This story is part of our The Great Guide to Outside in the July issue of Milwaukee Magazine. To read the full guide, order your copy today!
Where we see a pristine, endless stretch of water and cattails waving in the breeze, birds see Grand Central Station and flock here in the thousands on any given day. The largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States, Horicon Marsh formed when Ice Age meltwater gathered behind a moraine. Recognized for its ecological importance by organizations like the United Nations and the National Audubon Society, massive numbers of migrating birds – 350,000 geese and ducks alone, and more than 300 species in total – pass through in spring and fall. Management of the 32,000 acres of protected wetlands is shared by national and state wildlife refuges, each with its own visitor center. Over 13 miles long and up to 5 miles wide, this natural treasure balances conservation with a variety of uses for human visitors.
The longest of the national refuge’s hiking trails is a 2-mile loop, but a trek combining three loops, including the 1-mile Egret Trail and its fantastic floating boardwalk, gives you 4.3 miles through forest, prairie and wetlands. The state refuge offers trails starting from the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center that follow along the edges of impoundments where waterfowl gather and connect to more trails up a low hill to an observation platform with a sweeping marsh view. And don’t worry, your boots will stay dry on all these hikes.
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2. Hit the Water
Paddlers can explore only parts of the state portion of the marsh, but that’s plenty. Put in at Greenhead Boat Landing on the East Branch of the Rock River for a flatwater trip among the cattails. Current is weak enough to paddle back to your starting point, or you can continue through the marsh, following the canoe trail signs, to a couple of boat landings on the Rock River in the city of Horicon, a 6.5-mile journey. Copies of the Horicon Marsh Canoe Trail Map and brochure are available at the visitor center or downloadable on the website.
The Wisconsin DNR has a Tour de Marsh bike and auto tour map that includes a 36-mile biking loop combining trails and roads. The 3-mile national refuge park road makes a great loop ride, with several places to stop and view wildlife, but there is also Wild Goose State Trail, a crushed limestone rail trail that runs 34 miles from Fond du Lac to Clyman Junction, with a 13.6-mile section west of the marsh. The 3-mile Old Marsh Road, which cuts through the interior of the marsh, is open for biking and hiking only from June to August.
Ledge County Park, near the southeast corner of the marsh, sits along the Niagara Escarpment, a rock ledge that runs from Wisconsin all the way to the namesake waterfall. Up top is an overlook of the marsh and throughout are trails, picnic areas and a playground. Campers can reserve any of the park’s 45 sites, 24 of which offer electricity.
Rainy Day Plans:
5. Marsh Haven Nature Center
W10145 STATE RD. 49, WAUPUN
Situated on 46 beautiful acres amid nature trails just north of the marsh, this nonprofit offers exhibits on wildlife, Native American cultures and more.
6. The Explorium
N7725 HIGHWAY 28, HORICON
Spend a couple of hours in this museum inside the state refuge’s visitor center, where you’ll find a life-sized mammoth replica, airboat simulator, and interactive exhibits about geological history and ecology.
7. Wisconsin Automotive Museum
147 N. RURAL ST., HARTFORD
Less than half an hour away, this impressive museum showcases over 100 classic and vintage cars as well as exhibits dedicated to Kissel luxury cars, built here from 1906-1931.
5 Birds to Look for in Horicon:
1. Whooping Cranes
At 5 feet, they are the tallest birds on the continent, noticeably larger than their sandhill cousins, and their numbers in the wild remain below 700. Spotting these elegant, white birds is a noteworthy event.
2. Ibis (White-Faced and Glossy)
Great Spots to Spot
Palmatory Street Overlook just north of Horicon has an observation deck with a spotting scope and a sweeping view of the marsh.
Egret Trail Floating Boardwalk goes right through the cattails.
Bud Cook Hiking Area is good for grassland and prairie birds.
Pulloffs along the park roads allow you to use your car as a bird blind to avoid scaring them off.