It’s difficult to find the date when Cross Plains State Park came into existence – almost as hard as finding your way around the park itself. As of this writing, it’s the newest state park in Wisconsin, possibly having come into its own in 2017.
Cross Plains State Park is part of what the DNR calls the Ice Age Complex at Cross Plains. Complex seems to be a strange word to use for a natural area, but it really is quite complex. The official map of the area (see below), which doesn’t actually show any trails, is a mish-mosh of three separate sections administered by the DNR, seven or eight areas that are private lands, two parts run by the National Park Service (including the main section where the Wilke Homestead* lies), one parcel handled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and one controlled by Dane County.
All 15, or so, of these lands are inside the Cross Plains Complex Administrative Boundary – except for a small DNR (state park?) area adjacent to, but outside, the boundary.
Start in a National Park at Cross Plains
Currently, the DNR website mentions that you should park down the road a piece from the main address (the former Wilke Homestead) of the park. It wouldn’t hurt to mention that this is marked with an Ice Age National Scenic Trail sign, but they don’t.
The main gate (on the right, below) to the National Park seems to be permanently closed. They tell you not to park your vehicle in front of this gate.
The National Park Service calls this an “interpretive site”, but we couldn’t find much to interpret there, other than some literature posted at the west end of the small, gravel parking lot, as you can see here.
The Ice Age trail is nearby and is marked – for some strange reason – with this…um…marker.
You can take this trail either on a short loop in the NPS area via this neat boardwalk…
…or you can go to the area where the buildings are. However, the main building on the NPS site was all locked up.
The barn is there, but it didn’t look too inviting, and we didn’t try to go inside.
There’s a small shed between those two buildings where this sign proudly proclaims that you’re in a national park.
Uh, yeah. Thanks for letting us know…?
The State Park Is Over There
Assuming you actually want to hike in Cross Plains State Park when you visit the area, you have to cross the road to get there. It’s not a busy road, as you’re out in the country, so this isn’t difficult to do.
The sign that greets you there is at the top of this page, but I think it’s worth repeating here.
Yup, that’s how you know you’re about to enter Cross Plains State Park.
Now, you could say, “Give ‘em a break. It’s a fairly new state park. They don’t have all the amenities worked out yet.”
And I would reply, ”Really? Not even after (at least) five years? Give me a break!”
Color me unimpressed.
All that said (virtually), the trail through the park is quite nice. Some who have taken it have complained that it’s not well-marked. Yes and no. There actually aren’t any signposts along the way at all, but you don’t need them. The path is well-worn, so just follow it.
There’s even one of the cheap benches along the way.
It’s very near (but not too near) this gorge, which is deeper than it looks here, on the east side of the park.
We found quite a variety of plant life along the trail – berries, flowers, burned out, fallen, and hollow trees.
We could hear and sometimes see many common birds (plus one we couldn’t identify that initially sounded a little like a chicken), and I spotted this orange, spotted butterfly, which is probably the great spangled fritillary. (I did not make that up.)
Much of the trail is forested, but there are a couple of scenic views, like this one of a farm on some adjacent private land.
And then there was this structure in the distance off to the northwest.
We had no idea what it was. I had to do some research afterwards and eventually discovered (via Facebook, of all places) that the water is called Lake Katherine and that the structure seems to be a dredge that’s part of a quarrying business.
The whole thing has been working for many years. You can see it from above on Google maps. There are pipes that connect the apparent dredge to the shore. Those pipes used to be above the water, so I’m still not exactly sure how that all works. If you know, let’s hear about it.
Once you figure out where you can and can’t go near Cross Plains State Park, the visit is enjoyable. Hopefully I’ve helped you sort it all out.
If you have anything to make it even clearer, please share.
One final item for those who ski at state parks in winter. Cross Plains does allow cross-country skiing, but it’s technically backcountry skiing. The difference is that the trails are not groomed for you. You’re on your own. Good luck!
*Apparently a family named Wilke used to own most, if not all of these lands.
Cross Plains, Wisconsin (4 miles)
Nearest Emergency Facility
Madison, Wisconsin (10 miles)
6:00 AM to 11:00 PM, year-round
None, no sticker required