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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, April 20, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

Horicon Marsh is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States. (PHOTO: Kathleen McCann)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The 32,000-acre marsh attracts visitors, especially birders, all year long. (PHOTO: Kathleen McCann)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Stop first at the International Education Center to get your bearings. (Photo: Bobby Tanzilo) (PHOTO: Kathleen McCann)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

In addition to interesting fauna, the marsh contains a wide range of flora, too. (PHOTO: Kathleen McCann)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The center has a fun kids area with art projects and an owl, too. (PHOTO: Kathleen McCann)

Seven Wonders of Wisconsin: Horicon Marsh


Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.

Yes, even a marsh has a high season. That is, if you're talking about Horicon Marsh.

While it's not Paris, Horicon Marsh is a similar draw for bird watchers and nature lovers, who are especially drawn to this natural wonder of Wisconsin in spring (May) and autumn (mid-October to about mid-November).

They come to see the migrating birds – nearly 300 varieties have been spotted over the years – who stop off to rest their weary feathers at the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States.

And, boy do they come. But you can avoid the crowds by visiting any time of year, because the marsh makes for a great day out during any month of the year. And it's a mere 57 miles (about an hour) from Milwaukee City Hall to Horicon Marsh International Education Center, which is the best place to begin your visit.

"It is great place to come for an afternoon, a day or a couple of days if you really want to spend some time out there and explore," says Leslie Hershberger, executive director of the Friends of Horicon Marsh International Education Center.

"We encourage people to come all year round. Even winter time. We have a series of events that go year round. We have a snowshoe hike (in January) that is great. We encourage hiking, biking, kayaking/canoeing in the marsh. We also have a lot of wildlife photographers that come here to photo all kinds of wildlife and plants in the marsh. Bicycling is getting more popular, too."

New this year at the 32,000-acre marsh: Tour De Marsh, which was held in June.

But you can visit without camera, binoculars or sports gear, too. Since birders and hikers appreciate quiet, the Horicon Marsh trails offer peaceful walks and places to simply sit and enjoy the scenery, the wildlife and, usually, the solitude.

The State Wildlife Area (the south end) has three trails – .8 miles, 1.9 miles and 2.3 miles – that pass through woodlands, grasslands and wetlands. There are also hiking trails in the Federal Refuge (the larger northern portion) and hiking/biking trails that encircle the entire marsh.

In addition the Wild Goose State Trail, which traverses Dodge and Fond du Lac Counties, also passes along the marsh.

Again, the best place to get your bearings and plan your visit is at the Education Center, where there are banks of brochures and maps, an art gallery, a film describing the marsh and its history, a children's area with an art table, great views out on to the marsh, binoculars and gear you can check out and a staff that can help you.

"We usually ask what they are interested in and then direct them according to general interest," says Hershberger. "Also depends on ability. Older and less mobile. Young and wanting a good hike. Family with children. Bicycling or auto tour. We give them a map. We have binoculars you can check out to and we encourage people with young children to borrow those and go for a hike on the marsh."

The marsh is also home to the Marsh Haven Nature Center, open mid-May until mid-November, on the northern end of the marsh, near Waupun, and the National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters Visitor Center, northwest of Mayville.

Though we used to be annual visitors to Horicon Marsh, on a recent visit, we took the kids to experience the marsh for the first time.

After spending some time at the center, we walked down the path right out the door and were immediately greeted by frogs, crickets and grasshoppers, leaping across path, much to the delight of the kids. They were happy to run along the grassy paths and explore the unusual plant life that we don't see at home, a mere hour away.

"There are turtles, frogs, toads everywhere," says Hershberger. "There is one place we see every time we go out there where there is a big log where the turtles always sun. Of course birds are everywhere. The best time to see them though is early morning around sun up and then sun down. They go to the fields to feed during the day."

Although we saw only gaggles of birders snapping photographs and trying to spy species through binoculars, the marsh is a popular place for children and Hershberger says they often host school groups.

With so many young visitors to the marsh, those outings are a perfect time to teach kids how to respect natural places such at Horicon Marsh: please don't litter, carry out what you carry in, don't cut or pick plants.

But, did you know, you are free to pick fruit at the marsh? And pets are allowed, but only on a leash and not in the buildings.

These are the kinds of things we can do to help preserve this Wisconsin natural wonder. And, encouragingly, Hershberger notes that the marsh is in good health these days.

"We have a whole team that manages the marsh and they keep it healthy. The biggest threat is invasive species. Plants such as purple loosestrife, wild parsnip, etc., are threats that we have to fight all the time as well as keeping enough open space of water.

"So the cattails have to be controlled although they aren't considered invasive. The biggest threat in the water is carp. They try to control those from coming through the Rock River. the federal side. "The marsh is doing great."

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