This large park just outside of Appleton has something for every taste. Some of the unique features you find here are views of the Niagara Escarpment, Indian Effigy Mounds, and a marina. It has a generously sized campground and one of the best playgrounds I’ve seen at a state park. The observation tower gives an excellent view of Lake Winnebago. High Cliff State Park has hiking trails, biking trails, and horse riding trails so there is something for everyone.
The Niagara Escarpment was formed by the settling and hardening of limy ooze at the bottom of the Silurian Sea. It is called “the ledge.” It runs through the park offering stunning rock formations. Keep your kids close, this is not the place to accidentally run off the trail and end up over the ledge. Most of the Red Bird Trail runs along the top while the Lime Kiln Trails runs along the bottom. The above photo is the connector between the two trails by the campsites. The second picture is a view of the ledge closer to the observation tower.
One great thing about the hiking trails at High Cliff State Park is they are all loops so if you can do the whole trail there is not much need to backtrack. The longest hiking trail at High Cliff State park is the Red Bird Trail. It follows the Niagara Escarpment and is mostly level. It offers stunning panoramic views of Lake Winnebago and the historical limestone quarries. The trail starts at the playground near the Red Bird Statue and Observation tower.
The next longest trail is the Lime Kiln Trail which is just under a mile for the short loop or 1.7 miles for the longer loop. This trail can be started near campsite #38 or by the parking lot near the lime kiln ruins. When it traverses the Niagara Escarpment it is quite steep but near Lake Winnebago, it is pretty flat.
There are two shorter trails with unique things to see. The Butterfly Pond Trail includes a 0.4-mile loop and another 0.7-mile loop. This trail is paved and is an interpretive trail. It is easy to get from the parking lot and leads right up to the nearby golf course and neighborhood.
Another interpretive trail is the Forest Management Trail as well. It is 0.9 miles for the short loop and 1.4 miles for the longer loop. This helps you compare managed and unmanaged woods.
Indian Effigy Mounds
Another shorter trail, the Indian Mound Trail, is also a self-guided interpretative trail. It is just over half a mile and starts near campsite #14. While in the past this area was generally inhabited by Menominee people, here you can see effigy mounds built by the nomadic Siouan Indians. They are thought to have been built 1,500 years ago! No one knows for sure why effigy mounds were built, there have been many theories over the years. Here at High Cliff State Park, there are four panther-shaped mounds, two buffalo-shaped mounds, a conical mound, and a linear mound.
For more information about which tribes lived in this region click here for an interactive map. For another place to find some basic historical information about Native Americans in Wisconsin, click here.
There are approximately 10 miles of trails available to bike at High Cliff State Park. The Red Bird Trail is a 3.5-mile hiking trail that is open to bikers. The map from the DNR shows only part of the section as red and bike-able but when I talked to the ranger at the park he said bicycles are allowed on the entire Red Bird Trail. I biked the red section, the part closest to the water. Most of it is fairly flat but I’d still recommend gravel tires or a mountain bike. In addition, several sections felt more like mountain bike trails as they were short, steep, and rocky. You could easily get off and walk those if you weren’t comfortable. See above for more details about the Red Bird Trail in the Hiking section. The remaining hiking trails do not allow bikes.
The rest of the 7.5 miles of bikeable trails are those shared with horses. See below in the horse section.
You can also bike on any of the park roads. High Cliff State Park’s roads have some elevation from the beach up to the campground. There isn’t a lot of traffic on the streets but the shoulders are narrow.
There are four developed boat launches. Boaters can stay overnight on their boards while moored in the marina. There are 100 slips for rent available from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In addition, there is one undeveloped launch for paddlers and other small craft. It is very close to the parking lot with less than 50 feet to carry your boat. There is a small store with limited hours-call ahead if you want to be sure it is open. They sell a variety of snacks and other items.
We had a lot of fun walking across the seawall from the undeveloped boat launch. The rocks are big and sturdy but uneven. My kiddos loved it but Grandma chose to stay back. It is a really fun hike for the right crowd.
