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Hikers exploring Patrick Marsh on a summer day. Photo credit: Mario Quintana

Special Place

Patrick Marsh

At a Glance

Patrick Marsh is a 340-acre wildlife area on the east side of Sun Prairie, WI. With over two miles of trails, visitors are invited to explore the prairies, savanna, marsh, as well as Brazee Lake. Recreation opportunities include wildlife viewing, cross country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, canoeing, and kayaking. Land at Patrick Marsh is protected by the City of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin DNR, and Groundswell Conservancy.

Groundswell manages Patrick Marsh in partnership with the Patrick Marsh Conservancy, local residents, nearby Patrick Marsh Middle School, Wisconsin DNR, and local governments. We maintain and improve Patrick Marsh to connect people to the land and to each other.

The Old Lake

The retreat of the glacier 10,000 years ago left many ‘kettle holes’ or ‘prairie potholes’ in the Madison area (Kettle Pond). These depressions create ephemeral wetlands that provide beneficial habitat to wildlife, especially migratory birds.

For thousands of years, these lands were also home to native American tribes and nations. People from the Ho-Chunk Nation were frequent visitors to the marsh, calling it Ega Hocak Hominal Ni. The area was used for camping, canoeing, trapping, and hunting.

Patrick Marsh’s recorded history dates back to 1834. Surveyor Orson Lyon noted a “pond” while laying the first section lines for the United States government. In 1840, European settlers arrived at Patrick Marsh. William Patrick settled the western shore of the lake. David Brazee settled on the eastern shore of the lake. They both named the lake after themselves.

The permanent settlement of Patrick Marsh led to dramatic changes for the landscape. Many of the tall oaks that circled the lake were removed for agriculture and development. The prairie landscape was plowed.

From the first settlement until 1965, the lake receded or nearly dried up five times. For this reason, some plat maps labeled the water as the “Old Lake” as it appeared to be a dying lake. This cycle is typical of a healthy prairie pothole wetland, not a lake. During these periods of low water, landowners would grow crops in the “lake” bed.

In 1965, two farmers owned the land adjacent to Patrick Marsh. These landowners were being taxed on the marsh land, even though they could not farm it due to the water level. The farmers decided to drain the water from the marsh so they could farm it. The very next spring, the land was used for growing corn and other crops. The land was farmed until 1992.

In the 1980s, U.S. Highway 151 between Sun Prairie and Columbus was in need of expansion. Expanding the highway to four-lanes required extensive land purchase and wetland destruction. Since 26 acres of wetlands were consumed in construction, the state DOT purchased drained farmland and adjacent uplands to mitigate the loss. By this time, much of the farmland at Patrick Marsh lay fallow and had begun to flood in areas. An unprecedented action by the DOT acquired a higher acreage of land than had been lost to construction. Patrick Marsh was acquired and a restoration was planned to help mitigate the loss of wetlands.

In 1991, the Department of Transportation disabled the pumps and drainage tiles that kept Patrick Marsh dry. By April of 1991, about 100 acres of water covered the area with an average depth of 18” and a maximum depth of three feet. Almost immediately life began to return to Patrick Marsh. In the spring of 1992 over 5,000 ducks, 200 tundra swans, and 28 different aquatic plants species were observed in the reformed marsh.

The following spring the 160 acre marsh filled to roughly its maximum level with an average depth of five feet and maximum depth of eight feet. In the fall of 1993, an outlet structure was installed underneath Stone Quarry Road, to the north of the marsh. This structure was intended to establish the maximum depth of the marsh and prevent localized flooding.

Patrick Marsh water levels remain very high and differ from pre-European settlement over 150 years ago. This is likely due to more water now entering the marsh from increased development and impermeable surfaces.

What To Do

Patrick Marsh is a great place to hike, see plants and wildlife, and reconnect with nature. Patrick Marsh is open seven days a week from dawn until dusk.

Trails at Patrick Marsh are easy to moderate difficulty. All trails are mowed at least five feet wide. Check out the Patrick Marsh trails map for more.

Pets must be kept on a leash no longer than 8 ft., unless they are being used for hunting purposes in areas that are open to hunting during the established season. Pet waste must be picked up and taken with you.

Camping and picnic fires are not allowed. Hunting and trapping is limited. Remember to leave no trace!

Plants to See

Patrick Marsh is home to many prairie and savanna plant species. Depending on the time of year, you can find some of our favorites like: bottlebrush grass, rattlesnake master, compass plant, cream gentian, cup plant, and plenty of very old bur oaks.

Wildlife to See and Hear

In early summer, visitors can admire the impressive size and displays of American white pelicans at Patrick Marsh. In the mornings and evenings, the pelicans can be seen circling high and low above Patrick Marsh. As one of North America’s largest birds, their 9-foot wingspans are a reminder that they are descendants of dinosaurs. The best time to see the American white pelicans is early afternoon in mid-June.

