Centuries of Beauty
in Wauwatosa, WI
What is Sanctuary Woods?
Sanctuary Woods is an ancient oak savanna along with recovering woodlands and wetlands covering a portion of the Milwaukee County Grounds north of Watertown Plank Road.
The Milwaukee County Grounds were established over 150 years ago, and historically spanned over 1000 acres in all four quadrants surrounding the I45 and Watertown Plank Road interchange.
The majority of those grounds have been developed and today less than 300 acres remain of largely open areas.
Within that is a 66-acre parcel called Sanctuary Woods – portions of which served as a retreat space for the 1800s mental health hospital previously adjacent to the woods.
Depending on season and the stillness of visitors, they may exceptionally see any the woods wildlife including deer, coyote, long-eared owls, hawks, and Butler’s garter snakes.
Photo Credit Eddee Daniel.
Select the map image to open the interactive Google Map layer
in your browser (opens a new viewing tab)
When this map is opened on a mobile browser, the upper right corner contains an optional Google sign-in (sometimes plain white box). Selecting this will open the map in Google Maps app (if loaded) which will then show a visitor’s location relative to any of the entries.
There are always multiple images for each entry which may require selecting the lead picture to reveal the rest.
Over 150 years, the hand of humanity has touched this space, gracing it with elements like fieldstone staircases, and a split-boulder pavilion to complement the infrastructure of the formal hospital.
To enhance the enjoyment by modern-day visitors, an interactive map has been developed highlighting some of the former and current infrastructure.
It aims to answer questions from the origins of a 6-foot dolphin vase next to a former lake, to how a crumbling cement porch used to look out over sunken gardens. Each entry uniquely connects a location with several historic photos or maps and an extended description. Together, these assist visitors in bridging a century of history with the infrastructure and natural beauty that remains.
Some points of interest are included beyond the Sanctuary Woods to further expand the adventure. Since there is no formal path system, each visit can be a custom-crafted adventure to new points on the map.
Sanctuary Woods is north of Waterplank Road across from the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.
In Google Maps, search "Sanctuary Woods Parking"
By vehicle, it can be most easily visited:
Start at the intersection of 87th & Watertown Plank Road. Three searchable businesses close to there include:
RMHC Eastern Wisconsin (Ronald McDonald House)
Wisconsin Athletic Club
**PLEASE GO SLOWLY, there are blind corners with frequent bikes, pedestrians and pets.
Travel north roughly two blocks to a “Y” intersection.
At the "Y" go northwest (left) for 0.3 miles to a dead-end circle which has space for parking
Sanctuary Woods is any forested area south of that circle
There is no formal signage, but there is a network of informal path systems. Please stay on the trails.
There are no bathrooms or garbage cans. Please be thoughtful to only bring what you can pack out.
How is Sanctuary Woods Protected?
The future use of this land has become a political football as city, county, and private investors regularly propose and evaluate more formal development including 6-story mixed-use buildings containing hundreds of apartments.
These woods are a critical part of a connected eco-system including prairies and wetland which provide unique habitat to several species the state of Wisconsin labels as “special concern”. Additionally, just like 150 years ago these woods and surrounding area still provide a natural sanctuary for people seeking an escape from existing urban development. It is possible to enter these woods and quickly feel completely isolated from any modern development. Grassroots activist groups have been working for decades to secure re-zoning of this space as permanent conservancy, protected from future development.
One of those groups is the County Grounds Coalition. This group advocates for all remaining greenspace on the Milwaukee County Grounds to be preserved. The adjacent map was developed by the CGC to help define the space. This map is also consistent with the Life Sciences District Master Plan (LSD-MP) passed by the City of Wauwatosa in December 2018.
How can you help?
We need a fair number of us to show up and let them know we still care and are keeping an eye on what our local government officials are doing. Remember also that it's just as important to let our officials know when they're doing the right thing as it is to protest when they're not.
Please consider attending any of these four events at Wauwatosa City Hall to show that you care about the future of this area. You don’t have to speak, the volume of people attending has made a difference in the response from our local government officials:
Nov 11 6:00p Plan Commission (voting session) addressing proposed construction of 5-story, 147 Apartment units immediately adjacent to Sanctuary Woods
Some concerns may include the pressure of this volume of residents immediately against an environmental conservancy; Whether 5 stories is sufficiently bird friendly; What will the buffer be during construction? Make environmental conditions a requirement, not just promises.
See agenda packet for the November 11th Plan Commission meeting.
http://wauwatosacitywi.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=1&ID=2894&Inline=True – Section 5, Pages 66-116
Nov 19 7:30p (TBD) Public Hearing on rezoning to conservancy (chance to speak)
Nov 26 7:30p Community Affairs on rezoning to conservancy (voting session)
Dec 3 7:30p Common Council on rezoning to conservancy (voting session)
Dec 17 7:30 (TBD) Public hearing on proposed construction of 5-story, 147 apartment units immediately adjacent to Sanctuary Woods (chance to speak)
To sign up for future updates, use the header navigation and select "Events & Updates"
Milwaukee County Parks is helping facilitate a buckthorn remediation project in a section of woods which is BOTH County Grounds Park and the Wauwatosa Sanctuary Woods. Several Boy Scouts are forming the core-group, and the invitation is extended to other interested community members who are welcome to join. The parks department provides the supplies, training, and onsite supervision.
See the good work started in 2019 here: https://awealthofnature.org/buckthorn-brigade-tackles-sanctuary-woods/
To sign up for future service opportunities, use the header navigation and select "Events & Updates"
Guided Tours / Questions / More to Add?
After years of providing tours of the area, Jonathan has crowdsourced collateral to create this interactive map. He passionately informs people about this space so that they can also unfold the mystery of the remaining artifacts and the unique dense urban forest. With this connection, more people can help ensure it is protected from development which would further compromise the habitat and history.
Jonathan has been honored to conduct tours for elected officials, MRMC students and administrators, TV producers, authors, photographers, and social groups. Coordinating with other passionate tour-guides we can accommodate groups up to 50, in nearly any season. Interested? Send an email to email@example.com or lookup future pre-scheduled tours use the header navigation and select "Events & Updates"
Jonathan is always seeking new resources to include, from pictures to personal experiences, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1924 hand drawn map
Sanctuary Woods at the Milwaukee County Grounds gets national recognition - Highlighted in Milwaukee Magazine
Michelle Madden's "111 Places in Milwaukee That You Must Not Miss" featuring Sanctuary Woods
Eddee Daniel has compiled a stunning book "The Milwaukee County Grounds: Island of Hope". There is also a companion 6 minute video produced by Friends of the Monarch Trail. This is an excellent overview of some of the beauty captured in this space. Eddee Daniel also maintains a nature blog featuring many attributes of the County Grounds an other areas at A Wealth of Nature
The interactive map includes frequent references to a 1916 book describing this area:“The Institutional Care of the Insane In The United States And Canada” - Volume III - By Henry M- Hurd, William F. Drewry, Richard Dewey, Charles W. Pilgrim, G. Alder Blumer and T. J. W. Burgess
Special thanks to the local historic societies who have preserved historic photos and made them available. They are now so prolific on the internet it is difficult to ascribe source. Please support these institutions.
Special thanks to the County Grounds Coalition who strives to recognize and preserve the remaining undeveloped area
Near the Echelon Apartments (Eschweiller Buildings) is the Monarch Trail