Wisconsin is full of unique natural and historic sites. But finding both in the same spot is a more rare, and special, occurrence.
Tucked into Wisconsin's Driftless Region about 20 miles southwest of Baraboo is just such a site: Natural Bridge State Park, home to a beautiful sandstone arch — the largest in Wisconsin — and one of the earliest inhabited sites in the state.
The glaciers left this area of Wisconsin untouched, but other natural forces have done their own work. Wind, water and erosion slowly chipped away at a massive block of sandstone, creating a natural bridge suspended between two layered sandstone formations that stand 35 feet tall.
The small, 530-acre park is tucked in the shadow of Wisconsin's most popular, Devil's Lake, and was privately owned until 1973, when the state acquired the land and turned it into a park.
But the site's history goes back much further. In 1957, archaeologists excavated a shallow cave under the bridge and discovered charred wood and animal remains that date to between 9000 and 8000 B.C.
"It's probably one of the earliest known inhabited shelters and evidence of human existence in the area," said Steve Schmelzer, superintendent at nearby Devil's Lake State Park.
The site was presumably used as a seasonal shelter, perhaps for hunting, and later as a year-round residence.
Tourists have been pouring into the park since the 19th century. Today, visitors can explore 4 miles of trails throughout the park, including a 1-mile nature trail that highlights plants that the area's first inhabitants used for medicinal purposes.
Route: From the parking area north of Highway C, it's a quick, less-than-10-minute hike to the bridge. Follow the nature trail north through woods filled with oaks and other hardwoods. At the top of a short climb, you'll reach a fork near a small, open prairie. Take the trail to the right back into the woods.
As the trail cuts back to the east, the bridge comes into view. Stay behind the fence and do not hike on the arch or into the cave to protect the delicate formation.
The orange and brown sandstone looms overhead, and the small rock shelter — about 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep — extends back into the rock at the bridge's western base. Small sandstone outcroppings stand guard on the north side of the trail, with soft, khaki-colored sand surrounding their base.
Take your time admiring nature's work, because as you follow the trail east and then south back toward the parking lot, the bridge quickly is obscured by trees and the ridge.
A short distance after the bridge, a short, steep trail spur to the east leads to a lookout point with great views of the surrounding Baraboo Hills.
Back on the main trail, follow the trail to the west back to the parking lot, or continue hiking south toward Highway C for a longer hike.
Cross the highway and trek through an open cornfield toward the woods, where the 2-mile Whitetail Hiking Trail makes a slow climb up a ridge. A cutoff bisects the trail about halfway, if you're looking for a shorter hike.
Continue along the main trail as it reaches the top of the ridge and then circles back down to the highway. Watch and listen for woodpeckers, bald eagles and whitetail deer.
Back across the highway the trail splits past an old stone smokehouse, built in 1900 by the Raddatz family, who owned and farmed the land before the state took over. An old log cabin also used to stand nearby, but the structure collapsed and was removed a few years ago, Schmelzer said.
The fork to the left travels past a small prairie that boasts Indian grass, little bluestem and gamma grasses in the summer. To the right, the trail crawls back through the woods to the parking lot.
Difficulty level: Moderate. The trails, although short, include steady and often steep climbs. When muddy and leaf- or snow-covered they can become slick, so be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes.
When to visit: "There's never a lot of visitors there, so any time is a nice time to visit, because you usually don't run into a lot of other people," Schmelzer said. He estimated the park gets 30,000 visitors every year, far less than nearby Devil's Lake, which draws more than 1 million.
Fall brings beauty in the changing leaves on the surrounding hills, but winter is nice for catching an unobstructed view of the arch. On a recent weekday visit, I had the bridge and surrounding trails all to myself for more than two hours.
How much it will set you back: A daily admission pass to the state park for vehicles with Wisconsin plates is $7, or $25 for a yearly pass (out-of-state vehicle stickers are $10/day or $35/annual). There is a self-registration station at the park if you do not already have a sticker.
While you're there: Because the park is so small, it's easy enough to fully explore it for a couple of hours, then head to the larger and busier Devil's Lake State Park nearby for more outdoor exploration. Try the West Bluff Trail, which is part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and follows the bluffs along Devil's Lake's western shore for 1.4 miles. See dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/devilslake or call (608) 356-8301.
On your way back to Milwaukee, pick up some aged cheddar cheese, fresh cheese curds or award-winning goat cheddar from Carr Valley Cheese's retail store in Sauk City. The more-than-100-year-old company is owned and operated by the Cook family in La Valle, about 30 miles west of Baraboo. Find the Sauk City store at 807 Phillips Blvd.
Getting there: Natural Bridge State Park is about two hours west of Milwaukee via I-94, Highways 19 and 12, and County Highway C.
More information: See dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/naturalbridge or call (608) 356-8301.
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