You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
Rock County is boring. Wait, hold on. I’m not wrong, but what I mean in this case is that its interesting topography is spread out unevenly. Wisconsin’s southern gateway is a flat, rectangular slab of land, with minimal lakes or hills. The main thing it has going for it is the Rock, Wisconsin’s second longest river, bisecting it right down the middle, north-south. But beyond the river valley, there are a few unexpected gems. My absolute favorite of these is Magnolia Bluff Park.
Magnolia Bluff is a county park on Rock County’s edge, a few miles southwest of Evansville. Most of the park is dominated by its namesake, a sandstone bluff with a harder limestone cap. This limestone, and the surrounding hardwood forest, anchor the sandstone, slowing its erosion to a minimum. This results in sharp drop-offs, exposing brilliant orange sand between bushes and wild grass.
But little of this is visible from a distance. From the road, Magnolia Bluff looks like any other forested southern Wisconsin hill. Even driving in, the first thing that might impress you is the scale of the parking lot, rather than the bluff, rising above. For what it’s worth, the infrastructure here is pretty nice for a county park. Magnolia bluff’s lower lot is spacious, providing room for maybe thirty cars. The driveway then slopes gently up the hill, winding up to the top, where a second lot has room for a dozen more.
One might think that so much pavement is wasted on the few thousand residents of nearby Evansville and Broadhead. I can think of a few parks which are much more popular, and only have half this space for automobiles, but all this asphalt has a couple key benefits. First, Magnolia Bluff is one of the most handicap-accessible parks of its size. You can see most of what the park has to offer from a wheelchair, which is a pretty rare distinction.
Secondly it’s nice to have extra spots for a busy day when people have to park their trailers. Like many rural parks, Magnolia Bluff offers trails for horses, and it’s one of the more unique equestrian tracks in the area. Most local horse trails feature prairies, but these are almost entirely through woods. I’ve never ridden, but I imagine it’s an entirely different vibe when you compare riding grassy trails to being shaded under an oak and maple canopy. Your mental self-image goes from old west cowpoke, to Robin Hood, and his merry band.
Of course, you’re only afforded the luxury of such daydreams if you’re on horseback, and presumably going fast enough to avoid the local mosquitoes. On foot, in the summer, these trails are not remarkable enough to warrant spraying up for a hike. Picnics are the purview of pedestrians at Magnolia Bluff; the park provides one of the prettiest backgrounds around for such an event.
At the end of the bluff-top parking lot, a gravel path leads past dozens of towering black oaks. Underneath this leafy ceiling, a mowed mat of grass underpins a scattering of picnic tables, and park issue charcoal grills, each sitting at the ready on a single iron post. This shady plateau continues for some hundred yards, narrowing to a point at the far end. It’s at this point that the south and west edges of the bluff break away, revealing the orangey-yellow sand beneath.
Though this ledge offers a commanding view of the farmland to the west, you’d be forgiven for not realizing you’re standing near the highest point in Rock County. Some point on top of the bluff, probably farther back, by the horse trails, rises a hundred and seventy eight feet above the surrounding plains. For those of you more familiar with Madison, the hill at Elver Park, nowhere near the highest point in Dane County, is four and a half feet taller. The Wisconsin State Capitol building, though man made, is still over a hundred feet taller than that.
If you want to feel on top of the world, and sheer elevation is all that matters to you, Magnolia Bluff won’t do much to impress. No matter how you measure, it won’t even crack the top forty highest points in the state. But unless you’re a cartographer, hills are measured by emotional impact as much as their actual difference from the surrounding land.
This is where Magnolia Bluff succeeds. Honey colored sand pops against kinds of foliage you won’t find for miles around. You’re high up enough to see into the next county, but you could look down three feet, and that’s interesting, too. In an area of the state that’s fairly homogenous, Magnolia Bluff is a breath of fresh, just slightly elevated air.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys.