While I love getting out to explore new places, the irony of packing my bike in my car and driving a number of gas-guzzling miles to pedal along a trail is not lost on me. So whenever I have the opportunity to explore closer to home, I jump on it.
Cue the Oak Leaf Discovery Tour, a program from the Park People (the friends group for Milwaukee County Parks) that is designed to highlight the county's parks and trails, including the 118-mile Oak Leaf.
The program, now in its third year, kicked off May 1. The Park People have placed stamp and keyword kiosks at 20 park locations around the county. Participants purchase a "passport" with the kiosk locations and can bike, walk, hike or even drive to the different locations to collect stamps and keywords.
The Park People started the tour in 2012 with 14 stamp locations "as a means of getting people to explore areas of our parks that they hadn't seen before," said Cheri Briscoe, the program's coordinator, adding that on a ride between Greenfield and Whitnall Park last year some participants were amazed to pedal through a large wetland. "I had any number of people say, 'I didn't even know this existed!'"
Comments like that only reinforce the importance of the tour for Briscoe.
"One of my personal visions of the passport was that our Milwaukee Oak Leaf Trail is a tourist destination, and we are not promoting it enough," said Briscoe, a Milwaukee resident who was involved in starting the program. "I saw this passport as another way of promoting it to not only our own citizens as a tourist destination, but also for citizens to come to Milwaukee."
The group sold more than 2,000 passports the first year and about 2,500 last year. Some corporations have latched on to the program through Well City Milwaukee, a group of more than 60 businesses and nonprofits that work to improve the health of their employees.
"Some of their leadership saw this as an opportunity to encourage their employees to meet their personal wellness goals by getting out on the trails and exploring the parks," Briscoe said. The Park People offer discounted rates for groups and corporations interested in purchasing a bundle of passports.
Proceeds from the passports, which cost $5, as well as corporate sponsorship, help fund trail enhancements.
How it works: The Park People have set up 20 passport locations at parks along trail corridors in the county with stamps or keywords. Bike, hike, scooter or even drive to the locations and collect any combination of at least eight stamps or keywords by Oct. 6.
Stamps and keywords collected, register your passport online or at any Wheel & Sprocket, Rainbow Jersey Bike Shop or South Shore Cyclery, and you'll be entered to win prizes at an end-of-the-summer party at Estabrook Park on Oct. 12. Prizes include bikes, bike accessories and gift certificates at local businesses.
Routes: The tour is broken into five corridors, conveniently organized in the passport and on an included color map. (The tidy, pullout map alone is worth the $5 passport price.) Briscoe said Chris Kegel, the president and CEO of Wheel & Sprocket — which has been the presenting sponsor of the tour every year — was instrumental in getting the passport organized and in color this year.
"They're designed from six- to 20-mile distances so that families with children that don't want to go quite so far can plan their day according to the length of the trail," Briscoe said, noting that at least one-third of participants in past years were families. "It's also for people who are timid about exploring neighborhoods they're not familiar with; the map gives them a nice overview for where they're going."
Briscoe said a focus for this year's tour was keeping the route on off-the-road trails and parkways and avoiding city streets, which is why the passport does not include the Lake Park stamping station — a favorite in past years.
One of the best completely off-road paved sections is the South Shore corridor, which begins at South Shore Park and travels for six miles along Lake Michigan to Grant Park.
Briscoe said this is her favorite stretch. "Parts of it take you right along the lakefront, part of it takes you up on the bluffs through the woods," she said. "In the summer it's just like being in this beautiful, cool, magic woods."
I'm partial to the Milwaukee River corridor, mostly because it's in my backyard. The route follows the Milwaukee River from Brown Deer Golf Course south past Glendale, through Estabrook Park and ends at Veterans Park on the lakefront. The final stretch along the lake is a glimpse into the juxtaposition of urban development and natural beauty that makes Milwaukee so great.
The Root River corridor cuts east to west through the middle of the county and includes a stretch along the Hank Aaron State Trail.
"Last year we gave it a try with the Hank Aaron State Trail in there, because it connects to the Oak Leaf Trail in multiple places," Briscoe said. "I personally feel it's important to promote the trail as part of the program because one of the visions of that is it is a connector of the east and west part of the city, and it is exactly that."
How much it will set you back: Passports cost $5 and can be purchased at various park clubhouses in Milwaukee County.
While you're there: Along the Milwaukee River corridor, stop for a beer and giant pretzel at the Estabrook Beer Garden, open Monday through Friday from 3 to 10 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. (last call at 9 p.m. daily). See oldgermanbeerhall.com/estabrook-beer-garden.
If you pedal the Root River corridor, stop for a stamp and some hiking trail time at the Wehr Nature Center in Whitnall Park. The center covers 200 acres in the park and includes five miles of trails that loop through a variety of habitats including prairie, woodlands, wetlands and an oak savanna. See friendsofwehr.org.
More information: For more on the Oak Leaf Discovery Tour, see parkpeoplemke.org.
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