Madison Hikes: The Other Part of the Arboretum

Right smack in the middle of Madison, Wisconsin, a city of lakes is… another lake. Unlike the two biggies (Lakes Mendota and Monona) that bound the Capitol on either side of its isthmus perch, Lake Wingra is a spring-fed little thing. Cupping it along its southern shore (and a bit of the north as well) is The Arboretum, 1200 acres of what could be a quiet countryside somewhere far from the city.

But don’t let the tangled woods, meadows and marshes fool you. This is not untouched land. Photos inside the visitor center show you the clear-cut earth of farmland all the way around from the early half of the 20th century. At one point there was an attempt to put a residential development within, but the soggy earth had other thoughts about it. You can still find some traces of roads from the so-called Lost City. The Arboretum, part of the University of Wisconsin, was founded in 1934 and soon became a model of restoration. The research, efforts, and results have been copied by many other projects around the state and the nation. The 60-acre Curtis Prairie at the park’s center is the world’s oldest prairie restoration.

But this week, on a perfect sunny fall day, Peung and I headed to the southernmost portion of the Arboretum which is separated from the rest of the land by Madison’s Beltline Highway. There is a small parking lot on that side of the Beltline, but we opted for the long concrete tunnel that connects from the area around the central visitor’s center.

The leaves are just starting to fire up and the late summer/fall wildflowers are in bloom. Here’s just a bit of what we saw…

Right smack in the middle of narrow trail through Greene Prairie, Peung spotted this baby snapping turtle. Snappers are known for being a bit on the nasty side out of water. They can’t pull their heads back in like many turtles and so must discourage others from messing with it. Their ability to actually amputate a human finger is enough reason for me to leave them alone. Don’t bother trying to lift one up off the road from behind – their long necks allow them to reach as far back as their back feet.

This fellow was not even the size of my palm and waited a good long time before the proximity of the lens compelled him to abandon the trail for taller grass. I wondered if he could bite like the big guys. I decided not to pick him up. As unlikely as I thought it was, I didn’t want to be the guy with a tiny turtle fiercely embedded in his finger approaching the info desk at the visitor center: um, may I have this removed?

The prairies are swimming with native Wisconsin wildflowers and all the butterflies, bugs, and birds that come with them.

The Arboretum isn’t just a great place for Wisconsin wildflowers, but also a wide variety of birds. Bluebirds are common in the fields, water fowl in the ponds and lake, and you’d be pretty unlucky not to see a woodpecker. This is a red-bellied woodpecker. Yeah, I realize it’s its head that is red, but that name was already taken apparently.

Safe from Thanksgiving, plenty of wild turkeys wander the forest warily avoiding hikers (though I’ve heard males in mating season can get quite aggressive – so said a mail carrier who was attacked in nearby Middleton a couple years ago).

The prairie showed a lot of blue/purple with a bit of yellow. A month ago it was predominantly yellow.

The moisture of the recent rains has mushrooms sprouting in abundance.

Not sure what kind of mushrooms these are but they grow upside down from tree branched and then do a little umbrella handle bend toward the sky.

Already the leaves are starting to outdo the wildflower colors. Watch the Arboretum Events page for a lot of upcoming guided hikes or volunteer restoration work activities. Most of them are free on the weekends.

And if you are looking for more great hikes around Madison, check out my book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Madison.

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

5 thoughts on “Madison Hikes: The Other Part of the Arboretum

    • Thanks! That’s one cold and lonely Turkey, by the way. Yes, the Arboretum is magnificent and there is so much to see in there when you take the time to really look.

  • I was out hiking in a native prairie park here in Illinois a couple of weeks ago and was amazed at the abundance of flowers so late into fall and the monarchs were everywhere. Great pictures. Yea, I would never mess with a snapper: not even a baby.

    • Definitely the warmer weather is helping – still no frost! But in general I see a huge resurgence of native wildflowers. Many parks have actively brought them back, but one state park ranger once told me that even before they brought in the seeds after clearing fields, the dormant seeds of flowers they hadn’t seen in years were sprouting. Pretty amazing and great to see them competing with the usual fall colors.

  • Pingback: Photos of the week: Monarch butterflies, nature’s greatest travelers | Traveling Ted TV

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