The tour route is 24-miles long. Drive slowly, about 15-20 mph. Look and listen for wildlife. Most animals are secretive and will go unnoticed if you don't watch carefully. Look for the numbered Auto Tour signs. Stop and read the corresponding description in this guide. You can also follow the arrows marked on the map below. Have a pleasant drive!
Introduction to Crex Meadows
Crex Meadows is a 30,000-acre state wildlife management area. The primary management objective is to restore the area to its original condition of a brush prairie-wetland complex. This area was drastically altered by settlers in the late 1800s.
Wetlands were drained in the attempt to farm the area, and much of the brush prairie grew into a jack pine-oak forest due to fire suppression efforts. As a result, many of the original native plants and animals were significantly reduced or completely disappeared.
Currently, hunters and trappers provide nearly all the funds for the acquisition and management of Crex lands. Funding for the wildlife management program at Crex is received from the sale of hunting and trapping licenses, duck stamps, and an 11% Federal tax on guns and ammunition.
Because of this funding source, habitat restoration efforts began shortly after the State of Wisconsin purchased the area in 1946. Wildlife response to prairie and wetlands restoration has been dramatic.
The abundance and diversity of wildlife have made Crex a wildlife showplace. It is part of a national network of Wildlife Viewing Areas and Important Bird Areas. Over 120,000 people visit Crex each year.
1. Wildlife Education and Visitor Center
The Wildlife Education and Visitor Center was built in 2002 with funding provided by the Friends of Crex. The 8,600 square foot facility contains classrooms, an auditorium, exhibits, video room, and gift shop. Stop here for the latest information on wildlife sightings and activity. Take time to view the exhibits, watch an introductory video, and be sure to take a look at our events calendar to make sure you don’t miss any upcoming programs!
The prairie garden, in front of the building, and the Norm Stone Prairie Trail, south of the parking lot, are great places for short strolls to learn about prairies and prairie plants. For a longer stroll, try the Boardwalk Trail that begins at the back door of the building. The first portion of the trail is a handicapped accessible boardwalk that crosses a sedge marsh and wildlife pond. The trail meanders through a forested area to a small observation platform overlooking Hay Creek Flowage, then loops back to the boardwalk.
(Turn left onto County Road "D" and go 1.5 miles to Phantom Lake Road. Turn left and go 1 mile to the top of the dike. Turn right and drive 1 mile to Observation Area.)
2. Wetland Restoration
Look out over Phantom Lake. This man-made flowage is 2,000 acres, making it the largest body of water on Crex. In the early 1900's the shallow marsh which originally occupied this area was drained for farming. In 1954 a 2.6-mile long dam, or “dike”, was constructed to create productive wetland habitat for waterfowl and other aquatic wildlife.
The area now occupied by Crex Meadows historically contained numerous wetlands. However, many of these wetlands were drained prior to 1946, the year the State of Wisconsin began purchasing the area. Since 1946 over 23 miles of dikes were constructed to create 30 flowages, making Crex one of Wisconsin’s top destinations for waterfowl hunting.
(Go back to Phantom Lake Road. Turn right.)
3. Phantom Lake
You are driving on the dike which was constructed to create Phantom Lake. This flowage offers great wildlife viewing. Red-necked grebes often nest to the southeast and yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh wrens, and the occasional least bittern use the nearby stands of cattails and bulrush. Beginning in May, and continuing through the summer, this is a great place to see trumpeter swan, goose, and duck broods.
In the wintertime, watch carefully as your drive: Phantom Lake Road is a good place to see some animal tracks, including River Otter, Grey Wolf, Red Fox, and more!
(Continue along Phantom Lake Road.)
4. Wild Rice
The entire north half of this flowage contains a vast stand of wild rice. The new plants, which emerge in June, are a major food source for swans, geese, and ducks. By late summer, the rice completely dominates the flowage.
The rice seeds mature in late summer and, for the remainder of the year, provide a feast for blackbirds, rails, and large flocks of coots and ducks.
Wisconsin residents may harvest wild rice. The growing season is very weather-dependent, and harvest typically occurs around Labor Day. For more information on licenses and regulations, please visit the DNR website.
(Continue along Phantom Lake Road until the intersection, then turn right on Abel Road.)
