Peninsula State Park in Door County offers a variety of terrain for exploring on snowshoes.

Peninsula State Park in Door County offers a variety of terrain for exploring on snowshoes.

State parks offer opportunities to start new year with a hike

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The New Year is a time for new beginnings, fresh starts.

For some, that may mean a new hobby. For others, it's a time to get back to good eating or exercise habits. For me, that involves getting outside.

Yes, even more than I already do.

I struggle to pound out mile after monotonous mile on a treadmill, but I could spend days on Wisconsin's trails — running, hiking, climbing and taking in all nature has to offer. It's the best kind of exercise — a physical and mental rejuvenation — but it's easy to let the busyness of life, the weather, or a lack of motivation push things like recreation and exercise to the back burner.

So if you're like me and are looking to reconnect with Wisconsin's great outdoors, or, better yet, connect with it for the first time, New Year's Day is as good a time as any.

This New Year's Day, many Wisconsin state parks are hosting free hikes as part of America's State Parks' First Day Hikes program, a country-wide initiative to get people outdoors.

Here are some options for hikes around Wisconsin this Wednesday.

1. Kettle Moraine State Forest — Lapham Peak Unit, W329-N846 County C, Delafield

Distance from Milwaukee: 30 miles west

What to expect: The Waukesha/Milwaukee County Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance will host a guided 3- to 4-mile hike through the woods along the Ice Age Trail beginning at 11 a.m. Snowshoes will be available for rent, and hikers can enjoy refreshments after at the Hausmann Nature Center.

Why you should go: Aside from Lakeshore State Park and Havenwoods State Forest, Lapham Peak is one of the most easily accessible state parks from downtown Milwaukee. Located about 2 miles south of I-94 off County Highway C, the park features more than 17 miles of trails of varying distances — including a 2.5-mile loop that is groomed and lighted for cross-country skiing — and an observation tower that provides panoramic views of southeastern Wisconsin.

2. Kettle Moraine State Forest—Pike Lake Unit, 3544 Kettle Moraine Road, Hartford

Distance from Milwaukee: 35 miles northwest

What to expect: Meet at the Pike Lake beach area at noon for a 4-mile hike along the orange loop and Ice Age trails.

Why you should go: You don't need a vehicle admission sticker at this property on New Year's Day.

While you're there, enjoy great views from the observation tower on Powder Hill (elevation 1,350 feet).

3. Kettle Moraine State Forest — Southern Unit, N9097 County Road H, Whitewater

Distance from Milwaukee: 46 miles southwest

What to expect: Normally dominated by mountain bikers, the well-maintained John Muir trails are more easily hiked in the winter than the summer or fall. Join a hike along the nearly 5-mile orange loop beginning at the trail head at 11 a.m.

Why you should go: These trails will definitely get your heart pumping. Because they're designed with mountain bikers in mind, they take full advantage of the rolling terrain of the Kettle Moraine, with some steep climbs, descents and switchbacks. Who needs a stairmaster with trails like these?

4. High Cliff State Park, N7630 State Park Road, Sherwood

Distance from Milwaukee: 100 miles north

What to expect: If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Learn the basics before taking part in a 1.5-mile guided hike with a park naturalist. Trails in this park follow the limestone cliffs that make up the Niagara Escarpment along the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago, the state's largest inland lake. Meet at the park office at 1 p.m.

Why you should go: If you've never tried snowshoeing, this is a good spot and time to give it a try. The Friends of High Cliff State Park will have limited snowshoes available for rent at a reduced rate of $2.

5. Devil's Lake State Park, S5975 Park Road, Baraboo

Distance from Milwaukee: 120 miles west/northwest

What to expect: This 2-mile hike takes place at dusk, following the Roznos Meadow Trail — which is part of Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail — through a restored prairie in the southeast corner of the park. Hikers are advised to bring snowshoes and a flashlight.

Why you should go: Devil's Lake is Wisconsin's most popular park, but traffic slows a bit in the winter. Join this hike if you want unimpeded views of the stunning 500-foot quartzite bluffs that dominate the park.

6. Mirror Lake State Park, E10320 Fern Dell Road, Baraboo

Distance from Milwaukee: 120 miles west/northwest

What to expect: Meet at the beach at 10 a.m. for an easy 2-mile hike to Echo Rock — a lookout point for views of the placid Mirror Lake — and back. The Friends of Mirror Lake group will have a bonfire roaring near the beach for staying warm.

Why you should go: While beautiful any time of year, winter provides less-obstructed views of Mirror Lake and the 50-foot cliffs that surround it from a number of trails in the park.

If you want to make an overnight trip out of it, downtown Wisconsin Dells is only about a 15-minute drive north and features a plethora of hotels, waterparks, shops and restaurants for a winter getaway.

7. Whitefish Dunes State Park, 3275 Clark Lake Road, Sturgeon Bay

Distance from Milwaukee: 170 miles north

What to expect: Join the park's naturalist for a guided hike along the forested dunes and rocky shore of Whitefish Dunes, a quiet park on Door County's eastern side.

Why you should go: The steep dunes in this park are the highest on the western shore of Lake Michigan, and the views from the shore are some of the best as well.

For an extended hike, follow the trail along the shore past the nature center north into Cave Point County Park. The small park includes great views of steep, limestone cliffs that are often shrouded in a wall of ice in the winter thanks to the battering waves of Lake Michigan.

8. Peninsula State Park, 9462 Shore Road, Fish Creek

Distance from Milwaukee: 180 miles north

What to expect: Choose from a 1- or 3-mile bird hike along the Sunset Trail led by the Friends of Peninsula State Park. The group also will have refreshments and a bonfire at Weborg Shelter. Participants are encouraged to bring binoculars and a field guide and to leave pets at home. The hike begins at 10 a.m.

Why you should go: Peninsula State Park's eight miles of shoreline on Green Bay is a great spot for seeing a variety of birds, including bald eagles.

More information

While all of these hikes are free, you still need a vehicle admission sticker to park at most of the parks. Pick up a 2014 sticker on your way in for $25 (yearly) or $7 (daily).

For more on these events and others around the state on New Year's Day, see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/getoutdoors/events.html.

Some events are weather-dependent; check the website and call the appropriate park for current conditions before heading out.  

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