Exploring Horicon Marsh in Southeast Wisconsin

Hundreds of bird species flock to Horicon Marsh. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Hundreds of bird species flock to Horicon Marsh. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Small knots of birders are standing on the floating boardwalk, all gazing in one direction. What has caught their collective eye? I’m not a “birder” (the proper term for what we non-birders would call a “birdwatcher”), so I assume it’s some tiny thing visible only to those with professional, high-powered scopes. Instead, I realize everyone’s looking at an impressive group of American white pelicans paddling around in the water.

Pelicans! Right here in Wisconsin! I thought pelicans hung around the balmy Gulf of Mexico, scooping up shrimp in their fleshy pouches, or perhaps spent their days perched on docks jutting into the Atlantic. I never dreamed they resided in a spongy pocket of land right in my backyard. Suddenly the pod of pelicans takes to the sky, their giant wings effortlessly, and rather quietly, stroking the air. A few seconds later, they’ve vanished. In that instant, I realize what a treasure Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is, whether you own a pair of binoculars or not.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • You want to look for birds at one of the nation’s prime spots.
  • You want to be able to bird by foot, bike, boat or car.
  • Good for birders, those who like the outdoors.
Sandhill cranes blend in at Horicon Marsh ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Sandhill cranes blend in at Horicon Marsh ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Wisconsin’s 33,000-acre Horicon Marsh is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S. It’s also one of the biggest in the world. About a half-million of our fine feathered friends stop through each year to rest for a spell during their strenuous migrations north or south. And we’re not just talking a few species. More than 300 have been sighted here, including such rare species as the trumpeter swan and both the black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoo. That’s thanks to the marsh’s varied habitat: prairie, small forested pockets and the marshland itself, comprised of thick stands of cattails, bulrushes, bur-reed, sedges and smartweeds.

How to Explore Horicon Marsh

Whether you’re an avid birder or someone who simply enjoys the outdoors, there are many ways to explore the marsh and its environs. If you enjoy walking, about a dozen miles of trail wind their way through various parts of the marsh. Generally gravel or grass, the trails loop through marshland, prairie and forest. One leads across the floating boardwalk where I spied the pelicans. The Dike Road, a popular gravel path, pierces the marsh’s midsection.

If driving is more your style, take the designated 36-mile route that runs around the marsh, passing both visitor centers. You can also drive on the Dike Road. Cyclists can bike anywhere cars are allowed, plus can enjoy the 34-mile Wild Goose State Trail, which runs along the marsh’s western border. While the flat, crushed limestone trail makes for easy cycling, it doesn’t afford the best views of the marsh.

Kayaking Horicon Marsh

There are about a dozen miles of trail at Horicon Marsh. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

There are about a dozen miles of trail at Horicon Marsh. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

The ideal way to explore Horicon Marsh is to get on the water. You can rent a kayak or canoe at Blue Heron Landing, or sign up for one of its boat tours. Tours are led by the knowledgeable Marc Zuelsdorf, whose father began the business in 1963.

It’s my second trip to the marsh, and this time I’m kayaking with Zuelsdorf. I spy two tiny birds who look like they’re having an awful lot of fun swooping, swerving and diving. The pint-sized dynamos are quite striking, with snow-white bodies topped by blue-black splashes that cover their heads and run down their backs. Sure I’ve spotted something quite special, I ask Zuelsdorf what kind of birds they are.

Zuelsdorf glances at the birds, still engaged in their acrobatics. A whisper of a smile crosses his face as he politely informs me that I’ve just spotted a pair of tree swallows. I blush for an instant, then burst out laughing. I’ll never be a birder, and I don’t care. Because you don’t have to be one to enjoy Horicon Marsh.


  • Before exploring the marsh, pick up maps and other info from either the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge Office & Visitor Center or the Horicon Marsh International Education Center.
  • Avid birders should visit during the 4-day Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, held the second weekend in May, when there are guided birding tours, lectures and numerous other special events.
  • Plan your lodging in advance. One prime place to stay right in Horicon is Honeybee Inn, a beautiful Victorian/Arts and Crafts B&B with gracious hosts. If you don’t snag a room there, you’ll likely have to stay 30 minutes or more from the marsh.
  • The marsh is one natural area managed by two entities. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service runs the northern two-thirds under the name Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. The remaining southern portion, called Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area, is controlled by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources.
  • For more information, contact the Horicon Area Chamber of Commerce.

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