5. Prairie Restoration
Prior to settlement, the original brush prairies, or “barrens”, of this area were maintained by frequent wildfires. During settlement, these wildfires were all but eliminated. In the absence of fire native prairie plants were gradually replaced by a jack pine-oak forest. Since the State purchased Crex, efforts have been underway to restore the barrens habitat.
Approximately 7,000 acres of barrens have been restored through prescribed fire. Controlled burns are used to invigorate native plant communities, which require full sunlight to grow. The "openness" of this barrens habitat is what makes it so productive for waterfowl and other grassland nesting birds.
The restored barrens must be burned every few years to keep the brush and trees from shading out the native vegetation. An average of 3,500 acres are burned annually to maintain the restored barrens. Spring is the primary burning season, but prescribed burns are conducted whenever conditions permit.
When the prescribed fire is not an option, other methods of barrens management include mechanical treatments.
On your right is the Abel Prairie Trail. Stretch your legs on the short trail; it is an excellent spot to find prairie flowers and grasses. How many can you identify?
As you continue the tour, see if you can find evidence of recent burns. Look for dead burnt twigs and fire scars on trees and logs.
(Turn right on Main Dike Road, proceed 2 miles and turn left onto West Refuge Road.)
6. Crex Carpet Company-Camp Five
From 1911 to 1932, much of the area now occupied by Crex Meadows was owned by the Crex Carpet Company. The company harvested sedges used in the production of “grass carpets” and wicker-type furniture.
The name of the company (Crex) was derived from the scientific name of the sedge (Carex). The local people refer to the sedge marshes as “meadows” and called these sedge marshes “the Crex Meadows” when they were owned by the carpet company. The state kept the name “Crex Meadows” when the wildlife area was started.
To your left is the site of Camp Five, one of three carpet camps located on the wildlife area. Nothing is left of this camp, but the foundations of camp buildings are still evident at Camp Six in the Fish Lake Wildlife Area.
7. Pairing Ponds
As you drive north along the west side of the refuge, you will notice many small ponds along either side of the road. These ponds, or potholes, were dug with bulldozers to provide habitat for waterfowl.
In the spring you may see pairs of breeding ducks using these ponds in courtship rituals. More than 300 potholes have been constructed on the property.
8. Refuge: Management Pool
You have been driving along the west side of the refuge. This 2,400-acre refuge is the only area on Crex closed to hunting and trapping. The primary purpose of the refuge is to provide a resting place for migrating waterfowl.
The water level of the management pool, on your right, is regularly manipulated to provide a feeding habitat for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl. During the spring and fall migration, shorebirds and waterfowl rely on aquatic insects and other invertebrates available in shallow bodies of water and mud flats.
9. Refuge - Food Plots
Approximately 100 acres of various crops are planted each year to attract wildlife, primarily waterfowl. The food plots are a means of attracting waterfowl to the refuge portion of the property where they can feed, rest, and regain the energy needed to continue their long southward migration. The food plots also present great opportunities for wildlife observation. At the peak of migration (mid-October), thousands of ducks and geese are present in the refuge. The refuge is also a "staging area" for sandhill cranes. As many as 15,000 cranes may be present in October and November.
(Turn right on North Refuge Road.)
10. Historical Marker
Take a few minutes to read about the history of Crex Meadows. As you look out over the refuge imagine yourself in the 1800s before settlers disrupted the scene. Present-day management maintains a landscape very similar to what it looked like back then.
11. Rest Area
The Rest Area is a great place to take a break and have a picnic lunch. Picnic tables, benches, fire grates, and toilets are available for your use. Camping is permitted only during the fall (Sept 1. - Dec. 30), and campers must register at the Visitor Center.
(Stay on North Refuge Road. If a shorter trip is desired, turn right on East Refuge Road to Stop #18)
12. Wetland Complex
Look around. To the north is Monson Lake; to the south is Zalesky Pond. Quality nesting habitat adjacent to wetlands is a magnet for breeding ducks. Breeding pairs of ducks establish territories on
pairing ponds or small wetlands. The drake defends the territory while the hen tends to nest in a nearby grassy area. When the eggs hatch, the ducklings are led to a larger wetland where there is more food and cover.
13. Sedge Marsh
Crex Meadows contains thousands of acres of sedge marsh like you see on our right. Most of Wisconsin’s sedge marshes were drained and converted to farm fields. Although many of the sedge marshes in this area were also drained, the conversion to farm fields was unsuccessful. Under state ownership, most of the sedge marshes on Crex are preserved in a condition similar to pre-settlement.
