Whenever I find myself on a single-lane gravel road, I consider that a good sign.
Sure, for some, it can be a little alarming — conjuring up thoughts of flat tires, creepy banjo-playing kids or worse.
But for me, it's always a sign that I've found a spot a bit off the beaten path. In this case, Ferry Bluff State Natural Area.
"Ohh, I thought it was Fairy Bluff, like f-a-i-r-y," my sister said as we turned onto the gravel Ferry Bluff Road off Highway 60 west of Sauk City.
"Sorry to disappoint you," I said as I slowly steered my car down the road, passing a charming log cabin home tucked along the base of a bluff — no banjos or mythical wish-granting creatures in sight.
The small natural area occupies about 400 acres along the west bank of the Wisconsin River in Sauk County. The northern portion of the natural area is accessible via land, while a small southern portion can be reached only from the river. In the mid 19th century, Moses and Persis Laws ran a ferryboat landing here, hauling cargo across the wide Wisconsin River using rowboats.
And while there are no magical winged beings here — at least any that we spotted — the views from the top of the bluffs are pretty magical in their own right.
We parked along the shoulder of the gravel road near its end at Honey Creek, a nice canoe and kayak launch spot for access to the Wisconsin River.
At the parking lot, informational signs provide an overview of the area, along with signs warning that it is an eagle roosting spot. Ferry Bluff is closed from Nov. 1 to April 1 to protect the birds as they nest along the river in the winter.
From the parking area, we followed a dirt trail along the Wisconsin River to the base of Cactus and Ferry bluffs. There the trail splits, one spur leading to the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River and another up the bluff. If the water is low enough in the summer, you can hike out onto a large sandbar from the first spur.
"Is the trail up the bluff steep?" a man, probably in his late 50s or early 60s, asked as he stood at the trail junction, a cane supporting his right side.
"I think it's about a 20% grade, but it winds up the bluff," I said, based on what the informational signs at the parking lot had indicated.
"OK, so it's not straight up? I was here a while back and the trail used to go straight up the bluff," he said.
We looked at the trail in front of us, which looked even tamer than a 20% grade.
"I don't think so anymore," I said, and he thanked us as we began the short trek up Cactus Bluff.
We followed the well-maintained terraced trail as it wound through white and red oaks, hickory and elm trees.
About a half-mile trek brought us to the top, where we followed a short cordwalk out of the trees to the top of the 300-foot sandstone bluff. We were greeted by an assortment of informational signs, a couple of benches and, of course, the views.
Oh, the views. Puffy white clouds floating in the blazing blue sky were mirrored in the wide, meandering Wisconsin for miles to the east and southwest, interrupted only by islands of green trees and peach sandbars — popular with canoe and kayak campers on summer weekends. To the south, Blue Mound was a green-blue shadow, rising 1,700 feet above the Wisconsin countryside. To the northeast, the buildings of Sauk City provided the only hint of civilization.
This section of the Wisconsin — a dam-free 92 miles from Prairie du Sac to the confluence with the Mississippi River — is protected as part of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. Encompassing nearly 80,000 acres, the land is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, which is charged with protecting its beauty. This includes limiting development along the river, which makes for wonderful stretches of uninterrupted nature.
Beyond the informational signs, a wide sandstone ledge provided a spot for 180-degree views and photos. A teenager sat on another ledge just below there, but we opted for a safer perch on a bench to eat our lunch.
Within a few minutes our friend from the bottom hiked past us, cane and all. Even without fairies, the bluffs are a pretty magical place.
While you're there: Take some time to explore the river up close. Rent a canoe or kayak from Wisconsin Canoe Co. (608-432-5058, thebestcanoecompanyever.com) or Wisconsin River Outings (608-375-5300, canoe-camping.com) for a day trip on the river. Both companies provide shuttles to various launch points along the river west of Sauk City. Extend your trip by camping — for free — on one of the river's sandbars.
Finish your day with a scoop of homemade gelato from Blue Spoon Cafe, 550 Water St. in Prairie du Sac. Owned by the Culver's family of custard fame, the cafe also serves up soups, salads and more in a building that provides views of the Wisconsin from several decks.
Getting there: Ferry Bluff State Natural Area is on Ferry Bluff Road off Highway 60 southwest of Sauk City, about 100 miles west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highways 19 and 12.
More information: See dnr.wi.gov/topic/Lands/naturalareas/index.asp?SNA=217.
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