Indian Lake County Park is a 483-acre park in Dane County, Wisconsin, where I visited recently. The hike described here is a pleasant 3.9-mile loop that passes through woodlands and prairie and passes along the edge of Indian Lake, a remnant of the most recent glaciation in the area. There are several networks of trails in the park: cross-country ski trails, hiking trails, a large off-leash dog park, and snowmobile trails. The park also hosts a segment of the Ice Age Trail and, as suggested in a write-up in a Madison-area hiking book, the most straightforward loop basically follows the Ice Age Trail segment through the park, with a short return walk along the entry road to complete the loop.
One of the highlights was the prairie area southwest of the lake. Especially in light of today’s huge areas of farmland in the Midwest – which play a significant part in feeding the nation – it amazes me that, before farming, there were thousands of square miles of prairie, perhaps much of it looking like this in the spring and summer, with continuous masses of wildflowers as far as one could see. In this view there are Queen Anne’s lace, gray-headed (or yellow) coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), and wild bergamot (or bee balm) (Monarda fistulosa).
The hike’s starting and ending points were at the main parking area, indicated by the orange dot on the GPS track. The loop sampled the major habitats of the park: woods, prairie, and lake. Even with the relatively large number of trail choices, following the Ice Age Trail’s yellow blazes was straightforward. (Note: in several places the route followed the opposite direction of travel along one-way cross-country ski trails, so it was necessary to ignore the Wrong Way signs.)
The first part of the hike was on a trail labeled Ski Hill (or similar) and headed south and uphill into the woods. Although this was not a long section of the hike, the shade was welcome on a day that promised to be in the mid 80’s – both temperature and humidity – by lunch time.
The leaf canopy was sufficiently dense that there were not a lot of wildflowers, but I did take note of red clover (Trifolium pratense), white clover (Trifolium repens), daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus), and heal-all (Prunella vulgaris). The trail climbed about 150 feet in about 0.8 mile before descending to lake level for the remainder of the hike.
Another wildflower found in the woods was this pretty, small (about 1/3 inch diameter) yellow flower. So far I haven’t been able to identify it.
About 1.3 miles along the loop the Ice Age Trail emerges from the woods and approaches the edge of Indian Lake, with a band of prairie between the trail and the lake. What a pretty place for cross-country skiing in the winter!
At the edge of the woods area there was some common St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). I have discovered that I like wildflowers with sprays of reproductive parts extending a welcome to their pollinators.
In the more open prairie areas there was Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) with its characteristic and familiar sprays of tiny white blossoms and the distinctive underlayer of long, narrow parts (bracts? – I’m still learning plant parts).
To the southwest of the lake, the Ice Age Trail skirts the outer edge of the off-leash dog area, passing through a pretty, restored prairie area. From the interior of a large area of either wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) or possibly golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) came calling sounds of a bird. Although it was difficult to actually see it among the yellow wildflowers, I managed a few pictures with enough information to identify an Eastern meadowlark (Sturna magna), blending in almost perfectly.
Not far away there was some alfalfa (Medicago sativa), possibly an escapee from a nearby farmer’s field. In a way it’s amazing that a plant with such pretty flowers was originally imported and planted as food for farm animals. One source suggests that a winter-hardy form of alfalfa was partly responsible for the development of the dairy industry in the upper Midwest.
A bit farther along there was some pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) in the trail, just as I have found it in the middle of many trails in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the southwest end of the lake the trail crosses Halfway Prairie Creek on a small bridge. I could not see water in the creek, but the creek bed was choked with large-leaved water-loving plants.
As the trail again approached the edge of Indian Lake there was some swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) that was being visited by a butterfly. Although milkweed is famously a major food source for the monarch butterfly, this one had quite different coloring. Another of my pictures seems to show a swallowtail, suggesting that it might be a black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). In any case the butterfly did not actually land on the milkweed but rather hovered briefly before flying to a different flower head cluster to repeat the process. I imagined that the butterfly understood that it was too heavy to actually land on the flowers!
Along this part of the lake there were some yellow pond lilies (Nyphar lutea).
Near the lake’s edge there was a bit of woodland, including some woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus). Although most types of sunflower grow in full sun, the woodland sunflower grows in shade or along edges or clearings of deciduous woods.
As the trail continued into a more open prairie area, I noticed several flowers that reminded me of St John’s wort – except that the plants were 5-6 feet tall and the blossoms were nearly 2 inches in diameter. Until I could make an identification, I mentally labeled it a giant St John’s wort. When I did make an identification I was astonished to find that the common name actually is giant (or great) St John’s wort (Hypericum ascyron)!
In this area there were also a number of cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum). This is one of four species of silphium found in southeastern Wisconsin. They are in the sunflower/aster family, but have somewhat lighter ray flowers and disc flowers than familiar sunflowers. The types of silphium have very different and distinctive leaves; in addition cup plant has a distinctive stem. The stem is nearly 1/2 inch in diameter and is square; note the out-of-focus example at the right of the picture. The large leaves form a small cup at the junction with the stem, where rain water collects.
In this prairie area there was some rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), as well as field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis). The latter reminds me of morning glory, but the blossoms tend to be smaller.
Along the park entrance road there was chicory (Cichorium intybus), which is normally up to 2 feet tall but can grow back and flower just a few inches tall after being mowed. There were also some pretty, light purple flower spikes that seem to be a type of hedge nettle (Stachys sp): certainly in the mint family.
This was a very pleasant, short, and easy hike featuring prairie wildflowers, a lake, and some woods. After returning to the car we were off to another nearby park and Ice Age Trail segment.