For many people, myself included, this is the best time of the year. But let’s face it. Autumn 2017 in Milwaukee has been disappointing. Blame climate change or natural variability but it was unusually mild early in the season. While that’s hard to complain about as the prospect of another Wisconsin winter nears, it seems to have dulled the colors. Many tree species, oaks in particular, seem to have gone directly from green to brown. Others have remained green far longer than normal. Some, like the maples, were finally turning as the calendar went from October to November.
I finally found a few brilliant sparks amid the embers of the season but it was more challenging than last year. Here is a selection of five area parks that I visited recently. Two of them — Holy Hill and Greenfield Park — are old favorites, worth revisiting often. The other three were new to me: Glacier Hills in Washington County, Vernon Wildlife Area in Waukesha County, and Noyes in Milwaukee. If you act quickly, you too may still be able to capture a little of the fading glory of autumn.
Glacier Hills County Park
Glacier Hills County Park is in the Town of Richfield in Washington County. As the name suggests, it sits along the line of glacial features that make up the larger Kettle Moraine, among Wisconsin’s most significant landscapes. The 140-acre park has characteristically rugged terrain that contains kettles, kames, an esker; ponds, marshes, and a bog; as well as a beach on Friess Lake. Forested areas include oaks, maples, basswood, ironwood, elm and birch, although I spent a good chunk of my time there in a somber stand of cultivated white pines.
Ice Age Trail – Holy Hill segment
The 1,000-mile long Ice Age National Scenic Trail follows the line of terminal glaciers throughout the state of Wisconsin. While hiking it all remains a (somewhat far-fetched) dream of mine, I love walking a nearby segment now and then. There are few more reliable places in autumn to enjoy the colors of the season than the Holy Hill segment. The trail winds around the ever-popular basilica of Mary, Help of Christians, the photogenic Roman Catholic shrine that sits atop a 1,350-ft. glacial kame. I parked in the Holy Hill lot and walked a short way through a spectacular canopy of mature oak and maple that seem to me to match the grandeur of the shrine itself.
Vernon Wildlife Area
OK, I’ve known about this place for ages, but I’ve never before been to Vernon Marsh. It is located between Waukesha and Mukwonago not far off I-43, consisting of vast wetlands, some grassland and a few woodlots. The Fox River threads its way through, stitching the whole place together. I have DNR wildlife biologist Dianne Robinson to thank for motivating me finally to get here. She offers a regular series of guided hikes. This was my third in as many months. At 4,655 acres, Vernon Wildlife Area is large. We only hiked through a tiny, non-marshy upland corner of it. It was a gloomy day and except for a small copse of aspen and some distant tamaracks seen across the Mukwonago River from where we were, the colors had pretty much devolved into shades of brown and tan.
Half of the 282-acre park, which is in West Allis, is a well-used golf course. While the other half also has a number of recreational amenities, including Cool Waters, the ever-popular water park, at least two thirds — over 95 acres — of it features mostly nature. A long-time favorite, I returned to its lovely woodland in hopes that the colors hadn’t died. And they hadn’t! In fact, the rich yellows and red-oranges were still intermixed with a substantial amount of green throughout the canopy. In several spots adjacent to the existing woodlot, newly planted oak seedlings demonstrate the Milwaukee County Park Department’s commitment to maintaining and even expanding this outstanding natural area.
Noyes is in the northwest corner of the City of Milwaukee. Like Greenfield Park, a major portion is given over to golfing. There is a nine-hole beginners’ course of short fairways as well as a driving range. The western third of the park — a little over 22 acres — however, is maintained as a “nature study area.” Not sure what that means other than the woodlot there being kept in a natural state. Noyes, also like Greenfield Park, is in the midst of a systematic ecological restoration project. Large sections of the understory have been cleared of enormous quantities of buckthorn and other invasive species. In fact, it is quite stunning right now; some of the best color I found in my autumn quest.
All photos by Eddee Daniel. See more of Daniel’s autumnal photos at many more Milwaukee area parks at Flickr.