Wisconsin Treasure: Horicon Marsh

As the days of summer zoom by I find myself compelled to visit and revisit as much of Wisconsin as possible. Wisconsin is packed with natural beauty, fascinating cultures, and urban excitement. Summer and fall are the best seasons (in my opinion) to enjoy all that Wisconsin has to offer. It is with heavily mixed emotions that I prepare for this to be my last summer and fall living in Wisconsin. By next summer we will be retired and relocated to Arizona.  But for now I want to revisit and showcase some of my favorites.  I will carry these Wisconsin treasures as precious memories into the  unknown future. Some of these are lifetime favorites and some are places and activities that I always meant to get around to. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Let’s go learn things about the Wisconsin Treasure: Horicon Marsh……..

Wisconsin Treasure: Horicon Marsh

I visited the Horicon Marsh for the first time in 2013 on a motorcycle day trip.  It was a fascinating vision to see this massive region of wetlands emerge out of the Wisconsin farmland as if a mirage. Many of the roads around the area are gravel, which is unusual for Wisconsin and difficult on motorcycles. Therefore, we didn’t spend a lot of time exploring that trip but it has been on my revisit list ever since. Most Wisconsinites know of the Horicon Marsh but think of it only as a spot to experience the Canadian Goose migration.  But there is so much more to this Wisconsin treasure. The Horicon Marsh is actually internationally renowned. In 1990 the 32,000 acre wildlife refuge was designated as a Ramsar Site. The Ramsar Convention is an arm of UNESCO, recognizing and preserving wetlands across the globe.

History of Horicon Marsh

Geology

The geological formation of Wisconsin was due to the receding Green Bay Lobe Glacier. Many of the natural Wisconsin treasures are results of this glaciation process. Wisconsin school kids learn about “drumlins” in their early elementary years. Drumlins are long thin hills formed by the trapped ice and water. The little islands throughout the Horicon Marsh area were formed by this phenomenon.

Native Americans

The Potawatomi and Winnebago tribes inhabited the regions to the east and west of the Horicon Marsh. Seven Native American foot trails converged at the southern end of the Horicon Marsh. Native American tribes respected the land and its resources. Unfortunately, this was not true for the influx of European settlers.

European Settlers

Wetlands across the nation face extinction. Historically, the value of these regions went unrecognized. The land was considered useless. It was not really a lake and yet too wet to farm. In Horicon history the settlers and farmers tried  “fixing” the land. First they dammed the water, creating Lake Horicon in 1846. The dam also powered the local sawmill. Later, in 1869, the courts mandated the removal of the dam and the land returned to original landowners of the flooded area. For a time around the turn of the 20th century the land existed as a marsh but was devastated by uncontrolled waterfowl hunting. Then in the 1910’s the land was completely drained for agriculture. The farming experiment failed and left the area as a true “wasteland”, devoid of its original rich biodiversity.

Conservation

Luckily in the 1930’s the federal government stepped in and started the long journey back to a healthy wetland region. Today two-thirds of the marsh is under the auspices of the federal, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The southern third is maintained by the State of Wisconsin DNR as a nesting and migrating reserve for waterfowl.

Through our efforts to recreate what nature had provided for us, we are now beginning to understand how complex this marshland ecosystem really is. Today, through management, Horicon Marsh is once again supporting an abundant variety of wildlife which is becoming increasingly more valuable to the many people who visit this great marsh. The scars of the past have healed themselves, and as we gaze out over the marsh we get a feeling for the Algonquin word from which this marsh takes its name; Horicon–the land of clean, pure water.–Friends of Horicon Marsh

Visiting this Wisconsin Treasure

Wildlife Refuge

I will be honest, when I thought about visiting the Horicon Marsh this time, I was looking for a place to practice my fledgling birding skills. It is a hotspot for bird watchers but should not be limited to them. Visiting the Horicon Marsh is an opportunity for all visitors to immerse themselves in a variety of nature and geology. The region allows exploration of the three major Wisconsin habitats; wetlands, woodlands and grasslands. The largest cattail marsh in the U.S. harbors deer, amphibious rodents such as beavers and otters, snakes, turtles, frogs, and over 300 species of birds. This Wisconsin treasure is literally teeming with life.

