Ferry Bluff State Natural Area - Hiking

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Ferry Bluff State Natural Area offers a scenic and unique alternative to the heavily-visited Devil's Lake State Park for Madison explorers.

Written by

Peter Kleinhenz


1.0 miles

Add an extra quarter mile to your hike if you plan to follow the trail to Ferry Bluff.

Destination Distance From Downtown

23.6 miles


3 of 5 diamonds

The ascent to the top of the bluff may be strenuous for some, although the trail was designed with curves and stairs at points to make this easier. Be extremely careful on the two rocky overlooks. One slip, and you might get a unique and unwanted perspective of the bluff.

Time To Complete

1 hours

The trail to Cactus Bluff and nearby Ferry Bluff is not long but the ascent, coupled with interesting sights along the way, means that you will not want to rush this hike. Add an extra fifteen minutes to your hike if you plan to visit both bluffs. Most people only visit Ferry Bluff, however, and the views do not differ dramatically.


Summer and Fall

The natural area closes between November 15 and April 1 to protect nesting bald eagles.

Dog Friendly


All dogs must be on a leash no longer than eight feet.

Fees Permits




To most of us, Wisconsin probably brings to mind cheese, beer, and football. But rocky promontories and cactuses? Ferry Bluff State Natural Area, one of 675 such preserved gems within the state, offers both and more. Located forty minutes from downtown Madison, this preserve protects rare plants, animals, and a Civil War-era ferry landing (hence the name). The natural area provides that perfect carrot-on-a-stick to hikers, with sweeping views of the Wisconsin River Valley rewarding those who ascend to the top of the 300-foot bluff. 

What Makes It Great

Few places like Ferry Bluff exist within an hour of Madison. For starters, the very nature of the bluff harbors species not normally found in central Wisconsin. You might spot prickly-pear cactus on aptly-named Cactus Bluff or a state-threatened black rat snake slithering up a tree in search of prey. The topographic relief of the bluffs is not especially unique in this region, but the views from their summits certainly are. 

The Wisconsin River has carved away the base of Ferry Bluff StateNatural Area since the last glaciers receded roughly 12,000 years ago. This slicing made for a steep cliff on one side of the river and a flat plain on the other. In other words, the view from the top of the bluffs seems to go on forever. Look for the Capitol Building in the distant skyline. 

Wisconsin’s state natural areas, incredible as they are, often require a great deal of work to find, both in terms of access and significant features. Ferry Bluff, on the other hand, could not be easier to find, and all of its best assets may be seen right off the trail. Madison-ites, this is your place. 

Who is Going to Love It

Whether you have small children holding your hand for guidance or your buddies holding your hand as they drag your exhausted body back to the car after an intense run, this trail will work for you. 

The mile-long ascent to Cactus Bluff climbs gradually, following the contour of the land rather than climbing artificially via a steep grade. The add-on hike to adjacent Ferry Bluff proves more challenging due to fallen logs across the trail that require a choice between scrambling up and over or crawling on the ground. In summary, Ferry Bluff State Natural Area should satisfy families, runners, or even snake-obsessed naturalists.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Ferry Bluff State Natural Area does not present any challenges when it comes to parking. It occupies 400 acres on the north shore of the Wisconsin River, approximately 40 miles northwest of Madison, Wisconsin. 

From Sauk City, simply head west on Highway 60 for 4.4 miles and turn left on the appropriately-named Ferry Bluff Road. Follow the road until it dead-ends and park. The trailhead starts at the interpretive panel next to the Wisconsin River. Logical rules and regulations apply. 

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Ferry Bluff State Natural Area

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