Get Acquainted with the Many Faces of Calumet County Outdoors

October 29, 2013

Rob Zimmer

Appleton Post Crescent Online

Rising overhead, the rustling canopy of forest trees gleamed in the brilliant golds, oranges and reds of the season. An army of blue jays cried out among the branches, their haunting cries drifting through the trees.

At ground level, a parade of hungry sparrows swept along the forest floor, joined by juncoes and chickadees as they foraged for food. The flashing tails of the juncoes and the sweet song of white-throated sparrows filled the morning air with song. American robins, hundreds of them, also moved en masse through the trees.

A mighty migration was under way at High Cliff State Park.

Head east of Lake Winnebago and you’ll find plenty of natural treasures.

From the lowland flooded swamps along Lake Winnebago’s north shore to the towering limestone outcroppings that reach to the skies all along the Niagara Escarpment throughout the length of Calumet County, the wonders found here are spectacular ones. The sprawling grasslands at Killsnake and the vast cattail marsh at Brillion Wildlife Area, in addition to county parks and nature centers offer some of the most diverse wildlife habitats and natural areas found anywhere in the state, right here in a our own backyard.

High Cliff State Park

I came upon a squadron of more than a dozen giant turkey vultures, statuesque in the bare trees at the edge of the quarry at High Cliff State Park. The chill of early morning was quickly fading away, and the turkey vultures know just how to take advantage of the warming sun.

The huge birds, with their 7-foot wingspans, perched with wings spread wide among the bare branches to catch the rising sun, like giant solar panels with feathers. Capturing the warmth of the rising sun on the dark feathers of their massive wings allows them to quickly heat up with the warmth of early morning.

As I was walking along the trails of High Cliff recently, I met a woman on the trail who gave me a renewed sense of passion and pride for this place so many of us take for granted due to its close proximity to the Fox Cities.

The woman, who had just moved here from out of state, had no idea the park existed, and was just discovering its majesty and beauty as we passed on the trail. She became so amazed she was moved to tears by the natural wonders here along the edge of mighty Lake Winnebago.

I walked her along the trails, past sites I have long taken for granted: the scenic overlooks, the faces of the Niagara Escarpment, the amazing, textured bark of the shagbark hickory, the limestone kiln ruins that still tower along the edge of the cliff. All of these things overwhelmed her senses.

It struck me that I never got her name, but I know her heart was forever touched that day by the natural beauty our area has to offer, in particular, this signature state park located along the northeast shore of Lake Winnebago. From the stunning, rigid landscapes of the ledge that rises high over the lake, to its rich history, the majesty of this natural treasure is captivating.

Calumet County Park

Located just south of High Cliff State Park, this smaller, cozier county park offers another great access point to the famous Niagara escarpment.

In addition to several hiking trails leading along the edge of the cliff, the park offers camping, as well as mountain bike trails both above and below the ridge. Like High Cliff, the park features Indian effigy mounds within the grounds that are amazing to explore.

Brillion Nature Center and Brillion State Wildlife Area

Located at the edge of the sprawling Brillion marsh, Brillion Nature Center offers a variety of natural landscapes, wildlife, scenic beauty, as well as spectacular views of the wetlands.

A boardwalk trail leading to a rising platform overlooking Brillion Marsh leads visitors through several forest types and into this unbelievable sea of cattails.

During spring and summer, osprey can be observed patrolling the open waters of the marsh and returning to their nest platform visible from the marsh overlook.

Sandhill cranes, Canada geese, barred owl, several species of woodpecker, ring-necked pheasant, wild turkey, as well as many varieties of songbirds, can be seen here throughout the year. The forests and prairies feature many of the native wildflowers of the area, as well as ferns, grasses and more.

Ledgeview Nature Center

Located along the same limestone bluff that forms High Cliff State Park and the Door County peninsula, Ledgeview Nature Center is located just south of Chilton. Here, sinkholes in the limestone create massive underground caves and caverns that can be explored on tours deep within the caves by Ledgeview naturalists.

In addition to the limestone caverns, Ledgeview Nature Center features several miles of trails that wind around the ledge outcropping, through a massive limestone quarry, through towering hickory and maple forests, as well as an observation platform rising high over a vast prairie landscape.

A highlight at Ledgeview is the arboretum trail that features labeled examples of just about every native Wisconsin tree, shrub and plant found in our area, a great educational display.

Killsnake Wildlife Area

The Killsnake Wildlife Area, located at the southern end of Calumet County, features natural habitats of a different sort. Here, grasslands are the star of the landscape. Sprawling grasslands harbor unique forms of wildlife, such as sandhill cranes, short-eared owls, as well as many other grassland birds such as bobolinks, several species of sparrow, meadowlark, marsh wren and sedge wren, ring-necked pheasant and more.

Menasha Conservancy

At the Menasha Conservancy, it is the swampy backwaters of Lake Winnebago that enrich and beautify the landscape. Here in the forests and wetlands, wood ducks, river otters, Canada geese, wild turkey, great blue heron, mallard and other wetland wildlife enjoy the solitude and safety found here in this preserved lowland area. In addition to the wildlife, the spring wetlands are filled with colorful wildflowers such as mayapple, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geranium, Canada mayflower, trillium and others.

Click here to read the article and watch videos of the locations mentioned in the article. »