Pattison State Park
Updated: Jun 3
Wisconsin weather can be tricky; not even AccuWeather can predict its every move. And campsites at Wisconsin’s State Parks sell out so quickly that I reserved all our campsites for the entire summer back in April. So when the forecast for the weekend was looking extra rainy, there wasn’t anything else to do but drive the five hours north to Pattison State Park and hope for the best. The rain held out for most of the drive, and then, just as we arrived at the park and got to our campsite, the clouds said “now!” and down the rain came. Lucky’s eyelids were droopy with sleep as we sat in the car coming up with a plan.
Rather than wait it out at the campsite, we decided to drive over to the trailhead that would take us to tallest waterfall in Wisconsin, Big Manitou Falls. We figured when the rain let up, we could take our chances on the 0.1 mi trail to see the falls. AccuWeather was saying severe storms with possible hail were in our future; thankfully those predictions never came true. Instead, the rain stopped and we hiked the 0.1 to see the falls and then some. We started out with the view of Big Manitou Falls from the southern outlook and then walked the short trail around to view the falls from the other side. All of the views are remarkable, no matter which side you’re on. Big Manitou is a thing of beauty, but it may take some getting used to. The water that plummets down the 165 ft is from the Black River, which is a misnomer if it’s supposed to be referencing the actual color of the water. The water is brown. Root beer brown. And where it crashes against rocks and froths and foams, it resembles a root beer float. So when I first saw Big Manitou Falls, I had to recalibrate my eye to appreciate this giant brown cataract* as a majestic thing of beauty—root beer brown beauty.
Much like our experience at Willow River State Park, the rainstorm had cleared out many of the park's visitors. This meant that we got to spend a lot of intimate time with the falls. We lingered at each of the outlooks, taking our time to appreciate the falls, the turns and tumbles of the water through the gorge, the bright yellow lichen on the rock faces below us, the trees growing out of the side of a cliff, and the moody clouds that lingered after the rain. Well at least that's what I was doing, and while I can't be sure, whenever Lucky peeks his head between the railing, I imagine he's doing the same.
We traced our steps back to the south side of the falls and took Big Manitou Falls trail down to the Black River. Far enough downstream from the falls, the water here still flows with some urgency but is shallow enough that I let Lucky wade in along the edge. The brown color of the water was less noticeable because of the way the shadows and reflections of the forest and sandstone were playing together on the water’s surface. It felt magical and had it not been so late in the day, I would have stayed in that spot longer. But with sunset approaching, we made our way back to our campsite to set up and get dinner in the skillet.
The next day we set out to see Little Manitou Falls, Big Manitou Falls’ smaller incarnation. Hiking along Interfalls Lake, we noted that the still water looked thicker than root beer—more like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate River— but it thinned back out into frothing root beer once we were back along the river. With some form of water always in sight, the eastern portion of Beaver Trail and Little Manitou Falls Trail are incredibly pleasant. And with Little Manitou Falls as a reward at the end of the trail, you really can't go wrong. Despite being the smaller of the two Manitou's, the vantage points for viewing Little M. are much closer than those for viewing Big M., and there's just something to be said for feeling the mist of a waterfall on your face. The temperature and dew point around Little M. were a welcome relief from the increasing heat and humidity on the trail. We explored the network of trails near the top of Little M. before heading back around to the other side of Interfalls Lake. Curious to see how a sunny day’s experience would compare the stormy one from the day before, we decided to make a quick stop at Big M. on our way back around. The biggest difference? The observation platforms were now crowed with people trying to take photos. The peaceful grandeur we had experienced the day before was now flanked by a bustling crowd that gave off an unmistakable touristy vibe.
Not wanting to tarnish the memories of our intimidate visit from the day before, we quickly departed and made our way back to camp for an uneventful, squirrel free lunch. Our final hike at Pattison State Park included Overlook and Oak Ridge Trails, which were less overlook and ridge and more tall grass and mud. When the grass became especially long and reminiscent of Governor Thompson State Park, we stopped to tuck our pant legs into our socks. We came back along the most challenging stretch of trail: parallel tracks of quicksand-esque mud with unreliable tufts of grass sporadically serving as a median. I navigated the trail like a pathetic version of Indiana Jones attempting to calculate each precarious step through a booby-trapped quagmire. This was my least favorite hike, but if I have to say something nice about it, I’ll offer this: it’s probably really nice for cross-country skiing in the winter.
*We saw one of the information signs use the term cataract in relation to the falls. Turns out the first definition of cataract has nothing to do with eyeballs and everything to do with gushing, rushing water.
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