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  • Writer's pictureDanielle St Louis

Wyalusing State Park Sans Doggo

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Wait, what? Did you read that title right? Yup, you did.

A rare photo of me without Lucky
Me at Big Sand Cave, Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin

This past weekend I took a trip to Wyalusing State Park without Lucky. I’m training for a long hike in the mountains and needed to log some long days on the trails. Lucky is finally starting to slow down a bit, so he stayed home with my parents. As this was my first time at Wyalusing without a dog, I took the opportunity to hike the Sugar Maple Nature Trail. Dogs are not allowed on this trail, so I figured I would hike it and report back about what you are not missing. Well . . . you’re missing a fairly rigorous trail and a really cool, like maybe one of the coolest, points of interest in all of Wyalusing.

Seriously, I wish I could have reported back that the trail was lame, and that Pictured Rock Cave was nothing special. But I can’t. I will tell you about the trail and the cave, and you can decide if you want to arrange for a dog sitter so you can check it out. (I of course do not recommend you break the rules and take your dog on this trail. Dogs are not allowed for good reason.)

Sugar Maple Nature Trail is not like those other easy-going nature trails. It is definitely not ADA accessible, and it’s well in the weekend warrior category of hikes. It is also off the beaten path. You have to seek out the trail, which is near the boat launch and nothing else. Sugar Maple is a loop trail (I love loops!), and I set out on it counterclockwise, which I think might be the steeper, more aggressive path. Granted I was wearing a pack with about 50 lbs of stuff in it, but I found myself glancing at the trail as it continued to go up, up, up and wondering if it was ever going to end. Also, the trail was blanketed with rocks of various sizes, which I found added to the challenge. I had already lightly rolled my right ankle once on Big Sand Cave Trail and once coming down Sentinel Ridge on my way to Sugar Maple. A more serious roll could spell disaster for not just my Wyalusing adventure but possibly for my upcoming mountain adventure. So, I did my best to take sure steps as I plodded up the trail.

As I approached a major intersection, I came across a family with dog (ugh come on people) that were clearly unsure which direction they should head. They were spread out in the intersection blocking most of the trail except the route that continued up. Given the current pandemic and the fact that I was worried if I lost any momentum I would tumble backwards down the trail, I pulled my bandana up over my nose and mouth and just kept heading up. And I kept heading up for a few minutes until I realized I also wasn’t sure which direction I was supposed to go at that intersection.

I accidently left my map in the car, so I used precious cell phone battery life to pull up the map on my phone, and through my shattered cell phone screen, I realized I should have taken a left at the intersection. I was on the connector trail to the group camp site, rather than Sugar Maple. So I cautiously backtracked (again concerned about where my momentum might take me), and turned back onto Sugar Maple. The trail was less steep now, so with less of my attention on my foot placement, I started to wonder when this trail was going to get to Point of Interest #9. All of the other points of interests in Wyalusing are fairly well marked, so I figured it was unlikely I had walked past it without even realizing it.

Then I reached another split in the trail. This time, it looked like the left was the more developed path as it had a wooden railing and a flight of stone stairs. But the trail to the right of the wooden railing looked well-worn too – too worn to just be the remains of some social trail. So, I went to the right of the railing to check it out sure I would likely need to backtrack again.

The trail took me along the edge of a ridge and then over a babbling stream with several deeper pools of crystal-clear water. I could hear water crashing against stone, but where was it? After crossing the stream, the trail switched back along the other side of the ridge. And then I saw it. The stone stairs at the last intersection lead to what is now my favorite sand cave at Wyalusing and quite possibly my favorite cave in Wisconsin.

You bet I backtracked as quickly as I could. I took the stone stairs down to the edge of the stream, threw my backpack off, and just marveled at what I saw. I felt a tinge of sadness – like I said, I wanted this experience to be mundane.

The stairs that deposit you at Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin.
The stairs that deposit you at Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin.

I was the only person around, which surprised me because the park was especially busy as camping is now everyone’s favorite pandemic pastime. I was thrilled to have the entire cave to myself. It was a hot day and I had been lugging around a heavy pack, so I took my shirt off and doused it in the main waterfall. I stuck my head under the smaller trickle coming off the wall of the ridge. I investigated the super saturated hues of the sand and enjoyed the cooler temps of the air close to the cave walls. I explored downstream briefly and ultimately agreed that this oasis is best protected from dogs – even the best behaved with the most respectful of owners.

Reluctantly I put my pack back on and heaved my way up the stone stairs. I headed around the wooden railing onto the “too worn to be a social trail” trail and back across the stream. I will mention here that the stones used for footing on the other side of the stream were wet and muddy and felt a little uneasy. So, just a word of caution about this short segment of the trail.

The rest of the trail was literally downhill, and I think at a less steep grade than the route I had taken up. The trail does pop out onto the road for just a moment so you can pass by what I think is a drainage culvert and then it heads back into the woods for a short distance before reaching the spot where the loop begins.

As I retraced my steps up Sentinel Ridge Trail, I reflected on how happy I was that I had taken this opportunity sans Lucky to hike Sugar Maple. While it was strange to adventure without him, I know there are times that having him along means I miss out on certain experiences. As I finished up my hike, I reminded myself that it is ok for me to take time for myself and leave Lucky behind. I’m sure he doesn’t mind; my parents spoil him even more than I do.

So, if you need some you time without your dog, I highly recommend hiking Sugar Maple Nature Trail and visiting Pictured Rock Cave at Wyalusing State Park.

Want to know more about taking your dog to Wyalusing State Park? Order your copy of A Dog Lover's Guide to Hiking Wisconsin's State Parks now!

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