You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
As a semi-professional reviewer of the outdoors, I have mixed feelings about Middleton, Wisconsin. The good neighbor city bumps right up against the western edge of Madison, but it’s not always a seamless transition between the two. For instance, as things stand in 2022, Middleton isn’t a great destination when taking a bike trip from the capitol city. Their network of bike lanes is incomplete, leaving some roads downright dangerous to navigate on two wheels.
I take a more positive view of their trolleys. Middleton is, of course, serviced by the Madison Metro bus network, but the city operates their own trolleys as a way to boost tourism. There are no rails, rather these are small buses, outfitted to look like streetcars of old. On select hours, they run a loop between the Middleton downtown, the Greenway Station shopping center, and every hotel in the city. The trolleys are aimed squarely at people from out of town, on business trips, trying to get them to spend money locally during their downtime. Much like with Middleton’s airport, I can’t help but question how necessary this is. Just how many visitors does American Girl pull in? But it’s whimsical, and free, and there’s nothing preventing the rest of us from taking the trolleys for a spin.
Or at least, there wasn’t. Apparently, the Middleton Tourism Commission has also been pondering how worthwhile the trolley is. At the end of this month, they’re ending regular service, and the trolley will be relegated to appear only on special occasions. With the end of this quirky take on transit, people who want to explore Middleton will be left once again with incomplete bike lanes, a lackluster use of their Mendota lakefront… but also some of the best city parks in the region.
I did say my opinion was mixed. Despite their other shortcomings, Middleton has curated some great parks. The crown jewel of these is Pheasant Branch, a conservatory of hundreds of acres, centered around a stream of the same name. Those of you who’ve spent any time on the west side are probably familiar, but Pheasant Branch is a complicated park, and a lot has changed with it even in the past few years. Today, I’d like to simplify the news, and get you all up to speed, before letting you know about some upcoming events at the park.
First, an overview. As its name suggests, Pheasant Branch isn’t a stream with one clearly identifiable path. Rather, it’s a web of branching channels, which collect water from the remnants of Middleton’s wetlands, and funnel it out to Lake Mendota. Though it’s all the same body of water, I’m going to split it in two for the sake of structure and clarity. Let’s start first with the west branches.
The west parts of pheasant branch flow sluggishly at first, finding gaps between the gray expanse of Middleton’s industrial zone. Any runoff from the Middleton Airport to Greenway Station is brought together in a small confluence pond. It then flows east in a single stream, under the beltline, where it begins to carve a canyon out of the residential part of the city. This western stream is probably the most surprising feature of Pheasant Branch. The forested terrain around Middleton’s schools and homes gives way to sandy slopes, secured by undergrowth. The canyon isn’t huge, but it’s deep enough that you can almost forget you’re in the heart of the city. A paved path winds down its center, intertwining with the stream, crossing it at half a dozen bridges over the rough mile this trail covers.
In the late summer of 2018, the west side was hit with massive rainfall. Flooding was widespread, and Lake Mendota couldn’t discharge excess water fast enough. The Yahara river surged beyond its banks, and flooded whole blocks on the isthmus. You probably know all this if you were in Madison in 2018, but you might not know that one of the places all that water came from was Pheasant Branch. So much of the ground on Middleton’s west side is paved, so not much water got absorbed before being dumped into the streams. The western branches swelled, and shot water through the canyon.
The damage was overwhelming. The canyon walls eroded at an alarming rate. Chunks of the path were swept away, as were some of the bridges. Six years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the city is still repairing the effects of that single rainstorm.
The pheasant branch trail and canyon more or less end at Century Avenue. The stream goes under the street, and you have to jog over to a crossing, maybe twenty yards down the sidewalk. On the other side of the street, you start down a gravel trail into the woods, and the conservancy really opens up.
The main section of the conservancy is a big chunk of land, it’s two miles long on one edge, and three quarters of a mile wide. Most of its terrain is a big, flat valley, with forests in the south giving way to wetland in the center, and prairie to the north and remaining perimeter. A gravel trail encircles the whole thing, except for a swampy bit of forest, traversable by boardwalk. I shouldn’t oversell its size, but this is one of very few city parks that actually seems big enough to be a decent refuge for wildlife. On any given trip around the loop, you might be lucky enough to see deer grazing, eagles nesting, or hear the distant call of sandhill cranes.
There are few trails into the inside of the perimeter loop. For the most part, Pheasant Branch Conservancy is content to let one of Dane County’s last unspoiled wetlands do its thing in peace. However, an exception had to be made for the groundwater springs, they’re too cool to appreciate from a distance. A short spur leads to a deck, overlooking a shallow pool of clear water. No matter how many times I see it, it’s always fascinating to watch cold water seemingly boil up from the sand at the bottom of the spring. This one is particularly good, as it’s not just a few small outlets. Dozens of springs all go at once, pouring water out to the world above. Nearby signs say that natives considered springs sacred, that they viewed them as portals to the underworld. It’s not hard to see why.
Another sacred site lies just to the north. Pheasant Branch Conservancy is more or less flat, with the notable exception of a large, conical hill, north of the main walking and biking loop. This section of the park transitions to prairie, and the only way to the top of the hill is a mowed path between tall grasses. The hill is crowned with large oak trees, and at the very top, a few native burial mounds. You can’t see them, as they’re obscured under grass and wildflowers, but I doubt you’re going to care. It’s immediately obvious why the first people picked this spot. Not only does it overlook the sacred springs, it feels like you can see the world from this vantage. From the lookout on the hill’s south side, you can see all over Middleton, across Lake Mendota, to a view of the isthmus and capitol skyline that few get to see.
Where the story of the western branches is that of recovery from the floods, the eastern branches’ recent developments have been much more positive. In 2019, Dane County purchased the former Acker Dairy Farm, doubling the size of their portion of the Conservancy. I didn’t mention this earlier, but Pheasant Branch isn’t just a city of Middleton Park. Middleton owns the whole west part with the canyon, and most of the east, too. But there’s a block on the very north of the east section, which is actually part of the Dane County Parks system. Functionally, this makes little difference, although if you walk your dog through this section, you technically need to buy a Dane County dog permit. It’s inexpensive, and is something you should have anyway if you like bringing your dog places, but it’s something to be aware of.
Anyway, Pheasant Branch added a new piece of property, and the County has already completed a lot of work on the site. All traces of the farm are gone, all the buildings and trees have been removed. Half of the land has been restored to native prairie and wetland, and the rest is on track to be completed over the next two years. To be clear, there’s still improvements to be made. The restored prairie has the same mowed grass trails as the older section of county park, but they aren’t pleasant to walk on, yet. The ground is still hard and uneven, compacted from years being run over by cows and tractors. Still it’s exciting to have a new part of the park, actively being worked on. I look forward to seeing how it develops over time.
Speaking of things to look forward to, Pheasant Branch is hosting a couple events in the coming weeks. The fourth Saturday of every month, Madison’s Friends of Urban Nature hosts an educational walk at Pheasant Branch. This month, the walk is halloween-themed. Though it starts at 1:30 in the afternoon, it focuses on spooky creatures of the night. Those interested don’t need to register, just show up this Saturday at 2600 Park Street, in Middleton. If you can’t make this one, there will be another nature hike along the creek on Saturday, November 26th. I’ll try to link more information online, at WORTFM.org.
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. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.