Into the Wild: Dramatic geology, scenic overlooks at Magnolia Bluff Park in Rock County

May 11, 2011

By Lena Verkuilen
Welty Environmental Center Director

On a drive through northern Illinois, you notice Highway 2 has become Highway 213 as you enter Wisconsin. You drive northwest on this pleasantly winding road through the hilly countryside of Rock County.

Just outside the hamlet of Magnolia, Wis., turn left onto Highway 59. The state highway is bordered by fields and pastureland, but on your left ahead, you notice a bluff. Turn left onto Croak Road, and you will see the entrance to Magnolia Bluff County Park on your left.

A parking area and trails start in both the lower and upper portions of the park, and an equestrian area is based in the upper area.

Magnolia Bluff County Park is for the hiker, bird watcher, equestrian, geologist, botanist and casual picnicker alike.

Magnolia Bluff County Park offers challenging trails and scenic outlooks that are more reminiscent of points farther north and west. In November 2010, the park was designated a Wisconsin State Natural Area (SNA). SNAs protect outstanding examples of Wisconsin’s native landscape, significant geological formations and archaeological sites. This designation was made cooperatively with Rock County and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The land management is also a cooperative venture. Magnolia Bluff was chosen because of its geology and biology. The park boasts limestone and sandstone bluffs that mark the second-highest point in Rock County.

Magnolia Bluff is also home to many threatened remnant savanna plant species, including kitten tails (Besseya bullii), old-growth trees and native woodland wildflower species.

In early spring, look for hepatica (Hepatica americana), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), the fiddleheads of fern species unfurling, and many other spring favorites.

Magnolia Bluff has the only naturally occurring stand of white birch in the county, a result of the “micro” climate created on its north face; so between the north and south faces, a broad and interesting diversity of plant life is found.

Two main trails boast a combined total of almost 5 miles, offering recreation for equestrians in warmer months, cross-country skiers in winter, and year-round for hikers.

In spring and summer, put on your insect repellent and rest a moment by the pond near the entrance. You will be graced with the songs of native tree frogs, typical frogs and American toads (Bufo americanus). Listen for the romantic mating calls of the males, the almost-embarrassed sounds of a frog or toad being grabbed by another frog or a predator, and the excited calls before a rain. Look a little closer for the tadpoles developing throughout the season in the pond.

Birds of all species fill the park. The edge habitat near the parking areas offers even the novice bird watcher opportunities to see migrant and year-round resident species.

The open fields of the surrounding countryside offer hunting grounds for hawks and owls. Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are a common sight soaring above the bluff in warmer seasons. Look for the large, dark, eagle-sized body with a tiny head, and an easy, tippling flight, wings up in a V-position.

No matter what you plan to do while at Magnolia Bluff County Park, be sure to pack a picnic and plenty of time. After your day in the park, settle into the upper picnic area for a show for all your senses. The bluff overlook offers magnificent views of the surrounding landscape. As the day draws to an end, the frogs will begin to call as the sun sinks over the western horizon, and the bluff overlook offers one of the best places in the stateline area to enjoy the day’s end.

The Friends of Magnolia Bluff County Park are dedicated to the safety and preservation of the natural beauty of this park for the use of the community. Work is primarily done to preserve the native species and protection of the unique geological features of the park. Burns and other restoration work is done on the oak savanna remnants, and garlic mustard removal is an ongoing battle throughout the park. If you are interested in learning more about the volunteer group, contact Rock County Parks, which will direct you to its current president.

For more information about this and other Rock County Parks, contact the community coordinator by phone at (608) 757-5450, on the web at www.co.rock.wi.us or e-mail at stinson@co.rock.wi.us.

For information about upcoming environmental education programs in the stateline region, contact the Welty Environmental Center by phone at (608) 361-1377 or on the web at www.weltycenter.org.

Four Rivers Environmental Coalition (FREC) and The Rock River Times present this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Visit fourriver.org.

From the May 11-17, 2011 issue

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