Chasing Waterfalls at Willow River State Park
Photo by Jeremy Nelson
It never ceases to amaze me that you can live somewhere nearly your whole life, and still discover new gems close to home. That was the case recently when a group of friends went camping at Willow River State Park in Hudson. I didn’t realize what I was missing until I experienced this amazing park in person.
Taking the advice of our friend who has camped here before, we made reservations in the 300 loop of the campground—the older, mostly shady, secluded area (not counting the group area, which was already booked by the time we locked in on a weekend that worked for our group). Upon arriving, I was glad we weren’t in the 100 area close to the freeway. When I’m camping, I don’t want to hear traffic in the middle of the night or look out a clearing to see my neighbor. I want to hear wildlife (certain wildlife, not, you know, bears or anything) and see trees.
After putting up the tent and cracking open a cold beverage, we sat around our friend’s campfire and talked for awhile before deciding to walk the mile to the waterfall. From our site, it was a mostly level, easy hike, with the river following the path for most of the walk. We could hear the mighty waterfall before we could see it. When it came into view, it was every bit as impressive as it sounded. It reminded me of the waterfalls I saw while living out in Portland, Oregon.
Because it was late and getting dark, we were the only ones there. I didn’t realize the significance of having the place to ourselves Friday night until we returned on Saturday afternoon. It was a completely different scene, one populated with happy couples, groups of friends, young parents with small kids playing in the rock-filled puddles at the bottom of the falls, even multiple generations holding hands as Grandma walked along the rocks. I saw one woman walking precariously along the slick rocks with a baby strapped to her chest and couldn’t help but worry about her falling in the brisk-moving current, and witnessed three junior-high aged boys doing cannon balls into chest-high water (‘Where are your parents?! This water isn’t deep enough for that! You could get hurt!’), but other than that, it seemed like people were being responsible and respectful of their surroundings.
We all walked up to the most accessible level of the multi-level waterfall, crossing over slippery rocks and through the fast-moving ice-cold water before reaching our destination. We carefully made our way to a rocky ledge, where we crouched/knelt under mossy overhangs until we were directly underneath Willow Falls, watching great sheets of water gush over us. A somewhat rainy summer has really made the ‘falls’ extra spectacular and the whole experience is one I will never forget. Sitting there provided a refuge from the summer heat, a reminder of the power of Mother Nature, and a pinch-me-is-this-really-happening? moment, sitting by some of my closest friends—all of us enjoying one another's company and that carefree feeling that comes with a fun weekend away without the responsibilities of 'everyday life'—while a waterfall cascaded over us. (I thought that was only possible in Hawaii. Or the movies.)
Later on, we walked to the top of the observation deck for some stunning panaromaric views—and a great lung-busting workout up those steps—and once we got back to ground level, cooled off once again in the cold water of Willow River, this time half swimming/half wading over rocks to little grottos where we enjoyed our third unique perspective of the area.
When we finally headed back to the campground, everyone was in good spirits after such an exhilarating experience.
The next day we walked down to the beach with a huge open space for picnic tables, lawn games, and Frisbee, the dam (my brother went fishing), and ended our weekend with lunch and cocktails on the patio at Pier 500 in downtown Hudson. Even though it rained both nights while camping, we were in agreement that the weekend was a smashing success. I think it may become our new annual tradition.
The park is northeast of Hudson, a few miles off I-94. For more information, visit the Wisconsin State Parks website or call 1-715-386-5931.
• If you plan on hiking to/in the waterfall area, wear good water shoes and your swimsuit.
• You can rent kayaks or canoes at the park office on a first-come, first-serve basis, starting at 8 a.m.
• Only non-motorized boats are allowed on Little Falls Lake (no electric or gas motors).
• Vehicles pulling trailers may have trouble maneuvering in the 300 loop of the campground.
• There is one paved biking/rollerblading trail and 8 different hiking trails.
• Bring your tent, camper, RV, even dogs (all welcome).
• There is a nature center at the head of the Hidden Ponds Nature Trail (near the beach), complete with a gift shop.
• You’ll have to purchase a state park vehicle admission sticker, a small price to pay for an unforgettable experience.