A couple of years ago I discovered, and started hiking on, the Military Ridge Trail, a 40-mile multi-use trail that runs along a former railroad right of way west of Madison, Wisconsin. I have made it into a small “project” to see if I can hike/walk the entire trail. This walk was on the western part of the trail, starting at my previous westernmost point at the crossing of Pikes Peak Rd and continuing to the western terminus in Dodgeville. This section was about 11½ miles long. My total mileage was a little higher since the best place to park a car was about ¼ mile east of the actual terminus, and I walked to the end and then back to where my ride was parked. On the GPS track the orange dot shows where I started walking at Pikes Peak Rd.
The trail is marked with mile markers. Pikes Peak Rd corresponds roughly to mile 28.7, and mile marker 40 is at the Dodgeville terminus at WI-23. As a former railroad route, the trail is very flat: over the section I walked the elevation gain was under 300 feet. There was an 80-foot climb over 2 miles near the end of my walk – I can’t say that I even noticed the climb, it was so gentle.
The trail passes primarily through typical Wisconsin farmland. Much of the way the right-of-way is lined on one or both sides by a row of trees or tall shrubs, but there are numerous breaks where one can see out to the countryside.
There was a nice selection of what I consider to be common roadside wildflowers, including several I’d seen the previous year and some others I’d not noticed or else not highlighted. Among the latter was some staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), with its dark red clusters contrasting with the leaves. I saw more staghorn sumac in the spring while hiking several hundred miles to the east in southern Ontario.
Perhaps the most common wildflowers were Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), crown vetch (Securigera varia), and pink clover. There was also St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) and yellow, or prairie, coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). Another favorite that I associate with the Midwest, rather than California (where I live), is common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I did see a monarch butterfly on a milkweed flower cluster, but it flitted away long before I could get my camera out and ready to snap a picture.
There were several clusters of day lilies (Hemerocallis fulva) and quite a bit of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). For some reason the monarda flower heads make me think of a bad hair day, but they are actually quite pretty.
Since the day was very warm, well into the high 80’s by the end of my walk (with correspondingly high humidity), I was grateful for the intermittent areas of full shade across the trail. In the shady areas I frequently noted false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemose), which had progressed past the flowering stage into the berry stage. I have seen this distinctive plant, or its “non-false” cousin, many times on California-based hikes, so it was interesting to find it 1500 miles away.
There was also common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and white campion (Silene alba), both of which I’d seen previously. A Midwest specialty is the wide variety of sunflower-related wildflowers. One of my favorites is the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). The blossoms in this cluster had not yet fully progressed to the coneflower shape, in which the ray flowers bend back to form the cone with the disc flowers at the center forming the point.
There were several spots with bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), with intensely blue-violet blossoms.
About 2½ miles into my walk I reached Ridgeway, a village settled in the 1840’s as lead mines were developed by Cornish, Welsh, Irish, and German immigrants. As I entered town I noted a gas station sign that was an immediate reminder that I certainly was no longer in California, where today’s gas prices are about $1 higher per gallon.
The former train station appears to have been restored to serve as an attractive rest stop along the Military Ridge Trail. At the far end in this picture there is even a restored railroad car that looks as though it might house some office space facing the adjacent town street.
At the train station there was a notice posted for an upcoming Party on Pluto – as it turns out, this was a confluence of three backstories. One is that the Pluto “station” of a 23-mile scale-model solar system is about 15 miles east of Ridgeway along the Military Ridge Trail. Another is that the historic New Horizons flyby of Pluto had occurred just three days prior to my walk, and general interest in Pluto should have been at an unusually high level. According to the notice, party attendees would be invited to sign a petition to send to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to change Pluto’s status from dwarf planet to troll planet. The third backstory is that Mt Horeb, site of Pluto, is the self-proclaimed troll capital of the world.
Ridgeway also has an intimate baseball field. As it happened, as I approached the ball field and noticed a couple of workers in the midst of a small project, a very loud siren suddenly crescendoed and then decrescendoed. Although I’d checked the weather and the forecast did not include any intense events, I walked back to the workers to ask what it was, fearing a tornado warning with no obvious place to take shelter. One of the workers looked at me calmly and said “Oh, it’s probably the noon whistle.” It had been at least 40 years since I’d heard one, so I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but a quick peek at my GPS time indicated that that was the right explanation. I confess that that was a relief!
After the relative excitement passing through the only village along my nearly 12-mile walk, I continued back into the countryside and my solitary but pleasant walk. I should note that the Military Ridge Trail probably has more bicycle than foot traffic, and I was passed by a couple dozen cyclists, mostly in family groups, during my walk.
I continued to see more familiar wildflowers, including common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), creeping bellflower (Campanula raspunculoides), birds foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), and chicory (Cichorium intybus). A new one was horse nettle (Solanum carolinese), which reminded me somewhat of the bitter nightshade except that the yellow stamens (I think) are spread out in the horse nettle and clustered in the nightshade.
Right next to some horse nettle there was some rough-fruited cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), reminiscent of a related species (sticky cinquefoil) I’ve seen frequently while hiking in the Sierra Nevada. I believe this is cinquefoil even though there are six petals! (Another nearby blossom had the more expected five petals.)
There is a great variety in the Midwest of daisy-like flowers. One example I noted was common fleabane (Erigeron strigosus), with as many as 40 white ray flowers and yellow disc flowers in the center.
A simple contrast is the oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), which has many fewer – and wider – ray flowers. The daisy blossoms are also larger than the fleabane blossoms.
When traveling through Wisconsin countryside I always look forward to passing farm buildings. For some reason I am particularly attracted by sets of 3 silos.
In the nearly 10-mile section between Ridgeway and Dodgeville there were a few long sections in which the trail just seemed to pass along, peacefully, between rows of shrubs and trees.
Along the way I passed what appeared to have previously been an informal train stop: a colorfully decorated bench with an attached roof, right next to the trail.
By this time I was seeing fewer “new” (for the day) wildflowers, though I enjoyed passing butter and eggs (Linaria vulgaris), yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), and tall bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum). Some of the shrubs along the trail had clusters of orange berries, and others had red berries. I haven’t determined what they are and whether they are one, or two different, species.
My brother had driven me to my starting point, dropped me off, and gone exploring in Governor Dodge State Park, which is just a few miles from the Military Ridge Trail terminus in Dodgeville. He then parked at the trailhead and walked in to meet me, and we finished our day’s walks together. The actual end of the Military Ridge Trail is at WI-23 in Dodgeville, but the trailhead and parking area are about ¼ mile from the end near a Wisconsin DNR station. Here there is a small kiosk and a branch of the Little Free Library.
As we drove back to Madison I noticed what appeared to be a small country cemetery off the highway a short distance. I quickly snapped a couple of pictures and later identified it as St Bridget’s Cemetery, which is outside Ridgeway. It is on a roster of Iowa County cemeteries. Like other country cemeteries, it is closely bounded by farmland – in this case, corn – with an access road.
In spite of the hot and humid weather, this was a pleasant walk through the Wisconsin countryside, with pretty views and a nice variety of summer wildflowers. At the end of this walk I had completed all of the Military Ridge Trail except for a 2½ mile section at the eastern end, not far from Madison. I was already making a plan to hike the last section!