At a Glance
Westport Prairie is a 227-acre wildlife area on the east side of Waunakee, WI. With 1.5 miles of trails, visitors are invited to explore the prairies and 14-acre drumlin. Recreation opportunities include wildlife viewing, cross country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, hunting and trapping. Land at Westport Prairie is protected by the Wisconsin DNR and Groundswell Conservancy.
Groundswell manages Westport Prairie in partnership with local residents, The Prairie Enthusiasts, nearby Waunakee High School, Wisconsin DNR, and local governments. We maintain and improve Westport Prairie to connect people to the land and to each other.
A Tapestry of Grasses and Flowers
Although small in area, Westport Prairie provides a very detailed illustration of Wisconsin’s rich natural heritage of prairie and oak savanna. Like the Brazilian rain forest, the African Serengeti, or the Florida Everglades, Westport Prairie is a beautiful, biologically-rich, but imperiled place.
In southeastern Wisconsin, under a mile half-mile of ice, thousands of elongated hills known as drumlins formed parallel to the ice sheet’s advance. In pre-European settlement days the Empire Prairie blanketed this landscape in northern Dane and southern Columbia counties with a rich tapestry of grasses and flowers. Now, very little of that once-vast prairie remains; but one place does: Westport Prairie. This remnant of the once vast Empire Prairie has been permanently preserved thanks to the efforts of Groundswell, our conservation partners, and conservation-minded landowners.
What To Do
Westport Prairie is a great place to hike, see plants and wildlife, and reconnect with nature. Westport Prairie is open seven days a week from dawn until dusk.
Trails at Westport Prairie are easy to moderate difficulty. All trails are mowed at least three feet wide, and many are five feet wide. See the Westport Prairie map for more details.
Camping and picnic fires are not allowed. Hunting and trapping is limited. Remember to leave no trace!
Plants to See
Westport Prairie is home to many dry and dry-mesic plant species. Depending on the time of year, you could find some of our favorites like: pasque flower, bird’s foot violet, prairie smoke, shooting star, rattlesnake master, compass plant, rough blazingstar, fringed puccoon, and plenty of very old bur oaks.
Wildlife to See and Hear
If you listen closely, you could hear a few grassland birds, including dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks, and sometimes Henslow’s sparrows! Also be on the lookout for sandhill cranes, monarch butterflies, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, and even fox snakes.
How To Get Here
Westport Prairie is located on the east side of Waunakee, WI and can be accessed from Bong Road off Hwy 113. There is a large parking lot at the main entrance near the tobacco barn and a 5-car parking lot at the top of the hill on Bong Road. See the Westport Prairie map for more details.
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 Westport Prairie, we spend our time:
- 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 (spring/summer)
- Burning brush piles (winter)
If you would like to volunteer outside, sign up here!
Groundswell also hosts field trips and events at Westport Prairie 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.
A Special Place You Don’t Want To See Disappear
On a mild and sunny February day, Groundswell volunteers walked slowly through the snow and stubble of a Town of Westport corn field. They sprinkled something precious onto the frozen ground.
Tiny seeds from goldenrod, coneflowers and other native prairie plants slipped from the fingers of the volunteers and drifted toward the earth.
“This is exciting,” said Mark Thomas, one of the volunteers. “We have this little time capsule here and we’re working on expanding it.”
Westport Prairie is something of a last stand. It contains 227 protected acres that were in the heart of the Empire Prairie, a vast tallgrass prairie estimated to have once stretched for 150,000 acres across Columbia and Dane Counties. The Empire Prairie has largely disappeared, but in this place the land still buzzes with insects and bristles with wildflowers. It flourishes in defiance of nearby development.
Groundswell Conservancy protects and manages this important place. We conserve and expand wildlife habitat with the help of conservation partners, conservation-minded landowners, and dedicated volunteers.
Conservation work began here in 1984 when the state Department of Natural Resources created a state natural area on a 14-acre drumlin. A sliver of the Empire Prairie had survived on the drumlin, thanks in part to terrain created by the Wisconsin glacier. The land was simply too steep and rocky to cultivate. With the help of landowners who sold or donated land to the preserve, Groundswell extended the area of protected land to fields around the drumlin. Groundswell now restores more of the property to prairie. The restored buffer helps protect the original prairie remnant.
Groundswell’s staff works through the seasons to care for the land. We also hire young Operation Fresh Start participants and Prairie Partners interns to work on the prairie. We engage community volunteers and hold monthly work parties on the property.
A lot is at stake. The land holds more than 100 species of native plants, including the federally-threatened prairie bush clover. Grassland birds like the bobolink are dwindling in population and have little of this habitat left. The DNR estimates there’s less than 100 acres of remnant tallgrass prairie left in Wisconsin. The property also includes two oak savannas, a type of vegetation that’s more imperiled than tropical rainforest.
Groundswell is committed to protecting this habitat and preserving public access to the land. Our conservation efforts at Westport Prairie continue.
In the summer, staff and volunteers remove invasive plants like buckthorn and honeysuckle. In the fall, they carefully hand-gather prairie seeds. In winter, they return to plant the seeds on adjacent fields.
Thomas has volunteered numerous times on the Westport property and he intends to continue.
“When a place survives a really overwhelming shift in how land was treated and used, and it comes from a 10,000-plus year history, it’s worth some respect,” he said. “You don’t want to see it disappear.”