Cathedral Pines

A 1935 photo of Cathedral PinesCathedral Pines is a 40-acre grove of white pine, hemlock and red pine that escaped cutting by lumberjacks in the 1900s. Located in the Chequamegon–Nicolet National Forest’s Lakewood-Laona Ranger District, this dynamic and exceptionally scenic old-growth forest is one of the few remaining stands of towering pine and hemlock in Wisconsin.

The conifers and intermingled hardwood trees make this area a beautiful place to hike and explore, watch wildlife, or just imagine what the early forest was like.

In the early 1900s, Lucy Rumsey Holt brought her children to this site. The sounds of breezes through these tall pines reminded her of a cathedral, and she persuaded her husband, William, president of Holt Lumber Company, to preserve these trees.

Because of her efforts, this stand of virgin timber was never logged. When Lucy died in 1939, William dedicated this property for preservation and named it “Cathedral Woods” in her memory. In 1968, their son, Donald, and the rest of the Holt family wanted the public to experience the beauty of these woods, so they sold the 40-acre tract to the U. S. Forest Service. Additional lands were purchased and added to the site through the Trust for Public Land and The Nature Conservancy.

Forest Service arborists determined these massive conifers began growing in 1735 to 1740 – they’re older than our country! 

What you will see:

A current photo from Cathedral PinesThese ancient trees are not the only attraction here: there’s also glacial topography, hemlock regeneration and a heron rookery to be seen. During the last ice age, this area was an intersection of the Green Bay and Langlade glacial lobes. The receding ice sheets created many ridges and depressions that provide interesting topography and ephemeral ponds for breeding amphibians.

This area also has an abundance of young hemlock trees in the understory, something that is becoming rare as white-tailed deer populations inhibit regeneration of hemlock and other trees deer like to eat.

Many of the large pines in this area contain nests of the great blue heron. North America’s largest heron, the great blue stands 4 feet tall, has a 6 to 7-foot wingspan, can fly 19-29 miles per hour and can live for up to 20 years. These herons nest in a group called a rookery in the tops of large trees.

The heron rookery at Cathedral Pines is unique in its accessibility to humans. To reduce human disturbance and prevent the herons from abandoning their nests, please remain at least 300 feet away from the nesting area.

The herons arrive at Cathedral Pines in mid-April and begin nesting in May. Both parents use sticks to build the nest as high as 130 feet above the ground. They lay three to six bluish-green eggs which they incubate for a month. Chicks hatch over the course of a few days.

While hiking the trail, be sure to pause and look up to see the herons and their nests. Look down to see eggshells that have fallen near the trail in May and early June – they look like giant robin’s eggs!

Great blue herons are usually silent but can utter loud, deep croaks when alarmed. In June and July, raucous sounds emanate from the heron rookery and visitors often describe the din as sounding prehistoric. It can be so loud near the rookery in July that the herons drown out most other wildlife sounds.

The young herons fledge after seven or eight weeks but remain near their parents. By August, the rookery is silent. In September and October, the herons migrate to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, Mexico, or Central America to spend the winter.

The great blue herons aren’t the only wildlife that call Cathedral Pines home. Nesting songbirds include pine, Blackburnian, black-throated green and magnolia warblers, winter wrens, ovenbirds and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks, bald eagles and common loons nest nearby.

Although very elusive, American (pine) martens and fisher dart amongst the pine boughs in search of their favorite prey: porcupines, snowshoe hares and red squirrels. Nearby ephemeral ponds provide a home for a variety of amphibians, including spring peepers and American toads.

About the site and when to visit:

The Cathedral Pines site has a parking lot for up to four vehicles, an interpretive sign and a 0.3-mile-long gravel trail. There are no restrooms or trash facilities here, so please plan accordingly.

While the best time to visit Cathedral Pines is from May through October, there is plenty to see and enjoy throughout the year. Be aware that portions of Cathedral Drive are very narrow and some portions are part of the snowmobile trail. Also, the roadway may be impassable in winter since it is not plowed.

When visiting Cathedral Pines, be prepared for the weather and bring insect repellent. While all trails have grades less than 8 percent for accessibility, fallen branches and other debris could be on the trails, so hiking shoes are recommended.

To help reduce erosion problems, please stay on the gravel trails.

Getting there:

From Wisconsin: Take State Highway 32 on the north end of the Town of Lakewood, turn southwest onto Archibald Lake Road (Forest Road 2121). Drive 1.4 miles on FR 2121, then look for the “Watchable Wildlife” sign and turn right (northwest) onto Cathedral Drive (FR 3299). Drive 0.4 miles on this gravel road to the parking lot. After your visit, continue driving northwest on Cathedral Drive, then take a right onto paved Presbyterian Road (FR 3304) and you’ll quickly come to County Highway T near Townsend.

A satellite image of cathedral pines.