|Red Cedar River along the Red Cedar Trail|
Originally the term “Chippewa Valley” referred to the Chippewa River watershed, but in the public’s eye soon came to more narrowly mean the Eau Claire-Chippewa Falls metro area. As the nearby communities of Menomonie and Durand became increasingly intertwined economically with those cities, the “valley” has broadened to include those towns.
Today, hiking trails in the area tend to offer glimpses of the area’s natural beauty that existed before the logging industry cleared the forests. A number of trails also honor the region’s history, from burial mounds and pioneers to logging and the great railroads.
Before Europeans arrived, the Dakota Sioux dominated the Chippewa Valley, and remnants of their presence in the form of effigy mounds still can be found. The first Euro-Americans to explore the region were the French, and Lake Pepin – which the Chippewa River forms by dumping sediment into the Mississippi River – likely was named for two of those adventurers, the brothers Pierre Pepin and Jean Pepin du Cardonnets. These explorers primarily sought a water passageway through North America to the Pacific Ocean, and portages from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River brought them to the Chippewa River Valley.
In the late 1600s, Frenchman Nicholas Perrot brashly claimed all lands west of the Great Lakes, and for the next century his country dominated mining, trading and trapping in the region. Archeological evidence indicates several French trading posts existed on Lake Pepin during the 1700s.
With the growth of the American colonies on the East Coast, Native American tribes migrated west, leading to conflicts with the already existing Indian nations. Among them was the pressing of the Ojibwa in northern Wisconsin into Lakota Sioux territory. For Euro-Americans, this heightened the value of the Chippewa River as a route between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River to avoid being caught up in tribal tensions.
Great Britain ended French dominance in the area during the French and Indian War of 1754-63, and when the American colonies gained independence, they claimed the area as part of the Northwest Territories.
Wisconsin became a state in 1846, but most of the population lived in the southern portion near the Illinois border. The Chippewa River served as a major route to the great pineries of the north as settlers arrived in the area during the next five decades. The river also was the main waterway for bringing felled logs to sawmills in Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire and then exporting the cut lumber via the Mississippi River to other parts of the rapidly growing United States.
Two of the most famous children’s stories of pioneers – those of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Caddie Woodlawn – both have their origins in the Chippewa Valley. “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, is set north of Pepin, while the Caddie Woodlawn tales took place south of Menomonie.
With the great forests logged off and arrival of the railroads, agriculture quickly became the mainstay of communities throughout the Chippewa Valley. Dairy farming in particular dominated with manufacturing springing up in the region’s larger cities.
Among the great Chippewa Valley trails to hike area:
• Chippewa River State Trail – Follows Chippewa River on old rail line between Eau Claire and Durand)
• Bjornson Education-Recreation Center Loop – Heads through grove of towering red pines and past ruins of an old dairy farm
• Lake Trail – Passes effigy mounds at Lake Wissota State Park
• Red Cedar Trail – Parallels Red Cedar River on old rain line between Menomonie and Durand
• Tower Ridge Recreation Area trails – Runs through oak forest east of Eau Claire
Learn more about Chippewa Valley day hiking trails in my Day Hiking Trails of the Chippewa Valley guidebook.