Also be on the lookout for sandhill cranes, chorus frogs, leopard frogs, monarch butterflies, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, and migrating warblers and ducks!

How to Get Here

Patrick Marsh is located on the east side of Sun Prairie, WI and can be accessed from Stone Quarry Road, Schuster Road, or Derby Drive. There is a 5-car parking lot on the north side, which includes an accessible trail south to an accessible viewing deck overlooking the marsh. Check out the Patrick Marsh trails map for more.

Join Us Outside

With your help, we care for land for communities to enjoy and for wildlife to thrive. No experience is necessary, and we provide the tools for the job. Our tasks change each month. At Patrick Marsh, we spend our time:

  • Maintaining and improving trails (as needed)
  • Learning plant identification (throughout the growing season)
  • Cutting invasive brush with loppers (year-round)
  • Collecting native prairie seeds for planting (late summer/fall)
  • Pulling invasive weeds like garlic mustard and wild parsnip (spring/summer)
  • Burning brush piles (winter)

If you would like to volunteer outside, sign up here.

Groundswell also hosts field trips and events at Patrick Marsh and many other special places. If you would like to be notified about field trips and events, enter your email at the bottom of the page.

Cone flowers are not the only thing to blossom at the marsh

Beyond the brick walls of a Sun Prairie middle school, you’ll find a world where prairie flowers and math lessons meet.

Seventh grade students helped Groundswell restore an 18-acre area of prairie at Patrick Marsh Wildlife Area, planting seeds in a precise grid. Cone flowers were not the only thing to blossom.

Teachers at Patrick Marsh Middle School connected the Groundswell prairie planting to geometry. They introduced the students to concepts of ratios and proportions, tied the planting to plots on a map and flew a drone so the students could get a bird’s eye view of the work.

“There are so many cool different aspects to that one experience,” said seventh grade teacher Vince Brandl. “It’s like a spiderweb, and as we connect everything, the more we see the additional connections that we can make.”

Patrick Marsh is a place where Groundswell helps people of all ages make connections with nature. Located on the Northeast side of Sun Prairie, the marsh includes parcels owned by the DNR, Groundswell and the City of Sun Prairie.

Groundswell has worked to expand and manage the protected area while serving as a catalyst to connect the community, including the nearby middle school, to the marsh.

“Groundswell has all these things happening, but they still check in with us,” Brandl said. “They ask us what we need or if they have an idea, they ask us what we think.”

Trails at the marsh take visitors along the edge of Brazee Lake, and through areas of prairie and oak savanna. The trails are popular with birdwatchers, families and other who love the outdoors.

Groundswell regularly hosts community events and projects, including nature hikes that incorporate everything from pollinators to poetry. Children are a common sight in the marsh, especially when school is in session.

“I can take a 10-minute hike outside of our school with the kids and talk about prairie plants or erosion,” Brandl said. “In a 15-minute walk, we’re using microscopes or kids are bringing out their Chromebooks and taking pictures or creating journals. There’s no other school in our community that has this, and it’s right in our backyard.”

For years, Patrick Marsh Middle School has held an after school Discovery Club that provides an opportunity for children to learn about the plans and animals of the marsh. Each fall the school also holds “Marsh Madness of Learning” when middle school students create lessons about the marsh and then teach elementary students.

“We just stay back as adults and let the kids teach the kids,” Brandl said.

One year, it wasn’t possible for the children to gather, so a Groundswell staff member spoke to students live from the marsh via a video feed from his phone. The discussion touched on environmental careers and included a little more geometry. “How to make the slope of the trail at not too steep of an angle,” Brandl said.

Groundswell also recently unveiled a sculpture that it completed with the help of donors and the inspiration of students at Sun Prairie’s Prairie Phoenix Academy and Westside Elementary School. The interactive sculpture represents resilience, second chances, and personal and community growth. It’s in the shape of a phoenix and it rises from the earth.

Brandl said the middle school years are not easy for some students.

“Kids in middle school are often very down, especially when they are not moving.” Brandl said. “Getting outside, into the sunlight, brings some happiness. It brings learning back.”

Our Projects at Patrick Marsh

Open to the Public Hunting is Allowed
5 Projects (Alphabetized by Project Area)
This 23-acre property protects part of the upland landscape on the south side of Patrick Marsh. This property is open to the public.
These tracts were originally purchased by Dane County and subsequently transferred to Groundswell for more efficient land management at Patrick Marsh.
This 25-acre acquisition of upland property permanently protects views of Patrick Marsh and provides additional nesting and foraging habitat for waterfowl. Groundswell transferred the property to the City of Sun Prairie.
This 22.5-acre property protects part of the upland landscape on the south side of Patrick Marsh. This property is open to the public.
This 35-acre property protects wetland and savanna habitat on the south side of Patrick Marsh. This property is open the public.