Monday, December 19, 2016

Excellent Snowshoeing Weather

This week signals the official start of winter, as if you needed a calendar to figure that out.  It's been a blustery start to the snow season.  If you weren't grappling with trying to get the snowblower or car working properly, consider yourself lucky.  The temps are going to climb for the rest of the week and with about a foot of snow in the Milwaukee parks, this is a great time to try snowshoeing. With such a great base, you could go just about anywhere in any park.  Pick your scenery- riverfront, lake Michigan, one of the river parkways, or a nice wooded area.  Here's the county page of parks with maps.

If you don't own snowshoes yet, it's no problem.  Havenwoods State Forest lets you use them for free.  It's a good way to see if it's something you enjoy.  You can get them in the nature center during normal hours.
Even kids have fun snowshoeing at Havenwoods

This is also a great time to join the Urban Ecology Center where members can use snowshoes, as well as sleds, skates, saucers, and much more from their lending closet at no additional cost. You can reserve snowshoes in advance. With three different locations, you are bound to find a place you enjoy.

Because we normally don't have so much snow this early, you won't find the guided hikes at Schlitz Audubon beginning until next year.  Check the calendar for events to see when they are offered.  You can bring your own snowshoes anytime as long as you are a member or pay the daily admission rate of $8 per adult.. If there's a guided snowshoe hike, they normally have snowshoes available. This is a good way to experience nature. Normally the volunteers know a great deal about animals, plants, and the lake and share their stories with the group. Afterwards, step inside and warm yourself by the fireplace and enjoy a hot cocoa.
Enjoy the lake views at Schlitz. 

Whitnall Park has a warming house with a rental kiosk where you can get skis or snowshoes.  Cost is $15 for the day or $20 for 24 hours. If you really want to go crazy, rent them for an entire week for $50. There's a fireplace and snacks for sale inside.

Wehr Nature Center holds winter events that include snowshoeing.  You can always pick up the rented snowshoes at Whitnall and use the trails at Wehr, if you pay for parking.

If you want to make a trip elsewhere in the state and bring your snowshoes, you might find an unexplored place on this list put out by Midwest Weekends.  Also be sure to follow the weekly list of events in the local Milwaukee County Parks. You'll find all kinds of opportunities to get outside, meet people, and try new things.

The Yeti Dash has become an annual event which includes a snowshoeing "race" with a 5K and 3K. It happens February 4, 2017. Get in shape now and you can participate.

If you ever participated in the outdoor club with Clearwater Outdoor, you might have gone snowshoeing.  Unfortunately the Milwaukee store is closed, but you can join a group at Delafield every Saturday.

And if you feel you really know what you're doing, join one of the candlelight hikes in the parks.  Lapham Peak is a great place to go for an organized snowshoe hike. The friends of Lapham Peak have a page full of activities.  There are rentals available near Lapham Peak, done by Wheel & Sprocket.  Hours: T W Th 4:00 -9:00 pm
Sat. 9:00 am-9:00 pm
Sun. 9:00 am-5:00 pm
Call the Delafield store for more information 262-646-6300

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sledding in Milwaukee

Sledding is fun for the whole family
More fresh snow will be falling this week!  Time to get out the sleds and take the kids outdoors!  But actually it's not JUST for kids.  Anyone can have fun sledding, but the climb uphill gets harder each year.  At least that has been my experience.  Be sure to pack your pockets full of tissues and bring a thermos of hot cocoa for the best time ever.

The county maintains sledding hills at the following parks, which can be used for toboggans, tubes, and sleds, when weather permits. I've indicated which hills are lit at night with *.

