It’s been almost a month since my last post. It was bound to happen, the crazy, busy pace of summer finally caught up with me. With all the weddings, vacations, and family get togethers of summer, sometimes doing what you really want to do with your time takes a backseat to all the scheduled obligations. After weeks and weeks of this, I decided it was time to be a little selfish. Over labor day weekend, I chose to say no to all other obligations and keep my three day weekend open for camping. This was a great decision as I was feeling the need to take a break and recharge a little.
Living in the south central part of the state can limit which parks are feasible for a weekend trip. A lot of the northern parks feel out of reach since they require ample drive time. Having more time for travel than I usually would during a typical 2-day weekend, I looked at parks a little further away.
For this weekend, we decided to explore a park in the northwestern part of the state, Willow River State Park. Just a few miles outside Hudson, the park is only about 45 minutes away from the twin cities, making it a popular getaway. After visiting, I could see why. The park was stunning and had numerous activities to offer.
We arrived at the park on Friday with the plan to camp the night and hike/camp for the next two days. Driving into the park, the first campground, the 100 Campground, was visible from the ranger station parking lot. I admit I was a little worried after seeing it. The 100 campground was located in a field with few trees offering little shade. My fears subsided only when we started driving to our campground and entered into the forest again.
Tree lined and shady campground. Much better than camping in a field, especially when you use a tent for shelter.
After camping the first night, we planned out our hike for the day. The plan for day 1 was to see the waterfall and two of the scenic overlooks. From the 300 Campground, we hiked the Willow Falls Trail to the waterfall.
Willow Falls Trail
Length: 1 mile linear, if hiking to the falls and back from the campground as we did, 2 miles total
Difficulty: Easy, 1 small hill near the campground, otherwise flat and wide
Positives: Scenic points near the river, a direct route to the waterfall
Negatives: For the reason stated about, this is a heavily traveled trail as it’s the best way to get to the falls from the campground
This trail begins on the north side of the 300 Campground and meets the Willow Falls Hill Trail halfway between the waterfall and the Willow Falls Parking Lot. At a few points, the trail follows near the river and offers a nice view of the water.
Access to the riverbank was closed at this section of the trail on the first day of hiking. We hiked by this spot on the second day and discovered it was open with several people and puppies in the river. I’m not sure why it was closed the first day as everything looked the same on the second day. My theory was that someone decided they wanted to go into the river and cut down the caution tape. Maybe, maybe not.
A view from the trail of what used to be the lake. More on the disappearance of the lake and it’s possible revival in the next post.
We hiked on towards the waterfall and the Willow Falls Hill Trail. Luckily, we did not have to hike the hill mentioned in the name of the other trail. On day two, we ended up coming down that hill on our way back to camp. The hill is somewhat steep and seems to go on forever as it winds it’s way down to the river. This makes sense when you stand at the waterfall and see towering cliffs on either side. The trail is short so it needs to ascend and descend quickly. I don’t envy the person that hikes it from the river to the top.
Length: 2 to 4 miles, this trail has various loops that you can choose from, we hiked about half of it
Difficulty: Mixed, this depends on your direction. If you start from the falls, it will be very difficult as there are a ton of stairs, if you start from the parking lot and skip the stairs section, it will be easy as it is mostly flat on the top of the ridge
Positives: Amazing views of the waterfall, both from above and from ground level
Negatives: So. Many. Stairs. The stairs were fairly steep and narrow, they were also crowded and had a lot of bees landing on the railing, which added to the challenge
Gorgeous. Coming from the campground, you can hear the waterfall well before you can see it. A bridge crosses in front of the waterfall making a great photo op. On either side of the waterfall, hikers can walk off the trail along the rocks to the bank of the river. Some people were even brave enough to walk into the river. This seemed rather dangerous to me but hey, “yolo,” I guess.
In addition to the view at the bottom, you can view the falls from the top at the scenic overlooks. See how high the ledges are on either side? That’s what you get to come up and down if you travel from any direction other than the campground or if you want to visit the overlooks.
Here are some people along the left side of the falls. That dog became so upset when his humans decided to walk into the river. He tried to warn them repeatedly of the danger he was sensing. That’s a smart dog.
Okay that’s enough pictures of the waterfall. I went a little overboard taking pictures of what turned out to be mostly the same angle. The falls is just really photogenic!
Back to the trail. The Burkhardt Trail technically begins at the bridge crossing the river. Until the bridge, it’s still the Willow Falls Hill Trail. After crossing that bridge, you have the option to continue on the trail and go up a ton of stairs to the ridge above or take another trail away from the falls on the north side of the river. Wanting to see the overlooks, we decided to go up and up.
This is the view from the scenic outlook closest to the falls. You can see the bridge and an aerial view of the falls, which was a unique look at it. The people look so small from up here!
The river as it flows away from the falls. You can see for miles.
Most of the Burkhardt Trail is on the high ground above the waterfall. Even though climbing the stairs was a workout, this was only a tiny section of the trail. Once on top, this is where the options for the different lengths of hikes come in. There is also another scenic overlook but, to be honest, the one further away from the falls isn’t all that stunning. You can see the other ridge across the valley and the river, but not the falls itself. There were also a ton of wasps living on the wood.
Once away from the overlooks, the trail at the top is a trail you could find anywhere. It’s a wide and flat trail through the forest. While still fine, it isn’t a trail that will offer you something different just because it’s at the top of the ridge. After discovering this, we did the small loop, climbed back down the stairs, and headed back to the campground.
Overall this hike was well worth it. Even though we only went about 3 miles, climbing the stairs made the hike more challenging than others. The waterfall was gorgeous and worth the trip, even if you do plan to tackle either hill on the way from one of the parking lots.