Located in Ashland, Wisconsin, the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center is both a visitor center and a natural history museum. It is supported by the Friends of the Center Alliance, a grassroots non-profit organization run by volunteers. The mission of the center is to promote the sustainability of the area’s natural, historical, and cultural resources. Set across 180 acres, the center itself contains three floors accessible by elevator or stairs. The first floor contains the permanent exhibits, an information center, a gift shop, a theater and a conference room, while the second floor features the history center and archives, and the third floor contains an observation deck.
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The Friends of the Center Alliance spent nearly six years lobbying for funds from federal and state governments. Once funds were obtained, construction began in 1995 and after three years, the center was officially opened to the public. The facility is operated by a partnership that includes the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Wisconsin Historical Society, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Wisconsin–Extension, and the Friends of the Center Alliance.
The permanent exhibits feature the natural history of the region, with a particular focus paid to nearby Lake Superior.
The Exhibit Hall showcases the interactions between human cultures, the land, and the natural resources of the Northern Great Lakes region over time. Covering such topics as fishing, the fur trade, and Native American tribes, the exhibits display key moments in history from the last ice age to the modern day. Also featured is a display on French trapping in the 1600s, an exhibit on iron ore mining and lumbering, and a 35-foot birch bark canoe from Lake Superior. Further interactive displays include a dynamite T-bar, which sets off an “explosion” in an iron shaft mine, and the interior of a fur trading post from the 18th century.
The Martin Hansen Theater plays a variety of short science and history-related documentaries. Visitors can contact the center to request longer documentaries for pre-arranged viewings.
The Spirit of the North Gift Shop is run by the Friends of the Center Alliance. It sells nature-themed pictorial works and a wide range of books on regional topics such as shipwrecks and lighthouses. Also on sale is an array of both fun and educational gifts for children.
The History Center and Archives is operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society. It contains records and documents relating to Wisconsin’s heritage such as marriages, deaths, and Northern Wisconsin census rolls for Native American tribes. Additionally, the history center sponsors periodic programs.
The third floor presents an observation deck. This lookout provides 360-degree views of Lake Superior, the walking trails, and the surrounding area. A box of binoculars is available for use by visitors.
Behind the center is the Aldo Leopold Trail. This boardwalk nature trail offers interpretive signs at certain points along the way, communicating the region’s heritage and the seasonal changes in fauna and flora. During winter months snowshoes are provided to visitors by the center. Looping in a 3/4-mile trek, the trail tours the Northwoods wetlands, a sedge meadow, a tamarack swamp, a mature cedar swamp, and a black ash swamp. Part of the trail encircles the children’s Nature Discovery Area, where school groups and families can watch dragonflies and butterflies, play in the sandbox, and climb inside a beaver lodge.
The Native Garden Walk is also available to visitors. This walk showcases the plantings of native herbs and flowers, with each identified by name and categorized by use.
The Community of Life Mural is a composition of six vignettes illustrating Native Americans, loggers, fur traders, commercial fisher-persons, and those who love the outdoors around the Lake Superior region. The piece was created by Kelly Meredith in 2013.
Ongoing Programs and Education
The center runs the Children’s Forest Program hosted by trained naturalists and educators. It focuses on the stewardship of the local region and includes educational activities adapted to grade levels. A further program offered by the center is the Leadership Secrets of the Voyagers Ed-Venture. Reenacting the teamwork used by ancient voyagers to travel across Lake Superior, this adventure program includes the use of double-seater kayaks on the Fish Creek estuary as well as challenges and games.
29270 County Hwy G, Ashland, WI 54806, Phone: 715-685-9983