Brown Deer, 7835 N. Green Bay Rd.
Columbus, 7301 W. Courtland Ave.
*Currie, 3535 N. Mayfair Rd.
Greene, 4235 S. Lipton Ave.
Hales Corners, 5765 S. New Berlin Rd.
*Humboldt, 3000 S. Howell Ave.
LaFollette, 9418 W. Washington St.
McCarty, 8214 W. Cleveland Ave.
McGovern, 5400 N. 51 St.
*Pulaski (Milwaukee), 2677 S. 16 St.
Wilson Recreation, 4001 S 20 St.
*Whitnall, 5879 S. 92 St.   Enjoy Concessions in the Whitnall Clubhouse

There are additional parks that have hills, but they are not maintained or groomed.  Also don't expect restrooms to be open:

Kletzsch Park, 6561 N. Milwaukee Parkway, Glendale
Hawthorn Glen, 1130 N. 60th St.
Maitland, 6001 S. 13th St.
Sheridan, 4800 S. Lake Dr.
Wilson Recreation, 4001 S. 20th St.
St. Mary’s Hill, 2323 N. Lake Dr.

There's also a smallish hill at Cahill Park in Whitefish Bay, as a result of the reconstructed ball fields with a water retention area.  You'll also find something similar in front of Mitchell Park Domes. Turns out these hills are perfect for young kids and old ladies like myself.  You will get a lot of turns in before you tire out.  

Milwaukee Moms Blog has a listing of more hills, many which are outside Milwaukee county. This blog has loads of fun ideas, especially if you're new to Milwaukee.  Spend some time browsing to learn more about where you can take your kids for fun. 

The Rock Sports Complex also offers tubing for $15-$20 per day.  See their website for hours and other details.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Domes- Warmth, Winter Farmer's Market, Christmas Gifts, and Family Fun

Winter weather seems to be here for good now.  Having a nice coating of snow is wonderful for those who like a white Christmas.  If you need even more of a boost to get you in the holiday spirit, head over to Mitchell Park Domes. It's warm, full of beautifully decorated Christmas trees, and has lots of other features you might not know about.

Some of the domes had been under repair, but all of them are now open. The show dome is filled with dozens of poinsettias, evergreens, and flowers with the theme of "Not a Creature was Stirring." You'll find lots of critters hiding in the trees, which can be really fun for the kids to find. If you haven't done your holiday greeting cards yet, this is the perfect place to take some family photos and send them to friends or family. With all that beautiful color, you're bound to get something you'll like. The desert and tropical domes also have holiday decorations to a lesser degree. Be sure to go again in January for the popular train exhibit. The theme will be the great train robbery using model trains.

The Friends of the Domes do a great deal to keep this conservatory open and running. One way you can support them is to buy your holiday gifts at the gift shop.  With one of the best selections of local books, gardening books, ornaments, chocolate, and nature related toys for kids, there is certainly something for everyone. There are a limited number of items for sale directly from the website link too.  The gift of membership is a great idea for you and/or someone who lives locally.  Then they can visit anytime they wish and enjoy the beautiful plants and warmth this winter.

The Winter Farmer's Market is on now through April.  About 50 stalls are set up in the attached greenhouses and include a variety of gift ideas, locally made foods, soaps, coffee, and much more.  This happens every Saturday from 9-1.  Parking is available in the front and rear of the annex. Entrance to the market is free but doesn't include Domes admission. Go hungry and you can eat your way through the market. For more information about specific events, follow the market on Facebook.

Bring a sled, if you have younger kids, and you can slide down the very small hills in the park area in front of the Domes. Though the area was created for water retention, it's a great place for beginners...and even parents who don't want to climb back up again hauling a kid on a sled.  There are so many ways to enjoy this park, even in winter.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Forked Aster Hiking Trail System

Did you know that the Milwaukee County Parks has a 43-mile Natural Areas hiking trail system? If you like natural spaces and have a good pair of hiking boots, these are really fun to explore this time of year.  After all, there's a German proverb which says, "there's no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing."

Called the Forked Aster hiking system, there are 28 different county parks to explore. These trails are not improved with blacktop, but might have wood chips or some natural topping.  This week I went with my son to explore a couple. We saw mostly just layers of delightful fallen leaves.

