Enjoy the view at High Cliff State Park
Any day with a cliff-nic is a good day.
That would be a picnic on a cliff, so dubbed by my friend on a recent trip to High Cliff State Park, where we did indeed enjoy a cliffside meal at the top of the Niagara Escarpment overlooking Lake Winnebago.
High Cliff, on the lake's eastern shore in Sherwood, is a gem of a park in quiet Calumet County — often bypassed by folks heading north on I-43 along Lake Michigan to the east or around Lake Winnebago's western shore on Highway 41.
But if you venture up Highways 151 and 55 in between, you'll be rewarded with fantastic views of the lake, interesting rock formations and wooded trails enveloped in yellow in the fall.
Colors should near peak in mid-October, with some residual yellows and oranges lingering through the end of October, and the views of the lake and hiking trails are great any time of year.
"We're the only state recreational site on Lake Winnebago," said Cindy Mueller, the park naturalist. "We're not only on the lake but we have this gorgeous rock formation, the Niagara Escarpment, and the rich history."
That history includes a personal one for Mueller. Her great-grandparents lived along the lake near where the park office is today, and her grandparents lived on top of the ledge.
The park's history dates back more than a thousand years, when nomadic American Indians passed through the area and built a series of effigy mounds — a handful of which still remain and are visible along a 1-mile interpretive trail.
In the 1850s the businessmen came calling, establishing a limestone quarry operation. Limestone was quarried from the top of the ledge and moved to the bottom via horse-drawn carts and later a pulley system. There it was dropped into kilns for processing.
The small community of High Cliff (also known as Clifton) sprouted alongside the quarry, serving as a home for workers and their families plus a couple of taverns, a church, school, blacksmith shop, a general store and post office. A small privately owned amusement park once sat atop the ledge.
The Western Lime and Cement Co. ceased operating in 1956, when the state took over ownership of the land. The park opened the following year and in 1964 officially became a state park.
Lime kiln ruins and the 1880s general store still remain in the park at the base of the ledge. The general store now serves as a museum and nature center for programs in the summer.
Things to do: More than 18 miles of hiking trails wind their way up, down and along the Niagara Escarpment in High Cliff.
In the lower part of the park, the 2.3-mile Lime Kiln Trail passes by remnants of the kiln that once operated here, then winds through a wooded landscape and past rock formations up the escarpment.
The Niagara Escarpment is a long, steep slope of dolomite (limestone) layers that stretches nearly continuously from New York at Niagara Falls west through Wisconsin.
"It is the only formation of its kind in the world," Mueller said. "It's considered one of the seven wonders of Wisconsin."
At the top of the escarpment, the relatively level 3.7-mile Red Bird trail loops along the ledge, with a few spots for viewing the lake, cliffs and rock formations from above. The trail passes through large groves of sugar maples, a fall fan favorite when it dons its yellows, oranges and reds.
The Red Bird trail begins at a large picnic area at the top of the escarpment where a 40-foot observation tower provides sweeping views of the lake and the surrounding countryside. On our visit, the park's marina and small town of Sherwood looked New England-esque nestled alongside the large lake and surrounded by the colors of fall.
Also at the beginning of the trail is a statue of its namesake. Red Bird was a Winnebago (now called Ho-Chunk) leader who acted as a liaison between American Indians and European settlers in the early 19th century. But in 1827 he led a small band of Winnebago in attacking settlers at Prairie du Chien after a false rumor that the settlers had executed two Ho-Chunk prisoners. Red Bird would later surrender and died in prison.
But in the 1960s community members in the Fox Cities area wanted to preserve Red Bird's legacy as a peacemaker, Mueller said. The Winnebago leader had family ties to the area, so a 12-foot bronze statue was erected in High Cliff. Mueller added that some of Red Bird's descendants still live in the area.
Come winter, the Red Bird trail is groomed for cross country skiing. The rest of the park is open to winter hiking and snowshoeing, with the 1.25-mile Forest Management trail as a good option for those. The park office offers snowshoe rentals.
A family campground welcomes visitors in warm-weather months, while the group campground stays open through the winter. Mueller said a hardy cadre of campers visit every winter — including during one year's especially brutal polar vortex.
In the summer, four boat launches and a small beach provide access to the lake.
The park is also a great spot for bird watching. Look for soaring turkey vultures, blue jays, and migrating birds in the fall and spring. Mueller said the park is a favorite for warblers in particular.
While you're there: Stop by The Little Farmer — a bit of an understatement considering the size of the place — for a full dose of fall. The 139-acre family farm boasts quite an operation with a pumpkin patch, apple orchard, hay rides, corn maze, animals and my personal favorite: apples slathered in caramel and toppings of your choice.
The farm is at N9438 Highway 151 in Malone and is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (hours change after Oct. 31). Call (920) 921-4784 or see mytlf.com.
Getting there: High Cliff State Park is at N7630 State Park Road, Sherwood, about 100 miles north of Milwaukee via Highways 41, 151 and 55.