Now for the final part of the unexpectedly long Willow River State Park hiking series. What I had originally intended to be two parts is now stretching into three. I think the length required to fully cover these trails reflects their physical distance and natural diversity. To think, we didn’t even hike the longest trail at the park!
When we left off, we were hiking east, back towards the park having just finished the Trout Brook Trail. Onward!
Oak Ridge Trail
Length: 1.1 miles, linear
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult – This trail is like a roller coaster with several steeper hills.
Positives: The trail is mostly tree covered which creates a secluded feel in a somewhat busy park, offers a great workout – that’s a positive spin on a difficult trail, right?
Negative: The steep hills could also be considered a negative for hikers looking for something less strenuous
The Oak Ridge Trail begins off the Trout Brook Trail near the nature center’s parking lot. This trail curves south and follows along the main park road. The trail is far enough away and the tree cover is thick enough that you only see and hear the road at a few points on the trail.
This trail is hilly. If you like climbing up a fairly steep hill only to go right back down, this this trail is for you. While this trail was only a little over a mile, it felt like it took a long time to complete because of the challenge it presented. At least there were a ton of ferns along the way!
(Obligatory fern picture.)
About 3/4 of the way through the trail, this trail meets with the White Tail Trail. The White Tail Trail is a .7 mile loop that travels through an open area on the park’s edge. The trail is named for the numerous deer that live in the park. According to the trail descriptions, apparently this is a good place to see deer and their tracks. Deer are awesome and all, but after being fairly burnt out from the hills on an unusually warm fall day, we decided not to hike this trail.
This trail finishes at the group campsites with the option to either head off to the road/parking lot or continue on the next trail. This trail runs next to the group camp’s bathrooms, which is an unexpected bonus while hiking. After a quick rest stop, we kept heading east on the next trail.
Length: 1 mile, linear
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate – After the previous trail, this one felt easy. Looking back on it though, there were a number of hills. The trail was also mostly out in the open with only a few trees along the way.
Positives: Opens up through a picturesque meadow, offers views of a ton of different plants and birds
Negative: No tree cover, this trail was pretty warm in the sun
This trail is named for the invasive plant, the spotted knapweed, which produces purple flowers and is found all over Wisconsin. I see these plants everywhere, but I had no idea that it was invasive.
(These guys. You’ve probably seen them all over if you’ve ever noticed plants while hiking.)
The meadow as a whole was picturesque. A sunny sky with a variety of colors sloping up a hill in the distance.
From the meadow area, the trail enters into a small pine tree forest. This shade was very welcomed after being out in the open for the better part of a mile.
This trail finishes by crossing the main park road and passing by the 100 Campground where it meets with the next trail.
Length: 1.2 miles, linear – we met the trail near the middle so I will say we saw .6 miles of it
Difficulty: Easy – mostly flat
Positives: Scenic and educational with an interesting stop on the way
Negative: Part of the trail was sand (my least favorite kind of trail,) not very secluded, passing feet from other people’s campsites
Coming from the Knapweed Trail, we took a right on the trail and headed east towards the falls. We immediately began by passing right behind the 100 Campground. There was very minimal foliage between the trail and the campground, which ended in us looking at other people’s equipment and setup, a.k.a., creeping. It was fine for us on the trail, I like to be nosey, but this would likely be annoying from the other side of the shrubbery. Privacy is usually something I look for in a campsite. Double whammy, this campground also had very minimal trees throughout it, leaving it very sunny and open.
On the map just after the campground, I noticed a cross with the label of “grave sites.”
(William Scott 1849 Family Grave Site Original Homestead)
I tried to find more information on the William Scott family online, but could only find what was written near the site. The sign nearby simply states that the William Scott family was the first homestead settler family in the area. They are buried here because nearby is a location marked as their favorite view of the surrounding area. We checked this view out, but I think it has since changed from their day. Today there isn’t much of a view other than tall trees.
Without the sign marking the graves, I would have walked right by without knowing of an entire family residing a few feet off the trail. Just a few small, grass-covered mounds. I would have loved to learn so much more about the family and their role in the beginnings of the nearby community.
Shortly after passing the gravesites, the Pioneer Trail meetings with the Willow Falls Hill Trail, which was described briefly in post #1 of this three-part trails tail. (Ha!)
This intersection was confusing for some people and we helped direct a few. The Willow Falls Hill Trail goes from the falls (below) to the parking lot (above) so it is a popular access point for people wanting to see the falls without having a long hike to get there. To reach the last segment of The Pioneer Trail, you have to hike on the Willow Falls Hill Trail for a short distance. This seemed to create some confusion for people coming from the parking lot since there are 2 possible points for them to turn on.
The shorter segment of the Pioneer Trail, northeast of the Willow Falls Hill Trail, brings you to the edge of the cliff with the waterfall below. Since you already started up high, level to the cliff, this trail is easy and doesn’t require any additional climbing. From the overlook point, you can hear the falls, but you cannot see it. It’s still a pretty view.
Some equipment and an informational sign on the overlook offers another glimpse into the history of the area. In the 1800’s, German immigrant Christian Burkhardt realized the raw power of the river and built a mill. After accumulating some wealth, he returned to Germany for the purpose of learning more about hydroelectric power plants. He then traveled back to the area and built one in 1891. He would build four more plants in the following years. His operation was later purchased by a larger local power company, who ran the sites until 1963.
From the overlook, we traveled back to the Willow Falls Hill Trail to take it down to the Willow Falls Trail. When I say take it down, I mean take it down, like way down. Remember the overlooks from Part One? How high they were? That’s the height where the hill trail starts before traveling down to river level in a pretty short distance. This trail is steep and winding. Taking it down was a challenge, so I do not envy the people who parked at the top and had to make the climb.
From the Willow Falls Trail, we traveled back to the campground, the same path we took on day one.
This park was amazing. I know I say that about the majority of parks I visit, but this one truly had numerous diverse trails that made it easy to spend two days hiking there. This was one of those parks that I left the area knowing a little more about the history and what makes it unique. That’s really the goal of traveling, isn’t it? To learn about the people and places that make the area so different from whatever place you call home? Until next time, Willow River, as you still have more for me to explore.