Thursday, February 7, 2013

Day hike to Wisconsin's highest waterfall

Big Manitou Falls

Big Manitou Falls as high as Niagara

Just a few miles south of the largest metro area of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin flows the highest waterfall in either state. Short overlook trails in Pattison State Park provide a variety of scenic views of Big Manitou Falls.

Summer marks the most comfortable time to visit the falls, but each season delivers a unique experience. Winter means mist rising off the falls, spring brings thundering water flows, and summer reveals the fantastic ancient rocks forming the gorge below.

To reach the park, take Wis. Hwy. 35 south about 13 miles from Superior, Wis. The entrance and parking lot is on the left. An entry fee is required for each vehicle.

For the trailhead, head to the southwest corner of the parking lot and take the pathway through the park’s grassy picnic area past the nature center toward Interfalls Lake. Even though trees block the waterfalls, you’ll be able to hear its rumble.

Two views of falls
At the lake, follow the pedestrian tunnel under Hwy. 35. The half-mile-long trial’s difficulty level is easy with some elevation change.

Past the tunnel, stay on north side of Black River, which the Ojibwa Indians who once lived here called “Mucudewa Sebee,” which translates to “dark.” It aptly describes the brown-tinted river, the coloration caused by decaying leaves and roots spilling into the waterway.

Short trails leading off the main one give you two views of Big Manitou Falls. At 165 feet, the falls is the fourth largest east of the Rockies and the same height as Niagara.

The falls exists because of the dark basalt, the remains of a 1.2-billion-year-old lava flow that covers much of the Wisconsin-Minnesota border area. The Douglas Fault runs downstream from the falls, with the southern side of the fault rising at a 50 degree angle. Today, Black River runs down this gorge formed long ago by volcanic action and earthquakes, eventually meeting the Nemadji River, which flows into Lake Superior.

Almost wiped out
A century ago, developers almost wiped out the falls with a planned hydroelectric dam. The park’s namesake, Martin Pattison, purchased land to deliberately block the dam’s construction, however.

For a longer walk and additional views of the falls, head back toward the tunnel but before reaching it take a connecting trail that heads across the river. This provides two additional views of the falls from the south.

Though you’ll probably be focused on the falls, keep an eye out for the local wildlife in this boreal forest. More than 200 bird species, including hawks and owls, as well 50-plus mammals, including porcupines and black bears, call the park home.

On the way back to your vehicle, stop at the Gitchee Gummee Nature Center for its exhibits. The popular state park also hosts nature programs, and a sandy beach. For children, the nature center loans out two different nature exploration backpacks full of fun activities. Pets on a leash are allowed. Also, this is a carry in/carry out park, so you’ll have trouble finding garbage cans.

Read more about Douglas County day hiking trails in my Day Hiking Trails of Douglas County guidebook.