Wisconsin’s High Cliff State Park — Hiking the Niagara Escarpment with views of Lake Winnebago

Imagine this. It’s a Tuesday night in summer. You’re thinking about the upcoming weekend and how you would love to get out and hike. You decide to start planning your weekend trip. What makes you decide which park you want to visit? What features of the park do you hope to hike in, up, or around? In my experience, those features are often water, hills, and history.

If you’re lucky, the park you select might have all three. High Cliff State Park happens to be one of those parks.

Last summer we took a trip to hike and camp at the park. Located on the northern shore of Wisconsin’s largest lake, Lake Winnebago, the park is a short 20 minute drive from Appleton. This makes it a popular destination in the summer for locals and non-locals alike. During the trip we had the chance to both hike and camp at the park.

The park is named for the high limestone cliffs created by the Niagara Escarpment. I’ve written about other parks dominated by this landscaping feature in my Peninsula State Park and Ledges County Park posts. The entire escarpment runs for 650 miles through Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario. The feature begins (or ends) in Wisconsin’s Waukesha County. It then travels northeast through Lake Michigan and Lake Huron before turning southeast. It eventually becomes the most famous feature of the escarpment and one of the most famous waterfalls in the world, Niagara Falls. In all, Wisconsin has 230 miles of the escarpment. With the dramatic cliffs and scenic views it’s no wonder that a variety of parks line the escarpment. High Cliff State Park is one of those.

Let’s do some hiking!

Starting from the family campground, we hiked the Indian Mound Trail, to the Red Bird Trail, to the Lime Kiln Trail. This route brought us along the top of the cliff, then down to the lake shore, and then back up the cliff.

Links to follow along:
Park website
Park map
Trail descriptions

Indian Mound Trail

Length: .6 mile loop
Difficulty: Easy
Description: This gentle trail circles the park’s effigy mounds.

We started from the north side of the family campground. The trailhead is well marked and easy to find.

After a minute of walking, we noticed the trees staring back at us.

It was a barred owl! These guys roost in the trees during the day while they rest for a night of hunting small mammals.

The trail circles a group of effigy mounds. Of the original 30 mounds found in the park, today High Cliff has 9 mounds left. This group of mounds was likely built by nomadic woodland tribes between 1000 C.E. and 1500 C.E. One of the panther shaped mounds is 285 feet long! Learn more here if you’re interested. Effigy mounds are a fascinating and mysterious glance into the lives and culture of the original people of this land.

Red Bird Trail

Length: 3.4 mile linear
Difficulty: Easy
Description: This trail travels from the family campground along the top of the Niagara Escarpment to the statue of Chief Red Bird.

Walking along the top of the escarpment, this trail allows for wonderful views of Lake Winnebago.

The trail eventually opens up to one of the park’s picnic areas. In this area is a statue honoring Chief Red Bird, chief of the Winnebago Tribe. Not knowing anything about this historical figure, I attempted to research a little more. While a lot of the information I found seems to be tainted with a problematic lens, the gist I got was that he was a leader in the Winnebago War against the United States. I’ll leave it at that, but it’s a pretty cool statue to check out.

Near the statue is a 40-foot tall wood observation tower. The views from the top are quite spectacular.

From the end of the Red Bird Trail, we took the access trail down the hill to the parking lot near the Lime Kiln trailhead.

Lime Kiln Trail

Length: 1.7 mile loop
Difficulty: Easy to moderate, depending on the loop you select.
Description: This trail begins by the ruins of the lime kiln before traveling along the lake shore and either back or up to the top of the escarpment.

Named for the ruins of the lime kiln, this trail showcases the history of the lime industry in the area.

This kiln operated in the area from 1855 to 1956.

The lime processed here was used in the creation of a variety of products including plaster and cement.

If you’re interested, check out this information put out by the Wisconsin DNR on the lime industry at High Cliff.

Being near the lake, this trail is full of the sights, smells, and sounds of the water.

After passing through the last section of the ruins, the trail enters the forest and becomes more focused on the natural beauty of the area.

About 1/3 of the way into the trail, you have the option to continue straight or turn to complete the smaller loop. The smaller loop is .9 miles long and the larger loop is 1.7 miles long. As we were planning to end in the campground, we continued on the longer loop.

Once the trail turns away from the lake and begins to loop back, it starts climbing up the escarpment in a combination of hill and steps. Portions of the trail can get quite steep.

As you climb, the limestone cliffs become more pronounced.

It’s a fun area to explore, both from above and below the rocks. If you do go off trail, make sure to be extra careful as the rocks can become slippery.

The final push of the trail is a stairway leading up to the Red Bird Trail and back to the campground.

Reflecting back this hike was very rewarding. It offers great views of the lake and the cliffs, introduces a variety of local history, and makes for a decent workout. With a variety of trail lengths and bailout points, it can be as difficult or easy as you want. This is one of those parks that I would love to return to again and again.

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