High Cliff State Park is one of Wisconsin’s most popular state parks. Located in the scenic Kettle Moraine, on the northeast corner of Lake Winnebago in the town of Sherwood, it offers a wide variety of activities for visitors year-round. From camping to hiking and biking to weddings; this guide will tell you everything there is to know about High Cliff State Park!
High Cliff State Park is a well-known Wisconsin state park. Located in the scenic Kettle Moraine, High Cliff offers outdoor enthusiasts year-round activities. Camping, hiking, and biking are just some of the things to do at this beautiful destination! This guide will tell you everything there is to know about it!
Complete Guide to High Cliff State Park
High Cliff State Park is the only state-owned recreational area on Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin’s largest lake. Let’s start with the history – it is SO amazing!
History of High Cliff State Park
The rocks at High Cliff are primarily sandstone laid down by streams that once ran through this area millions of years ago. These sediments were compressed under great pressure into hard rock deposits which have been worn away from the softer shale beneath them by wind and rain erosion over centuries (more).
It is part of the Niagara Escarpment.
The Niagara Escarpment is a long, continuous escarpment that extends from the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in Canada to the Alabama River in Iowa. It was formed when a retreating ice sheet left an unglaciated strip on top that gradually sloped toward the northeast and this trend is marked by high cliffs or bluffs overlooking much lower areas below them (more).
Nomadic Siouan Indians were there, some 1,000 to 1,500 years ago.
The Sioux were nomadic tribes who hunted bison along what would become High Cliff State Park. They lived off hunting buffalo for food, housing materials, clothes and many other necessities including shoes made out of animal hide with Buffalo hides also being used as blankets during cold winters.
They left 30 effigy mounds behind to tell part of their story, 9 of which remain today. (More on those later)
Limestone Mining at High Cliff
The park’s limestone mine was a testament to the area’s industrial heritage. It was a successful 40-man strong lime mining operation from 1855 to 1956. Quarrying of the stone was done in large pits still visible around the park.
Workers drilled holes into the rock and used dynamite to blast the limestone from the sedimentary layers of rock. For safety reasons, this occurred on a strict schedule, with blasts happening at 11:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. each day. The limestone was then loaded onto a horse and buggy system to hit the on-site kilns. 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.
As many as 40 people worked at the operation, including drillers, a blasting specialist, stone crushers, teamsters, barrel makers, laborers, and a blacksmith. Many were recent immigrants from Hungary. In its heyday, the lime industry supported a small “company town” consisting of 16 houses for workers, a store (including a post office, telegraph office, and company office), and a tavern, all owned by the Western Lime and Cement Company. All that remains today are the store and ruins of the kiln.
High Cliff State Park Red Bird Statue
Once known as one of the friendliest and most trusted of the Wisconsin Indians, Red Bird (1788–1828) was a leader of the Winnebago (or Ho-Chunk) Native American tribe. He was a leader in the Winnebago War against the United States.
We won’t go into details here – but their war was based on the tensions of the time, a misunderstanding that led them to believe that two Ho-Chunk had been put to death at Fort Snelling in 1826 for a murder they did not commit, and then retaliation that continued to escalate.
The Winnebago War was a large-scale conflict between the United States and the Ho-Chunk Nation in what is now Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.
It lasted from 1827 to 1833 with sporadic fighting continuing until 1840 when Red Bird finally surrendered.
A few years after his death, a statue was erected to honor him at High Cliff State Park. The original monument made this area of the park an important site in Wisconsin’s Native American history and culture. It is by an overlook on the Red Bird Trail and worth a stop.
This is a GREAT lesson for the kids – while I haven’t found any books on Red Bird specifically, Tecumseh is a great read before you visit – to open some dialogue with your kids.
Is High Cliff State Park Haunted?
There have been many reports of paranormal activity…three main sources.
First of all – there is always “energy” around effigy mounds and there is no exception to the ones at High Cliff State Park, even if there are no human remains detected in them.
The most well documented of all “hauntings” at this park, hands down are the effigy mounds. There are many reports of “warm wind” or “cold wind” in the area – on days with no wind, as well as a special kind of green moss that ONLY grows on the effigy mounds.
