Located in Jackson County, WI, Black River State Forest encompasses more than 67,000 acres. The forest has a typical array of activities to choose from, including ATV trails, biking, hiking, and camping. ATVing seems to be a very popular activity in the area, both inside and outside the forest. Like most state forests, the forest is split into several areas and requires driving between portions of the forest. As I experienced, this can be very confusing when trying to find campsites and trail heads. The Wisconsin DNR website has very detailed and helpful directions the take you right to the entrances. If you worry your phone will lose reception in the area, I recommend writing the directions down ahead of time.
Hiking: The forest has several trails to choose from, varying in length and difficulty. In total, the forest offers 24 miles of trails. We planned to hike 3 of them, totaling 6 miles. We ended up hiking about 5 miles after turning back on the Wildcat Trail after a few miles.
Norway Pine Trail
Length: 1.5 miles
Positives: Well kept, wide enough for two people to comfortably walk side by side
Negatives: No scenic views
Leaving from the Wildcat Parking Lot in the eastern portion of the forest, the Norway Pine Trail is a 1.5 mile trail that can be used as a hike on it’s own, or as a connecting trail to some of the longer trails. The trail was very hilly in parts and was a lot of climbing up a hill, immediately climbing down that hill, climbing up another hill, climbing down, and on and on. The trail itself was mostly well kept, with longer grass in only a few of the areas (wood tick concern!) The scenery is not very diverse as it is mostly tree covered forest, but that did mean there was an abundance of plants and wildlife on the trail to see. The trail also went through large patches of ferns, which was a huge plus for me, as I think ferns are awesome.
Length: 3.5 miles
Positives: A few scenic views
Negatives: Overgrown trail
Connecting from the Norway Pine Trail, the Wildcat trail is one of the longer trails at the forest, 3.5 miles long. Initially, I was very excited to hike this trail. I heard it offered beautiful views of the valley below the ridges. After hiking, I was fairly disappointed by this trail. The trail itself was fairly unkempt in many areas with long grass. While I somehow managed to avoid ticks, other members of the hiking group were not so lucky. One member found 5 ticks at once while on this trail, all under the top of his sock. Constant tick checks were a necessity on this trail after walking through a grassy patch.
The outlooks I was excited about on the trail were also a disappointment. While you did get glimpses of the valley, the area was now overgrown with large trees and brush. (The picture above is one of the only worthwhile views on the trail.) While I love plants as much as the next girl, it seems like the trail designers intended to keep it cleared for the overlooks. There were several spots where it looked like a bench had once been facing an overlook, but was now facing a tree. After the few glimpses of the valley, the trail turns back into the woods away from the ridge. Hiking further into the forest, the trail became less interesting, and we took one of the small connecting trails back to the trail head.
Castle Mound Trail
Length: 1 mile
Difficulty: Moderate, Difficult if you choose to climb to the overlook
Positives: Gorgeous views
Negatives: Unclear path, busy trail
The Castle Mound Trail begins from the Castle Mound Campsites, on the western portion of the forest. This trail was shorter, about a mile, and featured a high sandstone formation with a wooden platform overlook that showcased the surrounding landscape. The trail itself was very well kept for most of the hike. When you got to the portion climbing up towards the overlook, however, it was very easy to lose the trail. One of the park rangers said that many people create their own paths up and climb on the rocks, which makes it difficult to know what is actually a trail and what is a dead end. This was the most difficult part of the trail as it was the steepest. This part of the trail is optional and is well marked where it begins. The lookout was well worth the climb, however, as the views were breathtaking.
The remainder of the trail looped back around the overlook to the trail head. It was a fairly easy trail, with few hills, but with a lot of scenery. A variety of trees and rocks made this trail extremely present. There were even more ferns!