Willow River State Park (Wisconsin) 16-Jun-2022

Having heard seemingly endless tales about how cold it is (or will soon be) in Minnesota, we weren’t exactly prepared for the arrival of a heat dome. πŸ₯΅ We’ve been heat domed in Oregon and on the San Juan River in Utah and came away from those experiences half baked (if we weren’t already). But the heat dome here – although much more humid than out West – lasted for only a day. This time. Today and tomorrow were forecast to be sunny, breezy, and much less humid. But another, longer duration heat dome πŸ₯Ί is forecast to soon smother us. An aversion to excessive sweat suggested we put house repairs on hold and hit a trail (or two) while the weather wasn’t approximating the inside of a sauna.

Our now battered 60 Hikes guide pointed us to Willow River State Park across the Saint Croix River in Wisconsin. Yes, going there wouldn’t count as part of our Minnesota state park quest. But Willow River (one of only two Wisconsin hikes in 60 Hikes) called to us because it isn’t far from home (gas hasn’t gotten any cheaper πŸ˜₯) and promised us an amazing waterfall (which was a promise fulfilled). So today we went east, into the Land of Cheese, to do the guide’s Hike #60.

Willow River is apparently one of the most popular parks in Wisconsin. Such popularity allows it (and one other in the state) to charge out-of-state visitors $13 rather than $11 for a daily vehicle admission sticker. Just the price we had to pay for venturing forth from the Gopher State. πŸ™„ That said, the trails within the park are wide, well marked, and easy to follow. Our $13 got us a large park brochure with a trail map – but there are trail maps posted at each trail junction too. Hard to get lost.

We parked at the lot nearest the park office and went toward the Falls on the Pioneer and Knapweed Trails. It seemed best to visit the Falls first lest there be crowds later in the day. There weren’t but it was easy to see how there probably were on weekends and holidays. There was a stiff breeze blowing all day, which served to keep any mosquitos grounded and the humidity at bay. The delightful opposite of a heat dome. πŸ˜ƒ

Starting out on the Knapweed Trail under a blue bird sky
Descending toward the Falls
Our first view of the Falls
Willow Falls I
Willow Falls II
Willow Falls III

The canyon above the Falls was once plugged with a concrete dam that impounded the Willow River for hydroelectric purposes. Remarkably, the dam was completely removed in 1992, thus returning the river to its natural course (and giving this park an amazing tourist attraction). All that remains of the dam is a piece of large diameter pipe high on river left.

The now gone Willow Falls Dam
The Willow River downstream of the Falls
A butterfly sucks some salty minerals from The LovedOne’s sweat band

From the Falls, we continued west on the Willow Falls Trail to the shores of Little Falls Lake and on to a campground, where we joined the Little Falls Trail to the Nature Center and Little Falls Dam (which had been completely replaced in 2020).

On the Willow Falls Trail
Marshes at the east end of Little Falls Lake
Enjoying the breeze at Little Falls Lake
Little Falls Lake
On the Little Falls Trail

We arrived at the Nature Center just as a throng of small children – all clad in identical green T-shirts – was leaving. Some kind of summer field trip (which brought back now dim memories of similar field trips we both went on as kids). Another of these green-clad throngs was waiting for us when we went over to see the new – and now structurally sound – Little Falls Dam. A heron, perched on the railing on the other side of the dam from us and the tiny green-clad hoards, seemed unperturbed by us, them, or the dam.

The new (2020) Little Falls Dam
A Great Blue Heron (arrow)
A last look at Little Falls Lake

From the dam, we made our way back to the parking lot via the Oak Ridge and Knapweed Trails. Expecting a level walk back, we (and our thigh muscles) were surprised to find that both trails undulated a lot. No great changes in elevation at any one time but enough cumulatively for a little more of a workout than expected.

On the Oak Ridge Trail
One of the few mushrooms we saw along the trails
Across a prairie restoration on the Knapweed Trail
A skeleton on the prairie
A small grove of pines near the parking lot

Our loop on various trails came to 5.5 miles (8.8 km) with a total elevation gain of 245 feet (75 m) spread across numerous undulations. The three cascades of the Falls were obviously the center piece of this day. It was good of the state to have to had the foresight (and the budget) to get rid of the aging dam that once loomed over these cascades. Beyond the Falls, we enjoyed the trails, some bird sightings (a colorful Baltimore Oriole, a woodpecker, and a heron), a few wildflowers, a mushroom, and the avenues of trees.

The 60 Hikes guide described nearby Hudson as “…full of small-river-town charm…” and so it was. Its downtown was pretty busy for a Thursday around noon but we managed to find a parking spot and totter over for lunch at the Black Rooster Bistro, a newish entry to the several eateries lining the main street. But our food and beverages choices were very good πŸ”πŸΊπŸ‘ and a fitting capstone to yet another arduous hike. πŸ€”πŸ˜ And then…back to the Gopher State!

Our loop at Willow Falls. This pre-1992 map still shows the since removed dam above the Falls. The new dam is “D”.

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