Most people go hiking to escape signs of civilization.
But unless you’re trekking off-trail deep in a remote wilderness area, it’s nearly impossible to get away from all signs of mankind.
And even in places where nature has reclaimed a landscape altered by humans, pieces of that past remain, from crumbling rock walls and abandoned cars to spring houses and quarry blast shelters.
Here are some trails where you can see ruins, historical artifacts and other traces of the past.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield
Sand Island was one of three islands in the Apostles to have permanent, year-round settlements before the archipelago became a national lakeshore in 1970. Some families still maintain summer cottages there through life leases they signed with the park service.
Those cottages on the south side of the island are not open to the public, but anyone can see other bits of the island’s past along the 2-mile hiking trail on its east side. Between the dock and campsites 1 and 2 are two abandoned cars: a 1930 Chevy Coupe and a Ford Model T. Island residents used the cars to haul goods across the island on a 1.5-mile dirt road in the mid 20th century.
Gertrude Wellisch, a teacher in St. Paul and Sand Island summer resident, brought the Coupe to the island in 1943. Wellisch was an island fixture. Her father was a founding member of the West Bay Club, which built a large lodge that is still standing on the island’s west side (the park service took possession of the building in 2017, and it’s currently closed to the public). For 18 summers, Wellisch lived in and cared for the island’s lighthouse, built in 1881, before she built a small cottage called Plenty Charm on the East Bay, at the southern end of the island’s trail. The NPS has used the cottage as a ranger station and for an Artists in Residence program, but it’s currently vacant and in need of repairs.
Along the island’s trails you can also see the overgrown remains of the Herring King, an old boat turned house; the concrete foundation of a schoolhouse; and farm equipment, building ruins and a well from an old farmstead.
The island is accessible via private boat (launch from Little Sand Bay, 13 miles north of Bayfield), or a water taxi from an NPS-authorized provider. . Leashed pets are allowed. Part of the Sand Island trail is accessible, including past the old cars, with a wooden boardwalk stretching from the dock to campsite 3 and group campsite C. There are also accessible vault toilets.
Another historical site worth visiting in the Apostles is the old fishing camp on Manitou Island. Swedish fishermen first built the camp in the 1890s, with other immigrants adding structures over the ensuing decades. A handful of structures remain. They’re not usually open, but you can walk around outside them.
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An exposed segment of the limestone Niagara Escarpment winds through this park, creating dramatic cliffs that are now explored by hikers but were once blasted by quarry workers. The towering remains of a limestone quarry and kiln, which operated from 1895 to 1956, stand along the 0.9-mile Lime-Kiln Trail at the base of the escarpment near Lake Winnebago. The company town’s 1855 general store still stands in the park as a museum to its past.
Traces of the park’s earliest human inhabitants can be found at the top of the escarpment along the 0.6-mile interpretive Indian Mound Trail, which highlights effigy mounds built by Native Americans 1,500 years ago.
The trail leading from a parking lot to the ruins is level but not paved. Leashed pets are allowed on the trails, but not in the museum. Visitors need a state parks admission sticker ($28/year, $8/day).
This park is named for the shot tower that was built along a bluff on the Wisconsin River for a lead shot-making operation in the 19th century. The shaft and the smelting house on top of the bluff are re-creations, but at the base of the bluff is a tunnel that was used to access the base of the shaft. The 90-foot tunnel and 120-foot shaft in the rock were built by a lead miner in 1831. You can still walk in the tunnel to the base of the shaft, where lead was dropped into a pool to cool it and create shot.
About 2 miles of trails wind through the area, including a steep, 0.2-mile climb from the main parking lot to the shot tower and another 0.2-mile steep trail down to the tunnel along the river. Leashed pets are allowed. Visitors need a state parks admission sticker. The park’s main gate is closed in the off season (the second weekend in October through mid-May), but you can still park at the entrance and hike in.
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Paradise Springs Nature Area, Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit, Eagle
An accessible, half-mile paved trail loops through this area that protects a natural spring. In 1927 millionaire Louis J. Petit bought the area to bottle and sell the spring water. He built a spring house, horse track, golf course, wading pool, and shuffleboard and tennis courts. The property changed hands over the ensuing decades, including to Petit’s grandson, August Pabst Jr. (of the Pabst brewing family), and Gorton Mertens, who build a luxury resort there.
The nearly century-old spring house still mostly stands and is a favorite spot for photographs. The four-sided roofless fieldstone structure (which used to have a copper dome roof) is backed by trees at the edge of a picturesque pond. Inside, the clear spring water bubbles up from underground at a constant temperature of 47 degrees.
