter’s Hollow.
Otter Creek as it flows through Baxter’s Hollow.
Otter Creek as it flows through Baxter’s Hollow.

Owen Park is a Columbia County park, which doesn’t offer much in terms of amenities, just picnic tables and restrooms, but does offer an overlook with a spectacular view to the south of the Wisconsin River valley and Lake Wisconsin. The view goes on for miles and also includes Blue Mounds some 45 miles away.

To reach Owen Park, take Hwy. 78 toward Merrimac 5.8 miles west of I-90/94 to Owen Park Road. Turn right and go to the top of the hill where the park is located.

Not far east of Owen Park, still in Columbia County but very near the Sauk County line, is another little known but scenic gem with a great deal of historical background. Durward’s Glen’s 40-acre tract of land encompasses a ravine nestled between steep bluffs.

In 1862 the property became the home of Bernard Durward, a painter and poet, and his family. The Durwards discovered the site when they were visiting friends in the area. When they fell in love with the glen, they negotiated with the blacksmith who lived there to buy the land. The property includes a church, a grotto, residences, a barn, an outdoor way of the cross, and religious statues, including the Guardian of the Glen statue near where Durward’s daughter was born. A small cemetery contains the graves of the Durwards and several of their children.

Also of interest to those visiting the area are the many scenic roads throughout the bluffs. The state has designated one stretch of those roads as a Rustic Road. Rustic Road 21 is located just off Co. PF, southwest of North Freedom approximately five miles and follows portions of Schara Road, Ruff Road, Orchard Drive and Slotty Road. It is 8.6 miles in length with Schara Road being the only paved section of the road while the others are gravel.

A view down Ruff Road, part of Rustic Road 21, where is connects with Denzer Road in the Baraboo Hills.
A view down Ruff Road, part of Rustic Road 21, where is connects with Denzer Road in the Baraboo Hills.

The roads wind through rolling, rugged terrain near Natural Bridge State Park, which is the location of the Raddatz rock shelter, the oldest documented site of primitive man in the upper Midwest. Schara Road extends along a ridge bordered by oaks, maples, basswoods and hickories. A walk during the spring and summer reveals many wildflowers along the roadside.

While there are many scenic drives in the Baraboo Hills some other roads offering tours through woodland as well as scenic vistas include North Freedom Road going south between Co. PF and Co. C. Tower Road traveling east and west between Hwy. 113 and Columbia County, Co. PF from just outside North Freedom south to Leland, and Co. W west of Baraboo to Hwy. 23, plus many of the side roads off those roads.

More information about all of these destinations may be found online by typing in the destination name on a search engine.

Bring a camera and some hiking boots and enjoy a visit to the Baraboo Hills.

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