We did the hike through Kohl Park, up at the northern side of Milwaukee county.  In fact, it's on County Line Road, just down the street from Mequon Nature Preserve, which is also a great place to do some hiking. Kohl Park used to be a farm. You can even see an old silo and go inside if you dare. Some artist has painted a few gems inside.
Kohl Farm silo

graffiti inside the silo

The trails are quite wet most of the year, and this has been improved by the addition of wooden planks to help you get over some really muddy spots.  You could hike in your regular shoes, but hiking boots make it much more comfortable. What I love about this spot is the pine forest.  You can smell it before you see it.  It's also a good place to spot hawks and woodpeckers.  If you do the entire circuit, which means backtracking on a piece from Fairy Chasm, it's two miles.
Fragrant pine forest

Wet areas are navigated by using the planks

Greene Park is at the southern end of the county in St. Francis.  Though the park is large, the hiking system is small and tucked away on a narrow strip of woods on top of a hill. I parked along Lunham, which is right off KK. This trail system is just under one half mile. Mostly oaks here, it's fun to hop over fallen trees, or try to balance on them if you're a kid. I haven't been here in spring, but it's supposed to be a good place to see migrating warblers then. This park has a playground, so if the hiking doesn't wear out your kids, you can head over there and play.

These trails are probably even worth doing after snow, so put them on your to do list this season when you need some fresh air and exercise. Thinking about a hike elsewhere in the USA?  There's an app/website I use when we travel, but it also has local trails in Milwaukee.  You can see the website at All Trails.  You can subscribe when you use it, but it isn't required.  Because it is GPS based, when you use it on your phone, it will automatically show you a map or a list of all trails near you. Then you can see notes about each trail's highlights and difficulty level.

Here's another blogpost that will get you dreaming about hikes at a bigger level- Top 50 Long Distance Hiking Trails in the USA.  And if you need help finding just the right hiking boot, that blog has some useful information.  Happy hiking!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Discover Historic Estabrook Park

The waterfall is a beautiful spot to visit in all seasons

My local park is Estabrook.  In all seasons, I am there. Biking. Hiking. Disc golfing. Playing beach volleyball (there's a seasonal net). Kicking a soccer ball.  Using the playground. Photographing birds or flowers. Watching fishermen. Enjoying a friend's company at the Biergarten. Petting dogs near the dog park. Checking out the rad moves of the skateboarders with my son. Even after visiting there for the past 11 years, there is still more to discover.

On Thanksgiving day, I decided to walk through the park, and checked out some places I had recently read about.  Have you read the Milwaukee Notebook?  Carl Swanson writes the blog. It's a great way to learn more about the history of Milwaukee, and he often covers parks. I decided to find the Indian rock he wrote about which had been used to grind corn, and thought it was very easy to find, based on his directions. Just look for the restroom building by the tallest tower, and it's just behind it next to the paved trail. Estabrook has a rich history of fossils, Indian settlement, mining, and swimming beaches. Browse the Milwaukee Notebook and you'll learn more about it.
The large holes on the left were apparently used to grind corn
As I walked through the park, I noticed a lot of work has been done recently.  Estabrook Park has an active Friend of Estabrook group, which you can follow on their Facebook page. They also cover the park history pretty well on their Friend's group page. On the Facebook page, I learned that volunteers on the burdock brigade recently cut down lots of burdock. They also lead hikes, do garden construction, and river clean-ups. You can join them for these activities. I noticed some new seedlings, repaired stair railings, and wooden benches where there are views of the river. I saw a man reading a book on one of the benches and thought it was a good spot.  This time of year, many hunters are sitting outside waiting to get their deer.  He was doing something more peaceful with a beautiful view of the river.

Some of the work has been paid for from Estabrook Beer Garden profits. The county receives about 20% back on any profits made by the various beer gardens, so it's good business for the parks, and for the beer gardens.  I think people who visit the beer gardens think it's a good deal. Milwaukee County Parks netted about $1 million in 2015, and I would believe it was even more in 2016 because there have been more opportunities to sell food and beer.

Under construction

Kilbourntown House is at the south end of the park.  It was moved here, and was originally in the downtown area called Kilbourntown. Owned by the Historical Society now, it is open to the public on weekends during summer.  If you visit now, you can peek in the windows and see the period furnishings.  There's a nice herb garden out front where I picked fresh herbs for turkey stuffing.

