Most Wisconsinites do not realize our state once had large expanses of prairie. When the European settlers first arrived in the state, over 2 million acres was open prairie land. Species such as elk, bison, wolf, and long-billed curlew thrived on those open prairies. The prairies were the first sought out by farming settlers. They simply needed to plow and plant to make a homestead. The soils were deep and rich, and thus grew fantastic crops.
Today, only remnants of those vast prairies remain. Less than 10,000 acres are known statewide with most remnants being a few acres or less. The prairie diversity along with its rarity spawned interest in preserving the remnants and restorating other areas to some semblance of prairie condition. A visit to any of the following sites can be a great way to learn about our natural prairie heritage. Great Nature Wisconsin also encourages anyone interested in prairies to contact The Prairie Enthusiasts for more information on prairie preservation.
Rush Creek: The outstanding feature of Rush Creek is a two-mile long series of dry lime prairies situated on the steep southwest facing limestone-capped bluffs of the Mississippi River. These “goat prairies”, named for their steep, rocky terrain, are part of the most extensive dry prairie remnants left in the state. While most Wisconsin prairies were lost to the plow or development, Rush Creek’s steepness and dry southwestern exposure are largely responsible for its preservation. Characteristic plants include lead-plant, little blue-stem, side-oats grama, silky aster, blazing-star, wood betony, compass plant, and bird’s-foot violet. The narrow north and east-facing slopes bluff tops are forested with red and white oak and a significant amount of black walnut, hickory, basswood, sugar maple, and aspen.
Access: From the intersection of State Highway 35 and County Highway C in Ferryville, go north on Highway 35 3.1 miles, then northeast on Rush Creek Road 0.5 mile to a parking area west of the road. Cross the road and walk east on an access lane to the bluff top. Or, continue north on 35 from its junction with Rush Creek Road 0.8 miles to a parking area. Walk up the slope.
Trenton Bluff: Trenton Bluff Prairie consists of two separate dry prairie situated on steep Mississippi River sandstone bluffs capped by massive limestone cliffs. They are some of the best prairie remaining in the region. The western unit has two prairie openings separated by a wooded draw while the eastern portion is much steeper and contains open cliff grading quickly into shrubby oak woods. The bluff summit rises some 300 feet above the flat, sandy river terrace below with vertical cliffs exposing the bedrock layers showing dolomite limestone atop the basal sandstone. Dominant grasses include Indian grass, little blue-stem, big blue-stem, side-oats grama, and needle grass. Located near the far western edge of the state, the prairie contains several Great Plains species at their eastern range limit here: foothill bladder-pod (Lesquerella ludoviciana), prairie sage-wort (Artemesia frigida), ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus), plains muhly (Muhlenbergia cuspidata), and prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum). The state-threatened prairie thistle (Cirsium hillii) is also found here. The upper cliff area has numerous outcrop crevices that harbor several interesting fern species including slender lip fern and smooth cliff brake.
Access: From the intersection of Highways 35 and VV north of Hager City, go west on 35 1.5 miles to a small pull-off in a wooded draw north of the road. For the eastern unit, go north on VV 0.4 mile and park along the road. Walk due west through the woods and upslope to the prairie.
Spring Green Preserve: Spring Green Preserve, known as the 'Wisconsin Desert', features a rolling sand prairie on an old Wisconsin River terrace and harbors a unique flora and fauna that are adapted to the hot, droughty environment. The dry sandy soils contain many desert-like plants such as false heather, three-awn grass, prickly pear cactus, and rare prairie fame-flower (Talinum rugospermum). Nearly 40 species of annuals and biennials thrive here, a high number for a prairie, including plains snake-cotton, Venus'-looking-glass, and dwarf dandelion. Several sand blows, with shifting dunes and open sand, are scattered throughout. Bird life is diverse and includes large numbers of rare open country birds such as the dickcissel, grasshopper (Ammodramus savannarum) and lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus). The invertebrates, however, are the most unusual of the Spring Green fauna. Several of the spiders and insects are not known from any other site in Wisconsin. Of special interest are the black widow and several wolf spiders, five species of cicada, eight species of tiger beetles, and predatory wasps. A large pocket gopher population has created patches of open ground where short-lived plants grow while the tunnels are used by many of the reserve's 10 species of snake, especially the rare bullsnake (Pituophis catanifer). Other reptiles include the six-lined racerunner and blue racer.
Access: From the intersection of Highways 14 and 23 north of Spring Green, go north on 23 0.5 mile, then east on Jones Road 0.75 mile (just past Fire #E5196A), then north on Angelo Lane to a parking area. Trails lead through the site.
Scuppernong Prairie and Habitat Area: Scuppernong Prairie supports a diversity of wet-mesic prairie species on level, poorly-drained ground in the Scuppernong Basin. Located on the east side of the 3,000 acre Scuppernong Marsh, the flora includes species as big blue-stem, Indian grass, needle grass, blue-joint grass, prairie drop-seed, Virginia mountain mint, cream wild indigo, shooting-star, lead-plant, compass plant, prairie dock, blue-eyed grass, prairie smoke, and prairie blazing-star. Among the rare plants are purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), prairie Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), and marsh blazing star (Liatris spicata). On a low rise in the center of the area and along the east boundary are scattered open-grown bur oaks, typical of this region in presettlement times. The large and open nature of the site provides excellent habitat for uncommon birds such as boblink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), and upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda).
Access: From the intersection of Highways 67 and 59 in Eagle, go north and west on Highway 59 1 mile, then north on N 1.4 miles to a parking area west of the road.
Chiwaukee Prairie: Chiwaukee Prairie is situated on gently undulating ridge and swale topography created when the level of glacial Lake Michigan was lowered in stages. It is one of the largest prairie complexes in the state and the most intact coastal wetland in southeastern Wisconsin. The prairie contains an exceptional diversity of plants and animals -- more than 400 species of vascular plants have been found here. The natural area features a mosaic of plant communities, ranging from southern sedge meadow, wet prairie, and wet-mesic prairie in the low areas, to dry-mesic prairie on the slightly elevated sandy ridges. Portions of the site are classified as calcareous fen, inhabited by calcium-loving plants. Oak opening dominated by bur and black oaks occupies higher, drier ground along the southern and western parts of the preserve. The northernmost portion, Kenosha Dunes, contains open and stabilized sand dunes. This variety of habitats, coupled with their location in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, allows several rare and geographically restricted plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, invertebrates, and mammals to thrive here. Twenty-six rare plant species, 10 of which are listed as endangered or threatened grow in the prairie. Rare plants include smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima ssp. interior), ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohiensis), and marsh blazing star (Liatris spicata). Rare animals include Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), silphium borer moth (Papaipema silphii), and Franklin's ground squirrel (Spermophilus franklinii). More than 75 species of grassland and wetland birds have been observed during the breeding season. The Chiwaukee area was originally subdivided into hundreds of small residential lots many years ago, making land acquisition a challenge. It was a cooperative project of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), UW-Parkside, and the DNR for many years. In 2015, TNC donated its land holdings to the DNR and established an endowment for management purposes. Chiwaukee Prairie is recognized as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.
Access: Southern access: from the junction of State Highways 165 and 32 south of Kenosha, go south on 32 1 mile, then east on 116th Street 0.7 mile, then south on 1st Court 0.3 miles, then west on 121st Street 1 block, then north on 2nd Avenue to 119th Street and a parking lot.
Prairie descriptions and access information excerpted directly from the State Natural Areas page of the Wisconsin DNR web site.