Willow River State Park
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
We departed Interstate for Willow River State Park after a big, slow breakfast. Our plan for the day was to take our time and enjoy ourselves—we were off to a great start. The hour-ish drive between the two parks went so quickly that I was surprising when we jumped out of the car at Willow River to a grey and foreboding sky. The forecast for Interstate was clear, and naively I had hoped the same would be true for Willow River. Given the impending rain, we decided to hit the main attraction first, much like when we’d go to Six Flags Great American when I was a kid. Upon entering the park, we’d automatically head in the direction of the newest ride, determined to check that one off of the list before the lines got too long. In this case, it meant heading directly to Willow Falls.
The trail down to the falls from the Willow Falls parking lot is a road really, but the grade is not for the faint of heart. Once we reached the end of the descent, we were greeted by the coolest freaking waterfalls in all of Wisconsin. Seriously. The tiered falls are wide and welcoming to waders of all ages. Though the park provides an obvious trail and viewing areas marked by railings, the park doesn’t restrict visitors to these official places. In fact, the cover of the park brochure features a group of youngsters playing in the middle of the falls—going into the falls is WHAT YOU DO here, and I love that. We stopped to take photos while a few teenagers went for a dip in the falls and a family wrangled their children out of the falls to feed them lunch. Before going in ourselves, we wanted to hike up to the overlook points to get a view of the falls from above.
To get to the overlooks we had to climb flight after flight of metal staircases; I felt like I was climbing a never-ending urban fire escape. Lucky was a little unsure of the treads, and it took some coaxing to get him all of the way to the top. Once up there, we caught our breath and peered down at the falls from this bird’s eye perspective. While we were up there, we decided to walk some of the Burkhardt Trail, and as we got going so did the rain. It wasn’t too bad at first, so Angela and I just put on our raincoats and kept going. But then the steady rain turned into a steady pour, so we tried to find shelter under the canopy of a tree. Lucky tried huddled under me because he really hates being outside in the rain. Maybe he wouldn’t hate it so much if he had a raincoat too?
What felt like forever later, the rain was still coming down heavily, and we were growing impatient. Other people who had been caught out in the storm were going for it, passing us as we were still standing futilely under a tree. Even with our rain coats on, we were wet, and Lucky was soaked. So we left our tree behind and finished the Burkhardt Trail loop that took us back down to the falls. We didn’t want to head all the way back to the parking lot yet, so we next took shelter under the fire-escape stairs. Normally, I would have been bummed out by this wet weather, but the rain storm cleared a lot of people out of the park. So when we finally emerged from under those stairs, we had the falls almost all to ourselves!
After exploring and taking thousands of photos, we made our way back up the steep drive to the parking lot, ate a picnic lunch, and then headed out to hike some of the other trails at Willow River State Park. When we got back to our campsite at Interstate Park and were discussing our plans for the next day, we decided a return visit to Willow River was in order. The forecast for the next day was warm and sunny, so after getting in some morning hiking at Interstate, we returned to Willow River for the sole purpose of sitting in the waterfalls and enjoying a beautiful afternoon. And that’s exactly what we did.
Want more information about hiking with your dog at Willow River State Park? Order your copy of A Dog Lover's Guide to Hiking Wisconsin's State Parks now!
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