Willow River State Park: Beautiful Cascades and Underwhelming Overlooks

It was day two of my journey to Wall, SD to meet my wife and stepdaughter. On the previous day, I left Sturgeon Bay, hiked the Dells of the Eau Claire, and ended the day’s travels just outside the Twin Cities, on the east bank of the Saint Croix River. Despite being just twenty miles from downtown Minneapolis-St. Paul, I was still in Wisconsin. Intent on being back in my room to shower before checkout, I arrived at the trailhead just before 8:00am.

I plucked an envelope from the dropbox, slipped my eleven dollar out-of-state day-use fee into the sleeve, and peeled off the paper backing to expose the adhesive strip that would seal my money in the envelope. Under the backing were some instructions:

“Place your fee and the adhesive backing in the envelope before sealing”

Okay, I thought, why do they want this little strip of waxed paper back? I would find out at the end of my hike; you will find out at the end of this post. (See how I’m building tension here.)

I set off down the pink-blazed Burkhardt Trail. The sun burned away the morning mist as the trail tracked through the western Wisconsin woods. Within a few hundred yards, the trail entered a sunny field. To my left, the Willow River rushed toward the falls; to my right, wildflowers bloomed everywhere.

Eventually, the trail plunged back into the forest and, at eight-tenths of a mile, a side trail appeared. I checked my map and found a tiny “binoculars” symbol. I turned left. When I reached the spot, a wood and steel platform was perched excitingly on the canyon’s precipice, beckoning me forward. Eager to see what dramatic panorama would unfold, I walked out to the far end. What unfolded was a breath-taking scape of … trees. The application of baby, or even big-boy binoculars would only produce … bigger trees. If I leaned waaaay out I could just glimpse the waters of the Willow River about 120 feet below. Disappointed, I carried on, hoping the next viewpoint would be better. View number had some water in it, but mostly … trees. The tiny binoculars had let me down. I gave up on overlooks and started my descent.

Two-hundred forty-three wooden steps later, I was standing on a bridge with a completely unobstructed view of Willow Falls. This forty-five foot cascade tumbles out of the Wisconsin forest in three main tiers and measures 100 feet at its widest point. Despite the relatively early hour there were already fisherman and cataractophiles gathering at the base. This is a massive waterfall. (You can probably see these falls from the International Space Station with the naked eye. Just not from one of the park overlooks.) Forty-five feet may not seem like star-power elevation but, combined with its significant width, Willow Falls is truly a sight to behold. I took a number of photos from the bridge before continuing west on the Willow Falls Trail.

Wide and smooth, the Willow Falls Trail was more riverside thoroughfare than woodland path, and I passed numerous folks out for a morning stroll. The Willow Falls Trail followed the river for a short while before cutting inland. Less than a mile from the falls, I was standing on the shore of Little Falls Lake.

Little Falls Lake was surrounded by marsh, tall reeds and grasses. In the still July air its surface was as smooth as glass and the reflection of the sky in it’s mirror-like surface was virtually indistinguishable from its heavenly twin. I had intended to loop around on an inland route, but an overgrown trail along with mounting heat and humidity drained my ambition. Near the tip of a small peninsula I turned back. Soon I couldn’t keep my glasses from fogging up, and I hiked much of the return trip in a hazy dreamscape of beige, green, and blue.

When I returned to Willow Falls, I ventured down onto an expansive, rocky crag at the base of the falls. This location provided dramatic views of the frothy cascade, although by this time there were people wading on the tiers of the falls. I peered into some shallow caves in the canyon wall but eventually ran out of legitimate reasons to delay the twenty-story climb back out of the canyon. When I reached the top, I was breathing heavily but felt good, and I rejoiced at this small step toward regaining my strength and stamina. I retraced my steps to the parking lot.

I arrived back at my car just as a ranger was emptying the park fee dropbox. (This has been eating you alive, hasn’t it?) I asked why in the Sam Hill they wanted me to include the waxed adhesive backing in the envelope along with my money. The answer, once revealed, was, like the park viewpoints, disappointing. The ranger explained that, if they didn’t specifically ask for the adhesive backing to be included, visitors (a word that here means hordes of Gatorade-guzzling, athleisure-wearing, basic bros) would simply drop the strips of paper onto the ground at the base of the dropbox. On purpose. In a state park. For more on this brand of jackassery, see my post on Switchback Jacks, Trail Hogs, and Trash Trolls.

Willow Falls and Little Falls Lake made for a pleasant hike with a great payoff. This is a stunning falls and easy to get to – including by a half-mile level stroll from the Willow Falls parking lot. I would recommend starting at the River Road Parking Area and enjoying the hike down. However, if it’s summer and the foliage is at its fullest – maybe skip the overlooks. ♦

Date: July 3, 2022
Location: Hudson, WI
Trailhead: 45.028205, -92.667352
Distance: 4.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 261 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 Wahpekute and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ

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