Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Northern Wisconsin nature trail heads along river past rare plants

Thimbleberry fruit. Photo courtesy of UW-Green Bay/

Thimbleberry Trail also runs past brownstone quarry

Thick with a variety of trees and wildlife, the Wisconsin Northwoods awes anyone who spends their weekdays working and living in a concrete jungle.

A good way to sample the Northwoods is the 0.8-mile Thimbleberry Nature Trail at Amnicon Falls State Park. The trail includes a side trip to a pond that at one time was a brownstone quarry.

To reach the park, take U.S. Hwy. 2 east from Superior. Turn left/north, onto County Road U. The park entry is in a third of a mile. A vehicle admission sticker is required to enter.

Upon entering the state park, continue past the contact station across the bridge over the river and pull into the third vehicle lot. It’ll be the only one on the left and is located where the park road begins its loop around the campground.

The trailhead is to the north, across the road from the lot. Be sure to pick up, at the trailhead, an eight-page booklet that discusses plants found along the way, as well how Native Americans used them. The booklet’s entries correspond to nine numbered signposts found along the trail.

Flat section of Amnicon River
The walking path quickly arrives at a trail junction. Take the trail straight toward the Amnicon River.

For most of the walk, the trail is wooded and somewhat hilly. Evergreens, birch and black ash are common here.

This first third of the trail parallels the river and offers several great views of it. You’ll also find easy access to the river bed, which runs fairly flat about a fifth of a mile upstream from a set of three waterfalls. During spring, rushing water swirls through here and sometimes will rise above its banks.

Not quite halfway through loop, a spur trail leads to the sandstone quarry pond. From the late 1860s to 1910, the brownstone rock found all across the Bayfield Peninsula proved a popular building material, as it held up better than other stone during fires. Fifteen quarries, including this one, can be found in the area. The brownstone – formed when sediment settled and was buried some 500 million years ago – gave way during the early 20th century to concrete, which was cheaper, and bricks, which were more colorful.

If a hot day, the quarry pond is a great stop for kids, as they can wade into the water.

Thimbleberries and Indian plants
Upon returning to the main trail, go right/north. The trail gradually loops back to the stem trail you came in on.

Keep an eye out for the trail’s namesake. Thimbleberries are a shrub whose five-point leaves look vaguely like a maple leaf. Their range is limited to the northern counties of Wisconsin and ranges into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They prefer the sunlight of forest openings or edges, but older bushes will persist when the growing leaf cover finally shades them. Their fruit is edible, but people tend to have very extreme taste reactions to them, either loving or strongly disliking them.

Another interesting plant to watch for is Indian pipe. A white translucent color, it’s a saprophyte, a class of rare plants that aren’t green. Surrounding the Indian pipe’s matted root fibers root system is a fungus that breaks down organic matter; the roots then absorb the nutrients. They can be found in the shaded understory of oak-pine forests, usually rising out of ground covered in pine needles.

A variety of animals also can be found here. Watch for deer and coyote tracks along the trail. Be aware that during dry years, wasps and hornets can become pesky.

Upon reaching the stem trail, go right/south, cross the road, and return to the parking lot.

Amnicon Falls State Park is open each day of the year from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.