Hiking at Lion's Den Gorge - Grafton

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Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI


Lion's Den Gorge is an Ozaukee County Natural Area on the shore of Lake Michigan in Grafton. There are 3 miles of hiking trails, boardwalks through wetlands, a giant staircase that descends through layers of cedar forest, a salmon spawning stream, a few miles of beach front, a pond, and the deep and verdant ravine called Lion's Den.

It is open from sunrise to sunset through all seasons of the year. Only a 20 minute drive north of Milwaukee, Lion's Den is the perfect wilderness retreat in the metro area.



Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI


More than a few years back in my past, I thought it would be a good idea to create a website where I shared all of the secret places that I knew of. Kids are often able to find the most unique and awesome places, and I racked a up a long list of these 'kid trails' from my own kid days. Lion's Den was the first place I was going to write about. Well, it's taken a few years for me to get to this, but here it finally is.

It wasn't called Lion's Den then - maybe the Grafton Lake Bluff, or The South Beach. It was a place that only local teenagers could find and navigate. A place for paintball wars and late night beach fires.

In those days, I was able to find my way along narrow winding deer trails to unique overlooks by the light of the moon. But, in my absence from the Grafton area, someone came along and spread woodchips all over the trails I once blazed and they put up signs saying don't do this and don't do that ... and they gave all of my sacred places new names - suitable for a downloadable PDF map. Yep, it's an official county park now ... and I have mixed feelings about all that.

Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
It is great that it is a county park, and frankly I am surprised that the landowner was generous enough to give up this prime piece of lakefront property. I am also sure his neighbors aren't quite as pleased. But, it has happened. The surreal landscape, the hidden treasure that is Lion's Den is able to be enjoyed by the entire community now. And, it has been an instant hit.

Lion's Den, as it is now called, is a 73 acre natural area set along the slumping bluffs of Lake Michigan. It features pristine wetlands, monumental bluffs and cliffsides, a pond, a salmon spawning stream, a deep and verdant ravine, cedar groves, a few miles of shallow beach front, and about 3 miles of wide and groomed hiking trails.

Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Before this was an official county park, It was already being used as a place to walk dogs off the leash. And, the main trail, now called The Lion's Den trail was a bridle path. It was also public hunting land - for waterfowl and for deer - of which there used to be plenty. But, with the heavy traffic that Lion's Den now gets, you can no longer take your dog off the leash, ride a horse safely, and you will rarely encounter deer. This is the sacrifice of sharing.

Some people who had long brought their hunting dogs here for training and exercise still do, and they still go off the leash in spite of the new rules. And, kids who used to climb the bluffs here after school still climb the bluffs in defiance of the signs warning of impending ecological ruin.

There has been something lost by opening this place to the masses. But, there has been more gained. To keep this place a welcome retreat for everyone, we have to give up the campfires, the bluff climbs, and letting your pets run free and wild. It's part of getting along in this now public space.

Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
This magnificent natural retreat draws in young and old, dog lovers and people with an innate fear of being bitten by dogs, parents pushing their toddlers in strollers, and groups of power walking mature adults.

One of the great draws of Lion's Den is the massive staircase that descends into the gorge through layers of cedar forest. As you reach the bottom of the stairs you can hear the waves of Lake Michigan crashing ashore. You then follow a stream out to the beach.

Back in the day, when the Lake was deeper, there was a tree that arced out over the Lake at the mouth of the stream. You could climb out over the water and watch the moon rise. The mouth of the stream used to collect piles of driftwood that would ignite quickly - a ready stash of firewood. this scene combined to make the most picturesque campfire location.

Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
The Lake has receded by at least 100ft now, and the tree has fallen. But, this small piece of beach is still picture worthy. And, with so many flat stones, it is perhaps the most popular place to skip stones in Wisconsin.

The landscape on top of the bluff is entirely different than in the gorge and on the beach. Wetlands here attract an array of birds including blue herons. A boardwalk and observation deck has been built where once there were duck blinds.


Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
And, there is some parking and a couple port-o-johns set in the main parking lot. So, all of the amenities are here for you to enjoy a good nature walk. Now that this has been started, and now that it has become immensely popular, Lion's Den deserves an actual restroom building, more parking, a picnic shelter and an open field for game playing. Currently it is a designated natural area, but by popular demand it will maybe one day be designated as a county park. And, that will make it officially what it truly now is, a place for the recreation and enjoyment of all people.


Overview Lion's Den Gorge Natural Area


COUNTY: Ozaukee COMMUNITIES: Grafton

TOTAL MILES: 2.43 Combined Official Trails, 1.11 Combined Unofficial Trails
DIFFICULTY: EASY

POINTS OF INTEREST: Lake Michigan, Ducks Unlimited Waterfowl Area, Lion's Den Gorge


Directions and Trail Map




Address for your GPS: 511 High Bluff Dr, Grafton, WI 53024.
| coordinates: N43.338007, W087.887941 |

From Milwaukee25 Minutes
From Madison1.5 Hours
From Green Bay1.5 Hours
From Wausau3 Hours
From Minneapolis5.5 HOurs
From Chicago2 Hours



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Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI


Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI

Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI

Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI

Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI
Lions Den Gorge Natural Area - Grafton WI






2 comments:

  1. Discovered this park today and had a wonderful hike! The lake levels are much higher now so there is not much beach, but it was still worth the walk all the way down there. What a gem! Looking forward to visiting again in Fall.

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  2. My husband and I visitted this place today, his second visit but my first. We are birdwatchers from Walnut Creek, CA, and we wanted to see as many eastern birds as we can during our short visit to Milwaukee. My must-see-bird while in Wisconsin however was the Re-headded Woodpecker. Also, we both wanted to observe walblers. We did not see many walblers but had great, great views of a single Red-headded woodpecker closed to the intersection of Gentian Walk and Bluff Trail. I made several videos of the bird eating on trees on both sides of the trail. It never called though. On our vacation, we will continue visiting other wildlife areas looking for more eastern species. Thanks so much to all the donnors who contributted time and money to preserve this wonderful place. Visitors like us who have only a few days to visit Milwaukee thank the estate of Wisconsin for preserving places, large or small, closed to a busy metro area.

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