If you're a Harry Potter fan, like my son, you may want to go through the tunnel from Wilson Drive into the park.  Lately it's been painted in lots of graffiti. We've never seen any death eaters there, just for the record.
Tunnel from/to Wilson Drive
Go to the far south end of the park by Capitol Drive and you can see the bridge where most of the time you'll find fishermen.  You can hike the river trail from here back through the park to the north end. The trail is often at two levels and at this time of year, you'll have great river views, the sound of moving water, and maybe some geese overhead.  Work is being done on the entire length of the Milwaukee River Parkway Trail to prevent erosion. Head south and you'll find the Arboretum.  Head north and you'll go to Lincoln Park.  Sometimes I've seen bikes here, though biking on this trail is discouraged. I'm told it's because of the erosion, and the difficulty there is in sharing such a narrow path.
It's shallow here and often there are fishermen in waders
These geese are heading south

Thursday, November 24, 2016

See Santa in a Park

What could be more fun than taking the kids to see Santa in a park? Think roasted chestnuts, hot cocoa, and beautifully decorated trees. Here are some upcoming events where you will have photo ops with the red suited guy and his wife.

Christmas in the Ward features Santa in Catalano Square with Mrs Claus and her reindeer. You can take a carriage ride, buy cookies, or do some shopping while strolling through the Third ward.  This event is December 2-3. See the website for a full schedule of music and other entertainment.

The city will be filled with biking Santas on December 3rd for the Santa Rampage.  If you're a cyclist, get out your costume and ride.  Or if you prefer, drive to one of the stops on the route to enjoy costumes and fantastically decorated bikes. The ride ends at Lakefront Brewery at 1030, so you could definitely find them there and then walk across the river to the Swing Park. That's a lot of fun no matter what the weather.
The Santa Rampage includes hundreds of cyclists dressed in red
North Point Lighthouse at Lake Park will host Santa on Sundays, Dec 4, 11, and 18, from 12-4 PM. Purchase tickets at their website. Cost is $8 adults and $5 for seniors and children age 5-11. Younger children are free.

Santa under Glass is the name of the event at Mitchell Park Domes.  All three of the domes are open again. Santa and the little missus will be there Sunday, December 4, 12-3. And additionally December 10 and 17.

Head over to Boerner Botanical Gardens for their Holiday Gift Fair with Santa Claus. December 4 from 10-2. Admission is free. You can do brunch for the regular price. Bring a new unwrapped toy to donate to Toys for Tots, and get $5 off brunch. There will be lots of unique, high quality gifts for sale from local artists.

Cocoa with the Clauses will be held at Cathedral Square December 10. 11-2. Free cocoa and cookies. Local restaurants will have meal specials.  Be sure to stop in at Classy Girl Cupcakes while you're there too.

A Very Merry Milwaukee is the Milwaukee County Historical Society's event, held in their beautiful building at Pere Marquette Park. Sunday December 11. 10-3. Admission is free.  Hear Mrs. Claus read stories and see the Milwaukee holiday treasures and traditions display. $7 gets you a photo with Santa.

The Milwaukee Zoo hosts breakfast and lunch with Santa, though they sell out in advance.  Take action today, and you may be able to get a lunchtime seating with Santa during December.  Or just visit the zoo for free December 3rd.

Red Arrow Park will host Santa at Holiday Hoopla on December 21 from 4-7 PM. Rent skates and do a few laps with the new penguins, useful for beginners to maintain balance. Live music. Free drink samples for all and goodie bags to the first 100 guests.

For a comprehensive calendar of 2016 holiday events, go to the 2016 Everything Holiday Event Calendar at Metroparent Magazine. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Black Friday- Get Outdoors

REI had such great success with their #optoutside program last year on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, that it is doing the same this year. State parks in many states, including Michigan and Minnesota, are offering free admission. You'll still have to pay to visit state parks in Wisconsin, though our local Havenwoods State Forest offers some nice trails and a nature center for free.

