Although I’ve been back many times in all seasons, my first visit to Falk Park was most memorable. A personal quest to see wildflowers motivated me. Brian Russart, Natural Areas Coordinator for the Milwaukee County Parks Department, had recommended Falk. The small parking lot was easy to find, on Rawson Avenue just off the exit from I-94 in Oak Creek. Although it was a pleasant day in early spring there were no cars in the lot when I arrived.
I walked along a wide path that led more or less straight into the forest. Most of the trees were bare. The only leaves still clinging to gray branches were desiccated leftovers from the year before. The ground, swaddled in dead leaves, was likewise brown and gray. Where were the flowers, I wondered?
I walked quite a distance through the appealingly wild but colorless forest before the trail crossed a small stream on a boardwalk. A few widely dispersed marsh marigolds provided the first bright spots in the barren landscape. Beyond that was a clearing, an agricultural field that had yet to be planted. Perhaps I was too early, I thought. But there was another section of woodland ahead. I proceeded onwards.
As I entered the woods the ground ahead in the distance seemed to be covered in a light dusting of snow. At first I thought it must be a trick of the light. But I quickly discovered that I had found what I was looking for. Tiny white wildflowers—I’ve since learned that they’re called spring beauties—in such abundance that they carpeted the forest floor as far as I could see. I was amazed. It was beyond my expectations—in fact, it was unlike anything I’d seen before in any setting, let alone an urban park.
I immediately wanted to find more. So began an ongoing effort to seek out similar hidden gems in area parks, places a bit off the beaten track where nature reigns supreme. The places I have found vary in size. Some, like Falk, are largely wilderness-style parks, meaning woodlots or prairies that are lightly managed in a way that allows natural processes to prevail. In such settings, for example, fallen trees are left to decompose and nurture the next cycle of life.
Some of the most surprising finds, however, have been small, quiet sections of larger parks like McGovern on Silver Spring Drive in Milwaukee. There a modest woodlot and pond are surrounded by the athletic fields and mown lawns that make up most of the park. But it is at McGovern that I’ve found one of the most spectacular spreads of spring wildflowers anywhere in Milwaukee County.
Early spring beauties and violets speckle the lawns before the first mowing. Wood anemone, spring cress, cut-leaf toothwort, Solomon’s seal, wild geranium and a glorious tapestry of common white and rare yellow trout lilies each show up briefly at appointed times of the season. The basketball courts are nearly always bustling, but only occasionally do I encounter another person on the surprisingly secluded paths.
Then there’s Mangan Woods. Tilted up against Crystal Ridge, the rolling hills of Mangan are among the most rugged in Milwaukee County. One of the few places in the county system that had never been logged, it is home to rare old-growth hardwoods, including red oak, white, oak, sugar maple, American basswood, shagbark hickory, and—until the emerald ash borer gets them—white ash. Just off the parking lot there is a stunning grove of black walnuts lined by hackberry trees. Acadian flycatchers, a state-threatened bird, are a special Mangan treat because they can only breed in mature forest canopies.
Spring is especially lovely at Mangan. It is there that I’ve seen the largest Jacks in the pulpit anywhere. Careful inspection of the groundcover at the right moment in the season will reward you with the unobtrusively magnificent prairie trillium.
You would be hard pressed to find more beautiful woodland in any urban county in the country. You’d also be hard pressed to find Mangan Woods at all unless you were told where to look. It doesn’t appear in the Parks Department website directory and isn’t labeled on its official map. While there is a sign outside the tiny parking lot across from the Whitnall Park golf course on 92nd Street, be forewarned: the sign reads “Ross Lodge” not “Mangan Woods.”
It’s not that Mangan is a secret. A well-used mountain bike trail winds down through it from the adjacent sports complex formerly known as Crystal Ridge and rebranded as “The Rock.” But, squeezed between Milwaukee’s flagship park—Whitnall—and the Root River Parkway, it is easy to miss.
Cudahy Nature Preserve
Not far from Falk Park is another hidden gem, the Cudahy Nature Preserve, off College Avenue near Howell in Oak Creek. It is here where I first experienced the astonishing trout lily.
Let me clarify. A single trout lily is hard to appreciate. Like so many of the spring wildflowers I’ve been describing, one has to prostrate before it in order to see it closely. While that is a humbling and worthy endeavor, shear abundance is what makes the trout lily truly spectacular. Hiking down from the uplands into a glen completely carpeted in trout lilies is breathtaking.
A thin stream of black water trickles through the middle of the park. From the plank bridge crossing it is easy to observe luxuriant bouquets of marsh marigold without getting wet. Deeper in the woods, where the soil is moist, thick, rich stews of skunk cabbages splash the forest floor with intense greens in early spring when nothing else has begun to leaf out.
Cudahy Nature Preserve is even more spectacular in autumn. The canopy of mature red and sugar maples arches over a remarkably rich understory of shrubs and young trees, including musclewood, witch-hazel, pagoda dogwood, serviceberry, maple leaf viburnum and arrow-wood viburnum. No gothic curtain wall of stained glass can match the grandeur, the vivid glow of afternoon light blazing through leaves in a million autumnal shades.
I should mention the noise. When the wind is right one is subjected to the tremendous roar of jet engines at regular intervals as airliners begin their ascent from Mitchell Field. The flight path of the north-south runway is immediately adjacent to the park. Between flights it is very peaceful.
My quest to find hidden gems has recently taken me a little farther afield than usual. I’ve been venturing north to explore Ozaukee County’s extensive parks and natural areas. My latest discovery is Spirit Lake. This one is literally hidden in plain sight. While there is a sign on West Bonniwell Road in Mequon to identify it, when you pull up to the sign you are confronted with a chain across the driveway that leads into the property. Not only that, the driveway divides two broad, uninviting agricultural fields. A tree line in the distance is the only indication that you might find a beautiful spot for a hike if you walk down the drive.
Coincidentally, when I pulled up and parked at the entrance I saw two huge wild turkeys sauntering across the tilled field, iridescent feathers gleaming in the bright sunlight. Thus encouraged, I followed. The turkeys veered off before I got there but beyond the windbreak of pines was the lake. The lake is more of pond, but beyond the lake is a lovely forest. The phenomenon I described earlier was replicated here as I found spring beauties blooming everywhere on the forest floor. However, another miniscule flower was the most stunning discovery on the day that I visited.
Wisconsin’s state flower is the common blue violet, a.k.a. wood violet, hooded violet, meadow violet and woolly blue violet! By whatever name, the violets were out en masse at Spirit Lake that day. Even more striking than the blue was the white variety of violet. Once again, a little groveling at ground level will enable you to see them more clearly. The purple patterns radiating along the petals from the center of the flowers are dazzling.
Spirit Lake currently is owned and managed by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, which acquired it in 2015 with funding from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Greenseams funding and the Milwaukee Audubon Society. A tree-planting operation that will restore the cultivated portion of the property to woodland has just begun in the far corner of the property.
My tour of hidden gems is far from complete. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite to explore area parks and discover a few of your own favorites. If you have a favorite hidden gem, please add a comment or send an email to let me know. I’m always on the lookout for another urban wilderness adventure.