Sedge marshes provide a habitat for a variety of wildlife including many rare and endangered species. Among those rare residents are three species; the yellow rail, LeConte’s sparrow, and Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow, which attract birders from throughout the United States to Crex Meadows every spring. Some of the more common sedge meadow residents, including sedge wrens, Virginia rails, bobolinks, American bitterns, and sandhill cranes may be seen or heard from this spot.
(Turn right on Reed Lake Road, then continue along until you reach the next intersection, and take another right onto James Road.)
14. Sand Blow
Take a walk to the sand blow for a closer look at this unique feature. Sometime after 1850, settlers arrived and attempted to farm this area. Asparagus plants and box elder trees are evidence of a farmhouse on this very spot.
The sand, up to 80 feet deep, is a result of a glacial lake that covered most of the county. In areas of disturbance, the sand is constantly blown by the wind and vegetation doesn't have a chance to take root. Several sedges, grasses, and mosses have adapted to sandy soil and are growing along the periphery.
15. Land Management
Stop in at Wallen Overlook for a great view of variable land management! Notice the heavily forested area across the road and compare it to the more open area on the other side of the road. This is due to different owners with different management objectives. The land across the road is part of the Burnett County Forest and is managed for timber production. Fire is suppressed on this side of the road. The land on the other side is part of Crex Meadows and is managed for wildlife habitat. Fire is a management tool on this side of the road.
The original vegetation of this area was described as a pine savannah or brush-prairie. It consisted of scattered jack and red pine (approximately 8 per acre), brush (mostly oak), and prairie grasses and forbs. It provided excellent habitat for grassland nesting birds and other species associated with the barrens habitat.
At the time of settlement, brush-prairie covered 1,500 square miles of Northwest Wisconsin. Wildfires, which had historically maintained the brush-prairie, were drastically reduced with the arrival of white settlers in the late 1800's. In the absence of these naturally occurring wildfires, much of the brush-prairie grew into a pine-oak forest. Now, Crex and a few other small remnants are all that remain of this once vast brush-prairie.
16. Sharp-tailed Grouse
The mowed, brush-free area on your right is a historical sharp-tailed grouse dancing ground. Every spring the male sharp-tails select a small portion of ground and defend it against all other males. In his territory, the male performs an elaborate mating dance to attract females. The males arrive on the grounds well before sunrise and display for several hours. They are on the grounds at first light from late March to late May.
The dancing ground is mowed and kept free of brush to provide the birds with an open area needed for their display, to be seen by females, and also to watch for predators. The brush-prairie surrounding the dancing ground is excellent sharp-tail habitat.
(Turn right onto Main Dike Road.)
17. Smith's Stopping Place
The first trail through this area crossed this very spot. It was established in 1830 as a mail route and military trail between La Pointe on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, and Fort Anthony in what is now St. Paul, MN. The trail later became the first “Tote Road” to be used by settlers. Stopping places were established along the road as places for travelers to stop for the night. Smith’s Stopping Place was located in the open area to your right.
18. Diversion Pump
To maintain wetland habitat we have to be able to control water levels. By using a diversion pump we do not have to rely on nature to control the water. This pump is capable of pumping 20,000 gallons of water per minute or flooding 100 acres one foot deep in 24 hours. Once the water is on the north side of the dike it can be released to most of the flowages on Crex. The volume and direction of water flow are regulated by ditches and water control structures. You may have noticed these structures along the road as you were driving.
(Turn left on East Refuge Road.)
19. Transfer Ditch
This channel of water is a transfer ditch. The water flows by gravity from North Fork Flowage to the Refuge Extension and Phantom Lake. Notice the water control structure on the left side of the road.
The amount of water flowing through the ditch can be regulated by raising or lowering the gate.
Each of the 30 flowages on Crex has a water control structure. These structures permit us to raise or lower the water levels according to moisture conditions.
(Turn left on North Fork Flowage Road.)
20. North Fork Flowage
The islands in the center of this flowage are managed as waterfowl nesting islands. They are periodically burned to reduce the woody vegetation and increase the grass, thereby creating favorable nesting habitats for ducks and geese. Waterfowl nesting on these islands has much higher nest success because nests are less likely to be destroyed by ground predators such as skunks, raccoons, and foxes.
(Turn around and go back to East Refuge Road. Turn left and follow to County Road "D". This will take you back to the visitor center!)