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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Shimmering cascades await visitors at Wisconsin's waterfalls. © DNR Photo

April 2001

The joy of falling water

Wisconsin rivers wend, wind and cascade over at least 70 waterfalls. Enjoy the best of them in every season.

Patrick J. Lisi

Shimmering cascades await visitors at Wisconsin's waterfalls.

© DNR Photo
A word of caution | Photographing falls
Great trips to great falls | Wrapping it up
Must-see falls

My wife Marjorie and I are Wisconsin waterfall aficionados. The two of us have walked hundreds of miles on incredible, but desolate trails along moss-covered riverbanks that eventually guided us to sensational cascades of wild, untamed water.

For us, this need for adventure into the most primitive core of Wisconsin was born more from a search for solitude than a basic desire to simply see all our natural wonders in a short life span. It was also spawned from a strong curiosity about Wisconsin geology to learn how our state took on so many different shapes and forms.

Some falls are easier to find than others, and a hike to a waterfall in each season has its merits. In spring, most falls have their highest flows as snowmelt and thawing ground give up water, but the path is often soggy going. In summer, you can load the family van with small kids and a picnic basket and head out for some comparatively easy retreats. For those trips, see the list that Marjorie and I recommend as "must sees." You can spend many splendid fall afternoons or cold winter mornings at places like Copper Falls State Park gazing as the rush of water slips over a two-million-year-old black and red lava bed of the Bad River. A short distance upriver, you also can visit Granite Falls or travel downriver past Tyler Forks to see the nearby Brownstone Falls.

A willing body can add fortitude and escapade to life's collective chapters with a more vigorous walk into such awesome falls as the cavernous canyon at Parfrey's Glen in Sauk County, or Wren Falls, a spectacular pour of root-beer colored water that shoots 15 feet past its stony cap into the Tyler Forks River in the back country of Iron County.

A word of caution

When you venture out to see Wisconsin's waterfalls please keep in mind that there is a risk factor. State parks, such as Copper Falls and Pattison, provide steps, railings and secure vistas for you to view the falls. You must stay within these borders to protect yourself from injury. Certainly if you have small children you will want to be sure they are well within posted barriers.

At most other waterfalls you will not find guide rails or fences. Most times, in fact, you can get very close to the flow and, in the case of Lost Creek Falls in Bayfield County, you can actually position yourself behind and under the waterfall. Approaches to all waterfalls are extremely slippery and are adorned with jagged rock; perhaps nature's way of protecting her waterfalls from human beings who would get too cozy with them.

Hikers also should be cautioned about staying on established trails as they walk to the waterfall. In state parks, sticking to the trail is the law, as fragile plant communities barely flourish on the periphery of the paths. Parfrey's Glen east of Devil's Lake is a good example, where a very rare plant called scouring-rush has managed to survive centuries of various cultures that lived in the Baraboo Bluffs. Pioneers used this plant's sticky, silica center to scour their pots and pans. The glen also is blessed with other scarce species like mountain maple, red elder, clintonia, and mountain clubmoss that would perish if picked or trampled by human traffic.

Photographing falls

If you happen to forget your camera at home or back in the car as you visit waterfalls, you will undoubtedly regret it. We've found that the falls are merely the highlight of our treks through the deep, dark forest and there are plenty of other sights to photograph. Keep your camera ready because the real bonuses often come as surprises, like when a mother porcupine and her litter of pincushions cross the trail in front of you, or when a black bear steps out onto the path 15 yards up trail (like Marjorie experienced one day on our way into Lost Creek Falls in Bayfield County). You will be treated to sights and sounds that previously resided somewhere in your imagination, so don't be caught off guard without your photo equipment.

Now and Then Falls, one of seven waterfalls in Amnicon Falls State Park near Superior. © Scott Nielsen
Now and Then Falls, one of seven waterfalls in Amnicon Falls State Park
near Superior.

© Scott Nielsen

Waterfall photography can be inexpensive or very expensive. My theory is that no matter what kind of camera you have, a good plan can help you collect fantastic memories from your days afield. The secret is not how much money you have invested in your outfit. The trick to taking good photos is really built around three factors: film type, composition and technique. Here are some tips so you come home with "keeper" photographs.

  • For waterfall color prints, use either 200 or 400 speed (ASA rated) films.

  • For slides try slower films – ASA 50, 64 or 100 speed film.

  • For midday shots, use a polarizing filter if you can to cut glare. I also experiment with red, orange and yellow filters if I'm shooting black-and-white film on a bright day.

