Wisconsin’s Governor Dodge State Park — A Waterfall, A Canyon, and Farming History

I love when parks surprise me. Let me rephrase, I love when parks surprise me in a positive way. I don’t love being surprised by an army of mosquitoes, finding the trail underwater 2 miles in, or finding your campsite has no shade on a 90 degree day. I do, however, love when you start a trail with only a vague knowledge of what’s to come and find so much more than you expected.

I had this experience at a park I’ve been going to for years, Governor Dodge State Park. Living in Madison, this park is an easy drive for a day-trip. Although I’ve been to the park numerous times I somehow never explored the area around one of the park’s main attractions, Stephens Falls. I’ve been to the falls but it was always full of multiple groups of people. Maybe that’s why I ignored all the trails around it. I tend to avoid crowds, especially in natural areas when I’m trying to get away from people. Boy, was I missing out.

Links to follow along:
Main park page
Trail descriptions
Park map

Stephens Falls and Lost Canyon Trails:

Length: .5 miles linear (Stephens Falls) and 3 mile loop (Lost Canyon)
Difficulty: Easy (Stephens Falls) and moderate (Lost Canyon)
Description: The Stephens Falls trail bring hikers down to the waterfall and along the stream. The Lost Canyon Trail travels around the rocky area near the waterfall.

I combined these two trails as the Lost Canyon Trail is accessed and cut in half by the Stephens Falls trail. You can complete one or both trails in whatever direction you please. We began from the Stephens Falls parking area before following the Lost Canyon Trail counterclockwise (if looking at the map).

The initial trail from the parking lot is an accessible trail, paved and flat. This trail leads to an overlook above the falls which offers a nice view. Hikers have the option from there to climb down some uneven rocky steps to the base of the falls. Doing this will bring you along the Stephens Falls Trail. This trail follows along the creek to the point where it meets the Lost Canyon Trail.

Instead of heading directly to the falls, we turned onto the Lost Canyon Trail and opted to see the falls later on in the hike. (Building anticipation?) This loop meets back up with the Stephens Falls trail (at the Stephens Falls trail end.)

The Lost Canyon trail begins through grassland before turning into the forest.

Gnarly looking tree on the trail. Spoooooky!

After a short while on the trail, you meet back up with the Stephens Falls Trail. This is the back side of the trail, where it ends.

The trail crosses the stream (downriver from the falls) before traveling next to it as it heads back towards the falls.

This part of the trail is kind of a choose your own adventure situation. The trail is vague and people seemed to be walking on either side of the stream. As long as you follow the stream, you’ll get to where you want to go, the falls.

Enjoy the view along the way. The stream bed is rocky and makes a bunch of cute little itty-bitty waterfalls.

Rocky outcroppings line the canyon.

At the end of the trail (or the beginning, depending which direction you started) is Stephens Falls. This waterfall is a little over 20 feet tall.

The water at the base of the falls is shallow and several people were walking in it to get closer to the falls. If it’s a hot day, enjoy the cool and refreshing air around the falls.

The stairs leading down from the paved trail and lookout above.

After visiting the falls, we backtracked to the Lost Canyon Trail to continue on.

The Lost Canyon Trail continues to meander next to the stream and crosses it in several places.

The rocky outcroppings continue as you go and become larger. I was surprised at the size of these. Some of them get quite huge.

The stream passing by an outcropping

As the trail continues, it begins to climb up. This hill got pretty steep and seemed to go on forever. (This hill is the reason for the “moderate” trail difficulty rating. This hill came out of nowhere but made sense when we arrived at the overlooks. After beginning at the base of the canyon, you climb to the top.

A weird feature about this trail, it has not one, but two spring houses along it. The park in general has an above average number of spring houses but to find two on the same trail has to be a record.

Frogger in the spring water

The trail continues along a meadow. This time of year the air was full of monarch butterflies.

Just when I thought we were nearing the end of the trail, it had another surprise for us. We stumbled upon an area not listed on the map, the Stephens homestead. Later I learned this area was added in 2012 to showcase the farming and homestead history of the Stephens family.

Early farming equipment and the remnants of the old barn are still on the site today. A sign near this area informed me that two horses ran over the falls in the 1920’s. One was blind and the other was spooked in a thunderstorm. Poor horseys.

