Check out these unique destinations that reflect the genuine character of our region.
Ingersoll Wetlands Learning Center
7071 Riverview Road, Thomson, Ill., mississippiriver.natgeotourism.com
Situated along the Illinois Great River Trail – a 60-mile stretch of beautiful scenery along the Mississippi River – is a 36-acre sand prairie that’s home to this family-friendly learning center. The location doubles as the office for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and offers some of the best views of untouched wetlands in the U.S.
Along with dramatic views of Old Man River, Sloan Marsh wetlands and wildflower-filled sand prairie, you’ll find hands-on exhibits, live camera viewing of nesting eagles and other wildlife, high-powered binoculars, information about nearby hiking and biking trails and a bicycle tune-up station. There are many opportunities to photograph bald eagles, sand hill cranes, trumpeter swans, prickly pear cactus and other wildlife gems.
A bookstore and gift shop operated by The Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge offers an excellent selection, including children’s books, field guides and unique gifts related to conservation. All proceeds support various refuge programs. Hours are 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday through Friday with Saturday hours in summertime. The Center is closed on all federal holidays.
Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts
18 Shake Rag St., Mineral Point, Wis., shakeragalley.com
Tucked behind the main streets of Mineral Point is a charming little campus of nine small buildings where history and art co-exist joyfully. (We half expected fictional Cornish miner Ross Poldark to come strolling down the rambling stone paths.)
As happened with the limestone buildings of the Cornish mining town itself, the eldest buildings of Shake Rag Alley were teetering on the brink of collapse when private citizens came to their rescue and lovingly restored them. Among them is an 1830 log structure that may be the oldest schoolhouse in Wisconsin; an 1840 stone stagecoach inn where three rooms can still be rented; and an 1840 Cornish stone cut building now used as classroom space. There’s also a 120-seat outdoor theater.
In its heyday, Mineral Point had a larger population than Chicago and Milwaukee combined, thanks to the influx of miners from Cornwall, England and rich supply of lead. That changed abruptly when lead mining came to a halt. Over time, the community reorganized itself as an art enclave where craftsmanship is highly valued. Within steps of the charming little art school are at least 17 artist studios and galleries. Today Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts offers visual, performing, culinary and literary workshops to adults and summer art programs that emphasize pioneer life, to children.
Devil’s Lake State Park
S5975 Park Road, Baraboo, Wis., dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/devilslake/
If you’re looking for an excellent autumn hiking spot, and you haven’t been there lately, consider heading to Devil’s Lake State Park, the largest state park in Wisconsin and one of the most interesting. At more than 9,000 acres, with 500-foot-high quartzite bluffs and a natural lake that’s 47 feet deep in places, there’s plenty to see and do, and there are 41 miles of trails to hike. The interesting rock formations alone make it worth the trip, and if you’re a climber, the park offers some of the best opportunity in the Midwest for climbers of all skill levels.
A geological wonder, the Baraboo Range encompassing the park is thought to have once been taller than the Rocky Mountains, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The lake was formed from a river that became blocked at both ends by stone from the last glacial ice sheet, meaning it has no inlet or outlet.
The Nature Conservancy designated the southern portion of the Baraboo Hills one of just 77 “Last Great Places” in the world. About 12 miles of the Ice Age Trail runs through the park and one of the largest contiguous hardwood forests in the Midwest exists here.
Along with climbing, hiking, biking, boating, swimming, birding, photography and cross-country skiing, you can camp at this park in one of three sites. A campsite with electricity costs $35 for non-residents.
Wisconsin state parks require vehicle stickers, $11 per day for non-residents.
Because it welcomes millions of people every year, it’s wise to time your visit carefully. An autumn weekday would be an ideal choice and the fall color should be terrific.