If you’re looking for a walk in the woods, head to Winchester in northwestern Vilas County for a true Northwoods experience.
Winchester is home to several state natural areas—areas that feature outstanding examples of northern Wisconsin’s natural landscape. Generally, these areas (managed by the Department of Natural Resources) have few or no developed facilities. Some may have parking areas or access lanes, but accessibility can be dependent on weather conditions.
State natural areas can accommodate low-impact activities like hiking, fishing and birdwatching, as well as winter activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Hiking trails may be rustic, nonexistent or consist of undeveloped footpaths, making the state natural areas a unique and fun place to go exploring. A GPS unit may be useful for exploring larger state natural areas.
Here’s a closer look at the state natural areas in and around Winchester.
- Van Vliet Hemlocks: Van Vliet Hemlocks State Natural Area protects more than 400 acres of undeveloped lake frontage and is home to one of the largest old-growth hemlock forests in northern Wisconsin. It’s home to several trail loops (ranging from half a mile to 3.2 miles) with views of Averill Lake, Van Vliet Lake and Hemlock Lake. Trails are open for hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Trailheads can be found on West and East Van Vliet Lake Roads and an interactive trail map can be found on the Map It Vilas County trails app, available for Apple and Android devices.
- Catherine Lake Hemlock-Hardwoods State Natural Area: Located on the Vilas County-Iron County border in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest, this natural area sits on the eastern side of Catherine Lake. Many of the trees (which include hemlock, yellow birch, sugar maple and white pine) average 50 inches in diameter, and some are estimated at more than 250 years old. The site supports many rare plants and birds, including black-throated blue warblers, cape may warblers and gray jays.
- DuPage Lake Peatlands: Also located in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest in neighboring Iron County, the DuPage Lake Peatlands is a sprawling natural area just north of the Manitowish River. There are eight lakes on the site, including DuPage Lake, a deep, 32-acre lake. Notable wildlife include osprey, sharp-shinned hawk and common loon.
- Toy Lake Swamp: This large complex of wetlands sits north of U.S. Hwy 51 and west of County Hwy W, with Circle Lily Lake on its southwest border. It’s a mix of hardwood swamp, cedar swamp and Toy Lake is actually a shallow, drained lake that’s home to lots of unique aquatic and wetland vegetation.
- Mary Lake: Mary Lake is small (3 acres) but deep (67 feet), so it’s one of the few meromictic lakes in Wisconsin—that is, the water never circulates or “turns over” in spring or fall like most other lakes in the state. Because of this unique condition, the lake has been the subject of extensive research since the 1920s.
There is no entrance fee for these state natural areas.
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