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Exploring the Unique Wildlife and Plants of the Spring Green Desert in Wisconsin

Updated: Mar 3

Wisconsin is such an amazingly beautiful and diverse state. It has so much to offer. Typically, when we think of this area, we conjure images of sparking lakes, frosty winters, picturesque farms, cheese, and, of course, the Green Bay Packers. But, did you know Wisconsin is also home to certifiable, undeniable, bonified desert complete with black widow spiders, lizards, and, yes, even prickly pear cactus?


A rare prickly pear cactus from Wisconsin
A prickly pear cactus found in Lone Rock, Wisconsin

I didn't believe it when I first heard about it. Desert? Even stranger, it was very close to where I grew up in Southwest Wisconsin. The area where it's best known is right outside the town of Spring Green, the very place where Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright built Taliesin. There is a place called the "Spring Green Prairie," (or Spring Green Preserve) owned by The Nature Conservancy. The site is about 1,300 acres in size and, though that may seem big, its a mere fragment of the desert-like conditions that were there prior to the agricultural boom that took place after our state was ratified. It is one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet. Most of the desert that was originally here was plowed under and replaced with crops. But fear not, because you can still get a really cool feel for what this area was like a few hundred years ago.

There are many species at this site which cannot be found anywhere else in the state of Wisconsin. It is such a unique ecosystem and we can thank a very large body of water called the Wisconsin River because over thousands of years after the glaciers receded, this river carried glacial sand and gravel downstream where it created huge swaths of sandy soil that stretched for miles. The Wisconsin DNR also features some information on their website here.


The Spring Green Prairie isn't the only location where the desert conditions exist. Last summer, my family and I traveled to the Spring Green area, staying at this awesome AirBnB called Ridgetop Retreat which is situated on a working farm. There, the kids gathered chicken eggs every morning for breakfast and fed pet goats that were on site.

One day during our visit, we grabbed the bikes and drove to Lone Rock, where we hopped on the Pine River Trail. The kids pedaled off ahead of my wife and me. They stopped about a hundred yards ahead of us and began staring intently at the ground. Once my wife and I caught up to them, they pointed and said, "Look! A cactus!"


Sure enough, there were a few prickly pears. The last time I saw one of those was in Arizona, far, far away from where we were currently staring at these beautiful little plants.


A group of prickly pear cacti from Lone Rock, Wisconsin
A group of prickly pears along the Pine River Trail

Though lizards are (almost) unheard of in Wisconsin, you can find the five-lined skink living amongst these dry barrens. And remember when I mentioned black widow spiders? Yeah, they are here too, along with nine different species of wolf spider, and rattle snakes.

Just watch your step.

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