Horse trail riders and other trail users at Wildcat Mountain State Park are able to enjoy improvements made in recent years through the efforts of the Friends of Wildcat Mountain.

“We were a bunch of volunteers who wanted to start a ‘Friends’ group,” Friends secretary Pat Jenkins said. “In 2016, we started getting things rolling to get organized.”

To raise funds to cover the cost of organizing, the group raffled a quilt made by a supporter. The Friends organization became an official 501c3 nonprofit in 2018.

Even before the Friends group became official, volunteers were making improvements in the horse campground and on the trails. Members of the RB Riders Saddle Club built eight 10-by-10 pens to hold horses when trail riders’ camped out at the park. The park then added an additional eight corrals to bring the total to 16 at the horse campground.

“We received Wisconsin State Horse Council Trail Grants to build an additional eight corrals this year, four at the west end of camp and four at the east end of camp,” Jenkins said. “In addition, we received a second grant for the installation of cables and tie rings on all hi-line poles through-out the horse camp and screenings to build up under the hi-lines.”

Another grant from the Wisconsin State Horse Council was used to correct a section of a trail. The trail improvement and other projects were addressed during a recent work day.

“November 2 was a good day for us,” Jenkins said. “We had 21 volunteers show up ready to work. We had three work crews. One crew of six built a floating bridge. It corrected about a 30-foot muddy stretch of the Green Trail. It’s made of railroad ties with a three-inch space between the ties filled with gravel; it’ll have some give to it.”

That same day, a seven-member crew cut, split and hauled wood to the woodshed at the horse campground, where it was available for purchase by campers. Proceeds from the sale of firewood go toward future projects.

A crew of eight volunteers worked to extend water to the far ends of the horse campground with the help of a Wildcat Mountain State Park employee who operated the trencher. The water project was funded by proceeds of the quilt raffle.

“Now, we have water running all the way through the camp,” Jenkins said. “The water project was four years in the making, because conditions weren’t right; it was one Mother Nature issue after another.”

Other funds for future projects are also raised through the sale of T-shirts and hoodies decorated with a Wildcat Mountain horse design.

One of 24 state parks with a mile or more of horse trails, Wildcat Mountain State Park is located near Ontario, in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. The 3,821-acre park has 15 miles of riding trails and a campground with 24 campsites for trail riders who bring their own horses. Because of the hilly terrain of the region, riders can ride up to an elevation of 200 to 250 feet to take in scenic views of the coulees and ridges.

Seven trails in the park are designated for horseback riding. Hikers and horses can share the horse trails but hikers are directed to yield to the horses. Horses are not allowed on the hiking trails.

Shannon Meinders and her husband, Craig, often ride at Wildcat, enjoying the serenity and less crowded conditions they find at the park.

“It is our very favorite place to ride,” Meinders said. “There are many campgrounds that you are camping with hundreds of people. We have been visiting this park for more than 20 years. The park, in general, is just the prettiest place in Wisconsin.”

Meinders finds her frequent rides haven’t diminished her appreciation of the scenic views.

“You can ride the trails the park has over and over, and yet, it seems like a new view around each corner, especially as the seasons change,” Meinders said. “There is a variety of trails that range from some sections that are easy to some that are more challenging, yet always providing a wonderful experience.”

Meinders also enjoys the wildlife riders might encounter during their rides.

“We have seen eagles, badger, coyote and a lot of deer,” Meinders said. “Most deer barely move away.”

State trail passes are required for riders 16 years and older, and the Friends group has an arrangement with the state to sell the passes. The group receives 20 percent of the sales with the proceeds to be used for park improvements. In addition to selling the passes themselves, the Friends have also contracted with vendors to sell the annual passes; the proceeds are then divided evenly with the vendors.

“The passes are good for any state trail, including the bike trails,” Jenkins said.

Although the Friends group was initially formed by trail riders, the organization is being joined by other park users. The Wildcat Mountain group received two grants from the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks to purchase supplies and equipment for educational sessions. Second-graders from nearby school districts were able to attend nature study classes and other park visitors have been treated to special camping activities.

“There was a raptor demonstration, a Night-Sounds-on-the-Kickapoo event and wagon rides,” Jenkins said. “We had an evening of wagon rides with a team and wagon supplied by one of our Friends members. While waiting for rides, folks could enjoy music around the campfire along with a s’mores bar. On Labor Day weekend, there was a meet-the-horse day at the people’s campground and some of the kids were given horse rides.”

While the Friends group is finding satisfaction in everything it’s accomplished so far, the members aren’t planning to rest on their laurels.

“Our projects are never ending,” Jenkins said. “We have several projects in mind for the future.”

One of those projects is to have the trails evaluated and have park representatives attend the WSHC’s trail-building school held in the spring, with the goal of learning techniques for trail improvements and maintenance.

Friends of Wildcat Mountain can be followed on one or both of the group’s Facebook pages.