Visit state parks, other great natural retreats

It is easy to recommend a natural high for this weekend, as the annual Wisconsin State Parks Open House Day is Sunday. That means free admission to all state trails, parks, forests and other recreational areas. People also can fish any Wisconsin waterway without a license this weekend.

It is customary for special activities to coincide with the open house at some of the 90-some properties (particularly state parks). An example is free fishing lessons for children at Big Foot Beach State Park, Lake Geneva, and Lake Wissota State Park, Chippewa Falls.

Topics of free talks by naturalists will include animal tracks at Whitefish Dunes State Park, Sturgeon Bay, and Wisconsin mammals at Roche-A-Cri State Park, Friendship.

The celebration is one day after National Trails Day activities, which nationwide involves organized hikes and work parties to clean up trails.

Wisconsin is a trailblazer in this area. The Department of Natural Resources’ practice of converting abandoned railroads beds to hiking, bicycling and horseback riding trails has made us the top “rails to trails” state. The 32.5-mile Elroy-Sparta trail (Monroe County) was the nation’s first such conversion.

For directions and more details about specific state recreation properties, call (608) 266-2181 or go to www.wiparks.net.

Also worth mentioning is the National Wildlife Refuge System, which is 100 years old this year. Nine of the 540 designated refuges are in Wisconsin; not all are open to visitors.

Refuges in Wisconsin range from the 2-acre Hog Island that makes up the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge to the 43,656 acres (most in Juneau County) that are the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

A newest refuge is called Whittlesey Creek, established in 1999 in the Ashland and Lake Superior area; land for it still is being acquired.

The first national wildlife area was Pelican Island, Sebastian, Fla. For more about the refuge system nationwide, go to http://refuges.fws.gov or call (800) 344-9453.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends that refuge visits be in early morning or late afternoon, “when wildlife is most active,” and that visitors use binoculars to view wildlife from a distance, so they are not disrupted in their natural habitat.

Getting back to nature on these properties is a privilege for us; having the appropriate habitat to thrive should be a right for wildlife.

I would love to hear about great places to hike, bike or canoe in or near Wisconsin. Your tales of good trails to ride on horseback, dirt bike or motorcycle also are welcome.

The Department of Natural Resources has donated one vehicle admission sticker, which is good for state park entry during the rest of 2003. It will be sent to one person who responds to my inquiry by June 21.

There is no need to write a lot; a couple of well-crafted and convincing sentences is all that is necessary. Write to roads@charter.net or Roads Traveled, PO Box 259623, Madison, WI 53725. Please include your name and address.

One of my own favorites is Horicon Marsh in Dodge County, an area that grows black with geese as the air begins turning crisp in autumn. It is a magnificent sight, always good for a Sunday drive when I was a kid.

More than 21,000 acres of the marsh comprise the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Wisconsin, near Waupun and on Highway 49, off of Highway 151.

The Canadian goose is simply one of more than 270 species of birds that call Horicon its home, at least for a part of the year.

In the area is the 32-mile Wild Goose State Trail for bicycling; it’s on the western border of the marsh, from Fond du Lac to Clyman Junction. Hiking trails exist inside of the marsh.

To pamper yourself instead of roughing it at the end of the day, consider a stay at the good-looking Audubon Inn in tiny Mayville, a Queen Anne bed and breakfast inn that was built in 1896. National Geographic Traveler magazine calls it one of the top 54 inns in the country. For more, go to www.auduboninn.com or call (920) 387-5858.

For more about the general area, go to www.dodgecounty.com or call (800) 414-0101. Campgrounds also are plentiful.