Friday, September 12, 2014

Red Cedar State Trail segment offers rapids, weeping wall, bald eagles, footbridges

Riffles in Red Cedar River.
Red Cedar State Trail map, courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.

Segment of path
in Wisconsin
offers top scenery 

Bald eagles, churning rapids, and a weeping wall await day hikers on a segment of the Red Cedar State Trail in west-central Wisconsin.

Running 14.5 miles alongside the Red Cedar River, the trail is too long to enjoy via a day hike. But with its many access points, the trail can be done in segments. Among the most scenic of them is the 1.6-mile (3.2-miles round trip) section from Riverside Park to the Devil’s Punchbowl.

To reach the trailhead, from downtown Menomonie take Wis. Hwy. 29 west. Upon crossing the Red Cedar River bridge, turn at the second left (or south) into Riverside Park. A parking lot sits next to an old train depot turned visitor center, with the trail leaving from the lot’s south end.

The trail sits atop a reclaimed railroad bed. Because of that, it’s wide, fairly level, and hugs the river almost the entire way.

Railroad days
Heading south from the parking lot, the trail first passes the foundation of what once was a wooden building housing the locomotive and tender that made a daily run between here and Durand, Wis. A spur of the Old Milwaukee Road, the line was abandoned in 1973. Eight years later, it was reclaimed as a bicycle and hiking path.

Next the trail crosses Gilbert Creek, which flows into the Red Cedar. Remains of the old steel girder railroad bridge now hold up the footbridge.

From the creek, several breaks in the treeline offer framed views of the Red Cedar. The river flows 85 miles from Lake Chetac in Washburn County through the cities of Rice Lake and Menomonie on its way south to the Chippewa River.

Maples, pines, aspen, birch and oak can be found alongside the trail. Ferns often fill the understory of the embankment on the trail’s west side.

Weeping wall
A number of animals make their home in the river valley. Most dramatically on this section of the trail, bald eagles usually can be seen atop trees spying the waterway for a meal, while sandhill cranes sometimes make their way up from a wetlands further south on the river. Squirrels and chipmunks also can be spotted.

Much of the next several hundred yards offers a tranquil walk with only the sound of songbirds and rustle of leaves.

Close to a mile into the walk, the river bends again, and the sound and sight of riffles dominates. Riffles form when a shallow waterway curves over a coarse streambed. The result is a mini-rapids. Past the next footbridge is a bench for hikers to rest and enjoy the riffles.

Continuing south, the trail next passes a weeping wall, or layers of sandstone from which springs drip water down the rock face. Plants cling to the ledges where they can catch the water, making for a hanging gardens. The wall stretches for a couple of hundred feet.

Devils Punchbowl
At the 1.6 mile mark, you’ll cross a stream flowing out of the famous Devils Punchbowl. Unfortunately, there’s no path from the Red Cedar into the punchbowl gorge other than walking through the creek itself.

A picnic table sits at that stream’s entry into the Red Cedar. This marks a good spot for a quick rest and to turn back.

On the return, you’ll catch new views of the river and also of the distant Stout clock tower, an iconic symbol of Menomonie.

A trail pass is required if bicycling the route, but there’s no fee for walking it.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.