Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Four-story waterfall awaits day hikers

Silver Creek flows over rim of Fairy Falls.

Short hike heads to historic Fairy Falls near Stillwater


Day hikers can enjoy a little-known four-story waterfall in eastern Minnesota on the Fairy Falls Trail.

For years, the short quarter-mile round trip was located on private land but is now operated by National Park Service as part of a 55-acre addition to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The Fairy Falls Day Use Area is open 8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily.

To reach the falls, from downtown Stillwater, take Minn. Hwy. 95 north. Turn left/northwest onto Minn. Hwy. 96 then right/north onto County Road 11/Boom Road. The county road separates from Boom Road and goes left/west and becomes Fairy Falls Road North as heading up a hill. Park along the west side of Orwell Avenue, which is directly across from the day use area. The trailhead is a footpath to the right of the yellow directional sign.
Topo map of Fairy Falls Trail.
Click for larger version.

The footpath heads through a hardwood forest with a number of birch trees. Be careful of not taking narrow sidepaths that meander through the woods away from the falls.

Within about 0.1 miles, the trail reaches the top of the falls, where Silver Creek drops into a deep pool in the gorge below then continues on its way to the St. Croix River. A wooden bridge crosses the creek about a dozen feet from the waterfalls’ rim.

The trail can be followed around the gorge’s rim, but unless late in fall or early in spring when the foliage is light, the glen isn’t visible below. Still, it’s a pleasant walk with a few glacial erratics along the way.

Spur trail to gorge bottom
You can take a spur trail, tucked against one gorge wall, down to the creek bottom. There’s no signs indicating the way to go, but it looks more like a washed out draw than a walking path. Still, it’s traversable, though you shouldn’t try it during night, when the ground is wet, or with young children. The fall is a long way down.

The bluff sits atop sandstone laid here about 500 million years old during the Cambrian. Floodwaters from melting glaciers swept through the river valley some 8000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, carving out the sandstone, which Silver Creek has further eroded back. Today, the thick beds exposed along the river are known as the “St. Croixian series.”

During spring when Silver Creek is higher due to snow melt, those who hike down the bluff’s side can feel mist from the falls. There’s a shallow cave behind the base of the falls, and if you don’t mind getting wet, you can go into it and see the waterfall from the inside.

By early summer, the gorge is thick with greenery. During autumn, look for Jack in the Pulpit; the bright orange berries that lie under the pulpit add another tinge of color to the scene.

Shadow of the falls
During spring and autumn, Silver Creek can be hiked a ways downstream. From the falls, the creek flows about a quarter mile before spilling into the St. Croix.

In days past, the falls flowed heavily through the summer. By the early 1950s, it fell off during late summer, as the lake feeding Silver Creek dried to a wetlands.

The falls and glen – which Native Americans living in the area called Ugua-Wah-to-gi-di-big, or “shadow of the falls” – were popular with local in the 1890s through the early 1900s when hundreds of people would walk there from Stillwater to pick pink crocuses and violets as well as to enjoy picnics. Postcards even were made of the falls.

After the hike, you can add to your day by driving on Hwy. 95 north of County Road 11 to the St. Croix Boom Site Trail, which is a few hundred feet up the highway on the right/east side.

Read more about day hiking the scenic riverway in my guidebook Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.