You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
You probably assumed this because I’m a guy who reviews parks, for fun, in his spare time, but I’ll go ahead and confirm it: I was a Boy Scout at one point. I did the whole thing, all the way from first grade through the end of high school, even managed to get my Eagle badge. Some of my earliest memories of living in Wisconsin are Cub Scout outings, and the king of all those were weekends camping.
One of the distinct advantages of joining the Boy Scouts over other youth organizations is the variety of available camping options. You’ll find scouts camping in every kind of park, all over the country, but they also run their own campgrounds. These allow a concentrated and tailored environment for scouts to try as many activities as possible in a short period of time. Everything from basket weaving, to power boating, to rock climbing, all fit within a couple hundred acres of land. Picture the kid from Pixar’s ‘Up,’ with his sash crammed edge to edge with dozens of merit badges. It just isn’t practical or efficient to try and learn all those things within the restrictions of a state or county park. So, over a hundred years, the Boy Scouts of America built and staffed hundreds of private camps.
Unfortunately, not everyone can look back as fondly on their time in the scouts as I can. In 2021, the Boy Scouts of America settled a class-action lawsuit, because… well, you know. In many ways, they’re not a super wealthy organization, so to be able to pay, they sold parcels of their one major asset: land. All over the country, less-used scout camps were wrapped up and sold off. I’d like to do a story sometime on the broader consequences of this, but today we’re going to talk about Camp Indian Trails.
In 1946, the Boy Scouts of America bought just under 200 acres on the rock river, just northwest of the city of Janesville. This was said to be a place where Black Hawk and his Sauk followers stayed, while on the run from the U.S. army, so the Scouts dubbed it “Camp Indian Trails.” The natural sloping hills and ravines, thick cover of hardwoods, and wide, gentle river made it an ideal place to build a camp. The scouts cleared trails and campsites, built shooting ranges and an amphitheater, and that was just the beginning.
The natural topography of the riverside split the camp in half. The main parking lot, dining hall, and amphitheater occupied high ground on the north side, while the shooting ranges and most of the campgrounds were in the south. Trails wound their way through the 40 foot deep ravine between the two, but why settle for that? One of my favorite features, unique to this scout camp, was the steel footbridge that spanned the ravine.
By the 21st century, Camp Indian Trails had lost some of its luster. Boy Scouts are willing to travel quite a ways for a weeklong excursion, and there was a better, more full-featured camp, just an hour up the interstate, on lake Castle Rock. Still, Indian Trails had its place, and the local community was far from giving up on it. Over the past decade, the property was transformed dramatically. Some of the buildings got new steel roofs, and in 2018, they completed an entirely new shower building for the campground. Around the same time, they completely reimagined the ravine. The camp’s in-ground swimming pool was at the end of its life, and rather than fix it, they filled it in. To replace it, they clear cut part of the ravine, and built an earthen dam above the footbridge. Rainwater filled this new basin, and made a roughly 5 acre lake. Besides swimming, it could also support fishing, paddling, and even skating, in the winter. Camp Indian Trails had a new life, but it was cut short by factors beyond its control.
Back to the 2021 national BSA settlement. Each local council was required to pay an amount somehow proportional to their assets, and to the number of incidents within their jurisdiction. Our local council could have sold either one of their two camps to pay their share, but in the end, Camp Indian Trails was judged as less essential to their programs. Indian Trails was sold off, and it ended up in the hands of Rock County. So, just what did Rock County end up with?
First of all, they renamed their new property to “Rock River Heritage Park,” so that’s what I’m going to refer to it as for the rest of the segment. It’s unlike anything else in the Rock County system, just for the sheer amount of infrastructure in place. It has maybe half a dozen buildings, all renovated, many with heat, electricity, or running water. The biggest of these is the dining hall, which has the space and kitchen to feed hundreds of hungry Scouts at once. They also have the outdoor amphitheater, which is simple, and in kind of rough shape, but seats a similar amount of people. There’s also a smaller chapel, which is basically another amphitheater, but prettier, it overlooks the new manmade pond. Rock River Heritage Park has great potential to be an event space for the county, the only thing holding it back is a relatively small parking lot. This was, after all, a place where hundreds of people were meant to be dropped off by their parents, who would then leave, and their cars wouldn’t take up space.
On the weaker side, I’m not sure how much Rock River Heritage Park can offer in terms of recreation. At least for now, there are only a few trails, and they’re kind of basic. I’m sure they’ll be fine for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing over this winter, but expanding hiking opportunities might need to be a priority for the county in the future.
In the same vein, water access is surprisingly not great. The man made pond will, at least, remain as a swimming hole, but the riverside, where you would more likely take a canoe, was never set up for direct car access. This worked when it was a Scout camp, as canoes were stored down by the river at all times. But now, if you want to put in at this park, you have to drag your boat hundreds of feet from the parking lot down a big hill, across the old athletic field, and there’s not even a pier or beach really when you get down there. There are already boat launches within a couple miles both upstream and downstream, so I imagine paddlers will skip this one.
All that is relatively easy to fix. The county is already working on plans to build more interesting trails, and maybe someday expand the waterfront. But what’s harder to expand is the parks’ staff. That’s what might prevent Rock River Heritage Park from reaching its full potential.
When I talked with Parks director John Traynor, he told me there are no plans to continue using the campsites, Rock County can’t justify the extra staff. I get that, but then what was the point of buying a campground? The showers here are nicer and newer than the facilities at most state parks! I’m just saying that Dodge County, whose whole population is not much bigger than Janesville, manages to fund the campsite at Ledge Park just fine. It would be a shame to leave this part of the park to rot, but I don’t know what the solution should be.
At the moment, Rock River Heritage Park has soft-opened. The new sign at the entrance isn’t even fully painted, but members of the public are free to wander, and imagine what the park could one day be.
While you explore, there are already a couple structured ways to engage with the park. First, there’s a contest, entitled “Pics in the New Park.” Or, I guess it’s not a contest, you don’t actually win anything. But if you take a picture at Rock River Heritage Park that you’d like to share, you can submit it to the parks email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or facebook messenger, for a chance to see it used in future promotions.
An actual giveaway that’s happening at the same time is the storywalk. The book “Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn,” by Kenard Pak, has been pulled apart, and each page is on a sign, scattered sequentially throughout the park. Anyone who submits a picture with the storywalk is entered to win a copy of the book, and a gift basket. I’ll include submission links in the online version of this article.
A couple more events: On January 21st, the city of Janesville will host a candlelight hike through the park. And the actual grand opening of the park is planned for this spring, with a date yet to be announced. Keep an eye out for that on the Rock County Parks website and facebook, as time goes on. Rock River Heritage Park is a new park with a long history, but potential to be something just as great going forward. I’ll keep an eye on this place, as something tells me it’s going to deserve an update in the near future. In the meantime, 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.