Monday, June 24, 2013

Amnicon Falls State Park: Island and Thimbleberry Trails (Blog Hike #322)

Trails: Island and Thimbleberry Trails
Hike Location: Amnicon Falls State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of SuperiorWI (46.61090, -91.89066)
Length: 1.7 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2010
Overview: A short hike along the banks of the raging and falling Amnicon River.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Superior, head east on US 2.  Where US 2 and US 53 split, angle left to continue east on US 2.  Less than 1 mile past the split, turn left on CR U; there is a brown state park sign at this intersection.  Take CR U 0.3 miles to the park entrance on the left, and turn left to enter the park.  Take a sharp right at the Contact Station, heading for the waterfall area.  At the Contact Station, you will need to pay the large park entrance fee; Wisconsin has the highest state park entrance fees of any state I am aware of.  Take care crossing an old, narrow bridge on the park road.  Park in the medium sized gravel parking lot for the waterfall area.

The hike: It was a mild, misty Monday morning when I drove through the gates at Amnicon Falls State Park in northwest Wisconsin.  I had just completed a multi-day hiking trip on Minnesota’s north shore, and I was trying to squeeze in one more hike before I began the long drive back to Georgia.  Major waterfall parks such as this one have a tourist-trap reputation, but I had a very pleasant hike that morning.
            The 825 acres comprising Amnicon Falls State Park today have a long industrial history.  Soon after the state of Wisconsin was established in 1848, the state granted this land to the ChicagoSt. PaulMinneapolis and Omaha Railroad Company for the purpose of building a railroad to facilitate settlement.  To defer construction costs, everything except for the right of way was sold, including the land around the river.
            In the late 1800’s, lumberjacks came into the area; they used the rushing river to transport logs to mills downstream.  In 1887, a quarry opened to exploit the area’s sandstone.  The quarry would operate for nearly 20 years, and you can still see the remnants of this quarry on the Thimbleberry Trail described here.
            In 1932, the river’s natural qualities were noticed, and Douglas County purchased the land to form Bardon Park.  The park was named after Samuel Bardon, the man who bought the land from the railroad.  Some of the park’s facilities were built by the CCC during the Great Depression.  In 1962, the land was transferred to the state of Wisconsin, and the state park was born.
            The park’s rich industrial and parkland history are evident today in the old quarry and mature forest, respectively.  The waterfalls are the main attraction, but some nice picnic areas make for great places to enjoy a meal under dense tree cover.  Only two short trails traverse the grounds, but they lead to all major points of interest in the park.  This hike will use both of these trails.
            Before you leave the parking lot vicinity, there are three places you should visit.  Located behind the men’s restroom building (a most unusual spot indeed) is Now and Then Falls, a small waterfall in the small creek you crossed on the narrow bridge on your drive in.  The waterfalls here are created by the Douglas Fault, a line along which igneous basalt rock upstream was lifted above the reddish sandstone downstream. The Amnicon River splits into three branches along the fault line, but the third branch is small and only flows during times of high water, hence the name of its waterfall.  On my visit, this area had received several inches of rain the previous day, and so this waterfall was a very nice if small cascading waterfall.
Now and Then Falls
            Next, walk back to the river’s main branch and walk down some stone steps from the parking area to arrive at the postcard view of Upper Falls.  Unlike Now and Then Falls, Upper Falls is a rushing waterfall: huge volumes of water pour down a narrow rock opening into a large, foaming plunge pool.  Looking downstream, you can see the Covered Horton Bridge that we will use shortly to begin the hike.  This bridge was built around 1900 and served as a highway bridge near the park.  The bridge was moved here in 1930 to allow park visitors to access Big Island.  Only the lower part of the bridge is original; the roof was added by the CCC in 1939.
Upper Falls
            Finally, walk downstream past the covered bridge to an overlook high atop a cliff.  This overlook looks back upstream at Lower Falls.  Lower Falls looks much like Upper Falls with one main difference: the surrounding cliffs are brownish-red sandstone here, not black basalt as you saw at Upper Falls.  Also, the covered bridge behind Lower Falls makes a nice photograph.
Lower Falls
            At last, you are ready to begin the hike.  Walk across the covered bridge to arrive on Big Island, which is located between the two main arms of the Amnicon River.  A somewhat rocky and poorly defined trail traces the perimeter of the island.  Turn right to begin walking around the island counterclockwise.  At 0.15 miles, you reach Snake Pit Falls, the cascade-type waterfall in the southern arm of the river.  This waterfall does not have the volume or setting of its northern arm counterparts, but the black basalt rock still makes for a dramatic backdrop.
Snake Pit Falls
            Past Snake Pit Falls, you soon reach the sturdy bridge at the north end of Big Island.  If you wanted a 0.3 mile waterfall hike, you could continue around Big Island here and quickly arrive back at the waterfall parking lot.  To extend the hike, cross the bridge to arrive at a picnic area parking lot.  Walk through the parking lot to the main park road, then turn right and climb along the main park road to reach the trailhead for the Thimbleberry Nature Trail, which is located on the right across the road from the campground entrance.
            The Thimbleberry Nature Trail begins by descending moderately, soon to arrive back at river level.  Where the trail splits to form its loop, angle right to stay closer to the river.  The trail heads downstream with the river rushing noisily to your right.  Most people who visit this park never get past the waterfalls, and hence you will likely be alone on this trail.
            The trail stays close to the river as it treads through lush, damp forest dominated by some large hemlock trees.  Keep your eye out for the thimbleberry bush, identifiable by its bright red berries and large leaves, in the understory.  At 0.6 miles, you climb a short set of wooden steps.  These steps can be covered with a sheen of mud and hence will be very slippery when wet, so watch your step.
            Just past the steps, the spur trail to the old sandstone quarry leads off to the right.  An interpretive sign tells of the sandstone’s use; the rock was also called brownstone due to its dark red color.  Only the rim of the quarry can be seen today, as the rest of the mine has filled with water.  Some hemlock trees prevent a clear view of the resulting pond, but it is still easy to imagine what it must have been like to work here back in the late 1800’s.
Old sandstone quarry
            The spur trail ends at the quarry, so you next have to retrace your steps back to the main Thimbleberry Nature Trail.  On your way, look to the left of the trail and see if you can spot the remnants of the old quarry camp: it looks like a rocky depression covered with green viney plants.  At the main trail, you may be able to turn right to continue the loop.  Unfortunately, on my visit, the southern arm of the loop was closed for maintenance, so I had to retrace my steps back along the northern arm and then back down the road, through the picnic area, and across the metal bridge to get back to Big Island.  Angling right on the trail around Big Island quickly leads to the covered bridge, thus signaling the end of the hike.
Approaching the covered bridge

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