Torchlit winter hike draws droves to Mirror Lake park, raises funds for park improvements

January 7, 2019

A line of cars extended out of the Mirror Lake State Park entrance onto Fern Dell Road Saturday night as more than 1,700 visitors turned out for hot chocolate, cookies and a torch-lit hike.

Hosted by the Friends of Mirror Lake State Park, the Torch Lite Night Hike raises funds for park improvements. It’s free to attend and to partake in the donated treats, but visitors need a park admission sticker for their vehicle.

Deana Zentner of Rutland and her friend Dee Nelson of rural Edgerton traveled about 70 miles to make their first visit to Mirror Lake after learning of the event on Facebook.

“The winter weather is wonderful, and that’s why we (came),” Zentner said.

Attendance far exceeded Friends President Anita Johnson’s expectations. She said the twice-annual hike usually draws around 500 people as the group’s second-most popular event. The charitable organization accepts donations, all of which go toward the park.

Its next project consists of renovating a log cabin outfitted for individuals with disabilities who want to enjoy the outdoors, Johnson said. The cabin, which requires an application to reserve, will get a new roof, a redone porch and a fully renovated interior. Paul Kropp, who has been involved with the Friends organization for about 20 years with his wife, said the 25-year-old structure was the first handicapped-accessible cabin in the state park system.

“This is probably on one of the most beautiful spots in the park. It overlooks the lake, it’s all wooded and it’s at the end of a regular campground,” where groups who reserve the cabin often book sites so they can have a larger gathering, he said. “It’s a very nice family venue.”

Renovations will start in March and be completed before the cabin opens for the season on May 15, Johnson said. The season lasts until Oct. 15, but she recommends individuals fill out their reservation applications early.

“It will fill up quickly,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful log cabin on probably the most pristine campsite in the park.”

In the next year and a half, Johnson said the group also will be adding interpretive signage — panels that offer information along park trails — and elements of augmented reality, which would allow visitors to get historical and geological information by using their smartphones.

Previous projects include rebuilding the amphitheater, which was completed around 2012, Kropp said. The amphitheater seats about 150 people and hosts free musical events during the summer, as well as educational programs.

Friends of Mirror Lake help with the smaller aspects of park maintenance as well. Kropp said the group has replaced all of the 300-plus picnic tables in roughly five years, replaced fire rings at the campsites and funded three playgrounds in the park.

“It’s a labor of love, ’cause it doesn’t end,” he said of maintaining the picnic tables. “We’re either repainting them or replacing boards or redoing the whole thing.”

These projects have been funded in part for more than 20 years by the winter hikes, Kropp said. On the first Saturday in January and February, cross-country skiers, hikers and snowshoers can enjoy the 1-mile trails lit by torches. Volunteers served hot chocolate, hot cider and pastries donated by Clasen’s European Bakery in Middleton Saturday.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Mirror Lake hike was the first candlelight event of this winter.

More popular, however, is the Friends’ Halloween Mystery Hike in fall, an educational event during which children find clues along torch-lit trails that point them to a mystery animal, Kropp said.

Information on other events, including a fun run and an opportunity for people to learn how to ski and snowshoe, can be found on the Friends of Mirror Lake State Park Facebook page.

Johnson said the winter hike usually raises under $1,000. The bulk of the Friends’ fundraising comes from selling firewood to park visitors, which brings in about $50,000 each year. Kropp said last year more than 11,400 bundles of wood were sold, sourced from Baraboo vendor Hack-Away Forest Products.

“That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to Devil’s Lake, but for us that’s a big deal,” Kropp said.

He noted the group’s efforts also benefit Rocky Arbor State Park in Wisconsin Dells, because the two parks are partners and Rocky Arbor doesn’t have its own fundraising organization. He encouraged anyone interested to join the Friends of Mirror Lake.

“We’re always looking for new members,” Kropp said.

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