The Hungarian Stone Masons
Then there is the old kiln haunting. In an era where quarrying operations were largely unregulated, accidents in lime quarries proved tragic for workers and their families. On December 22nd, 1903 a rock fell from the ceiling of one section and killed seven people at once, including two teamsters hauling limestone up out of the pit on a wagon with 16 barrels while four other men pushed it from behind.
After this tragedy, new regulations required proper supports beneath any area that could cause anyone to come into contact with falling rocks or rubble. The old kiln is said to be haunted by the ghosts of the Hungarian stonemasons who labored there.
Lake Winnebago Water Monster
The legend has its roots in the formerly nearby Winnebago Tribe, which had a village on the shores of the lake. The Winnebago monster is described as being a long, serpentine creature with two fins or horns and an armored back. In 1959 the “monster” was filmed by a man named Claude Thompson on his home movie camera while fishing in Lake Winnebago.
The video footage has been studied extensively by skeptics who say that what appears to be two bumps near its head are actually reflections of trees seen through murky water from below. They also point out that this creature could not remain unseen given its large size, which would have become noticeable because fish refuse to swim near it.
In 1962, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans published an article about it in Fate magazine where he coined the term “plesiosaur“.
One of the skeptics, Ron Schaffner, argued that the creature is merely a floating log or other debris in low visibility water and was not moving at all–as seen by changes in size when Thompson zooms his camera out to get a wider shot.
Supposedly, the water monster washed to shore at one point and an entire deer, antlers and all, was found in its belly. The lake is allegedly still the home of the water monster’s children, equally large fish that just might swallow a person one of these days.
Keep in mind that the Winnebago monster remains unidentified and unverified…and I totally surprised my husband with this one -who grew up in the area and never heard of it!
High Cliff State Park Effigy Mounds
An effigy mound is an animal shaped structure built entirely or partly from clay with one side deliberately left flat so it can be seen easily on aerial photographs.
Effigy Mounds In General
These were constructed by prehistoric Mississippian Indians for ritual purposes between 900 AD and 1400 AD, but some may date back to about 500 BC. Fewer than 20 sites remain today because farmers plowed up many of them during settlement in the 1800s and early 1900s.
The identity of the animal is not always certain, and may have been different in Mississippian times than during earlier periods. The most common shapes are bears (perhaps symbolizing strength), panthers or other wild cats (possibly representing speed). Birds were also represented including owls, herons, hawks and cranes; these could represent ferocity or power respectively.
Sometimes a human was included on top of an effigy mound – this would usually be someone who wanted to honor their ancestors by being buried high rather than at ground level as usual for that culture’s burial rituals- although sometimes it represents a spirit guardian figure known as ‘the Master of Breath’. Effigies were built mainly between 900 AD to 1550 AD and are found in the Eastern US, but also as far north as Michigan.
The mounds were usually built up over a log or scaffold base which was then filled with dirt to create an elevation of about 15 feet.
The earth circling the mound represented water flowing around it and helped reinforce its symbolic meaning by suggesting that life came from within the earth, like springs bubbling forth (the opposite side of this belief is seen in some Puebloan cultures where effigies represent mountains).
The High Cliff Mounds
The High Cliff State Park effigy mounds were left by nomadic Siouan Indians . The mounds are arranged in a sequence of overlapping circles that get smaller and closer together the higher they go.
The park was established to protect these ancient Native American earthworks, as well as rare prairie plants such as showy goldenrod.
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.
These dates have been determined by carbon dating charcoal remnants from the fires of the effigy mound builders, so we know the ones at this park are from somewhere between 1000 A.D. and 1500 A.D.
Out of the original 30 effigy mounds in High Cliff, only nine remain. These can be found on the Indian Mound Trail in the upper section of the park. This trail has signs posted along it describing the animal life, vegetation, speculation on the ways of life of the former inhabitants of the High Cliff area, and the mounds themselves.
The 9 that remain are four panther mounds, two conical mounds, one lineal mound, and, along a smaller path, two buffalo mounds.
–>Please keep in mind that these are sacred spots and should be treated as such.
High Cliff State Park Camping
With two different campgrounds, High Cliff State Park should be able to accommodate you.
The family campground has 112 campsites (32 with electric and two handicap accessible – #26 and #86). A flush toilet/shower building is on-site and there are in the family also several vault toilets throughout the campground. Campground hosts stay on site 58 from April through October.
