If Daniel had been thrown into this Lion's Den, he might never have wanted to leave.
Situated just east of Grafton in Ozaukee County, Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve includes more than a half-mile of 100-foot bluffs along the Lake Michigan shoreline, offering spectacular views of the lake and Port Washington to the north.
In 2002, the Ozaukee County Parks Department — working with the Ozaukee County Land Trust, Riveredge Nature Center, other organizations and a federal coastal water grant — purchased the privately owned land along the lake and converted it into a 73-acre park. Over the next five years, the department added trails, bridges, boardwalks and stairs leading down the gorge to the lake.
The park is one the few public access points to Lake Michigan between Mequon and Port Washington, with some of the last undeveloped bluff land along the lake.
Because of the unique, undeveloped ecosystem, the parks department has treaded lightly on developing the preserve.
"We're trying to keep the park as relatively low-impact as we can, but still allow everyone an opportunity to enjoy the park," said Parks Superintendent Dave Nowak.
That includes your furry friends. Dogs are allowed throughout the park, including along the shore, but must be on a leash at all times. Be sure to pick up after them as well; bags for waste are provided at the trailhead.
Route: From the parking lot, hike along a short boardwalk and follow the Gentian Walk west for your first view of the bluffs and the lake. Pause on the bench there to take in the views; on a clear day, you can see Port Washington and its historic lighthouse jutting into the lake to the north.
Photos snapped and views admired, follow the Bluff Trail north along the bluff top, and make another stop at the Bluff Vista for another glimpse at the cliffs. Trust me: It never gets old.
Continue following the Bluff Trail north through the woods. Now's the time to listen: to the birds, the rustling trees, the waves crashing into shore 100 feet below.
At the end of the Bluff Trail, pause before crossing the bridge for a view of the deep coastal ravine that gives the area its name. This is one of Nowak's favorite spots in the park.
"Not only do you see the gorge, but when the leaves are off the trees, you can see the lake and the gorge at the same time," he said.
After crossing the bridge, follow the stairs down the gorge to the shore. It's fairly rocky here, but hot days coax humans and dogs into the cool Lake Michigan waters.
Hike back up the stairs and follow the Gorge Loop west along its namesake. Heavy foliage in the summer hides most of the ravine from view, but you can still catch glimpses, especially along the Cedar Loop.
From there, it's a mostly straight shot on the Lion's Den Trail along the park's western edge back to the parking lot.
For another small diversion, just after the kiosk, follow the Waterfowl Walk west to the viewing platform in the neighboring U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Waterfowl Production Area, which preserves wetlands critical to migrating birds and other wildlife. You can spot birds here year-round, but they are especially abundant during spring and fall migration.
Difficulty level: Easy. The entire network of trails in the park are wide, mostly level and well-maintained. The gravel Lion's Den Trail is handicapped-accessible and traverses the length of the park. The trails near the gorge on the northern end are slightly more narrow and hilly, and the steps leading down to the gorge are not handicapped-accessible but provide plenty of landings for resting.
When to go: According to Nowak, the stream of visitors is fairly steady and heavy from when the park opens at 6 a.m. to closing time at 9 p.m., especially in the summer. "And with the views, you can see why. It's a gorgeous park," he said, adding that the best time to visit is probably the morning, when it is the least busy.
The park is open year-round, and while the trails aren't plowed in the winter, visitors pack them down enough to make hiking possible. "That can be a very serene time to go," Nowak said.
How much it will set you back: Nothing; the park is free to explore.
While you're there: Head north to picturesque Port Washington for a closer look at the Art Deco lighthouse at the end of the harbor's breakwater. You can't go inside, but you can walk along the pier to the lighthouse and take photos along the way. 106 N. Lake St., Port Washington.
Stop by the Twisted Willow in Port Washington for dinner and live entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays. The restaurant, which includes gluten-free and vegan options on its menu, grows some of its own ingredients and sources others locally. 308 N. Franklin St., Port Washington; (262) 268-7600.
Get in a late round on the Arnold Palmer-designed The Bog golf course in Saukville. The course has been named one of the top 10 in Wisconsin by Golf Digest. 3121 County Road I, Saukville; (262) 284-7075.
More info: Lion's Den Gorge Nature Preserve is at 511 High Bluff Drive, Grafton, about a half-hour drive north of Milwaukee via I-43. For more info, call (262) 284-8257.
Day Out features day trips within a two-hour drive of the Milwaukee area.
Updated: May 29, 2014
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