7 natural wonders in Wisconsin
Wisconsin is home to some incredible natural wonders. Chelsey Lewis
I was watching Planet Earth the other day, alternating between awe and fear of our natural world, and it got me thinking about the one in our backyard.
Wisconsin doesn't have the 3-mile-high peaks of the Himalayas or the unexplored underwater caves of Mexico, but our great state does have its share of natural wonders. Here are seven of them.
Apostle Islands sea caves
The 21 islands that make up the Apostles archipelago in Lake Superior are beautiful, but what really makes them special are the red-brown sandstone sea caves that line their shores. Sculpted by the tempestuous waters of the biggest of the Great Lakes, the caves feature winding passageways, arches and other formations.
In the summer, the islands and caves are a favorite for sea kayakers and other boaters. Come winter, if Lake Superior freezes enough, hikers trek to see the mainland caves draped in massive icicles. (As of Feb. 15, the caves were not yet accessible; see the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore website, nps.gov/apis, or Facebook page for updates.)
The sea caves can be found on the mainland, on the west side of the Bayfield peninsula, and Sand and Devils islands.
Cave of the Mounds
Cave of the Mounds is a large limestone cave in Blue Mounds open for tours year round. Chelsey Lewis
Caves are one of the last frontiers for exploration in the world. Near Blue Mounds, this National Natural Landmark remained hidden until 1939, when quarry workers accidentally blew into it.
If you grew up anywhere close to the cave, you probably visited it on a school trip — those groups make up one third of the 100,000 visitors every year. But the cave is dazzling and well worth a visit as an adult.
Forty to 70 feet below ground, stalactites and stalagmites meet to form columns, delicate soda straws dangle from the ceiling and flowstones cover the walls. Lighted walkways provide easy access while informed tour guides explain how the magical cave and its formations came to be.
This 1,000-mile rock ledge that stretches from New York through Wisconsin is responsible for one of the country's most impressive natural wonders: Niagara Falls.
In Wisconsin it presents itself in the form of blocky, white towering cliffs in a handful of parks. Door County is one of the best spots to see it. At Cave Point County Park on the east side of the peninsula, the white cliffs spill into Lake Michigan, giving it a tropical blue-green hue. On the west side, the cliffs rise 150 feet above Green Bay at Peninsula State Park. Farther south, you can hike above and below the cliffs at High Cliff State Park.
There's a reason Devil's Lake State Park is Wisconsin's most popular state park. Purple-brown quartzite cliffs rise 600 feet above the lake, with interesting formations including the Devil's Doorway, a stone arch, and Balanced Rock, an inverted top-shaped rock, scattered on trails along the bluffs.
It's one of the few spots in Wisconsin for serious rock climbing, with the slick quartzite challenging climbers on more than 1,600 routes. Hikers take to the bluffs, too, stair-climbing the trails to the top for views of the lake and surrounding Baraboo Hills.
Two Great Lakes
When someone in Florida once described a retention-pond view to me as "lakeview," I laughed. Where I come from, lakes are the size of seas.
The Great Lakes hold one-fifth of the world's fresh water. Bordering Wisconsin to the north, Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by surface area. To the east, Lake Michigan is the second largest Great Lake and the only one completely within the United States' borders.
Being bordered by two Great Lakes has its advantages: sandy beaches, ocean-like views (including sunsets and sunrises), deep "sea" fishing for salmon and trout, sailing, kayaking, and even surfing and scuba diving. Our Great Lakes also gift us with that famous (infamous?) lake effect snow — regular white stuff in northern Wisconsin for skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and more snowy activities.
Every spring and fall, hundreds of thousands of Canada geese use Horicon Marsh as a pit stop on their migrations. At peak, it's possible to see tens of thousands at one time.
Canada geese aren't the only draw. More than 300 bird species have been spotted at the 33,000-acre marsh, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the country. The annual Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, held over Mother's Day weekend, is one of the best times to see many of those species, with experts on hand to help identify them.
Big Manitou Falls
At 165 feet, Big Manitou Falls is Wisconsin's tallest waterfall, the fourth highest cascade east of the Rockies and just 2 feet shorter than Niagara Falls.
The massive cascade tumbles over black-brown basalt rock, an igneous rock born of billion-year-old lava flows. Pines and mixed hardwoods frame the torrent of water.
The waterfall is protected as part of Pattison State Park, and a couple overlooks provide views of it from above. The park is also home to Little Manitou Falls, a 30-foot twin cascade visitors can get closer to than its big sister.