Monday, January 5, 2015

The Best Hiking in Dane County (Someday)

by Drew Hanson

There are some nice places to take day hikes in Dane County. The Montrose, Lodi Marsh and Table Bluff segments of the Ice Age Trail are some of the best. But I think these will all be eclipsed someday at an area between Madison and Cross Plains known as the Cross Plains Reserve.


One of the questions a person might ask about the Cross Plains Reserve is, “What’s so special about it?”

The person who knew the area of the Cross Plains Reserve best was Fredrik Thwaites. His 1908 master’s thesis was on the geology of the Cross Plains, Verona and Middleton areas. He worked for a period doing fieldwork in southern Wisconsin for eminent glacial geologist William Alden of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Most of his distinguished career—38 years—was spent teaching geology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he authored the standard textbook on glacial geology that was used by college students around the United States for decades.

Not surprisingly, Thwaites and Ice Age Trail founder Ray Zillmer corresponded with one another. Click here for the text of a letter Zillmer sent to Thwaites in 1958.

When the National Park Service was studying Ray Zillmer’s proposal for an Ice Age National Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the body of work by Frederick Thwaites factored heavily in their research. Specifically, with his master’s thesis focused on the area and years of leading geology classes on field trips through the area, Thwaites was the undisputable expert on the area of the Cross Plains Reserve.

In 1961 National Park Service geologist Robert Rose completed a report on areas under study for an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin. The following excerpts from his report, “Preliminary Geological Report on 1961 Field Study of Proposed Ice Age Area in Wisconsin”, clearly outline the uniqueness of the area he called the moraine-driftless area, between Madison, Verona and Cross Plains.

“This report is based on a field study conducted during the last half of April, 1961. Its purpose is to identify and describe more specifically the more important segments considered in a proposed area of the National Park System which would feature the story of continental glaciation in America.

Among the localities or segments evaluated there are four which are regarded as basically essential in the adequate presentation and interpretation of the story. These so-called key areas are: Kettle Moraine [Northern Unit], the moraine-driftless area near Cross Plains, the Devils Lake-Baraboo Range segment, and Interstate Park.

The driftless area of Wisconsin is world famous because it is an unglaciated area of considerable size … lying far within extensively glaciated territory.

Several eminent geologists who have been consulted are unanimous in the view that a segment embracing a good example of the moraine-driftless area relationships is highly essential [emphasis added] in illustrating the story of continental glaciation. With the completion of each field study, beginning with the initial reconnaissance of 1958, the desirability of including such a segment becomes more firmly recognized.

The relationships between moraine and bedrock of sedimentary origin are most strikingly exhibited in an area of about 9,000 acres immediately south and east of Cross Plains. Within this area rugged morainal ridges belonging to the Wisconsin [Glaciation] occur while the strikingly eroded margins of the driftless area lie immediately to the west and south. In brief, this key area is a self-contained unit scenically and scientifically.”

A few years later the Cross Plains Reserve was chosen as a unit of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, and is most special, because of its two broad landscapes that sit side by side. It is a landscape crossroads with a several hundred million year old landscape on one side and a roughly 15,000 year old landscape on the other.

Since features associated with moraines are common and well-represented along other segments of the Ice Age Trail, the critical role that the Cross Plains Reserve must fill in completing the Ice Age story, i.e. its purpose, is to showcase “the strikingly eroded margins of the driftless area”. To succeed the Cross Plains Reserve must contain a representative portion of the Driftless Area which means the boundary of the Cross Plains Reserve must be expanded.


The 9,000-acre conservation area proposed by Robert Rose, as no doubt envisioned by Ray Zillmer and Frederick Thwaites, cannot be seriously contemplated today. People’s homes are not going to be included. But the current acreage under public ownership does not encompass the nationally significant story of the place. Therefore it should be enlarged as current owners are ready to sell. First, lands to the northeast, north and northwest that cover key parts of the Black Earth Trench should be added. This east-west valley was a glacial river that once drained the area where the city of Middleton and western Lake Mendota now sit. Second, much of the Driftless Area bounded by county highway P and Mineral Point Road should be added. Most important is the Great Dividing Ridge. Finally, a corridor of land along the west side of Timber Lane is needed to protect pro-glacial Coyle Pond and provide an off-road connection for the Ice Age Trail.

In addition to Robert Rose’s 1961 report, support for an increase in public ownership of this area is provided by at least two recent conservation planning documents. One is the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Wisconsin Land Legacy Report which highlights the importance of Shoveler Lakes–Black Earth Trench. Described on page 195, it is one of 229 places identified as important “to meet Wisconsin’s future conservation and recreation needs.” Another is Dane County’s Parks and Open Space Plan which identifies a large area as the Black Earth Creek Natural Resource Area. See pages 26-29. The area "consists of land that is specifically set aside for the protection of a valuable natural environment and/or greenbelt corridor that were identified through a public process."

A dark cloud of new homes at the Cross Plains Reserve
Unfortunately a couple large new homes were recently built on former farm land within the current Cross Plains Reserve boundary. The land for the homes had been purchased from a previous farmer by a developer who made a handsome profit. Such short-sighted dealings need to be preempted by future public agency land acquisition if the integrity and national significance of the Cross Plains Reserve is to be preserved.


The name "Cross Plains Reserve" (i.e. "Cross Plains Unit of the National Scientific Reserve") does not represent the place very well. Although it is a landscape crossroads (hinted at in the "Cross" part of the current name), "Plains" is completely contrary to its landscape. Forty years ago, before there was any public land at the place and when the idea for the place was only a concept, it was convenient to name it after the nearby town. The current name has served the place well enough but now inhibits its growth and development.

The name should be changed to something meaningful and inspiring. The name should give the place standing and context within the National Park System and State Park System of Wisconsin. A couple years ago I recommended re-designating it Driftless Border National Monument. If the President fails to act on this proposal, the name could be administratively changed to "Driftless Border Reserve" (i.e. "Driftless Border Unit of the National Scientific Reserve").


There are currently no official trails at the Cross Plains Reserve, err, Driftless Border National Monument. But the Ice Age Trail will someday pass through the area which is part of the largest roadless area along the Trail in Dane County. Click here for background on Ice Age Trail roadless areas.

In time, other loop and spur trails and primitive campsites will be added. All told, it could become the best hiking in Dane County and perhaps in all of southern Wisconsin.

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