The Dells of the Eau Claire: Across the 45th Parallel

“… remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”

~ Buckaroo Banzai

Vacation at last! Both of my shows at Door Shakespeare were open, and I was free. For the next twenty-eight days I had nothing to do but hike and drive and see things. It was July 2. I was meeting my wife and stepdaughter in Wall, South Dakota on July 5 where we would begin working our way toward Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. Twenty-eight days of hiking and driving and seeing?Puh-lenty of time to create lots of content for this blog. I had three days to get myself to Wall. What to do with the extra time? Puh-leeze. Create content for this blog, of course.

The morning of the second, I rose early and headed straight for the trail lounged around, lazily packed, and finally left Sturgeon Bay just before noon. In keeping with the rest of my morning, it was an easy two hour drive to the trailhead for the Dells of the Eau Claire segment of the Ice Age Trail. If you’re keeping score, you’ll remember that I have been on the IAT several times before. Wisconsin’s 1,200-mile long trail (which I seem to be accidentally section hiking) begins in Sturgeon Bay and ends in Interstate State Park near the Minnesota state line. Or vice versa. You can read my other Ice Age posts here and here. I pulled into a small dirt lot off of County Road Z, about thirteen miles east of Wausau, at 2:15pm.

The trailhead was messy and overgrown. Things were touching me. I hate that. I hoped that wasn’t indicative of the entire hike. A short way down the path, the tall grass stopped molesting my legs, and the trail opened up. Whew.

I spent a lot of the first half-mile hiking on wooden planks. Soon, I arrived at the east bank of the Eau Claire river. There, the trail turned north and transmogrified from a narrow thread through grass and brush into an open boulevard through massive rock formations and old-growth forest. I tramped along the river for almost a mile before coming to an unassuming sign posted on the trail.

I was crossing the 45th parallel.

In my head, a deep-voiced movie-announcer heralded my crossing with reverb and bombastic supporting music.

Electrified, I strode across the halfway point between North Pole and Equator, the deeply profound, yet wholly inane, words of Buckaroo Banzai ringing in my ears: “… No matter where you go, there you are“. It applied perfectly. I was both stepping across an important line of demarcation and merely taking one more step along a typical hike by a Wisconsin River. And yet, there I was.

Exactly like Buckaroo’s experience in the silly, but infinitely entertaining, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 45th Parallel 8th Dimension. Except there were no inter-dimensional aliens. At least that I could see.

Now closer to the North Pole than the Equator, I continued up the Eau Claire River. The trail never strayed too far from the water and sometimes tracked perilously close to steep drop-offs. My path climbed higher above the river until I was skirting a rocky gorge – the dells of Eau Claire. Dells (from the French “dalles” for “narrows”), are valleys or canyons, in this case, cut into Precambrian-age rhyolite schist. Precambrian-age rhyolite schist is a phrase that here means, “bumpy bumpy rock”. The waters of the Eau Claire danced over this schisty rock, tumbling toward the Wisconsin River, some twenty miles downstream of the dells. I was getting some gorgeous gorge views from the water’s edge, unaware that better, more sweeping views of the dells were to be had on the higher cliffs west of the Eau Claire.

The Ice Age Trail continued along the river for another third of a mile before crossing via a concrete footbridge. On the other side was parking, a day-use area, and a ranger station. Once across, I started back downstream, now skirting the river on a rocky crag some twenty feet above the water. Several viewpoints looked over the gorge, providing a panoramic overview of the Dells of the Eau Claire. I traipsed downriver for nearly a mile before the trail crossed back over, and I retraced my steps back to the parking area.

The Dells of the Eau Claire is a rewarding five miles. Plentiful water views and the dells conspire with smooth, well-maintained trail to deliver a truly pleasant hike. It’s a pretty easy hike too – I rated it “moderate” due to a very few precarious sections and the frequent proximity to steep drop-offs, but there’s no part of this five miles that a child or reasonably fit person in their sixties or seventies couldn’t manage. The downside? This section of the IAT is bookended by significant stretches of road-hiking, so if you want to extend it, your only dirt-path options are a couple of spurs that track through the woods and away from the river. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in the area. Don’t forget to view the dells from both sides of the river and enjoy your adventures – across the 45th parallel!

Date: July 2, 2022
Location: Aniwa, WI
Trailhead: 44.986757, -89.357033
Distance: 5.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 172 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Anishinabewaki, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, and Oma͞eqnomenew-ahkew (Menominee)

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