Magical Wyalusing State Park is oldie but goodie
There’s nothing wrong with treating a state park like a hotel, and we just had a four-star experience at one of Wisconsin’s first.
Sure, it was mosquito-infested and a little cramped, but for the most part, Wyalusing State Park makes a stellar overnight residence.
Many folks wouldn’t consider a one-night camping trip to be the preferred method of enjoying our parks, but it provides a number of advantages of which we availed ourselves last week. It’s cheap, quick, convenient, and most of all, relaxing and fun.
On this trip, half of the entertainment, in fact, was getting there, as we traveled one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful roads, if not its best one.
It’s the destination … and the journey
Eight-year-old Lorena had been lobbying to visit a fair somewhere, so we found the Grant County Fair in Lancaster. It would allow us both to get to know a park new to us and visit what is probably my favorite region of Wisconsin – the Driftless Region to our southwest.
Overnight excursions also allow a family like ours to stretch what would normally be a day trip into an overnight stay that’s less expensive than hotels and be less concerned about driving that cuts into fun time.
So, Wyalusing was the perfect answer. A mid-week trip that again meant leaving our hard-working house-mom to her day job. Meanwhile, the family slackers enjoyed yet another pre-school outdoor experience.
Because Lorena also had a Brownies camping trip to the Wisconsin Dells slated for the weekend, we needed to make our jaunt both short and relaxing so she’d still have the energy and desire for a two-nighter in the Dells.
Wyalusing and Lancaster were optimal, partly because the drive to and through the area can be spectacular. We always love taking state Route 78 from Portage to Sauk City, followed by Route 60, a designated scenic byway, along the Wisconsin to Spring Green and beyond.
Route 60 is worth a trip in itself, especially when you have a good audiobook to while away the time. We had local author Patrick Rothfuss’ best-selling fantasy “The Name of the Wind,” which has some language that’s a little salty for an 8-year-old, but no worse than she hears on occasion from classmates (believe me, some of those third-graders are rough).
At 13, Lorena’s brother Sam was immediately smitten with the book, and the lack of development along the northern banks of the Wisconsin between Spring Green and Prairie du Chien meant we had the perfect daydreaming environment.
Narrow Route 60 hugs the winding Wisconsin along miles of bluffs, with overhanging trees and a riot of wildflowers close enough to touch when reaching out of your wagon – or your car windows as the case may be.
Only a smattering of houses and even fewer businesses make the area seem isolated – so rustic as to be almost medieval.
It was easy to imagine ourselves as roving entertainers, wandering scribes or lonesome peddlers on some forested road in a magical kingdom. The best part was that we didn’t have to be worried about Rothfuss’ massive, hard-shelled, spider-like Scrael dropping from trees to maul us.
We’ll be back, Wyalusing
Here’s a little bit of a late disclaimer: I’m not writing much about Wyalusing on this go-round, both because it will be tough to do it justice after such a short visit and because we plan to go back.
There’s a lot to talk about. One of the original three state parks, Wyalusing starts with Indian mounds … lots of them. There are spectacular views of the Wisconsin and Mississippi River valleys. There are several caves and even a small observatory.
And, of course, there are the requisite park features: lots of hiking trails, a fine-looking playground and a concession stand run by the Friends of Wyalusing group that rents canoes and kayaks, as well as selling all the normal souvenir and edible necessities.
They also had insecticide spray, which Dad inexplicably neglected and which was probably a lifesaver. The mosquitoes weren’t as huge as Scrael, but there were probably enough of them to carry an inattentive parent across the Mississippi.
We brought only our big tent, sleeping gear, and our camping chairs and stools, but knew we’d survive. There’s plenty of room in the tent for two kids and a dad, plus space to sit if needed, and we were able to orient the tent so that we got breezes through the screen doors on both ends of the tent.
This was a trip when we really appreciated thoughtful tent design, including double-zip doors that allow campers to close solid-fabric doors as needed for privacy or wind protection, then open them for air circulation. Our REI Kingdom 6 is great for that (disclaimer No. 2: this is a tent we paid for, and if I ever review products, I’ll note whether it’s a regular purchase we made – which will almost always be the case).
Believe me, we needed that tent, as our arrival shortly before 6 p.m. was apparently just at mosquito dinner time, and the campground, despite being high on a ridge, was infested.
The kids started swatting immediately, and we were encouraged into a record tent setup time and departure for the fair (with a stop at the concession stand for our spray – thanks, Friends!).
A 35-minute drive southeast to Lancaster brought us to the Ferris wheel, tilt-a-whirl (more nauseating than Dad recalls), stock-car racing, and all the other delights of a county fair on a cool and beautiful night, including a $14 basket of cheese curds.
Seriously? Fourteen bucks for our state gastronomic staple?
We didn’t care if the basket would feed a castle full of magicians – we weren’t going to pay that kind of food price, although I told the kids it was entirely their decision. They chose a late-night run to McDonald’s in Lancaster.
Afterward, we headed back to Wyalusing for a surprisingly clean and bug-free tooth-brushing experience in the Wyalusing facilities.
It was a bit muggy, slowing the kids’ ability to drift off to sleep, but I helped by reading aloud from my tablet while sitting on a portable three-legged camp stool that’s a perfect tent size. My reading – a boring section of Stephen Ambrose’s “Crazy Horse and Custer” about the environment in which Custer was raised in Ohio – was a good soporific.
We had been lucky in our choice of campsites. Although most of those on Wyalusing’s Wisconsin Ridge, which faces the Wisconsin and the city of Prairie du Chien to the north, are quite small, some have features that make them a little more private.
Only a few were available on the outer slope of the half-filled campground – the side with the views. Ours was on a stair step rise with enough plant growth and earth embankments to separate the site, both visually and spatially, from those immediately above and below us.
It also opened to an expansive view of the Wisconsin Valley, which, when we awoke, was unfortunately covered by fog below us, but sunny blue skies above.
We decided to take a short hike on Sentinel Ridge, on the Mississippi side, to visit the numerous burial mounds there.
The bug spray again saved us, but there was still plenty of whining in the air because of both flying and foot-powered small creatures, so we made the hike a quick one.
Still, we were sure to visit the Passenger Pigeon Memorial on the ridge. The story of those now-extinct pigeons is familiar to many in Wisconsin, but I’ll encourage readers who aren’t aware of it to visit Wyalusing for more of the tale.
Both the fog and the condensation on our tent had evaporated away by our return, so we enjoyed the view while quickly packing.
Then it was off to Lancaster’s regionally famous Blue Boy Bakery for a late breakfast, more “Name of the Wind” on the car stereo, and the promise of a later return to Wyalusing to gather material for more fine tales of life in Wisconsin.