Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wisconsin trail heads through dells cut out of billion-year-old rock

Echo Dells on Houghton Falls Trail. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin DNR.

Houghton Falls
Trail leads to
Lake Superior

Day hikers can walk across an ancient riverbed and see fascinating rock formations north of Washburn, Wis., at the Houghton Falls Nature Preserve.

The 1.34-mile round trip trail is packed dirt and fairly flat. Because it follows a stream, it can be muddy following rainfalls.

To reach the trail, from Washburn take Wis. Hwy. 13 north. Turn right/east onto Houghton Falls Road. In a half-mile, the road reaches the Houghton Falls Nature Preserve parking lot on the right/south.

The trail heads roughly south for about a quarter mile through a thick forest of majestic, old growth white and red pine.

Echo Dells
It then comes to an ancient riverbed known as Echo Dells, where an intermittent stream flows southeast for about 0.4 miles to Lake Superior.

Wind and water have smoothed and rounded the dells’ pink sandstone canyon walls. Pools at the stream’s deepest points, small caves, and cascades line the gorge. The sandstone, set down a billion years ago in the pre-Cambrian era, offers cathedral-like acoustics.

At spots, tall and thick trees have fallen across the canyon’s rim. The walls are high enough that hikers can walk beneath the massive trunks.

Old growth hemlock as well as yellow birch and mountain maple form the gorge’s canopy. Hemlock rarely grows much farther west than Wisconsin.

Between the shade and stream, the understory remains lush with various ferns, small enchanter’s nightshade, thimbleberry, and wood sorrel. In mid-August, watch for blooming Indian Pipe; a plethora of mushrooms also are present.

As the trail turns southwest, look up at the canyon rim, where you may be lucky enough to spot white-tailed deer. The cliff shelves support Canada yew, one of the deer’s favorite shrubs.

Sculpted cliffs
Once the narrow but well-marked path reaches Lake Superior, you’ll stand atop weather-sculpted cliffs on the southern portion of Houghton Point. About 15 feet above Chequamegon Bay, the overlook provides great views of the Apostle Islands. Also keep an eye out for a variety of resident and migratory birds. The rocky shoreline is home to bald eagle, Canada warbler, least flycatcher, merlin, veery, and wood thrush.

Inset from the point, Houghton Falls drops into a rippled sandy cove. The falls are best seen during spring. They’re typically just a trickle during late summer and autumn, but the tradeoff is few if any mosquitoes at that time of the year.

Another fun highlight of the trail, especially for kids, is a 25-foot arched wooden bridge crossing the creek.

The preserve is 76-acres in size and lacks facilities. Sometimes maps refer to it as the “Houghton Falls State Natural Area” or the “Houghton Falls Natural Area.”

Read more about day hiking Bayfield County, Wisconsin, in my Day Hiking Trails of Bayfield County guidebook.