Wisconsin Loving – Lion’s Den Gorge

Boo and I love to take hikes – both here in our home state and when we go on vacation. One thing that’s been sort of tough about home ownership is knowing when to just leave things be and take time for ourselves to enjoy life. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of enjoyment that we get out of doing projects around the house/yard together, but since moving in last year we’ve done a lot less canoeing, hiking, and general adventure seeking – and we really like doing those things as well! In the past, we would wake up on a Saturday or Sunday and decide spur of the moment to pack a bag and head out for a few hours. Now, if we want to leave the area, we have to be a bit more intentional about planning it so that we don’t wake up, meander out into the yard, and find 1,460,372 things to do.

Milwaukee happens to be located within a 30-45 minute drive of both the southern and northern units of the Kettle Moraine Forest, and so most of our weekend hiking would happen on various portions of those trails. We’d usually aim for 5-9 miles, depending on how much time we have and how ambitious I’m feeling (he’s always up for a long hike!). Although the Kettle Moraine is gorgeous, I’m always on the lookout for something a little different from the usual fare of rolling hills, swamps, and farmland.

The other day, I stumbled across an article in Milwaukee Magazine about some lesser-known hiking trails throughout southeastern Wisconsin. One such haunt was Lion’s Den Gorge, near Grafton (about a 20-25 minute drive from our place). From what information I could find, it looked like a really nice area and seemed pretty different from the usual hikes. One of the trails goes along the top of a 600 foot bluff along Lake Michigan and eventually leads to a gorge and a long set of wooden steps that end up down at the beach. Hiking near water is one of my favorite types of hiking, so I was all about this! We decided to go Sunday afternoon, after eating our usual brunch of crepes and rhubarb ginger jam.

It was totally worth taking the time out of our weekend. It was a quick drive, easily accessible, and felt totally unique. We tend to hike a lot of lakeside trails when we visit Door County, but this one even felt different than those. All of the trails were either gravel, boardwalk, or woodchipped, and I think this would be a great place to hike with people who aren’t looking for much of a rugged or challenging experience. We even saw one man pushing his wife, who was in a wheelchair.

I think these would be awesome trails to run on as well. Maybe, just for something different, I’ll take a drive up there some Saturday and run all the loops.

Normally, I saddle Jason up with a backpack containing water, snacks, jackets, and reading material, but this time I decided to carry it. Granted, it was just a smaller day pack and it wasn’t TOO heavy, but I felt proud of myself for taking on the extra weight for a change. It never felt heavy, just made me a little hot and sweaty towards the end.

The area is roughly divided into two sections, each with one long trail that eventually connects to the other end in a big, oval loop. The section we mostly stuck to was the bluff trail. For the record, I am a complete ninny when it comes to hiking trails near high edges, and I did fine on this one. It was a nice, wide trail with good 10-15 feet between me and the edge, ha. It reminded me of a much less terrifying version of the Kahlalau trail that we hiked a few years ago. I enjoy me some panoramic views of the water below, but I was much more relaxed on a wide, well-maintained trail without huge eroded sections culminating in a 900-foot dropoff. Yeah.

The first part of the bluff trail mostly open, grassy areas. When we got into the woods, the trail was bordered by lots of tall, thin trees – mostly aspens and birches. There wasn’t much undergrowth, so a lot of sunlight came filtering in. It was very pretty. As we neared the gorge at the end, we saw a lot more old growth cedar trees with a dense layer of ferns and vines underneath. Also, very pretty. It reminded me of hiking in the western side of Glacier National Park.

We reached the end of the bluff trail and took the many stairs down to the beach, where several dog owners were milling around with tennis balls and very wet pooches. Once we got down there, we realized that we could see Port Washington further north along the coast. We joked that we should walk there along the beach and stop in at one of our favorite non-Milwaukee coffee shops near the harbor, Smith Brothers. We decided to just start walking and turn around if we got tired. Well, three miles and an hour and a half later, we were crossing the main street of downtown Port Washington!

It was a nice hike, albeit a little difficult due to the terrain (mostly loose rocks intermixed with clay and dry sand). The waves were impressive, there was lots of driftwood and oddly-colored pebbles to look at, and there were several ravines with small streams emptying into the lake. The sun was shining, but walking along the water kept us nice and cool. We referred to the entire hike as the “Little Na Pali” coast – it looked and felt so similar! No lemon trees, though.

We came across an old seagull laying quietly in the sand, and thought rather forlornly that he might be dead by the time we passed by him again. We saw lots of trash (ew), the rusted remains of a car, an intact chunk of forest that had slid down the bluff in a landslide, and a large tarp tent nestled in one of the gorges. It looked empty, but we didn’t get really close to check it out!

Once we got to Port, we were on our way to the coffee shop and passed a Mexican restaurant. We realized that we were pretty hungry and our snacks likely wouldn’t tide us over on the hike back, so instead of coffee and scones we opted for some delicious chimichangas and tostadas. Some Mexican restaurants, especially in smaller northern towns, have terrible food but this one did not disappoint! They seasoned everything really well – lots of cumin. It was just what we needed to fuel us up for our return journey, which was just as beautiful as our hike to Port.

Seriously, Wisconsin CAN be a really beautiful place. If I never lived in any other state, I would be totally content. I don’t even miss visiting the ocean on days like this!

We did see the seagull on the way back, and by all appearances, he had given up the ghost. We imagined he was in heaven, hanging out in McDonalds parking lot and eating lots of french fries.

On a side note, I think it would be fun to someday try walking as far as I could along the lake. I wonder if you could walk from Milwaukee to Door County?

Anyway, we arrived back at Lion’s Den and scrambled back up the stairs and through the woods. The sun was setting, and we took a little detour on one of the wetland trails.The swamp was covered in tiny, white blossoms from some kind of aquatic plant. It smelled wonderful, and looked just as nice.

All in all, we hiked around 8 miles, which is a good length to make you feel tired and happy. Someday, I’d like to go back and hike the swamp trails as well. Maybe next time we’ll actually make it to the coffee shop ;).

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2 Comments to “Wisconsin Loving – Lion’s Den Gorge”

  1. It sounds a really beautiful area. You’re very lucky to have so much great countryside on your doorstep. Don’t worry about the house/garden tasks they will still be there when you get back, take it from me 😉

    • Yes, we are really lucky! Most people don’t think of the upper midwest as being a really desirable destination, and maybe I’m biased because I’ve always lived here…but having traveled to quite a few areas of the US I think Wisconsin is one of the prettiest places I’ve seen.

      And yes, the chores were certainly still there when I got home!

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