5 Unexpected Natural Gems Near Madison, WI

Gibraltar Rock Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin, may be known for being a huge college town, it’s live music scene, eclectic State Street, chain of lakes, ubiquitous bike trails, and one of the largest local farmer’s market on the Capitol Square, but many folks are unaware of some very unique natural places within a short drive.  These are natural areas that many would not believe exist in the Midwest, and they are right in our backyard!  Here are just five of these areas that you don’t want to miss (yes, there’s more!).  So, pack a picnic lunch, gas up the car, gather up the kids or a few friends and hit the road!

Magnolia Bluff

This scenic park, located in the hilly western upland region of Rock County, features beautiful rock outcroppings and vistas. When standing on the west outcrop at Magnolia Bluff, you are at the second highest point in Rock County and on a clear day, you can see the land extend west into Green County. Farm fields roll into the distance and it is arguably one of the best places around to watch the sunset.

Things to Know:

Because this park has steep areas and rock outcroppings, caution must be used by all park visitors.  The Eastern Overlook is handicap accessible.


Includes picnic tables, grills, drinking water, restroom facilities, and dumpsters.

Lower and upper parking areas provide access to the site.


Two trails are featured: one a bridle and nature trail; the other a cross-country ski and hiking trail. Open every day from dawn to dusk.

Both trails have an individual distance of just less than three miles.

Trail Map: http://www.co.rock.wi.us/images/web_documents/departments/parks/park_magnolia/magnolia_bluff_park_trail_map.pdf

How to get there:

Magnolia Bluff County Park is located approximately 35 minutes (27 miles) from downtown Madison.  The park is just south of Evansville, and located 1/2 miles south of the intersection of State Hwy 59 and Croak Road, on Croak Road.

From Madison, take Highway 14 south to WI-92 to Brooklyn.  Then south on WI-104 to N. Croak Road 0.5 miles to the park entrance.

Fees:  Admission is free

Time to enjoy:  1-3 hours

Roadtrip:  Day-trip, Rockford-IL-Madison-WI-segment

Tags:  hiking, scenic-overlook, accessible, horse-trail, cross-country-ski


Ferry BluffFerry Bluff Wisconsin

Ferry Bluff State Natural Area encompasses two small sections of Wisconsin River shoreline.  The first section includes Ferry Bluff and the adjacent Cactus Bluff which both rise just over 300 feet above the confluence of Honey Creek and the Wisconsin River directly below. The second section is just a bit further down the river but only accessible by boat since it is surrounded by private land. The views of the Wisconsin River flowing through mostly undeveloped land is a rare and breath-taking sight

Things to Know:

The entire northern unit, consisting of Ferry Bluff and Cactus Bluff, is closed to all entry from November 15 to April 1 to protect roosting bald eagles. The southern unit is open at all times.

Mosquitos can be plentiful!  Wear good bug spray and appropriate clothing.

Take care when venturing close to the cliff edge and keep children and pets close.


No facilities.  Hit the restrooms and grab water in Sauk City.

A small parking area at the trailhead accommodates maybe 5-10 cars, and two informational signs lay out the trail system, topography, and a historical overview.


There is a well marked trail head.  A short trail (less than a half mile) will lead you around the foot of Ferry Bluff to a split.  You have the option to turn left and follow a trail down to the river bank or right to continue up a 20% grade to the top of the 300 ft. Cactus Bluff following well-maintained switchbacks. At the top of Cactus Bluff there is an overview with a semi-circle of informational boards.

To continue up to Ferry Bluff, find the trail up the ridge just as the short boardwalk ends. This is a more strenuous trail with a short climb and some fallen trees to navigate. The trail is not marked but quite obvious. It rises to the top of the bluffs, and circles east to arrive at the tip of Ferry bluff. You will be rewarded with an exceptional view.

The lower trail that takes you to the foot of Cactus bluff will lead you through a bit of forest and along the eroded cliff base.  Here you can see how the power of the Wisconsin river has shaped the sandstone over the millennia.  Depending on the river’s height you may be able to walk out onto an open sandbar where you’ll have an amazing view both up and down the Wisconsin River.