Horicon Marsh Visitor Map

Visitor Centers

Three different Visitor Centers spread out across the 14 miles of marshland. The federal portion of the region hosts the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge Office and Visitor Center located in the town of Mayville. Marsh Haven Nature Center is located in the far northwest corner just outside of the town of Waupun. Finally, the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center is located on Hwy 28 in the Wisconsin State region. All three of the facilities are supported by their respective, non-profit, Friends groups. I have only visited the Education and Visitor Center in the DNR section, but will of course have to return to check out these other centers.

Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center

The non-profit, Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center, was established in 1994. The group devoted their mission to the creation of an Education Center for the state controlled portion of Horicon Marsh. The Center sits atop a hill overlooking much of the southern unit of the wetlands. Expansive windows and sighting scopes allow for wildlife observation from both inside and outside the building. An information desk, auditorium, gift shop and the newest, Explorium, all provide learning opportunities and ways to enjoy the Marsh.
See their website for further details.

Special Events

Each of the centers host special events in their area of the Marsh. These include adult and youth education programs, family bike tours, guided tours of birding, archery and paddling, and children’s weekly storytimes. During the summer and winter months many of the trails and roads are open for exploration.  Many of the roads close in the fall and spring migration times.

Trails

It is possible to explore the Horicon Marsh in a variety of vehicles. You can drive a car on the Main Dike Road, the Old Marsh Road and around the perimeter on some of the local county roads. You can ride bicycles on these same roads or on the 34-mile Wild Goose State Trail. The Wild Goose State Trail skirts the western edge of the Horicon Marsh. You can hike and/or snowshoe the trails at Marsh Haven Nature Center and Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. Marsh Haven hosts three miles of trails and the State Wildlife Area has 5.5 miles total. Finally, you can paddle through parts of the State Wildlife Area.

State Wildlife Area Hiking Trail Map 

Marsh Haven Trail Map

Canoe Trail Map

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Canoe Trail

After my last visit to Horicon I longed to explore from the water. So this time I discovered the Canoe Trail. The map promised 6.5 miles, trail markers and convenient boat landings. I packed up my kayak and headed out to the Greenhead Rd boat landing at the northern end of the Canoe Trail.

Horicon Marsh Trail
Approaching one of the adorable Canoe Trail Markers
Another marked crossroads along the Horicon Marsh Canoe Trail

Birding on Horicon Marsh

In that groggy wakefulness of pre-dawn, my mind searched for a new bird destination. POP into my head came the Wisconsin Treasure, Horicon Marsh. A little research turned up the Horicon Marsh Canoe Trail, I was hooked. Please bear with some of my bird pictures….

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A very clever street name.

Towns surrounding the Wisconsin Treasure

Mayville, WI

After two hours of kayaking and another hour of hiking I was done in. But there are several historic little towns in the area worthy of a visit. The adorable village of Mayville calls itself the Gateway to the Horicon Marsh. This may be slightly boastful because there are a couple of other spots that could claim that title.  Nevertheless, they do sit on the Rock River as it flows into the Marsh. There are several historic spots such as the Carriage Factory Museum and the White Limestone School. The Audubon Inn, an historic hotel and the classy NOLA North Grille are definitely calling me back. Mayville is in the heart of Wisconsin dairyland. Old Fashioned Cheese is on Main Street offering a peek into their cheese caves. Widmer’s Cheese Cellars is just 5 miles east in the quiet burg of Theresa.

Horicon

The actual town of Horicon also calls itself the Gateway to the Horicon Marsh. This town doesn’t have as much going on as Mayville, but it does boast 4 convenient boat launches onto the Rock River. Three launches are north of the dam giving southern access to the Horicon Marsh. The fourth one on the south side of the dam enters the Rock River’s watershed into Sinissippi Lake.

Have you visited this Wisconsin treasure? Share your experiences in the comments.
Do you live in Wisconsin but have never been to the Horicon Marsh?  Plan your visit soon, you will be so glad that you did.
Do you have a Wisconsin treasure you think I should showcase? Drop me a note in the comments.

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