Aztalan State Park is right up there with Lake Kegonsa and Roche-a-Cri when it comes to names that are difficult to pronounce correctly.
Located just east of Lake Mills, Wisconsin, this park is also among those that are difficult to find (for the unprepared), despite some signage along a major interstate (I-94).
How to Get to Aztalan State Park
I’m going to assume that most visitors to Aztalan will approach the site via I-94. If you do, you’ll see one of those nice, large, brown signs that instructs you to take Exit 259 (Wis 89) that will lead you south into Lake Mills.
Once in town, you’ll see a couple more signs that eventually turn you east toward the park. However, there is one intersection that appears to be missing a sign. You need to turn left and not keep going straight along a dead end road.
Now, it wasn’t really that hard to figure out, but I do think that one more sign wouldn’t be out of place.
Also, there really should be a sign along I-94 at the Wis 26 / Johnson Creek / Watertown exit (267) that directs you to Aztalan from the east. It’s just as easy to get there from that intersection as from Wis 89. And there’s already an Aztalan sign on Wis 26 telling you to take County B – the same road you take from Lake Mills – to get there.
But enough of my ranting. Let’s see what’s in the park (and adjacent to it) itself.
Mounds and a Stockade at Aztalan
Aztalan is mostly a flat, open area. There are a few trees, but the majority of the park is an open plain.
Within that plain are several mounds and a partial stockade, some of which are recreations – not the originals.
If you drive to the end of the park road, one of the first things you’ll see when getting out of your car is this Turn and Learn device.
To use it, you crank the handle and press one of the buttons to hear some information about the park. (This does work, but it’s probably more effort than it’s worth.)
The next objects you’ll encounter are these three plaques. (Yes, the birds apparently encounter them fairly often as well.)
Then, just before you get to the first mound, you’ll be warned not to sled down any of the mounds. I can see where this would be tempting in winter.
Finally, you’ll approach the first mound which is the southwesternmost of the four main mounds.
It looks like there are steps on the eastern side of this reconstructed mound, but you can’t see them until you get near the Crawfish River along the eastern edge of the park. We didn’t get any closer to them (though I think we could have) than this.
Around the perimeter of the area where the four main mounds lay is a recreated stockade. It’s made of trimmed trees that are fairly close to each other in most places, but you can walk between them in others. It’s not a fully reconstructed structure. (One of the informational plaques does explain this.)
Between mounds 1 (southwest) and 2 (northwest) is a line of informational plaques that are mostly worth reading. (The birds like these too.)
I had two questions come to mind while reading these. One revolved around the artwork used to show the former residents of Aztalan. It showed them as quite scantily dressed. That’s not what I would expect someone to look like in southern Wisconsin for most of the year. Why did the artist choose to show them dressed as they might have been for about a tenth of the year at most?
My second question concerned the word discoidal. I thought, “Couldn’t they have used a more common word to describe the shape of the object in question?”
Well, no, it seems that a discoidal is what the round object used in the game of chunkey (spellings vary) is commonly called today.
For more information and some great pictures of discoidals, check out these sites.
Wildlife in Aztalan State Park
A section of the Crawfish River runs through Aztalan State Park. I don’t think there’s an easy way to get onto it, as in a boat, canoe, or kayak, because I don’t think there’s a landing. I may have missed it though. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to get to the the portion of the park on the east side of the river – though why you’d want to I don’t know.
As I hinted at above, there are plenty of birds in the area. On this our first trip to Aztalan, we met a fellow birder who had just spotted what he thought was a gray catbird. His identification was good enough for me, so I added the catbird to my lifelist of birds I’ve personally seen.
There was another bird we both could hear but could not identify. The other visitor had a phone app that could identify birds by their calls, but there was too much other noise at the time for the app to do its thing properly. Oh well, maybe next time.
And then there was the obligatory fallen tree. Fortunately, this one didn’t cross our path.
Activities in Aztalan
In addition to the obvious hiking and possible boating mentioned above, in the winter you can go cross-country skiing and snowshoeing – just don’t sled down those mounds! Fishing in the Crawfish is also permitted.
There is very limited hunting and trapping allowed within the park. The area is so restricted though that you probably don’t want to bother. See this map for the relatively small areas in which you can hunt and trap.
Part of the way along the park road is an informational trailer, but it wasn’t open when we visited.
Adjacent to the park, there is a museum (not open when we visited) that consists of several buildings. It looks interesting enough, and if we ever return to Aztalan, we’ll be sure to do so in the summer when the museum is open.
Why Go to Aztalan?
Aztalan State Park provides a nice, quick walk but not much else. Unless you’re really interested in the former residents – and no one knows what happened to them – there are probably better parks you might choose to visit instead.
I actually wondered what made those early people settle here in the first place. Sure, there’s the river and there was food, but I’m sure there were plenty of other places that provided similar accommodations. I can imagine some of those folks getting together one day and saying, “Who decided to come all the way out here? Let’s go back to where we came from (Cahokia?) where the food was just as good and the weather certainly was better.”
And so they took off for no apparent reason, which is why we don’t understand what happened to them today.
Stranger things have happened.
Lake Mills, Wisconsin (3 miles)
Nearest Emergency Facility
Lake Mills, Wisconsin (3 miles)
6:00 AM to 10:00 PM, year-round
Vehicle admission sticker required