High Cliff State Park

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Picture of Lake Winnebago from one of the scenic overlooks created by the cliffs at High Cliff State Park. Taken by Tehya Miller, 2016

High Cliff State Park is a 1,187 acre, state-owned parcel of land situated on Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin's largest inland lake, near the town of Sherwood. [1] Once a sacred spot to the Ho-Chunk (or Winnebago) Indians, High Cliff gets its namesake from the large limestone cliff overlooking the lake, giving breathtaking views. The state of Wisconsin bought the land from a mining company in 1956, opening it as the state park it is today in 1957.

History of the Park

Niagara Escarpment & Native Americans

Nearly 400 million years ago, much of the state of Wisconsin was covered in something called the Silurian Sea, a large expanse of water created mainly due to the glacial melting of the period. The Silurian Period was a time in which the Earth's climate became stabilized, and the topography of the planet itself went through major changes. [2] As this sea started to dry up, there was a settling and hardening of a layer of "limy ooze" that left us with the limestone we have in the area today. [3] Known as the Niagara Escarpment, or "the Ledge," the glacial melting and subsequent Silurian Sea is what we have to thank for the limestone and cliffs that call High Cliff State Park their home.

Another important part of the early history of the area is the effigy mounds left by nomadic Siouan Indians some 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. [4] Where there used to be 30 mounds, only nine are still visible, and can be explored by following the Indian Mound Trail that cuts through the back side of the campgrounds. The largest is one of the Panther mounds, and it is an astounding 285 feet long. Among the eight other mounds are three other panthers, two conical mounds, one lineal mound, and two buffalo mounds. Historians believe that the shape of the mound is indicative of status--animals shapes mean the person had a higher status than those in geometric shapes, and the buffalo shape was the highest of all, generally reserved for family of the chief. While none of the effigy mounds at High Cliff have been found to have human remains or artifacts in them, they are still sacred to the Native Americans whom created them, and should be treated as such. [5]

Mining of Limestone

From 1855 to 1956, when the state bought the land, the area of High Cliff State Park was a successful, 40-man-strong lime mining operation. Quarrying of the stone was done in large pits still visible around the park, and workers drilled holes into the rock, using dynamite to blast the limestone from the sedimentary layers of rock. This occurred on a strict schedule, with blasts happening at 11:45a.m. and 3:45p.m. Additionally, workers would shout warnings to nearby working farmers, giving them time to steady teams of horses for the blast. Lime from the blast sites were sent to the kiln using a pulley system, where the weighed down carts of limestone would fall, bringing the empty carts to the top for filling. From here, horse-drawn wagons would bring the limestone the rest of the way to the kiln, and the cooking of the stone would begin.

The kilns, resembling tall stone ovens, cooked the lime out of the limestone that was harvested by using a wood fire. On day one, the fires would be started in the kilns, and the fires would be continuously kept up until two days later, when the internal temperature of the kiln reached 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the kilns were ready for use, and would run continuously for six months to a year, after which the fires would have to be put out, the kilns cleaned out, and re-stoned. While in operation, the fires would be stocked from the sides, while limestone was added from the top of the kiln, and lime was removed from the bottom. A single kiln in full operation could produce 1,000 pounds of lime in an hour. At full blast, the kilns at High Cliff could produce nearly 100,000 pounds of lime in a day. The lime from this operation was sent throughout the Midwest and was used for a variety of things, from plaster and cement, to brick mortar, and even to simply reduced acidity in the soil of farmlands. In 1924, the operation switched from wood power to coal.

When the lime operation was in its heyday, there was a small company town in which the 40 employed men lived. It boasted 16 houses, a company store in which resided a telegraph and post office, and a tavern. Today, all that remains of this operation are the company store, which is now a museum, the quarries, and the remnants of the lime kilns, which can be seen by following the Lime Kiln Trail. [6]

High Cliff Today

Things to Do

Today at High Cliff, there are many things to do. The park is open year-round, from 6a.m. to 11p.m. The General Store Museum is open on Saturdays, from 1-5, between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Sometimes, depending on volunteer availability, the museum is also open on Sundays. There is also a marina at the park, with 100 slips to rent. There is a beach, where swimming is allowed, but there is not a lifeguard stationed, so swimming is to be done at your own risk.

Additionally, there are 16 miles worth of trails crisscrossing throughout the park. To name a few, there is a bike and horse trail, which is 7.5 miles, the Indian Mound Trail (0.6 miles), the Lime-Kiln Trail (0.9-1.7 miles), and the Red Bird Trail (3.4 miles). There are some sections of these trails, however, that are near the steep cliffs, and there isn't always a barrier between the trail and the cliff, so caution is advised.

There are four picnic areas in the park, each with tables, grills, water, and rest rooms. There are also playgrounds, equipped with things such as swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds, and there are two volleyball courts, a sand court and a grass court. Volleyballs and nets are on a first-come, first-served basis, and can be signed out at no cost.

During winter, some of the trails are designated ski trails, and are maintained as such. Snowshoeing is permitted everywhere in the park except on the ski trails, and snowshoes can be rented during the park office's open times. There is also a 3-mile snowmobile trail, part of the Calumet county of trails, and is open as the county permits.

Finally, High Cliff State Park boasts a campground of 112 sites, 8 group sites, and a disability-accessible cabin that can be rented for four nights in the year. Pets are permitted throughout the campgrounds, and firewood is for sale by the park office. Additionally, there are flush toilets and shower buildings that are open seasonally, and there are vault toilets throughout the campground. A camp host is also in the grounds on site 58 from April to October. [7]


To enter the park, a Wisconsin state park vehicle admission sticker is required. You can purchase one for approximately $30.00, and they can be purchased at any of the parks in the park office, by phone, and even at some local businesses, among others. [8] Additionally, campsites range from $18.00-$33.00, and can be reserved at the park itself, or online ahead of time. [9] It is suggested that you reserve ahead of time, as High Cliff tends to run out of availability, especially during peak weekends such as Memorial and Labor Day.

Article History


  1. Wisconsin DNR, "High Cliff State Park," 2017, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/highcliff/
  2. University of California Museum of Paleontology, "The Silurian Period," 2011, http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/silurian/silurian.php
  3. Wisconsin DNR, "High Cliff State Park; History," 2016, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/highcliff/history.html
  4. Wisconsin DNR, "High Cliff State Park; History," 2016, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/highcliff/history.html
  5. Wisconsin DNR, "High Cliff Effigy Mounds," http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/highcliff/pdfs/High_Cliff_Effigy_Mounds.pdf
  6. Wisconsin DNR, "High Cliff Lime Industry," http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/highcliff/pdfs/High_Cliff_Lime_Industry.pdf
  7. Wisconsin DNR, "High Cliff State Park," 2017, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/highcliff/
  8. Wisconsin DNR, "Wisconsin State Park System; Admission Fees," 2017, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/admission.html
  9. Wisconsin DNR, "Wisconsin State Park System; Camping Fees," 2015, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/camping/campfees.html