So what can you do to get outside? Weather will be cool (likely in the 40s) but not horrific, so why not bundle up and go to a playground with some kids? The county parks have 114 tot lots. To find one near you, visit the Milwaukee County Maps page or read my blog about what I consider the best playgrounds. Kayla's Playground in Franklin is super fun with a hiking trail on the property too. You'll see some equipment there you can't find elsewhere.

Lake Park has a playground, a burial mound, some nice trails which have recently been trimmed and groomed, and the lion's bridge for photo ops. Northpoint Lighthouse is open on Friday, November 12-4, so you can climb the tower.   This park has drawn lots of attention for the pokemon go users.  Maybe you want to download the app and give it a try.

Disc golf is fun and can be played with a group or solo.  Milwaukee county parks went to the pay to play system this year for the 5 main courses, so for a day it costs $5, or you can buy a permit for 2017 and play for free during December. There are five smaller practice courses where you can play for free. You need to bring your own discs. The courses have been improved over the past year to include concrete tee pads and new baskets.  The courses are somewhat protected from the wind by trees, and it makes for a pretty walk through the woods.
New baskets at Brown Deer Park
Do you like to hike?  You can download trail maps for local parks at the Park People website. With nearly 30 to choose from, there is a new place waiting to be explored. My favorite pick for this time of year is Kohl Park with a 2 mile trail that takes you through one of the few pine forests in a park. The scent of pines will stay with you long after the hike is over.
An old silo at Kohl Park, a former farm

The scent of pines is heavenly at Kohl Park

For a unique skyline view of Milwaukee while there are few leaves on the trees, go to the top of Kilbourn Reservoir Park at Bremen & North Avenue. There are steps on both sides of the hill for some extra exercise after a good turkey dinner, and a playground at the rear of the park at street level.
See Milwaukee from Kilbourn Reservoir Park

It's always fun to get near the lake. My kids love skipping stones or walking on the beach.  Check out Grant Park, which has a nice sandy beach with plenty of rocks. With three playgrounds in the park and hiking trails too, you're bound to find something to keep everyone moving.

Most restrooms are not open this time of year and portable toilets have been removed, so plan accordingly.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Holiday Lights and Walks in Downtown

Last night was the kick-off to the annual display of holiday lights in Milwaukee, and it signals a big change in the weather as well.  Now we'll have to start bundling up around here. With the early darkness and cold that comes with late fall, it's a great time to get out and see the 500,000+ lights making the city brighter.

For the full calendar of events, which includes Santa's mailbox, the Jingle Bus, Cocoa with the Clauses, and decorations at Grand Avenue Mall, go to the Milwaukee Downtown website.

The lights are featured at three different parks- Cathedral Square, Pere Marquette, and Zeidler Union Square. If you enjoy walking to see the displays, I recommend you sign up with Gothic Milwaukee for their holiday lights tour.  $10 per adult guarantees your spot. The tours run through the month of December and they often sell out. Book an available date on their website. The tour is just over one mile. There's a stop at Red Arrow Park for warm drinks and snacks, so bring some money to enjoy that. While you're at their website, check out the SHOP button where you can purchase a set of self guided walking tour maps which would make a great gift for an outdoor lover in your life.

For a unique opportunity to see the lights without people and traffic, get up very early this Sunday morning and do the circle tour with Brew City Safari.  The hike is 4-5 miles and cost is $5 per person.  It starts at 4:30 AM. If you've never been on one of these hikes, you'll find it interesting and get a lot of exercise.  You do need to sign up at the website and can see more details there.

Historic Milwaukee Inc. has two walking tours celebrating the holidays.  The winter tour of the Third Ward is December 3. The German Christmas Tour (which includes food) is December 17. Both tours are available on the website so you can sign up. This is a great organization that promotes the heritage of Milwaukee's past. I have been on several tours and learned a great deal as I walked with a local guide.

If you prefer to eat and sing your way through Milwaukee, sign up for the holiday bus tour featuring the holiday lights and desserts at Milwaukee Food & City Tours. Get out your favorite holiday sweater for the 2.5 hour ride.

For more outdoor fun, check the weekly schedule of what's happening at the Milwaukee County Parks page. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Rustic Roads and Hikes through the Kettle Moraine

Wisconsin has a network of scenic roadways called Rustic Roads.  You can read more about them at the Department of Transportation website, but here's an excerpt which describes the program briefly.

