7. Aztalan State Park

Well, that nice snow we had in early and mid-February was followed by rain and then very cold weather. The snow compacted and hardened, with lots of ice. And, it lasted into March. Not good for hiking or snowshoeing. By mid-March, we had more warm temperatures, and except for shaded areas and snowbanks, the snow and ice were gone. It was time for a park visit. March 17 — Aztalan State Park, about 45 minutes east of Madison. It’s mostly an open area, so the trails/walkways had no snow or ice. Even the mud was fairly minimal.

This park is more about history than hiking. It’s a National Historic Landmark and Wisconsin’s premier archeological site. According to the park brochure, Native American cultures lived in that location for thousands of years. Between 1050 and 1100 people from the Mississippian civilization in southern Illinois established a fortified town, which was mysteriously abandoned about 1200 A.D.

Aztalan maker
One of several markers throughout the state park

Again according to the park brochure, early settlers thought the town was related to the Aztecs of Mexico, which is how it got the name Aztalan. Archeological research revealed that many of the Aztalan people came from the large Native American city of Cakokia along the Mississippi, near St. Louis. There apparently was no connection to the Aztecs.

Throughout the park, there are markers providing an abundance of information about the physical features of the park as well as how the park was used. Two of the platform mounds (photo at the top is one of them), have been restored after years of modern agricultural use. Research shows that there were originally three platform mounds, along with an exterior log and clay fortification that surrounded important buildings: a temple where a sacred fire was burning, a mortuary structure and residence of the leader. There was also a plaza and residential areas. Some of the log fortification has also been restored.

log structure
Park of the log structure that surrounds the Aztalan site

Aztalan is a small park at 172 acres. The park has about 2.5 miles of hiking or walking trails. In order to appreciate the heritage of the site, a leisurely stroll is best. The informational markers provide lots to think about. It did seem sort of ironic that I was at a site of major significance in Wisconsin’s Native American heritage on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the way the weather worked out, since Aztalan was a good choice right after the snow left. But, it did add another aspect to the park visit.

Aztalan State Park is on the Crawfish River. There’s a picnic area near the river. Would be nice in the summer. Not so appealing in mid-March. Fishing and canoeing are listed as park activities, along with hiking and cross country skiing.

The park brochure says there are tours and special events scheduled throughout the year. Guided tours are given on weekends April through October. Details about the tours are available on the Department of Natural Resources website, wiparks.net. The Friends of Aztalan State Park group has more information on its website: aztalanfriends.org.