Trail Map:  http://www.devilslakeclimbingguides.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/FerryBluffMap.pdf

How to get there:

The Ferry Bluff State Natural area is 50 minutes (37 miles) from downtown Madison.  Take US-12 West to Sauk City, then Hwy 60 West.  Turning onto Ferry Bluff Rd. you will follow the single lane gravel road just over a mile to a parking area with a canoe/kayak landing at the end.  Paddlers launch out into Honey Creek which takes you out into the Wisconsin River. The current flows to your right taking you south-west toward Spring Green.

Fees:  Admission is free

Time to enjoy:  1 hour for hiking and views.  More for canoeing/kayaking.

Roadtrip:  Day-trip, Madison-WI-WiDells-WI-segment, Hwy-60-WI-segment

Tags:  hiking, scenic-overlook, canoeing, kayaking

Gibraltar RockGibraltar Rock Wisconsin

Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area near Lodi offers some of the most spectacular vistas in the state. It is the highest point in Columbia County.  Gibraltar stands some 1,234 feet above sea level while it’s sheer 200 foot cliffs offer an amazing view of the Wisconsin River valley. Miles of rolling hills and farmland spread out to the south and east while Lake Wisconsin and the Baraboo range provide a stunning backdrop to the north.

Things to Know:

Visitors must park at the base of Gibraltar rock then hike up. The trail is a closed road of mixed gravel and crumbling blacktop.  My boyfriend tells me that back in the day, people used to be able drive up.  That must have been quite a ride!  While there are no steps some visitors may still find the winding climb to the top quite challenging.


No facilities.  Use restrooms and grab water in Lodi.

A small parking area at the trailhead.

How to get there:

Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area is about a 45 minute (35 mile) drive from downtown Madison. Simply take I-90 north to exit 119.  Then take WI-60 west to Lodi and Highway 113 North from there. Turn left on County Rd. V 1.1 miles, then south on Gibraltar Rock Road 0.2 mile to a parking area

Fees:  Admission is free

Time to enjoy:  1 hour

Roadtrip:  Day-trip, Madison-WI-WiDells-WI-segment

Tags:  hiking, scenic-overlook


Parfrey’s GlenParfrey's Glen Wisconsin

Parfrey’s Glen is Wisconsin’s first State Natural area. The glen is open to the public from 6am to 8pm. At its uppermost part, the glen reaches a depth of nearly 100 feet and embraces a mountain-type stream flowing through its floor. Traverse the cavernous gorge through a winding path. The Path is about 0.8 miles long and is an out and back.  A special treat for this area is to ride the free Merrimac Car Ferry across the Wisconsin River!  The ferry is seasonal, so watch for signs.  It operates 24×7 when open.  If the ferry is not running, that adds some time to your trip.

Things to Know:

The path into this natural wonder has been changed by frequent floods which have washed away boardwalk constructions and dismantled stone and concrete overlooks. Today, only the first half of the trail is maintained. On reaching the mouth of the stone gorge the trail abruptly ends (there is a sign). Those seeking to press on into the stone canyon must hike through the stream bed and scramble over giant boulders loosed from the canyon walls.  Stay close to the stream bed to avoid trampling foliage.  There is a waterfall at the end of the original trail.  To get there, you will need to walk through water.  Note that pets are not allowed in this park.


Vault toilets, picnic area, water pump.  Use flush restrooms and grab water in Merrimac.

A small parking area at the trailhead for about 20 cars.

How to get there:

Parfrey’s Glen is about a 55 minute (45 mile) drive from downtown Madison including a ride on the free Merrimac Ferry! Simply take I-90 north to exit 119.  Then take WI-60 west to Lodi and Highway 113 North from there to the ferry.  Continue on 113 for two miles and and turn left on County Rd DL. The entrance will be on your right a few miles down. The entrance is a bit hard to see, but it will be the 2nd driveway after the school house 4-way stop.