The Rustic Roads system in Wisconsin was created by the 1973 State Legislature in an effort to preserve what remains of Wisconsin’s scenic, lightly traveled country roads for the leisurely enjoyment of bikers, hikers and motorists.
To qualify for the Rustic Roads program, a roadway must have outstanding natural features along its borders. These might include rugged terrain, native vegetation and wildlife, or open areas with agricultural vistas that make the road unique. The road should be a lightly traveled, local access road. It should not be scheduled for major improvements which would change its rustic characteristics. A Rustic Road may be a dirt, gravel or paved road. It should be at least two miles long with a maximum speed limit of 45 mph.

These are most beautiful in spring and fall. Even though 'peak color' is past, you can still enjoy a drive and do some hiking where there are rustic roads.  There is still plenty of color, though it won't last long. We don't have any rustic roads in Milwaukee county, but there are some in the surrounding counties.  Today I took a drive on the rustic roads surrounding Holy Hill, shown above, in Washington County.  I didn't make it to the Basilica while the tower was still open. It closed November 1 and will reopen in spring. I wish it had been extended just a few more days, as often there can be beautiful views even past peak. This morning the fields were still full of fog, making for some interesting photos. You never know what you'll find on these rural roads, but since you are driving slower, you may notice some beautiful or odd things.  There are other winding, hilly roadways in the area too, with views of the treetops. Get lost and see what you'll find.

At the Fox & Hounds. They serve lunch on weekends and dinner during the week.

Loved this gorgeous dragon gate
When you're ready for some hiking, check out a nearby beautiful county park, Glacier Hills.  This is accessible from Highway 167/Holy Hill Road. You can download a trail map at the website link. They have trails from 1/2 mile to 2 1/2 miles. Friess Lake is at the edge of the park, and was formed by a glacier. You'll find plenty of other landmarks that show where the glacier came through. It's a diverse park complete with modern conveniences like heated flush toilets and a playground.  Bring your own lunch and have a picnic at one of the many tables provided.
During the winter you can sled down a lit hill. During summer there is fishing and swimming. With some easy to access wooded trails, you can get the leaves crunching under your feet, and I can guarantee you will see wildlife.  Today I saw hawks, woodpeckers, and a deer.
Free to visit

Friess Lake for swimming and fishing
Many trails are easy to find, even under leaf cover

A pine forest

Wetlands are a good place for birdwatching
When you're heading back to Milwaukee, take a detour on Scenic Road in Richfield. With a name like that, you won't be disappointed. You can catch it at Highway 175 just beyond the Kettle Hills Golf Course.  Here's just one place I found right at the corner of that intersection.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Lapham Peak Fall Hike

Have you ever had one of those days when you're exhausted before the kids are?  We were having one of those days Tuesday, so I packed up the car and we drove to Lapham Peak.  This is a state forest which requires an annual state park sticker or a day pass ($8). It's open from 6 am-9 pm and is quite a popular destination for both hikers and joggers, who live locally.

Though all predictions said we were already at peak a week ago, I found there is still a lot of color. In fact, I checked my best Fall photos from previous years, and most were taken the first week of November. The forecast is for a gorgeous weekend, so hopefully there will still be a few leaves left for you to see.  If not, the trails are still great with a layer of leaves to crunch beneath your feet.

Lapham Peak has a 45 foot tower, allowing you to see the color above the Kettle Moraine. You have to drive through the entire park and follow the signs to find it. The steps are kind of open, so if you have a little one like I do, I'd watch them closely. There are also slots in the railings which could be dangerous without supervision.

A portion of the ice age trail goes through this area.  It was 73 degrees and sunny when we were there so my granddaughter just took off her shoes and laid down in the leaves, thinking this might be a good place for a nap. Many of the trails are loops and can be identified by colored posts, so it would be easy to find your way, even without a map, but get a brochure at the pay station if you've never been here before.  We found benches along the trails, but you have to bring your own drinks.  This is a great picnic spot.