Today this foundation is all that’s left of the original cabin. A sign near the site reads “In 1854, Alex Stephens built a cabin in anticipation of his upcoming marriage to Martha Nelson. The cabin was approximately 11′ x 15.’ By 1874, Alex and Martha were still living in the cabin with nine children.”

Eventually the family went on to build a larger two-story house but lived in this home for at least 20 years. How this family of eleven people lived in this house for so long is beyond me. The original home was later repurposed as a chicken coop. I wonder if it was sad for the family that their original home was so small it was great for chickens. At least the chickens were happy.

Down the trail towards the end of the journey is the second spring house. This one was used by the Stephens family for water and food preservation.

The water inside is crystal clear and ice cold.

The Lost Canyon trail meets back up with the paved Stephens Falls trail.

This huge 5,350 acre park has a ton more hiking and lots to see. We only hiked this small section as we had a date to meet the in-laws (for me, anyway) at one of the park’s lakes for some fishing.

At least some fish were biting that day!

4 thoughts on “Wisconsin’s Governor Dodge State Park — A Waterfall, A Canyon, and Farming History

  1. Hi Lisa. My name is Dick Stephens, and I am one of the descendants of Alex Stephens (he would be my great-great grandfather). Me, my cousin, and brother put up the kiosk’s inside the Heritage Trail area of Stephens Falls. I have many stories about the history of this area, and our families connection if you are ever interested. Maybe the most interesting is that Alex Stephens came to America in about 1838 from Rollag area of Norway. Ended up about 4-6 years later buying land in this area. Married and built the original 11′ x 15′ home with a barn, and in 1850 went to CA as part of the “Gold Rush.” He went again in 1852, and then again in 1860. So 3 times he went cross country (wagon train and oxen). His trip in 1860 might have had some assist from the railroad, but hard for me to imagine going cross country 3 times, but he did. The Stephens farm was called “The Gold Mine Farm.” Local historian (Iowa County Historical Society) believe that Alex might have found some gold to make that many trips, and the road from hwy 23 to his farm was called Gold Mine Road, the cheese factory called Gold Mine Cheese Factory, and the small school just north of Stephens Falls called Gold Mine School. There is a church (Rock Church) just outside the park that 3 of the 10 children born to Alex and Martha are buried. I would be happy to meet you sometime and give you what I know if you would like. My email is ddjj4family@aol.com. Thanks! Dick Stephens

    • Hi Dick! What wonderful insight into the “Gold Mine” history. Thank you for sharing. I am by no means a professional journalist but I would love to connect and learn more! I will reach out by email.

  2. That’s interesting Dick Stephens, I had never heard the story about Alex Stephens having gone to the gold fields in California. I wonder if he went along with some of the Cornish immigrants from the area who went west to the gold fields in that era.

    It was a very common occurrence for the Cornish to migrate out to California after trying their luck in Iowa County. I had never heard of any Norwegians having made the journey to California—or having engaged in Mining. I know there is a mining area around Roros Norway—I think along the border with present day Sweden that has a mining heritage.

    As you know, later Stephens generations intermarried with the Perkins family from Camborne. The Perkins family were part of the founders of the Wesley Chapel that was on the other side of Hey. 23 from the old North Dodgeville Lutheran Church. Alex and his wife, I believe, are interred in the East Side Cemetery in Dodgeville near the Perkins family lot. Some of my family purchased a portion of the Stephens lot, so I have several family members interred in proximity. With Alex and his wife. I think one daughter,Esther, is interred there with them.

    The story I had heard about the origins of the name Gold Mine for the neighborhood was that an unscrupulous person claimed to have found gold in the vicinity, early in the lead mining era, in order to resell land at inflated prices. Given Alex Stephens’ history with the gold fields, and the name of the homestead as Gold Mine Farm, that seems like a more likely source of the name.

    It’s a fascinating area out there. The other falls in the Park is Elams Falls. The Elam Family farmed in the vicinity of the original park entrance near the old drive in restaurant. The Elam Farm buildings are still there, but the house is gone. The Elam Falls is not as accessible as is the Stephens Falls. The Elam Falls would be on the South perimeter of the Park. I think, at times, there is no water going over that falls. Stephens Falls used to occasionally have a low water flow, but I don’t recall it ever going dry.

    I think there are vintage post card views of Elams’ Falls. Inthink I’ve also seen vintage post cards of Stephens’ Falls referred to as Regan or Reagan’s Falls. I never heard it called that, and I don’t know what the source of that name would have been.

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