Jun 25, 2019

What’s the Driftless? It has nothing to do with snow.

Communities of northwest Dane County offer unique landscape for a litany of outdoor pursuits

It’s the geologist’s word for a landscape untouched by glaciers.

During the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago, giant ice sheets advanced to just west of present-day Madison before slowly retreating. Beyond the glacier’s terminal moraine lay a beautiful natural landscape of ridges and bluffs carved from sedimentary stone, steep valleys and spring-fed creeks, as well as expansive plateaus of prairie and oak savannas. This distinct geographic region, which extends into Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, is today known as the Driftless Area.

The villages of Cross Plains, Black Earth and Mazomanie – strung along sparkling Black Earth Creek as it meanders through the Driftless landscape of northwest Dane County to the lower Wisconsin River – took root in the mid-1800s as agricultural communities blessed with abundant natural resources of clean water and rich soil. Today they share an interest in stewarding these natural assets toward development of a regional destination for those who enjoy natural beauty, our rural heritage and the great outdoors.

The historic communities of the Black Earth Creek valley remain authentic small towns offering a high quality of life just a half hour’s drive from downtown Madison and the State Capitol. Northwest Dane County is a vibrant “gateway” connecting the urban core of Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago with the rural lifestyle and abundant natural resources of the Driftless region that begins here.

We who call the Gateway home love being outdoors. We’re walkers, bikers, anglers, paddlers, hunters, prairie restorers, cross-county skiers, runners, picnickers, campers, birders, rock hounds, field sports players, snowmobilers and many others. We live for the outdoors and we love northwest Dane County – our special part of the natural world we call Gateway to The Driftless. If you can’t reach us, chances are we’re out on the land or on the water, enjoying one of the many outdoor recreational opportunities the Gateway area has to offer. 


Northwest Dane County is a wonderful place to live, work and bike. Our rolling hills, farms and uncluttered countryside, small towns and villages are terrific places to visit under pedal power.

Many new bike paths and trails offer exciting recreational opportunities for the whole family, from at-grade converted rail routes like Military Ridge State Trail and level streambank bike-ped paths such as Wolf Run Trail to the steeper challenges on roadways of the up-and-down, bluff-country terrain.

The annual Horrible Hilly Hundreds cycling event, held this past June, covers 10,700 feet of elevation in 200 kilometers and was voted "Sufferfest of the Year" by the Madison alternative weekly newspaper. For pleasure riding, the road bicycling routes shown on the Gateway website interactive map (select “Bike Routes” on the pulldown menu) are found on the Dane County Bicycle Map prepared by the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board. The MATPB map is designed to assist bicyclists in identifying the safest, most enjoyable routes between origins and destinations.


Hey Paddlers! The Gateway offers safe and scenic floats on both Black Earth Creek and the neighboring stretch of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway from Sauk City to Spring Green.

Black Earth Creek gently rolls through an iconic southern Wisconsin landscape of farms and fields. The stretch of the lower creek at Mazomanie from Olson Road to Lions Park below the village center has been the site of extensive restoration work in recent years and is newly featured in the American Whitewater national directory of recommended paddling water.

The neighboring section of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverwaybetween Sauk City and Arena passes through large tracts of public lands and other minimally developed landscapes that lend to the air of solitude. Islands are numerous and – at summer low water levels – sprawling sandbars surface and offer great places to swim, fish and camp. Canoe liveries at Sauk City, Mazomanie and Spring Green serve paddlers.

Visit our interactive map and click on the “Paddle” icon for more information on Black Earth Creek and the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway, including stream maps, USGS stream data, put-in/takeout locations and natural history notes. 


Deer, turkey and other birds and small game abound in the Gateway area and many acres of state land are open for public hunting of large and small game and waterfowl.

These wide-open spaces include Arena Pines and Sand Barrens State Natural Area (93 acres), Mazomanie Bottoms State Natural Area (352 acres), Mazomanie Oak Barrens State Natural Area (136 acres), Mazomanie Recreational Area (2300 acres) and Black Hawk Ridge Recreational Area(835 acres). 


Located at the confluence of the Black Earth Creek watershed and lower Wisconsin River valley, the Gateway offers high quality opportunities for recreational anglers of every stripe.

