The Making of the Welsh Hills Trail

July 13th

By: Christina Harrington

charrington@taliesinpreservation.org

Christina Harrington

The hiking trail in the Welsh Hills of the Taliesin estate is the perfect crash course in the natural beauty that inspired Wright to design homes across the United States. The path winds its way along the side of the hills, tunneling through the trees and breaking out into the sunlit grasses below diverse, lush prairies. It begins at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center and ends at the tranquil resting place of the Lloyd-Jones familyUnity Chapel. 

The journey to develop and install the trail was equally as winding and diverse. I came to Taliesin by way of Taliesin West, seeking greener pastures and eager to dive into the Interpretive Trail Development internship. I was new to developing hiking trails and the seemingly endless Driftless ecology, but time spent in the flower gardens, fields, and wild areas of the estate with passionate staff members began to broaden my appreciation of nature. The more time I spent exploring the estate, my conviction to ensure the trail came to fruition only increased.

Besides tramping through the underbrush in every cranny of the 800-acre property and pulling endless weeds out of garden beds, I dived into research on constructing appropriate walking surfaces, how to choose the best location for a trail, and how to find potential funding sources. Then a simple suggestion from my internship mentor to contact the Ice Age Trail Alliance for guidance changed the gameconfirming a time-honored lesson that it’s who you know, not necessarily what you know. 

An Ice Age Trail staff member and an intern came to Taliesin to see the potential trail location, learn more about our vision, and provide some thoughts. My mentor and I took them into the hills and explained the historical significance, showing them the outlooks where Wright himself would picnic. The beauty of the hills hooked our visitors, and they were committed to making the idea a reality. 

More Ice Age Trail staff members followed in their footsteps, all equally excited to provide access to these historic hills for visitors. Their expertise and advice far exceeded our own, and they guided us to change our trail location from the top of the hills to the middle of the hills. Avoiding the ridge meant escaping the immense costs of building switchback trails or even building stairs into the sometimes steep slopes. Instead, the middle of the hill would keep the course about the same elevation throughout, thereby reducing construction and cost. We were disappointed to miss out on the dramatic views, but winding in and out of the wooded areas proved to be an exciting journey.

Several trips to Taliesin by the Ice Age Trail staff meant several romps through the hills, walking the potential path and marking it with simple yellow ribbons tied to tree branches. It was hard to imagine in the early stages, and fighting the vegetation at almost every step was sometimes miserable, but once we had laid out the mile-long trail, the potential became palpable. We even spoke about how to one day connect this trail with a pathway to the upper ridge so that visitors could enjoy those dramatic views one day. 

We established the trail course, and then it was time for the sweat, blood, and tears of dedicated volunteers to shine. We planned to start with two days of volunteer work. We provided food, tools, instructions, and even a place to camp for anyone interested, modeling our volunteer weekend on the Ice Age Trail building events. After spreading the word through the surrounding communities and securing a few generous, long-time Ice Age Trail volunteers, we had nearly twenty volunteers ready to help this vision become a reality.

The weekend began with a lesson from the Ice Age Trail staff about how to appropriately use a pickaxe, a McLeod, a rogue hoe, a fire rake, and the all-important bucket. Next, we learned the elements of creating a trail that would be sustainable and withstand rain, snow, and hikers. The key to a good path was making it look natural and part of the environment, which coincidently applies to certain historic structures just across the street.

Two eight-hour days of scraping the earth into tight, precise angles created a flat walking surface for nearly a third of the trail and made the first big success of my budding career. Since those first two volunteer days, there have been several more opportunities to apply our trail-building skills. A few weeks ago, I learned the trail was completed with a final workday that included help from a WisCorp (a 501(c)(3) conservation corp headquartered in LaCrosse) team. The future vision for the path sees it becoming a piece of a more extensive Driftless Area trail that will loop through the entire region.

While I no longer work on the Taliesin landscape, it remains a piece of the Taliesin estate that I will always champion. Sometimes overlooked for the more well-known architecture, the natural landscape will always be the key to Taliesin’s unique history. I hope the trail will be only the beginning of ways visitors can access this piece of Wright’s legacy.

These days the trail sits quietly, waiting for visitors to bathe in its cool shadows and windswept vegetation. Less than an hour on the track will remind hikers that they are in the unique Driftless Area and may even provide glimpses of the inspiration that Wright himself felt, gazing across the valley to the Taliesin estate’s hills.