Monday, July 9, 2018

Perrot State Park: Brady's Bluff (Blog Hike #696)

Trails: Perrot Ridge and Brady’s Bluff Trails
Hike Location: Perrot State Park
Geographic Location: west of Trempealeau, WI
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A climb, steep in spots, to a bluff high above the Mississippi River.

Directions to the trailhead: North of La Crosse, take US 53 to SR 35.  Exit and go north/west on SR 35.  Drive SR 35 west 8 miles to the town of Trempealeau.  Where SR 35 turns right in the middle of town, turn left on Main Street.  Drive Main St. toward the river 3 blocks and turn right on First Street.  First Street turns into Sullivan Road and Park Road before ending at the entrance to Perrot State Park in 1.9 miles.  Pay the park entrance fee, and park in the first parking lot on the left after passing the gatehouse.

The hike: It was the fall of 1685 when Nicholas Perrot, one of the first French explorers in the upper Mississippi River valley, came to the confluence of the Trempealeau and Mississippi Rivers in present-day southwest Wisconsin.  Perrot and his men needed a place to camp for the winter, and the site’s abundance of wood, large prairies for game hunting, and high bluffs for protection from the wind made it ideal.  Perrot did a lot of trade and forged many treaties with native peoples at this site (some of whom had been living here for 5000 years), and between 1732 and 1737 a French fort stood here.
            Later white settlers occupied the land, and in 1918 John Latsch donated the land to establish the state park with the request that the park be named after Perrot.  From 1935 to 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps’ (CCC) Camp Perrot stood here.  The CCC built a shelter and trails on the park’s Brady’s Bluff in addition to facilities at nearby Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a lock and dam on the Mississippi River at Trempealeau, and some projects at Merrick State Park just upriver.
            Today Perrot State Park protects 1270 acres of bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Trempealeau and Mississippi Rivers.  The park offers a 95-site campground, access to the Great River Trail (a bike trail), 6 picnic areas, and 12.5 miles of hiking trails.  In fact, Perrot State Park offers some of the best hiking in Wisconsin, a state only somewhat known for its hiking.  The park’s best trails head to the bluffs for their fantastic river views, and this hike takes the back route to Brady’s Bluff, the park’s highest point.           
East Brady's Trailhead
            Start by walking across the park road to find the signed trailhead for the Brady’s Bluff and Perrot Ridge Trails.  The park map calls this trailhead the East Brady’s Trailhead though no signs on the ground indicate such.  A metal historical marker erected by the Wisconsin Historical Society in 2003 stands here and gives a brief synopsis of the bluff’s history.  The single-track dirt trail heads into the woods, which features a lot of oak trees.
            In less than 500 feet, the trail forks to form our loop.  To make the climbing easier, this description turns right to head up a few stone steps and uses the trail going straight and slightly downhill as its return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  Signs identify this trail as the Perrot Ridge Trail, but it also forms the back route to Brady’s Bluff.
Climbing on the Perrot Ridge Trail
            The trail climbs gradually at first with the park road and park office visible and audible downhill to the right.  Soon the grade intensifies as the trail curves left to tackle the slope head-on.  A pileated woodpecker flew into the trees beside me and started hammering for insects on a dead tree’s trunk.  As you approach the top of the first steep area, a small prairie opening offers a view of Brady’s Bluff above you and to the left.
Looking up at Brady's Bluff
            At 0.3 miles, you reach a trail intersection on the side of Perrot Ridge.  Major trail intersections at Perrot State Park are identified by black numbered posts bearing park trail maps, and this intersection is post #5.  The option going right leads to the top of Perrot Ridge, which offers another nice Mississippi River view, but this hike turns sharply left to head for Brady’s Bluff.
            The trail surface turns to mowed grass as the trail embarks on a fairly level course on the side of Perrot Ridge.  This trail doubles as a cross-country ski trail in the winter, and partially obstructed views up and down Perrot Ridge emerge.  At 0.7 miles, you reach post #10 and another trail intersection.  The trail going right heads down the back side of Perrot Ridge, so you need to turn left to continue our loop.
            After a few hundred more feet of fairly level hiking, you begin the steep climb up the back side of Brady’s Bluff.  No switchbacks or steps ease the grade, and the trail gets fairly narrow near the top of the bluff.  Some poison ivy grows beside the trail, so watch where you step.
Shelter at Brady's Bluff
            At 1.2 miles, you emerge from the forest into Brady’s Bluff’s spectacular and breezy prairie.  Turn left to reach the excellent stone/wood CCC-built blufftop shelter.  Looking out from the shelter, the Mississippi River paints a long, wide streak from right to left, and Trempealeau Mountain takes center stage below you to the north.  (Aside: the name Trempealeau comes from a French phrase that translates “bathed in water,” a fitting name because the mountain is surrounded by the confluence of the Trempealeau and Mississippi Rivers.)  Many islands, some large and some small, dot the river, and the hills of Minnesota line the opposite bank.  Take some time to enjoy this well-earned view and have a trail snack at the CCC shelter.
Trempealeau Mountain and view north

View downstream from overlook
            When you are ready to descend, continue east past the shelter.  The descent down the sheer front side of Brady’s Bluff starts very steep, but soon some stone steps and switchbacks ease the grade.  In total, the trail descends 470 vertical feet over 0.8 miles.  This trail was built by the CCC, as evidenced by the trail’s extensive stone stair and switchback constructions that were absent on the trails you hiked earlier.
Sidehill trail in prairie
            The trail winds downward through prairie, then forest, and then another small prairie before reentering the forest for good.  The sidehill trail allows you to see just how sheer this bluff is.  The park road soon comes within earshot downhill to the right, and you cross a creek with a small waterfall just before closing the loop.  A short walk past the historical marker returns you to the parking lot to complete the hike.

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