  • First and last light of the day is exquisite for waterfall photography.

  • During first light, you will probably be the only one(s) at the falls.

  • Use a slow shutter speed to get the soft, "fleecy" look of cascading water; 1/15 to 2, 4, maybe even 8 complete seconds. Trouble can come your way, especially with slide film, though, if the lens is left open too long. Once you think you have the correct exposure, take a photo and also either open up your lens an f-stop or decrease the shutter speed by one stop on both ends of "correct" to bracket the scene. That way you won't get home and find disappointment if the exposure wasn't exactly right!

  • Take each shot as if you only had one chance and use a tripod!

  • Be sure to take spare film and batteries for your camera to the falls.

  • Dry your camera off immediately after you leave the spray.

  • Add something in the foreground to frame the waterfall and create interest.

  • don't always center your subject in the picture, use the sides of the frame, too.

  • Have someone stand near the falls to show scale.

  • Tilt your camera to shoot vertical as well as horizontal views.

  • Be patient and spend time at the waterfall, for the light changes constantly.

Great trips to great falls

Lost Creek Falls, Bayfield County

This can be a tricky waterfall to locate, but the hike in and the memory of this 15-foot gem will be etched in your memory forever.

There are three Lost Creeks in the neighborhood west of Cornucopia in Bell Township. This waterfall is located on Lost Creek No. 1.

Take Hwy. 13 west from Cornucopia about a mile and turn south (left) on Klemik Road, a dirt way that is passable without four-wheel drive from mid-May through September depending on local rains. Stay on Klemik Road until you reach the ATV/snowmobile trail crossing, about .75-mile down the road. A yellow gate on the left side is your indication of the trail. Park off to the side, put on your hiking boots and begin following the ATV trail east into the county forest.

Be patient as you hike; after15 to 20 minutes into the forest over easy to medium terrain you will come to an old bridge crossing Lost Creek No. 2 (the creeks are not posted with their numbers). Continue past this bridge and, in another ten minutes, you will reach Lost Creek No.1 spanned by another similar bridge.

From here, if you are really adventurous or are not sure of the way, you can simply follow the sandstone bank upstream and eventually you will locate the waterfall. Most of us stay with the trail, going through a couple of curves and up a moderate hill.

Follow the path and once you have cleared the hill, watch carefully for a narrow footpath that cuts into the woods and leads to the falls. Depending on the time of year and the amount of water running over the waterfall, you should be able to hear the clamor the closer you get.

May is the best time to see most waterfalls in northern Wisconsin at their gushing best as snowmelt and thawing ground release water. Fall is by far the most magnificent season to be in the hardwood forest where Lost Creek Falls is located.

If you visit Lost Creek Falls, be sure to see Siskiwit Falls, which is located only a quarter-mile east of Cornucopia off County Trunk C on Siskiwit Falls Road.

Wren Falls, Iron County

You will need a detailed Iron County map or the "Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer" to find your way into Wren (and Foster) falls, making this one of the most challenging and fun waterfalls in Wisconsin to visit.

Wren Falls is located in Anderson Township, Iron County, five miles northwest of Upson. From Upson, travel west on Hwy. 77 for 2.9 miles to Casey Sag Road, a dirt road heading into very primitive, heavily wooded country. Go north (right) on Casey Sag Road 5.25 miles to where it intersects with Sullivan Road (which is unsigned). You can turn right here and go 9/10 mile to view Foster Falls, or turn left for Wren Falls and drive 1.8 miles on Sullivan Road to a "V" where Sullivan and Vogues roads meet . Unfortunately, Vogues Road also is unsigned.

Stop the car and look for a brown sign at the head of another unsigned, narrower vehicle path running south, that indicates a cooperative venture between the Iron County Forest and the DNR. That road is the last one you'll need to get to Wren Falls. Follow it 1.3 miles to a fork in the road. Stop and park. Walk the right hand fork (just a footpath) 2/10 mile over a hill where you will first hear and then see Wren Falls.

Since you have gone through this much work to see Wren Falls, be sure to backtrack and look over Foster Falls, which is equally stunning. Also, visit Upson Falls located in Upson at the Community Park. Wren Falls is on Tyler Forks River, and Foster and Upson falls are on the Potato River.

Parfrey's Glen Waterfall, Sauk County

Ever since first owner and namesake Robert Parfrey left here and moved to Minnesota in 1876, curious sightseers have flocked to this gorgeous little glen to picnic and to hike into the canyon to see the layers of sandstone and quartzite formations as well as Parfrey's Glen Waterfall.

