Get Outside: High Cliff

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Since this week has not given us the most desirable weather, and I’d much rather be inside and thinking about the summer, I thought I’d write about High Cliff State Park in Sherwood, WI. Many first-year students likely were introduced to the state park during their respective Welcome Weeks. As a local, I have been going to High Cliff since I was a little kid.  

High Cliff State Park, as the DNR writes, “gets its name from the limestone cliff of the Niagara Escarpment, which parallels the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago.” This is the largest lake in Wisconsin — it goes all the way down to Fond du Lac and is big enough to be seen on a map of the U.S. Many people come to High Cliff year-round to walk on its many trails, go boating or kayaking, camp in the campground, swim (or rather, avoid zebra mussels) in the lake, have a picnic, climb the tower, cross-country ski or snowshoe or even just lay in a hammock. As a state park, it does require an annual pass or an entrance fee to enter. 

My earliest memories of High Cliff are standing as close to the edge of the cliff in my dad’s arms as I felt comfortable, running down the old road with my brother, picking up walnuts and smashing them with a hammer in our driveway so I could eat them, walking with my family and checking to see how much ice there was on Lake Winnebago. My parents have always said how lucky we were that we had a state park less than 10 minutes away from us — and I agree. Looking back, I think these experiences were all enjoyable, memorable and impactful for me as a young girl.  

As I grew up, I still went on walks with my family, but our favorite trail shifted to the longer Red Bird Trail, which is named after Red Bird, a former chief of the Ho-Chunk Nation. It also became popular with my middle and high school friends to watch sunsets on the lake or up on the aforementioned cliff. I even just camped at High Cliff for the first time this past summer. 

Having had so much positive exposure to nature at a young age in a family that actively spent time outdoors, it only makes sense that I am still an active lover of nature. However, having an appreciation for nature does not require excessive outdoor experience or exposure, nor a desire to always be outside. It often doesn’t even require spending money! No matter how or where you were raised, anyone can grow to appreciate or love nature because it is simply what is in your surroundings.  

Parting briefly from High Cliff, I want to revisit the idea of paying attention during walks on Main Hall Green or on the new bridge. I find that it’s really difficult to be intentional with your outdoor time in the winter, especially now with Zoom classes; I find myself only beelining to Warch or the Con and wanting to cry because of how cold it is. I am only focused on how my body is reacting to the cold or, if the weather is milder, what I will do when I get to the building. Often times, I have headphones in my ears, with “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas or a podcast playing. These are all distractions, and they effectively tune out the world — including the nature — around me. Instead, I urge us all to bundle up and go for walks with no particular destination in mind. Listen to the snow fall, or hear barely any sounds at all. Let yourself take a break from the homework and the deadlines. I’m sure you’ll feel better and whole and mindful. 

After all, many go to High Cliff State Park regularly just for the purpose of recreation. Sure, everyone has their own reasons behind recreation — getting their steps in, enjoying the nice day, taking a break from the stress of life, you name it — but it’s safe to say that everyone leaves with a satisfied feeling that only comes with fresh air and serene solitude.  

When I was little, my dad would always have us be very quiet and look for deer. At High Cliff we’d creep around in the woods, paying attention to the characteristic tracks of deer or a sound in the trees. It taught me that a walk isn’t about distractions like music or chatter — it’s about listening to the sounds of nature and paying attention to the animals, rocky ground, changing leaves and blue skies around us.  

To this day, I still think about the wonders of nature I have discovered. These memories make me smile, and, like I’ve said, make me want to run away from my socialized responsibilities and stay in this blissful state forever. I hope that even if you have not had the same nature-filled childhood that I have had, you know that anyone can think about and actively enjoy nature. Please, have fun and be intentional when you go outside.