Outside, the 3-acre pond is the product of a small dam on Paradise Creek. In 2015 the dam failed, and locals helped raise money to rebuild it in 2017. There’s still a small waterfall there, along with the foundation of the structure that housed a turbine used to power the home of one of the spring’s early owners.
A few other traces of the past remain: two stone pillars built by Petit near the beginning of the trail, a concrete slab (now a picnic area) from the shuffleboard and tennis courts, and a large wading pool Petit built for his grandchildren. Numbered posts correspond with a brochure detailing the history of the area.
Because this is a nature trail, pets are not permitted. Visitors need a state parks admission sticker.
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Kettle Moraine State Forest cabins, Eagle
Across County Highway N from Paradise Springs is a small log cabin, built by Prussian immigrant Henry Gotten in the 1850s. The restored cabin is made of hewed white oak logs held together by gray mortar. It’s usually closed to the public, except for special open houses, but you can walk up to and read a little about the history on a plaque outside. The Ice Age Trail also passes by to the west.
The southern unit has two other historical cabins built by Norwegian immigrants: the Emerson cabin, on Young Road west of County Highway H, and the Oleson cabin, on Duffin Road north of Highway 12 (near trail spurs to the Ice Age Trail and an old lime kiln).
This natural area west of Baraboo protects a large, L-shaped sandstone and quartzite cliff that was the site of a quarry. A couple blast shelters from the quarry remain along the base of the cliff. A half-mile trail parallels the ridge and provides access to them.
Find the trail on the west side of Highway 136 just north of Rock Springs. Park in the wayside on the Baraboo River (east) side of the highway just before it bends. There you’ll also find an artesian well that locals still use.
Just up the road is Van Hise Rock, a national historic landmark. Charles Van Hise used the rock monolith to prove his theories of structural and metamorphic geology.
Leashed pets are permitted.
If you’re at this park to visit Stephens Falls, a picturesque 20-foot waterfall that trickles over a moss-covered rock face, don’t miss the spring house nearby. Interpretive signs tell the story of the Stephens family who farmed the land for five generations and built the “old-fashioned refrigerator” in the 1850s to keep their milk and food cool. They also pumped water from the spring uphill to store in tanks near their home. The family used the spring house until the 1920s, and the DNR renovated it in 1988.
There are two other abandoned spring houses in the park, according to a pamphlet from the Friends of Governor Dodge. The Wilson Spring House is off the Lost Canyon Trail near the Cox Hollow Campground. Look for a sign that directs you off the trail to the house. There are also remnants of the Wilson family’s early 20th century farmstead (a barn foundation, a concrete watering trough and a sidewalk) under heavy brush.
The final spring house is a round one built by Emil Ast in the late 1800s. The Friends’ brochure provides these directions to find it:
“From the park office, continue straight ahead past Stephens Falls, passing Ridge Road on the right. At the bottom of the hill, the road slightly curves to the right. Watch for a cement patch in the blacktop surface of the road. A trail will lead to the left between some willows, passing a wetland area. Just before you reach a T intersection with the horse trail, look for the spring house in the woods to the right.”
Part of the trail to the overlook above Stephens Falls is paved and accessible. The Lost Creek Trail is not paved. Leashed pets are allowed on both trails. Park visitors need an admission sticker.
Harrington Beach State Park, Belgium
Some of the ruins at this park, on Lake Michigan about 35 miles north of Milwaukee, are underwater.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the park was the site of a limestone quarry. The quarry shut down in 1925 and was filled with water, and today you can hike around it on the accessible 0.75-mile Quarry Lake trail. Look for signs of the quarry’s wooden infrastructure underwater near a footbridge on the lake’s east side.
Remnants of the quarry’s company town, Stonehaven, also remain throughout the park, including stone foundations and a pot kiln.
Limestone from the quarry was shipped out from a 700-foot pier on Lake Michigan. Pieces of the pier remain along the shore between the north and south beaches.
Farther out in Lake Michigan are two shipwrecks. One is the Niagara, an 1845 wooden steamship that caught fire and sank offshore in 1856, killing 60 people. The ship’s anchor sits on shore for everyone to see, while scuba divers can explore the shipwreck, including parts of the Niagara’s paddlewheels and boilers.
Leashed pets are allowed on all trails except the White Cedar nature trail and the north beach. Visitors need a state parks admission sticker.
Contact Chelsey Lewis at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Hike past abandoned buildings, ruins and more on these Wisconsin trails