Aztalan State Park isn’t your typical state park. There’s no playground or outdoor grills. No big beach and concession stands. Not a lot of trails. What you will find at Aztalan State Park, though, is fascinating.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, Aztalan (pronounced AZ-tuh-lan) is “Wisconsin’s first town,” the site of an ancient Middle-Mississippian village established there more than 1,000 years ago.
A Two-Mile Flat Trail Hike
You can enjoy it as simply a pretty place to walk: A two-mile flat trail that borders the Crawfish River and encircles the wide prairie the villagers called home. It’s an easy path, which is particularly nice if you have little ones who find more strenuous trails too challenging!
Our family enjoyed a little picnic there, munching on the (gigantic!) baked goods we bought at the Pine Cone Travel Plaza six miles up the road in Johnson Creek.
Fishing & Canoeing
You can also fish (with a license) and canoe in the Crawfish River. In winter, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are allowed, though there are no groomed trails.
Hours & Admission
Open from 6am – 11pm year round; a vehicle admission sticker is required — can be purchased for $28/year or $8/day.
A Rich History
It’s a lovely way to spend a few hours. Aztalan’s history, though, is what makes the park special. The people who lived there between 1000 and 1300 AD built large earthen mounds that were platforms for important buildings, and they surrounded their village with a stockade. Two of those mounds and the stockade have been reconstructed. The Friends of Aztalan State Park, who help the state Department of Natural Resources oversee the park, generally offer guided tours on Sundays and hold special events throughout the year to celebrate the area’s history. That includes having members of the Ho Chunk tribe near Wisconsin Dells participate in events showcasing and educating the public about their culture. (Unfortunately, 2021 events and tours have been cancelled due to the pandemic). “This in essence was Ho Chunk land,” Friends member Bob Birmingham told Discover Wisconsin last year.
Kids might not appreciate the history at first. But a little parental psychology and interpretation can get them engaged. Signs explaining various aspects of the villagers’ history and culture are posted all along the trail. To get my kids involved, I made reading the signs out loud a privilege — “Who gets to read first?” — and for our entire trip they took turns, racing to the next sign and listening to each other read. (Education disguised as a family fun day is the best!). The signs are geared toward people with advanced vocabulary. Once, when my 7-year-old was finished, she said, “Ooh, Mommy! I read some BIG words!” So my kids read and I translated, which turned out to be a great conversation starter. If, for example, the sign explained the implication of archaeological discoveries, I’d just summarize for it my kids: “So, what that means is, we know these were a people who found a place to call home and kind of stayed there. They weren’t big travelers. How do we know? Because archaeologists found pottery pieces. If you’re going to be traveling around constantly, are you going to want to make a lot of pots that are big, heavy and can easily break? No. So the fact that the villagers had pottery indicates that they likely stayed put.”
Less than an Hour From Madison, WI
Unless you’re going to play in the Crawfish River, Aztalan probably isn’t an all-day affair. But it’s location just east of Lake Mills means you can be there in less than an hour from anywhere in Madison. It’s open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. year-round. Pets are allowed in designated areas and must remain on a leash. You can also easily incorporate Aztalan as part of a fun day or even a full weekend.
If you love history, visit the Lake Mills Aztalan Historical Society’s museum in Lake Mills. And if a bike ride sounds lovely, the 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail, which stretches from Cottage Grove to Waukesha, passes right by Aztalan.
However you want to plan your day, this beautiful historic state park is worth a visit.