Thursday, September 4, 2014

Retrace steps of Indian maiden’s lover’s leap

Lake Pepin from atop Maiden Rock Bluff.

Romantic views
of Lake Pepin
await day hikers

Day hikers can explore the bluff from which a forlorn Indian princess allegedly leaped to her death rather than marry a man she didn’t love.

The Maiden Rock Bluff Trail runs 1.4-miles round trip in west-central Wisconsin overlooking beautiful Lake Pepin. It’s located in the Maiden Rock State Natural Area, which preserves a blufftop prairie.

To reach the trail, from Stockholm, Wis., take County Road J north. Turn left/northwest onto County Road E then go left/west into Long Lane. The road dead ends at a grassy parking lot on the blufftop. A trailhead is a few yards east of the lot and heads north from the road.

Returning to prairie
As a state natural area, facilities and upkeep here are nil. You’ll want to wear hiking boots with socks that go mid-calf to hike along the unmowed trail.

At one time, the blufftop was a farmer’s field, but it since has been allowed to return to a prairie. You’ll find a number of black-eyed susans and some bluestem in the meadow. A variety of butterfly species flit between blossoming wildlflowers.

The trail skirts a wooded area before turning west and running through the meadow. As nearing the treeline, you’ll likely spot bald eagles circling about on the bluff’s thermals.

Next the trail jags south then closes on a line of old oak trees through which you can see Lake Pepin below. The lake is the largest on the Mississippi River, running 21 miles long and nearly 2 miles wide. Be careful of getting too close to the trees, however as the bluff makes a sharp vertical drop immediately beyond them.

Legend of Maiden Rock
That long drop created the perfect setting of an old Indian legend that made the bluff famous.

In love with a warrior from her band, Princess Dakota, daughter of Chief Red Wing, refused to marry another brave that her father had selected for her. For a while, she seemed to acquience to her parents’ wishes and on the appointed day headed with the wedding party to here, the most prominent bluff in the region. Once they reached the top, though, she dashed to the edge and jumped off in a lover’s leap, to drown in Lake Pepin below rather than marry a man she did not love. Mark Twain brought the story national attention when he included it in his book, “Life on the Mississippi.”

The legend probably is apocryphal. The Dakota didn’t have “princesses,” and if she did jump, she likely wouldn’t have landed in the lake itself but the rocks below. In any case, there are several variations of the story among the Dakota Sioux…and several more variations among many other Native American tribes up and down the Mississippi as well in the eastern United States.

What can’t be denied is that the view of Lake Pepin from the blufftop is incredibly gorgeous and romantic. Sunlight sparkles off the blue lake, as if diamonds had been tossed across a turquoise cloth.

Once the meadow ends, the trail enters a small woods and parallels the bluff’s edge. The best views of Lake Pepin actually lay about 500 feet into the woods. An autumn day after a freeze marks the best time to enter the woods as poison ivy lines the path in summer.

Timber rattler
An alternate trailhead at the parking lot heads directly east through a small woods to the same vista. Unfortunately, that path also is very narrow and infested with poison ivy, making the longer meadow route the preferred one.

Of course, no love story would be complete without a little sin, and in the case of Maiden Rock Bluff, that comes in the form of a serpent. Timber rattlesnakes are common on blufftop prairies and woodlands, so watch your step. By hiking (and staying on) the trail midday in summer, you’re almost certain to never see one, as they remain inactive until night. During spring and autumn, however, they can be out during the day.

The timber rattlesnake is tan colored with distinctive brown bars. Adults can measure up to four feet in length. They are poisonous, so be aware of how to avoid and treat for snake bites.

After taking in your views of Lake Pepin, retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

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