Horicon Marsh: The Largest Freshwater Cattail Marsh in the US.

by Bret Amundson

A sunset over Horicon Marsh. Taken from the Rockvale overlook.

The 33,000 acre Horicon Marsh is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the US. It was formed by glaciers and became known as the great hunting grounds. The marsh provided food and habitat for a variety of creatures and as humans began to populate the area, they converged on the marsh for the abundance of birds and animals that were available for them to hunt and eat. Today, the marsh still attracts all sorts of wildlife and hunting remains a popular activity, but after years of management and conservation efforts that have protected the habitat and it’s inhabitants, it’s also become one of the premier destinations for wildlife watchers. So when is the best time to visit Horicon Marsh?

Each year in early May, a birding festival attracts people from all over the world, If you are a bird watcher, wildlife photographer or hunter, spring can be the best time to visit Horicon Marsh. People come to see the annual spring migration consisting of big flocks of waterfowl, song birds, shore birds and more, including the rare whooping crane. 

Rare Wildlife:
A Whooping Crane seen from the Egret Trail floating boardwalk.

There are only an estimated 800 whooping cranes in the world and the Horicon Marsh is one of the best places to see one.

The Egret Trail boardwalk is around the halfway point of the auto tour and allows visitors to immerse themselves in the marsh, without getting their feet wet. Whooping cranes, waterfowl, red-winged blackbirds and tree swallows are potential sights, along with other creatures that commonly make their homes among the sloughs and swamps of the upper midwest. The stable walkway gives you a unique perspective to view the marsh behind it’s “curtains” or cattails that often hide a wetland’s day-to-day activities. 

The 3-mile auto tour gives you the chance to see parts of the north end without leaving your vehicle. There are parking areas and hiking trails if you choose to get out and get closer looks. During a recent trip on the auto tour, we spotted a Black-Necked Stilt. While the bird is of “least concern” nationally, they didn’t start showing up at the marsh until recent years, and now they can be found with regularity. 

A black-necked stilt eating what appears to be a leech.
Visitor Centers

There are three visitor centers around the marsh, one for the federally-owned portion of the marsh, the Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center for the state-owned and the volunteer-run Marsh Haven Nature Center located on Highway 49 near Waupun. 

All three visitor centers are worthy of a visit and can easily occupy a full day depending what activities you might be interested in. Special events, nature classes and field trips are frequent throughout the year. The Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center features a large viewing window overlooking the south end of the marsh. Fuzzy goslings were foraging in all directions on the grass directly below the window during our time there. A sprawling, scenic vista teeming with life lies behind the center with hiking trails and photo blinds for the adventurous.

Marsh Haven Nature Center. Located 3 miles east of Waupun on Highway 49.

The lower level offers an interactive tour that educates visitors to the history of the marsh, from the Ice Age to the present day. “The Explorium” gives you a glimpse into the marsh from the sights, the sounds and even the smells that you can experience. The Education and Visitor Center is free to enter, but the Explorium admission is $6 for adults, $4 for students and children 4 and under are free. 

The Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center. Located in Horicon, WI or 23 minutes from Waupun on the south east end of the Marsh.

The variety of birds that visit the marsh means that no matter where your interests lie, there’s a good chance to be entertained at Horicon Marsh. While this vast wilderness area has remained wild, you don’t have to rough it during your stay. The nearby city of Waupun features comfortable lodging, restaurants ranging from fast food options, coffee shop sandwiches, made-from-scratch cafes, authentic Italian dishes and more. The “City of Sculpture” features numerous statues placed among prominent places, including the famed “End of the Trail” sculpture in Shaler Park. 

The “End of the Trail” Sculpture at Shaler Park in Waupun

To help you plan a trip, here are suggested activities: 

Where: Horicon Marsh. 1 Hour from Milwaukee. 4.5 Hours from Minneapolis. 2.5 Hours from Chicago. 5.5 Hours from Des Moines

What to do: Hunt, fish, photograph, hike, and view. Lots of birding opportunities during the spring, with nest box hikes, spotting scopes and close encounters with nesting waterfowl such as Canada geese. We recommend the auto tour and the Egret Trail floating boardwalk to start. Rockvale and the Bud Cook trail offer scenic overlooks of the marsh.

Best Time To Visit Horicon Marsh: There are activities year round, but the spring and fall migrations can be impressive. The spring starts after the snow and ice melts, giving birds access to food and water, typically in mid-April to mid-May. As the cold weather approaches in the fall, birds will be chased back to the south with peak numbers arriving in October. More birding info here.

Recommended Hotel in Waupun: AmericInn – $109 (indoor pool, bar, continental breakfast, pet friendly.

Recommended Places to Eat: Wind and Unwined, Tony’s Pizza, Wild Goose Cafe, Marsh Inn

Place to Bring the Kids: Guth’s Candy. 928 E Main St, Waupun.

More questions regarding visiting the region?


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