An accessible cabin for people with disabilities is available at High Cliff State Park. The cabin can accommodate up to six people and can be rented for a maximum of four nights per year.
There are eight group sites, that only have vault toilets located near them.
High Cliff State Park Activities
There is so much to see and do at High Cliff year-round! Fishing, hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, swimming, boating and more!
High Cliff State Park Water Sports
Being right on Lake Winnebago, you have a lot of options here!
Big Cliff State Park Fishing
Anglers of any age may check out basic fishing equipment free of charge at the park office. This equipment was donated by the Tackle Loaner Program. Call the park office to find out what equipment is available.
Lake Winnebago is stocked with a variety of fish each year. You can catch Walleye, Northern Pike, White Bass, Perch and Lake Trout to name a few!
You can also fish at the Butterfly Pond! You will find it full of both largemouth bass and panfish.
Just make sure you have your fishing license and you are good to go year round.
high Cliff State Park Swimming
High Cliff does have a swim area, however, there are no lifeguards on duty. There is a fully functional bathhouse too – complete with flush toilets, showers, changing areas, and open shelters.
We put together a Wisconsin State Parks Bucket List Free Printable for you – to keep track of all the state parks and nature areas you visit. Get it here: Crazy Camping Girl FREE Wisconsin State Parks Bucket ListDownload
High Cliff State Park Kayaking
With 5 boat launches, 4 developed and one undeveloped, you are pretty much set for any kind of boat at High Cliff. Windsurfers, kite boarders, and paddlers will enjoy the area, but make sure to check out State Park’s website for a list of rules and regulations before you head out on the water.
If you have a larger boat, you can even bring it to the park! There are 100+ slips available to rent, or you can stay overnight aboard your boat while it is moored in the marina. Call the marina at 920-989-1349 (Memorial Day through Labor Day) to check on rental availability.
All slips have power and slip rentals include the use of the marina shower building. The marina is within walking distance to the beach, biking trails, golf course and restaurant.
High Cliff State Park Hiking
With 5 different trails, quite a variety of different skill levels and challenges are covered. They are all a variety of lengths and loop – making their well-marked paths easy to follow.
They are a perfect way to see the fall colors!
The hiking trails are as follows:
Butterfly Pond trail (0.4-mile east loop and 0.7-mile west loop)
This trail is paved for accessibility and features wetland, prairie and forest ecosystems.
Forest Management trail (0.9-mile short loop and 1.4-mile long loop)
Indian Mound trail (0.6 miles)
This will take your by the park’s effigy mounds.
Lime-Kiln trail (0.9-mile short loop and 1.7-mile long loop)
This trail covers part of the Niagara Escarpment State Natural Area, and has some steep climbs, descents and stairs.
Red Bird trail (3.4 miles)
With amazing panoramic views, this pretty level trail will take you past the historical limestone quarries, the Chief Red Bird statue, and the observation tower.
High Cliff State Park Trail Map
High Cliff State Park Nature Center
High Cliff State Park Bike Trails
While you can use your bike on any of the paved roads, you are limited to the Red Bird Trail and Horse trail – which is 7.5 miles long and goes through both grassland and hardwood forest ecosystems. You can NOT bike on the other 4 trails.
There are NO bike rentals at the park (or horses either) so be prepared to pack your own.
Golfing in the Area
While High Cliff state park doesn’t have its own golf course, there are some excellent courses nearby.
High Cliff Golf and Event Center is an 18-Hole golf course near High Cliff State Park. A Driving Range is there and Golf instruction is available by appointment. W5095 Golf Course Rd, Sherwood, WI 54169
Winagamie Golf Course is another favorite. A nice 27-hole course that keeps the playing groups separated nicely. Plenty of straight par fours and a challenging rough. Nice pro shop! : 3501 Winnegamie Dr, Neenah, WI 54956
High Cliff State Park Hunting
If you are a gun-hunter – this isn’t the park for you. There is a traditional 9-day muzzleloader-only gun deer hunt. There is no other gun hunting in the park. Other than that, archery hunting and trapping are allowed in the open areas of the park during the Wisconsin state parks hunting and trapping time frame.