To find Parfrey's Glen, take Hwy. 113 south from Baraboo approximately five miles to County Hwy. DL. Turn east on Hwy. DL and follow the road 1.9 miles. Watch for a parking lot on the north side of the road. A state parks sticker is required to use the parking lot; there is a self-pay station at the park.

To reach the falls, you must hike about a half mile on an established, marked trail. Along the route you will notice several diverse plant communities, particularly as the path gradually winds its way higher into the fresh and sometimes chilly chasm of the glen.. In fact, the flora in the gorge resembles that of northern Wisconsin because of the way the air settles in the bottom of the canyon and the way sunlight is limited by overhanging rock and the leafy canopy.

At the end of the trail, a railed viewing area faces Parfrey's Glen Waterfalls, which gently flows over a six-foot drop 30 yards in front of you. The falls are at the very top of the canyon, and the creek flows through the woods, over the waterfall, and into the gorge.

This waterfall is one of our favorites not because of its size, but because of the incredible scenery as one approaches it. It is also one of the only waterfalls in southern Wisconsin and is easily accessible from Madison or Milwaukee.

Wrapping it up

Hiking out to a waterfall is something the entire family can do. Pack some sandwiches, fill the water canteen and take day trips or long weekends visiting some of Wisconsin's striking waterfalls.

As you explore these wondrous creations, do not rush to see them all. Spend time relaxing and contemplating as you sit on the rocks or a fallen tree along the riverbank. Try to imagine where all that water is coming from and follow the stream in your mind's eye to its final destination.

If travel isn't restricted to an established trail, be sure to explore the area around the waterfall: upstream, downstream and into the surrounding forest. There just might be another waterfall somewhere in the vicinity that you don't know about. For instance, there are seven waterfalls at Amnicon State Park.

Have fun, be safe and enjoy the journey.

Conservation Warden Patrick J. Lisi edits newsletters and has been an outdoor photographer for nearly 30 years. His book "Wisconsin Waterfalls: A Touring Guide" is available from Prairie Oak Press in Madison, Wis. It highlights some of the more spectacular falls in Michigan and Minnesota.

Must-see falls
Some waterfalls are easy to get to and we think are "must sees" on your family outings. Certainly make time to visit the falls in our state parks such as Big and Little Manitou falls and Copper Creek Falls in Pattison State Park (13 miles south of Superior); all seven of the falls in Amnicon State Park (10 miles east of Superior), the three at Copper Falls State Park (near Mellen); and those in some county parks like Potato River Falls in Iron County, Dave's Falls and Long Slide Falls in Marinette County.

Keshena Falls and Big Smokey Falls on the Menominee Reservation are very easy to get to by vehicle. I also think Parfrey's Glen, a State Natural Area near Baraboo in Sauk County, and Morgan Falls in Ashland County ( 16 miles south of Ashland) are "must sees," but they both require some modest hiking on easy trails.

More falls to see:

Bayfield County
Lost Creek Falls
Siskiwit Falls
Little Sioux River Falls

Iron County
Foster Falls
Wren Falls
Upson Falls
Superior Falls
Saxon Falls
Peterson Falls
Unnamed Falls
Gile Falls
Rock Cut Falls
Spring Camp Falls

Polk County
Cascade Falls

Sawyer County
Little Falls

Price County
Big Falls

Eau Claire County
Big Falls
Hamilton Falls

Marathon County
Dells of the Eau Claire

Florence County
LaSalle Falls
Meyers Falls
Bull Falls
Jennings Falls
Washburn Falls
Big Bull Falls
Little Bull Falls

Marinette County
Pier's Gorge Recreation Area: Sand Portage Falls, Misicot Falls, Unnamed Falls, Little Quinnesec Falls
Smalley Falls
Pemene Falls
Quiver Falls
Bull Falls
Chipmunk Falls
Big South Falls
Bull Falls II
Twelve Foot Falls County Park: Three Foot Falls, Eighteen Foot Falls, Twelve Foot Falls, Eight Foot Falls
Horseshoe Falls
Strong Falls
McClintock Falls
Veterans Memorial Park: Veterans Falls, Three Foot Falls

Menominee County
Evergreen Falls
Sullivan Falls
Ducknest Falls
Big Eddy Falls

Shawano County
Alexian Falls
Ziemers Falls

Brown County
Wequiock Falls

Sauk County
Parfrey's Glen Waterfall