Willow River State Park
One of my goals for the new year is to get to at least five new state parks this year. I want to experience some of the best parts of Wisconsin and share those experiences with you and our state parks system is a great way to do that. But I don’t just want to drive in and out and say that I visited or was there. I want to get out, hike around and see what makes each state park so special. I realize that five new parks in one year doesn’t really seem like that much or like it should be that difficult to do. However, my schedule, like most families, is really busy. It’s tough to just say we are going here or there when we have so many other obligations going on. That’s why when we do plan a hike, we make sure we get the most out of it.
On this first new state park visit of 2020 we explored Willow River State Park near Hudson, Wisconsin. For those not familiar with Hudson, it’s a boarder city that is located on the west side of the state along the Mississippi River just before crossing into Minnesota and the twin cities. Willow River State Park is located about five miles north east of Hudson. Willow River’s main attraction is the Willow Falls. One of the reasons we choose this park is because we have some family in the Hudson area and after spending some time with them, we wanted to check out the park and see the falls.
A little background, Willow River State Park is made up of 2,891-acres. The centerpiece of the park is Willow Falls, a powerful cascade in a 200-foot deep gorge. Another popular feature is Little Falls Lake, a shallow reservoir on the Willow River. And according to Travel Wisconsin, offers around nine miles of trails. I can tell you that being here in February, we saw people snowshoeing, hiking and cross-country skiing. It really is a great park for any outdoor enthusiast. There is a nature center that’s open during the day and it offers hands on displays and live animals. On this day we skipped the nature center and went straight to the trails.
The first thing I’ll say is that it was an absolutely perfect winter day for hiking. The sun was shining, the temps were in the upper 30’s and the skies were blue. It was a great day to be out exploring a new park. We always like to stop and the info center when we get to a new state park and pick up a map. A lot of these info centers have brochures and literature that you collect. Some have some a collection of taxidermic animals and others have a gift shop where you can collect souvenirs. I always feel it’s a great way to start a new experience and you can talk to the game wardens and get an idea of the best place to start your hike.
There are a few different parking areas that each offer a trail head that will take you to the falls. We wanted to enjoy the day as much as we could so we drove almost all the way into the park, just before you get to the nature center and work our way to the falls. We didn’t bring snowshoes; we took a chance that the popularity of this state park would have the snow hiking trails packed enough that we wouldn’t need them and we were correct. All the trails were in perfect condition. The skiing trails and the hiking trails were so good. The only thing that I would have suggested is maybe a good set of cleats on your boots. The trail was so packed that there were spots that were a very slick and cleats would have helped with some of the climbing that we had to do. But before we even hit the trail, we got our first sign that it was going to be a good hike. As soon as we left the parking lot and found our way to the trail, three deer came leaping out of the woods about 100 feet in front of my youngest daughter. That’s all it took and they were all ready for the hike.
We started on the Woodland Snowshoe Trail and that transitioned into the Falls Snowshoe Trail which totaled about mile and a half to the the falls. It weaved up and down the bluffs and hills and you could see the dried lake bed of Little Falls Lake through the trees. We crossed over the ski trail a few times but for the most part, our hike was full immersed in the woods. We could hear owls and wood peckers off in the distance and even saw another deer, although not as close as the first three. The highlight of the hike for our girls was the highest point of the trail. It took a little bit of effort to get up the hill to the top, but coming down was a breeze. Hikers before us had made a make shift groove in the snow so slide all the way down the other side. A feat all three girls decided was worthy of an attempt. Even my wife got into the sledding excitement.
As we made our way closer to the falls, you could start to hear the roaring of the water. Once you get your first glimpse of the falls, it’s really a thing of beauty. I image it’s really beautiful in the summer time, but seeing the ice along the edges and flowing from the falls was really amazing. The water flowing under the ice was so powerful and full of sound. It’s not hard to realize why this state park is so attractive to waterfall lovers. There are many areas for you to get some great photos and video of the falls. There’s really not a bad place to see them. There’s even an observation deck high above the falls that you can explore. One this day we decided to not make the climb. The kids were enjoying the falls and making a long stair climb with snow pants and winter boots on didn’t really appeal to them. But it gives us something to look forward to doing the next time we visit.
After many pictures we made our way back to the truck. We hiked over three miles, enjoyed the falls and visited a new state park. Willow River State Park is a great park to spend a half day of hiking and it’s definitely one you’ll want to visit during each season. I’m hoping to get back in the fall when the trees are changing colors. It’s a great place to take your kids. The trails were pretty easy for them to handle and there were only a few areas on our trail that were steep climbs. The next time we visit, we’ll also check out the nature center and try out a new trail. Like most of our state parks, there is more you can do and see in one day, so make sure you take your time and enjoy every minute of being a Wisconsin Outdoor Explorer.