Trapping rules are tricky – you have to be at least 100 yards away from the designated use area, including trails. You simply can’t use certain trap types.
- Hunting and trapping in Wisconsin State Parks
- High Cliff State Park hunting and trapping map [PDF]
- State of Wisconsin Hunting Information
High Cliff State Park in Winter
If you want to see some wildlife – this is a great time of the year. Watch for deer and rabbits as they move from their winter grazing areas around High Cliff in search of food.
Snowshoeing at High Cliff State Park
If you want to try your hand, or foot, at snowshoeing – this is the place to do it. Snowshoe rentals are available on a first-come, first-served basis when the park office is open… so you can see if you really like the hobby before investing in your own shoes.
Snowshoeing is permitted anywhere in High Cliff except on ski trails when snow-covered. The Forest Management trail is good for winter hiking and snowshoeing. That is the one that is mostly wooded and serene.
Cross Country Skiing at High Cliff State Park
First of all, Fido is not allowed on these trails! Pup pawprints can screw up a groomed ski trail. Certain trails in the park are designated for skiing when snow-covered. The trails are groomed for traditional skiing and are suitable for beginning to intermediate skiers.
Snowmobiling at High Cliff State Park
A 3-mile snowmobile trail through the park connects Lake Winnebago with the Calumet County snowmobile trail system.
They follow the surrounding county guidelines for when the trails are to be open or not – The Travel Wisconsin Snow Conditions Report, and local club and county snowmobile web pages and telephone hotlines will provide the most current information.
High Cliff State Park and Dogs
Let’s start with the obvious: dogs shouldn’t be left unattended and you should pick up the poop. Waste should be disposed of in dumpsters or trash receptacles.
There are a two special “pet picnic” areas where your pup can enjoy a meal with you. One is in the lower park, near the park office, with a dog swimming area in the pond. It is a little hard to find, but it is there, adjacent to the marina. The other is near the pavilion.
All trails are dog-friendly when on a leash, except for in winter with the ski-prepped trails.
There is also a great dog park near Appleton. Outagamie County Dog Park is an easy drive from the park and will make it convenient for you to exercise your dog so he will be easier to manage on your hikes.
ID tags are a good idea if your dog isn’t microchipped. If you do lose your pet you can contact the EastShore Humane Society at (920) 849-2390.
Pets are not allowed in the following places:
- Picnic areas and picnic shelters
- Marked Nature Trails (Applies to Parfrey’s Glen)
- No Pets are allowed on the ski trails when they are snow-covered.
- The Devil’s Lake South Shore Picnic area, except on paved roads and walkways en route to areas where pets are allowed.
Of course, if your dog is a service animal, those rules do not apply.
Get Your Wisconsin State Park Sticker Now
Day pass or annual pass, it gets you in any Wisconsin State Park. YES, there are discounts for Wisconsin residents.
Camping fees are always additional – but less than if you didn’t have the sticker.
Get it here –> Wisconsin State Park Pass Info
Restaurants Near High Cliff State Park
Here are a few of our favorites:
The Chubby Seagull
OK – part of me just loves the name, LOL. This is the go-to place for pizza or ice cream. Note: Employees don’t wear masks – so strict COVID precautions aren’t followed, if that makes you uncomfortable. N7663 Pigeon Rd, Sherwood, WI 54169
The Granary Supper Club
We love supper clubs, to begin with, but with their cozy seating. pleasant decor, and large menu? It is worth a visit. N586 Military Rd, Sherwood, WI 54169
Peters’ Boyz Texas BBQ
This place is worth the small drive: the brisket is awesome and the ribs are even better. N378 Military Rd, Sherwood, WI 54169
Grocery Store Near High Cliff State Park
While you are a short drive from Appleton – that has everything from Aldi to a Walmart Super Center, right in Sherwood, you will find a Dick’s Family Foods – W647 Knight Dr, Sherwood, WI 54169
Hotels Near High Cliff State Park
We know it – not everyone wants to sleep IN the park, either on their boat or in a camper/RV/tent.
Quality Inn & Suites
This might be your closest accommodations, if under $60, and has a hot breakfast. 761 Truman St, Kimberly, WI 54136
There are literally dozens there – and prices range from $38 to over $220. It depends on what you are looking for, specifically.
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