Marathon County's Hidden Gem
My family likes to hike. As my children get older, we take longer hikes and hikes that challenge us a little bit more. But one thing we haven’t tried is winter hiking. We recently decided to give winter hiking a try and settled on hiking the trail at the Dells of Eau Claire in Marathon County. To our surprise, we had come across Marathon County’s hidden gem.
So far it has been a very odd winter season. We have warmer than normal temperatures and little to no snow in central Wisconsin. The weekend before New Year’s Day, our family decided to try going for our first winter hike. The weather was perfect, not too cold and no wind. Perfect for taking the kids out. We decided to go in the afternoon and didn’t want to drive too far. So, we decided to drive about 30 minutes west of Wausau and explore the Dells of Eau Clarie county park. I’ve seen pictures of the Dells and talked with others who had hiked the trail and they all told me what a wonder place it is.
Packing up three kids for a winter hike is a lot different than summer. In the summer, you’ve got your shorts and a t-shirt, you throw on some sun screen and grab a water bottle and your pretty much good to go for a short hike. Winter hiking, takes a lot more patients on the parent's part. As you get one kid ready, the other become restless and then complain because they are too hot. It’s almost more of a workout getting ready to go on the hike than doing the actually hike. But my wife and I persevered, got everyone loaded in the truck and headed down the road. From our house it was about a 45-minute drive and the drive is pretty easy. From west of Wausau, you can come in on highway 29 and take 39/52 north. You’ll get off at the Bridge Street exit and follow that all the way to the other end of town where you’ll turn north on 6th street. Drive north a few blocks on 6th street and you’ll head east on Highway 52. You’ll stay on this for close to 20 miles and you’ll turn south on highway Y which will take you to the park. There are other ways to get to the park, but highway 52 seems to be the best route to take.
During the summer and fall months, the park opens up more parking. In fact, I counted three different parking lots, two of which were closed because of winter. Luckily the park isn’t too busy during the winter and there was ample parking in the only open lot. On this day, there were a few others hiking but not too many.
We walked through the park area towards the Eau Claire River and the trail. When we got to the trail, we were all amazed at how beautiful the flowing waters were. The water flows from east to west and over a variety of different rock formations creating mini water falls just west of the highway Y bridge. The water was cutting through the small amount of snow and ice and the beauty of this place really shined. One of the fun parts about hiking here, is the fact you can walk down on the rock formations and get a closer look at the water and the ice creations that it’s forming. But please be careful, these rocks can get very slick and there are signs warning of the possible dangers.
After we had our fill of the water, we decided to get cross highway Y and check out the Dam that helps with all the flowing water. It was short hike and we were at, what would be, the beginning of the trail in the summer months. We watched and the water on the east side of the Dam gently flowed until it rushed out the other side. We walk along the south river trail back to the road and decided to go back where we started and hop on the Ice Age trail down to the Dells High Bridge. By the time you get to the bridge, the water was quietly flowing again and as the afternoon started to creep into evening, everything seemed so calm and peaceful.
We continued our hike over the bridge and followed a small trail back to the Dells area of the river. We didn't’ take the full South River trail because of time, but had a lot of fun walking down on the edge of the frozen water and testing our skills and ice skaters with boots. We finished our hike by walking across the Highway Y bridge back to the parking lot.
The trails were in very good shape and the only thing I would advise is to wear some sort of ice cleat. With the recent warm up and cool downs, parts of the trail were pretty slick with ice, which made for some funny moments. But overall this was a great place to do our first winter hike has a family. We will definitely make plans to come during the other seasons as well. It was almost hard to believe that some this beautiful was tucked back in the middle of no where in Marathon County. The county does a great job of taking care of the park and the trail was easily marked. At times, it felts as if you were visiting a state park. I highly recommend making plans for you next hike at Marathon County’s hidden Gem, the Dells of Eau Claire county park.