Hike Location: Buckhorn State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Necedah, WI (43.92785, -90.01368)
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A fairly flat loop through a sandy-dirt oak savannah.
Park Information: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/buckhorn/
Hike Route Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=695407
Directions to the trailhead: From Necedah, take SR 21 east 1 mile to CR G and turn right on CR G. Drive CR G 8.6 miles through several 90-degree turns to the state park entrance on the left. Turn left, pay the large entrance fee, then follow the park road 1.7 miles to its end at 36th Street. Turn right on 36th St. and drive 0.5 miles to the south parking lot access road on the left. Park in the south parking lot.
The hike: Occupying a large peninsula in the Wisconsin River’s Castle Rock Lake, Buckhorn State Park and its adjacent wildlife areas consist of more than 8000 acres of former timberland and farmland. Unlike many other lakes in the area, Castle Rock Lake is man-made. The lake was created in 1947 by the construction of Castle Rock Dam, a hydroelectric dam located a few miles south of the park. Though it covers more than 16,000 acres, Castle Rock Lake is fairly shallow: its maximum depth is 30 feet. The park was established in 1974 when Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources purchased the land with the goal of letting it revert to “unbroken wilderness.”
Aquatic activities take center stage at Buckhorn State Park, as the park offers a swimming beach, fishing, 5 boat ramps, canoe/kayak rentals, and a canoe trail all on Castle Rock Lake. The park also offers some picnic areas, a 58-site developed campground, and 50 cart-in campsites. For hikers, 7 miles of trails wind through the park, but the park is most famous for its oak savannah, which is sometimes called its oak/pine barrens. The route described here takes you through the savannah but also explores the shores of Castle Rock Lake, thus letting you sample everything the park has to offer.
|Trailhead at south parking lot|
Start at the northeast corner of the parking area where the two-track dirt/gravel trail heads into the woods. A brown sign for campsites 4-7 and 13-15 stands here, and a fleet of wheelbarrow-like carts awaiting use by cart-in campers sits near this trailhead. Though no signs on the ground indicate such, the park map calls this trail the Central Sands Nature Trail. An interpretive sign tells about Glacial Lake Wisconsin, which deposited the oak/pine barrens’ sandy soil here near the end of the most recent ice age.
|Wooden bridge over marsh|
After crossing a wide wooden bridge over a wooded marsh, the Central Sands Nature Trail forks to form its loop. For no particular reason, I chose to turn right here and hike the loop counterclockwise. The trail heads south with the wetland on your right. Bugs will be bad here during the warmer months due to the wetland, but they will relent when you get into the drier barrens later in this hike.
|Castle Rock Lake|
At 0.35 miles, you get your first view of Castle Rock Lake just before you reach a trail intersection. The Central Sands Nature Trail turns left here to form its short loop, but this hike continues straight to begin the Turkey Hollow Trail. In short order you pass cart-in campsites 13, 14, and 15, all of which offer nice lakeside locations.
0.6 miles into the hike, the spur trail to campsites 4-7 exits right. Angle left to continue the Turkey Hollow Trail, and in a few hundred feet you transition from the lakeside forest to the oak/pine savannah. The character of the hike now completely changes from a wooded, marshy, lakeside ramble to a sunny, sandy, savannah trek. Oak trees dot the landscape, and some sun protection might be in order if you burn easily. Also, hunting is allowed in this part of the park, so wear bright orange in season to avoid accidents.
|Entering the oak savannah|
Near 1 mile, turn right at the signed trail leading to the Partridge Trail. Note that continuing straight on the Turkey Hollow Trail here would shorten the hike by about 1 mile. After a brief eastward stint, you intersect a central access road where you need to turn right. Cut logs were piled up here on my visit, likely an effort to keep the oak savannah a savannah by removing unwanted vegetation.
At 1.3 miles, continue straight where the spur trail leading to campsites 17-19 exits right. Shortly thereafter, take a sharp left to begin the Partridge Trail; the route going straight is signed as one of many non-trail service roads. The wide grass/dirt trail heads northeast through more grassy and brushy oak savannah.
|Hiking the Partridge Trail|
At 1.8 miles, signs direct you to turn left where another service road continues straight. After crossing the central access road again, you need to turn right at 2.3 miles to head back to the Central Sands Nature Trail. Some pine trees join the forest mix here. Upon reaching the Central Sands Nature Trail, turn right again to begin the final segment of our loop.
|Back in the forest|
Bugs make their return as you leave the savannah and re-enter the forest. Wetlands appear beside the trail, and the park road lies through the trees on your right. Just shy of 3 miles, you close the loop. Angle right to recross the bridge, return to the parking lot, and complete the hike. If you want to spend more time in or learn more about the oak savannah, the short 1.5 mile Oak Barrens Nature Trail you pass on the main park road out provides a good opportunity to do so.