Hike This: Mink River Estuary State Natural Area

Photos by Aleah Kidd

If you haven’t explored the Mink River Estuary yet, then I feel obligated to tell you right off that you’re missing out. And further, you need to know that the best way to experience the Mink River is by way of canoe or kayak. It’s a magical experience that’s a must-do for any nature lover.

The reason the Mink River is so special is because it’s actually not a river. This beautiful waterway is a freshwater estuary that’s treasured on a statewide and even national level, and Wisconsin has only two estuaries: this one and the Louis River Estuary in Superior. 

A freshwater estuary is a semi-enclosed area where waters of a lake mix with waters from rivers or streams, making a rare combination of river and lake water. Unlike rivers or streams, the direction of water flow changes depending on the season and even the time of day. 

These mixed waters are chemically distinct and attract a wide variety of wildlife, making the area an excellent place for bird-watching. More than 200 species may pass through annually, including bitterns, black-crowned night herons, black ducks, black terns, blue-winged teal, common loons, great blue herons, herring gulls, marsh hawks and wood ducks. During the late summer and fall, it’s possible to see double-crested cormorants, red-breasted mergansers, bald eagles and sandhill cranes.

Although the view from the water can’t be beat, the preserved area around the estuary is also worth exploring, and its one-mile trail is the perfect out-and-back hike for a picnic. The easy hike begins in a hardwood forest and travels toward the Mink River Estuary, where hikers are rewarded with a grassy patch of shoreline and a serene view of the water. 

Similar to White Cliff Preserve, the forest section features impressively tall trees that dwarf everything else. As you get nearer to the water, the surroundings become covered with moss, and the ground becomes damp. The path is wide and easy to navigate, with minimal elevation change.

Just five minutes from Ellison Bay, this northern hike is a great way to spend a leisurely afternoon or early evening. If you’ve visited nearby Newport State Park, then you’ve likely glimpsed the trailhead to this preserve off a sharp curve on County NP as you were arriving or leaving. The parking lot is on the right side of County NP, about a mile after you turn off Highway 42.