There is a rather large campsite at High Cliff State Park with 112 sites. Only 32 of the sites have electrical hookups. There is a flush toilet and a shower building in the campsite which is available for overnight guests only. There is another shower building by the marina. In addition, there are several vault toilets scattered throughout the campground. There is a dump station that is available for free for campers. The campsite is open from approximately May to mid-October. Many of the sites have direct access to the Red Bird Trail.
High Cliff Park has three playgrounds. The largest and newest is the one near the Red Bird Statue. It’s been updated recently and has a lot of cool climbing stuff, a slide, some swings, and more. It is surrounded by lots of picnic tables and green space and has a bathroom right next to it.
There is a mid-size, but older, playground near the beach. There are a few slides and several sets of swings. The view from here of the lake is wonderful.
The smallest playground is in the campground near the showers. It is wooden, fairly small, and old-school style but it’s something my kids see less so they had a lot of fun. There was a sturdy spinning tire swing which they always love. The surface was pebbles so that provided good entertainment for them as well.
Swimming and the Beach
There is a swimming beach that would be enough to entertain my water-loving kids but there is not a lot of room on the sand. There may only be a few feet of sand along the water but there is a very large adjacent grassy area with picnic tables and plenty of room to lay out or play a game of frisbee. The bathhouse has flush toilets, showers, changing areas, and open shelters.
You can fish at either Lake Winnebago or the smaller Butterfly Pond. There is basic fishing equipment available free of charge via the Tackle Loaner Program. Call ahead to see what is available.
As mentioned above, there are approximately 8 miles of horse trails at High Cliff State Park. They are generally open from May 1st -November 15 weather dependent. The parking lot is large enough to accommodate bigger trailers. All of these trails are shared with bikers. The trails are marked orange. From the parking lot you can do 2.5 miles by going north on the North Trail System or you can head along the South Trail System and get to Openfield Trail, Woodland Trail, and Overlook Trail. The trails are grassy and fairly wide.
There are three dog-specific areas at High Cliff State park. One is near the undeveloped boat launch next to the marina. Another is adjacent to the swimming beach area. Finally, there is a pet picnic area along the Red Bird Trail. Many dogs enjoy the Red Bird Trail and join their owners at the campground. No dogs are allowed on the Butterfly Pond trail or the observation tower. General DNR guidelines for dogs in the park can be found here.
Right next to the park is The Chubby Seagull. You can walk to the park on a paved path from the Butterfly Pond Trail. It is such a cute place and a great go-to for pizza, ice cream, coffee, and mini golf. They close in the fall, so check hours before you go. A couple of other close places are the One Fourteen Bar and Grill and the Granary Supper Club.
There are plenty more options for food if you head 20 minutes into Appleton or Menasha. If you are looking for coffee or breakfast, check out Tempest Coffee Collective. The indoor seating is fairly limited but they have a wonderful patio. We like Parker John’s BBQ and Pizza and if you are in the mood for Mexican go to Sangria’s. If you like Thai or Vietnamese, you may like Basil.
If you love state parks, another one of my favorite parks in this area is Hartman Creek which is about an hour to the west. There is a bigger beach and clearer water. They don’t have elevation change or an observation tower but there is a campsite, hiking trails, and all flavors of bike trails including paved, gravel, and mountain. Heritage Hill is about 40 minutes North and is a living history open-air museum.
There is a playground close to High Cliff at Wanick Choute Park which is only 5 minutes from the park entrance. If you need an indoor kids activity check out Building for Kids Children’s Museum. If you have a slightly older crowd you may like the History Museum at the Castle. There is a year-round Harry Houdini exhibit in addition to rotating exhibits. Appleton has so many things to do, check out this website, Foxcities, to find more things that fit your travel goals.
High Cliff State Park is near Appleton Wisconsin and has something for everyone! There are paved trails, flat trails with a view of the lake, and plenty of horse trails. There are several hiking trails in addition to all the horse trails that bikers can also use. High Cliff State Park has three different playgrounds to check out. There is camping, a marina, and an observation tower. With multiple boat launches and a beach, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the water. Don’t miss out on this beautiful Wisconsin State Park! Check out more Wisconsin State Parks here.