Thursday, June 27, 2013

Willow River State Park: Burkhardt Trail (Blog Hike #386)

Trail: Burkhardt Trail
Hike Location: Willow River State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of HudsonWI (45.02832, -92.66726)
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2012
Overview: The back road to impressive Willow Falls.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In western Wisconsin, take I-94 to US 12 (exit 4). Exit and head east on US 12.  Where US 12 turns right, continue straight on CR A.  Bypass the signed main park entrance, drive through the town of Burkhardt, and cross the Willow River.  Immediately after crossing the river, turn left on CR I.  Take CR I 0.5 miles to River Road and turn left on River Rd.  The small gravel River Rd. parking lot is 0.1 miles ahead on the left.  Park in this lot.

The hike: Located just north of I-94 less than an hour east of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Willow River State Park protects 2911 acres along the park’s namesake river.  After spending several days at a conference in Minneapolis, I stopped here to spend a couple of hours on the trail before heading east across Wisconsin.  After my visit, I wished I had a full day to spend here.
            The land around Willow Falls has a long history of industrial use.  Christian Burkhardt, the German immigrant for whom this trail is named, purchased 600 acres along the river for the purpose of building a mill.  The mill was completed in 1868, and farmers from near and far brought their grain here to be ground.  With the dawn of the electric age, the river’s falling water was used to power generators, and 4 hydroelectric dams were built along the river.  The dams and land eventually became the property of Northern States Power, which sold the land to the state to form the park in 1967.
            Most people who visit the falls today do so by way of the 0.5 mile paved trail from the Willow Falls parking lot on CR A.  While the paved trail provides an easy way to access the falls, it is also highly developed and congested.  Thus, for hikers with a little more time, a more scenic and natural route with less traffic would be preferable.  Such is the moderate 2.5 mile route described here.           
Trailhead-Burkhardt Trail
            Start by walking around the metal vehicle gate at the rear of the parking lot and following the wide two-track gravel trail.  The initial segment of trail passes through a reverting farm field that is now a prairie.  This field was probably farmed less than 50 years ago.  Dragonflies and butterflies dodge from plant to plant in the field.  In the summer, this is a hot and sunny hike.
The hot, sunny Burkhardt Trail
            At 0.2 miles, the trail comes very close to Willow River on the left.  On my hike, a couple of people were fishing in the river here.  The flat land and calm river here give no indication of the aquatic drama to come. After crossing a low area on some loose gravel, the trail begins a moderate climb up the river bluffs.  A couple of benches sit beside the trail overlooking the river, but trees and shrubs preclude any view in the warmer months.
Bench along the Burkhardt Trail
            At 0.6 miles, you reach the Burkhardt Trail’s main fork.  The trail is easier to hike if you hike the loop clockwise by turning left here and using the right trail as the return route.  A wooden sign directing you to the overlook also points left here.  Wooden posts, each with a single pink stripe, mark the trail, but the trail is wide, obvious, and easy to follow.
            For the next 0.2 miles the trail follows the boundary between a bluff-top prairie (another reverting farm field) on the right and the wooded ravine containing Willow River on the left.  Stay left at the next two intersections, heading for the overlook.  At 1 mile, you reach the short spur trail that exits left and descends a few steps to the river overlook.  At nearly 100 feet above the river, this platform overlooks the peaceful section of the river in a rock-walled gorge just above the falls.  Take a couple of minutes to enjoy the peaceful river, but keep in mind that the real show still awaits.
River overlook
            Back on the main trail, another 0.2 miles brings you to the overlook high above Willow Falls.  From this point, you look down on each level of the stair-step waterfall.  For a more impressive view, climb down the long wood/iron staircase to the right of the overlook that descends to the base of the falls.  This staircase would be hard to climb, but it is easy to descend.  The area around the base of the falls is the most congested in the park, but the view up the falls inside the sheer-walled gorge is second-to-none.  For the best view, walk across the iron/wood bridge over the Willow River just below the falls.
Willow Falls
            Continuing straight across the bridge leads up the paved trail and to the park campground.  To begin the journey back to our trailhead, return to the north side of the river and continue to follow the pink blazes as they head up a side ravine.  Do not get confused by the silver-blazed Nelson Farm Trail, the newest trail in the park, which heads left to stay along the river.
            The wide dirt/gravel trail heads up the side ravine and soon begins a moderate climb back to the bluff.  This climb is not easy, but it is far easier than climbing up the staircase you descended on.  Raspberries grow plentifully beside the trail and become ripe for picking in late July.
Closing the Burkhardt Trail loop
            1.7 miles into the hike, you reach a trail intersection at the top of the climb, where you need to turn left.  The trail now traces the western boundary of the same prairie the other arm follows on the east side.  At 2 miles, you close the loop.  A left turn and 0.5 miles of downhill, flat, sunny hiking remains to complete the hike.

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