The 21-mile reach of the lower Wisconsin River from Sauk City to Spring Green is home to naturally reproducing populations of walleye, sauger, saugeye, northern pike, muskie, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, channel catfish, flathead catfish, sturgeon, all species of panfish, as well as some seldom seen species of rough fish that can make for a special fishing day. The river here is generally wide and shallow, featuring numerous islands and – at normal summer levels – numerous sandbars that serve as excellent structure for game fish.

Flat-bottomed jon boats with outboard motors up to 20 horsepower are popular among anglers, as well as canoes and kayaks. Public landings for motorized boats are available on the river at Sauk City, Mazomanie and Spring Green at U.S. Highway 14.

Black Earth Creek is a limestone-influenced coldwater stream that in its upper reaches is managed by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a Class I trout fishery but harbors trout throughout most of its course. Black Earth Creek Fishery Area is a pleasant mix of a high-quality trout stream flowing through a wide, green agricultural valley. It is managed by the DNR for stream restoration, trout habitat and public access. 


From southern Wisconsin's highest point to the islands and sandbars of the lower Wisconsin River, the Gateway offers an exciting variety of public camping opportunities.

Blue Mound State Park, with its sweeping outlook on the Driftless landscape, is open year-round and offers 77 wooded sites for RVs, campers and tents, 12 bike/hike-in sites and a rustic accessible cabin for people with disabilities. Nearby Brigham County Park, with 23 rustic camping units, provides foot connectivity to the state park, Military Ridge State Trail, Cave of the Mounds National Landmark and Blue Mounds Wildlife Area.

Along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway camping is available on state-owned islands and sandbars once spring run-off gives way to summer water levels. Camping on those islands and sandbar is restricted to no more than three days and to persons and their equipment arrived by watercraft only. Other nearby state parks and campsites (number) are located at Tower Hill State Park (10),Governor Dodge State Park (269) and Devil's Lake State Park (423). 


Life in the slow lane is great in the Gateway. Walkers can go a-wandering in the wide open spaces of minimally developed public lands, including the 2,300-acre Mazomanie Recreational Area, or opt for developed trail systems that range from rustic, natural paths that follow the land's natural contours to more uniform grade, hard-surfaced multi-use recreational trails shared with bicyclists and runners.

The Gateway area contains four separate segments of the national Ice Age Scenic Trail, each featuring a distinct landscape and natural environment situated on the terminal moraine. All share a surprising feeling of remoteness a half-hour drive from the State Capitol.

The Military Ridge State Trail follows an 1855 military route, running along the southern borders of Governor Dodge and Blue Mound state parks past agricultural lands, woods, wetlands and prairies. Most of the trail follows the former Chicago & Northwestern Railroad corridor, which has a gentle grade of only 2 to 5 percent.

Wolf Run Trail, part of a multi-use recreational trail under development through the beautiful Black Earth Creek valley, runs from Mazomanie to Wisconsin Heights High School for walkers, bikers and seasonal snowmobilers, as well as anglers seeking access to the creek and its nationally renowned trout waters. There are also well-maintained trails available for enjoyment of the Gateway's many public natural areas and conservancies. Pleasant Valley Conservancy is a favorite of many for a relaxing ramble in a Driftless landscape largely restored to its pre-settlement condition. 


From July through mid-October, the many restored prairies of the Gateway are ablaze with wildflowers and native grasses and alive with various species of birds and insects found in the original Driftless landscape of tall grass prairie and oak savanna.

Early settlers to the area likened the rolling prairie landscape stretching toward the horizon to a vast ocean. Today a stewardship community of public and private organizations maintain a variety of natural areas and conservancies in the Gateway area that feature restored prairies and savanna, along with parking and well-marked walking paths for visitors. Local favorites are Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area, Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie State Natural Area,Pope Farm, Swamplovers Nature Preserve,Pleasure Valley County Natural Resource Area and Hickory Hill Conservancy


There may be no better way to begin or end a day in the Gateway than to take in the magical Driftless landscape from a scenic overlook. It's hard to pick a favorite, but ask the locals and they're likely to recommend Festge County Park, Morton Forest County Park, Indian Lake County Park, Blue Mound State Park and Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Wildlife Area.

There’s more to the Driftless in northwest Dane County than U.S. Highway 14. What do you like to do outdoors? Chances are you’ll find it in the Gateway!


Promote to Protect

CLICK HERE to read more about Gateway to the Driftless