Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rib Mountain State Park: Tower/Homestead/Quarry Loop (Blog Hike #387)

Trails: Blue, Red, Quarry, Homestead, and Turkey Vulture Trails
Hike Location: Rib Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: south side of WausauWI
Length: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2012
Overview: A rocky hike with great views and history.

Directions to the trailhead: On the south side of Wausau, take US 51/SR 29 to Rib Mountain Park Drive (exit 188).  Exit and head west on Rib Mountain Park Drive.  Enter the park, pay the large entrance fee, and drive up the mountain.  Stop to take in the view from the North Observation Deck, and then park in the Concession Area parking lot where this hike begins.

The hike: Located in the heart of Wisconsin, 1528 acre Rib Mountain State Park derives its name from the long curved shape of its namesake mountain, the fourth highest point in Wisconsin.  The quartzite sandstone that forms the mountain is some of the hardest and oldest rock on earth.  Geologically speaking, the mountain is a monadnock, or a hill of free-standing rock.  There are several other monadnocks in the area, but at 4 miles long by 1 mile wide Rib Mountain is the largest. 
            The state park is most famous for its downhill ski area called Granite Peak (an inappropriate name because you will find no granite on this mountain).  An elaborate lift operation takes skiers up the mountain in the winter, and many of the park’s hiking trails double as cross-country ski trails that time of year.  In the summer, the 13 miles of trails make for excellent hiking with minimal traffic.  The 4.7 mile route described here explores the more scenic western section of the trail system and includes visits to an observation tower, an old homestead site, and an old quarry.
View from South Observation Deck
            From the Concession Area parking lot, cross the main park road and pick up the Blue Trail to head for the South Observation deck.  This platform gives an unobstructed view of two smaller monadnocks to the south: Mosinee Hill and Hardwood Hill.  Next, pass Queen’s Chair, an unusually shaped quartzite formation, and head for the van Douser Observation Tower.  90 steps lead to the top of the tower, and taking the time to climb the tower will get you above the treetops and reward you with 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.  The views are exceptional because Rib Mountain is the highest point for miles around.
View west from Observation Tower
            After descending the tower, angle left stay on the Blue Trail as it heads back for the park road.  At a major trail intersection near the park road, angle left to begin the Red Trail as it heads northwest along the north side of the summit area.  The Red Trail descends gradually over very rocky terrain.  Be sure to wear shoes with good ankle support on this hike, or else your legs will be complaining before the end.  Some views down the ski runs open up on the right.
            At 0.7 miles, a spur trail leads uphill to the left.  Continue straight to remain on the Red Trail.  0.9 miles into the hike, you reach the intersection with the Quarry Trail, which exits to the right.  Continuing straight on the Red Trail would lead you back to the Concession Area in another 0.6 miles.  We will go that way eventually, but to explore the old quarry and homestead, turn right to begin the Quarry Trail.  The Quarry Trail is marked with white metal signs bearing the letter “Q.”
The rocky Quarry Trail
            The first segment of the Quarry Trail descends gradually through large areas of loose rock called talus, and a sign indicates that you are entering the Rib Mountain Talus Forest State Natural Area.  Some wide wooden boardwalks carry you over seasonally wet areas.  At 1.2 miles, the south arm of the Quarry Trail loop exits to the left, but you may not notice it because the intersection is not signed.
            1.4 miles into the hike, you reach the intersection with the Homestead Loop, which is marked with yellow metal signs bearing the letter “H.”  Continue straight to begin the Homestead Loop.  The rate of descent increases somewhat as the trail joins what appears to be an old road.  At 1.6 miles, the other arm of the Homestead Loop Trail exits at a sharp angle to the left.  Stay right to remain on the main Homestead Trail.
            Just past this intersection, you reach the site of the old homestead.  Occupied by Ludwig and Katherine Knapp from 1891-1901, only the foundation remains of the homestead.  A few trees have grown inside the old foundation, and an interpretive sign tells you about the Knapps and the life they lived.  A nearby bench allows you to take a few minutes and think about what life would have been like on Rib Mountain in their day.
Foundation of former Knapp homestead
            Past the homestead, the trail continues descending but at a slower rate.  At 1.8 miles, the Homestead Trail leaves the old road where a chain across the road prevents vehicle access.  Just past this point, the Homestead Trail turns right where the Dynamite Trail continues straight.  The Dynamite Trail leads to the old dynamite storage shed for the quarry.  You could use the Dynamite Trail to shortcut this hike, but for the full tour, turn right to continue the Homestead Trail.
            2 miles into the hike, the Homestead Trail ends at an intersection with the Turkey Vulture Trail, which is marked with orange metal signs bearing the letter “T.”  To head for the quarry, turn left on the Turkey Vulture Trail.  This trail derives its names from the large black turkey vultures that roost in the quarry walls in the summer.  I believe this wide gravel trail follows the old quarry access road, but I could not find any signs to confirm my guess.
            At 2.7 miles, the gradual to moderate climb on the wide gravel trail brings you to the entrance for the old quarry.  Turn left to explore the quarry floor.  Operated by the 3M company, the hard quartzite rock was perfect for construction materials such as roofing.  The craggy walls that remain form a horseshoe-shaped pit that you now stand at the opening of.  The quarry floor is hot and sunny, so plan your time here accordingly.
Exploring the quarry floor
            Short of rock climbing, there is only one way out of the quarry: the way you came in.  Exit the quarry and turn left to continue climbing on the Turkey Vulture Trail.  The trail curves left, and some partially obstructed views off the side of Rib Mountain materialize through the trees on your right.  Some spur trails exiting left lead to fantastic overlooks along the quarry rim.  If you visit these overlooks, stay away from the cliff edges: there are no railings, and the rock is highly fractured.  In fact, rock climbing with equipment has been banned here due to the crumbling rock.
View from quarry rim
            At 3.2 miles, you reach the final quarry overlook and an intersection with the south arm of the Quarry Trail.  Turn right to leave the Turkey Vulture Trail and rejoin the Quarry Trail.  This trail may be the rockiest in the park, so step carefully.  Stone steps get you over the worst of the rocky areas.  At 3.5 miles, you close the loop portion of the Quarry Trail.  Turn right and retrace your steps to the Quarry Trail’s beginning/end at the Red Trail.  Turn right again to continue the Red Trail.
            The Red Trail climbs slightly to reach an intersection with the Blue Trail, which heads left.  If you are getting tired, then turn left here and follow the Blue Trail back to the Concession Area.  For a little more adventure, continue straight on the Red Trail as it descends steeply to reach an overlook perched at the top of a boulder field.  A fine view of farms and woods to the south can be had from here.
Boulder field on the Red Trail
            Past the overlook, the trail descends on stone steps through a boulder field to reach the lowest point on the Red Trail.  From here, a steep climb on more stone steps leads to an intersection with the difficult Yellow Trail, which explores the eastern end of the park.  The two trails share the same treadway for a few steep yards before the Red Trail exits to the left.
            With the hardest climbing now over, the Red Trail traces the perimeter of another rocky peninsula, but this one offers no views.  After a final rocky gradual to moderate climb, the trail comes out on the park road across from the Concession Area.  Cross the park road and grab a snack at the concession stand to celebrate your hike.

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