Fees:  Admission requires WI State Park sticker (daily or yearly)

Time to enjoy:  1-3 hours

Roadtrip:  Day-trip, Madison-WI-WiDells-WI-segment

Tags:  hiking, state park

Cave of the MoundsCave of the Mounds

Cave of the Mounds has become the premier cave in the upper Midwest and the jewel box of America’s major show caves. One-hour tours pass a stunning array of colorful crystal formations and shimmering pools on paved lighted walkways that are easy for all ages. Visitors also enjoy a Gemstone Mine, Fossil Dig, Butterfly Gardens, Amazing Rock/Gift Shops, Hiking/Biking Trails, Snack Bar and Picnic Area.

Things to Know:

The Cave’s constant 50-degree temperature makes the cave feel cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  Dress appropriately!  The cave is open year round and rain or shine.

SPRING: March 15 – Friday before Memorial Day Weekend

Weekdays – Tours on the hour (first tour 10 am / last tour 4pm), Grounds open 9am to 5pm

Weekends – 30 Minute Intervals (first tour 9:30 am / last tour 5pm), Grounds open 9am to 6pm

SUMMER: Memorial Day Weekend – Labor Day

Weekdays and Weekends – 20-30 minute intervals 9am – 6pm (last tour departs at 6 pm)

FALL: Tuesday after Labor Day Weekend – November 15

Weekdays – On the Hour, 10am to 4pm (last tour departs at 4pm)

Weekends – 30 Minute Intervals, 9am to 5pm (last tour 5pm)

WINTER: November 16 – March 14

Monday through Friday: 11am and 2pm tours, please call ahead to reserve

Saturdays and Sundays: Tours on the hour, 10am to 4pm (last tour 4pm) – No reservations are needed.


Restrooms, picnic areas, gift shop

Parking lot

How to get there:

Cave of the Mounds National Natural Landmark is located in southwest Wisconsin 35 minutes (30 miles) from downtown Madison.  Take Hwy 18/151 West to Cave of the Mounds road.  Follow the signs.

Fees:  Adults: $17.95, Children 4-12: $9.95

Time to enjoy:  1.5-3 hours

Roadtrip:  Day-trip, Madison-WI-Dubuque-IA-segment

Tags:  hiking, National-State park, caves

That’s it for now!  Have you been to any of these places?  If so, please comment here about your experience or if you have any tips of your own.  Do you know of other unexpected places near Madison (I know I do!).  If so, feel free to clue the rest of us in!  Thanks for reading!

About Author

Kristi enjoys traveling and taking road trips to fully experience life. She loves to find local eateries, off the beaten path hidden gems, and the secrets to enjoying the journey.

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(7) Comments

  1. Jay

    I haven’t been to any of these places before but after reading your article would like to definitely visit sometime. I love nature and there are some trails and parks that look quite interesting.

    Is the temperature of these places always hot?
    Thanks for giving me different options for my next road trip.

    1. Trippy Tripster

      Hi Jay! Thanks for the feedback! Temperatures in Wisconsin vary widely depending on the time of year as you can see here: http://www.usclimatedata.com/climate/madison/wisco…. It rarely gets ‘hot’ compared to southern parts of the country, but it can and when it is humid, it can be quite miserable! Checking the weather forecast before setting out would help you prepare for if you need a swimsuit or a jacket!

      Check back for more tips around Madison and other areas of the country!

  2. Hi

    Hey Trippy Tripster,
    I like your local travel tips. I do not live in you part of the country but anyone that lives in your area will benefit from your trip tips. You offer clear maps and directions to these destinations. Very cool and continue to build your site. It will benefit people nicely!

    1. Trippy Tripster

      Hi! Thanks for the feedback and thanks for visiting! Come back and see how it evolves!

  3. Kevin

    I never thought of visiting Madison, WI before reading this post. I hope to go to Mount Rushmore some and may consider visiting Madison on the way. I keep seeing ads about visiting Michigan, but not Wisconsin. Are there any other areas worth visiting in Wisconsin beyond Madison and Milwaukee?

    1. Trippy Tripster

      Hi Kevin! There are a lot of beautiful areas of Wisconsin. Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin Dells, Door County, the northern woods and lakes, Apostle Islands… I’ll be writing more about all of those places and more in future posts!

  4. Lori M

    Nicely done, Trippy! Beautiful photos and a reminder of all the cool places to explore right in your own corner of the world. Have been to many of these gems while we lived near Madison. Sure miss the biking!

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