Park It Here

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Enjoy the great outdoors at these special county parks.

PART 1

In our not-so-humble opinion, Wisconsin’s trove of stellar county parks is a shining jewel in the state’s crown. These oases of nature tucked here and there throughout the state offer all varieties of peaceful outdoor recreation, often rivaling, if not even surpassing, their more well-known state-park counterparts.

These beautiful county settings come in all sizes and types, and perhaps best of all is that there are so many of them—more than 600, according to Discover Wisconsin. We’ve featured some of these special properties that are within electric co-op service territories in past issues, whether as a targeted destination or as just one part of a greater experience. But with hundreds of county parks out there, you’re bound to find yourself in striking distance of a special new discovery no matter where your journey through the state is targeted to end.

Such is the case with the WECN staff. We crisscross the state from time to time on magazine-related business and often find ourselves sidetracked in pursuit of a tip from a reader or co-worker, or even by a sign directing to something that looks too promising to pass up. We’ve encountered some special spots on these little side jaunts, so we’re dedicating the next two issues to sharing a few of what we regard as county-park gems.

Big Falls County Park, Kennan

There’s no shortage of beautiful parks in Price County, and no bad time of year to see them, but we find Big Falls County Park to be especially stunning at this time of year, when the snowmelt and spring rain make the park’s namesake feature even bigger.

Located in the southwest corner of the county along the fork of the Jump River, Big Falls offers a river-edge view of the water cascading—or crashing, depending on the time of year—over a series of huge granite rocks, creating a wild river atmosphere that you can hear as soon as you step out of your vehicle.

Big Falls County Park makes for a special discovery for anyone new to Northwoods adventures, but it’s a well-known and beloved treasure to natives of this northern corner of the state.

Snowmelt and rain make the rushing water of Big Falls County Park in Kennan especially spectacular in the spring.

“Big Falls has been a special place for our family for years; my grandpa grew up being able to hear the falls from their farm at night, and my dad spent a lot of time exploring, camping, and fishing there as a boy,” said Laura Hahn Palzkill, executive director of the Phillips Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of Price Electric Cooperative. “We continued to go there for family outings throughout the time I grew up, and we still enjoy going there for family hikes.”

There’s lots to do at Big Falls County Park besides taking in the sights, sounds, and the cool spray of the cascading water. Amenities include six non-electric campsites, playground equipment, an open-air shelter, and a picnic area with tables and grills. Hiking trails pass through hemlocks and pine along the water’s edge, offering many safe viewing vantage points of the rushing water. Be especially mindful of sticking to these safe spots in the spring when the water is moving very rapidly.

Big Falls County Park is located at W11337 Big Falls Road, Kennan, WI 54537. To learn more about the park or to reserve the shelter or a campsite, visit co.price.wi.us or call 715-339-6371.

Big Falls County Park, Eau Claire

Head southwest for about an hour and a half and you’ll come across another Big Falls County Park, this one located between the city of Eau Claire and the village of Fall Creek. Although this park is different in both county and falls from the one in Kennan, the two share more than just a name—they are connected by the Chippewa River. This Big Falls County Park is situated on the Eau Claire River just ahead of its confluence with the Chippewa River; the Jump River in Kennan ultimately flows into the Chippewa River.

Like its Price County counterpart, the Eau Claire park’s signature feature is a series of cascading waterfalls that flow over huge rocks, including some boulders off which the water drops 10 to 15 feet.

On warm, summer days when the water is low and gentle, you’ll find visitors soaking up the sun atop the rocks and taking in the mesmerizing rush of the water, maybe dangling their feet in the river to cool off or even using a rock as a makeshift water slide. Summer also finds the sandy beach areas filled with families picnicking or swimming in the shallow water, with canoers, kayakers, and tubers traversing the waterway. A sandbar downstream is a popular spot for sunbathers and also for anglers to cast a line for the trout that are plentiful here.

The other Big Falls County Park—this one near Eau Claire—also has fast-moving falls, as well as a sandy beaches for sunbathing, swimming, and fishing.

As with the Kennan Big Falls, caution is advised when the water is higher and moving rapidly, particularly in the spring; best to stay out of the water and off the rocks during these times. However, at this time of year you’re more likely to be rewarded with solitude, as the park can get fairly crowded on a hot summer weekend.

In addition, with 15 acres of space to explore and hiking trails that wind through towering pines, Big Falls County Park offers more than summertime water recreation. The park is also home to a wide variety of native wildflowers, including some rare species like the dwarf lake iris.

Big Falls County Park has a north entrance at 500 N 110th Ave., Eau Claire, WI, 54703, and a south entrance at 600 Big Falls Forest Road, Eau Claire, 54703. Entrance fee is required. There’s a short walk from the parking lot to the falls. Visit eauclairecounty.gov or visiteauclaire.com to learn more.

John Muir County Park

A great way to recognize Earth Day is to visit John Muir County Park, located just south of Montello in Marquette County, in Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative’s territory. Named for the renowned conservationist who co-founded the Sierra Club and is often referred to as the Father of the National Park System, the park is located at the site of Muir’s boyhood home.

The park itself comprises 125 acres of varying habitats, but the centerpiece is a 30-acre spring-fed kettle lake that was known during Muir’s lifetime as Fountain Lake, now as Ennis Lake. A 1.8-mile trail that rings the lake also serves as the John Muir Segment of the Ice Age Trail.

After arriving in this country from Scotland in 1849, the Muir family established a home and farm alongside this lake, which provided Muir with endless adventure and inspiration.

“The water was so clear that it was almost invisible and when we floated slowly out over the plants and fishes, we seemed to be miraculously sustained in the air while silently exploring a veritable fairyland,” he wrote in his book “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth.”

A bridge over the lake inlet and a wooden boardwalk over a stretch of the trail circling Ennis Lake at John Muir County Park make the park an easy hike even during a muddy spring season.

The original Muir farmstead is long gone, but brochures at the park entrance and interpretive signs along the trail help point to meaningful sights within the park, including the area along the lake where the Muir home once stood. The trail also passes by restored prairie, now part of the State Natural Area, and inlet and outlet streams, all of which Muir referenced in his prolific nature writing.

In addition to the well-groomed trail, the park has a boat launch (for non-motor boats only), a shelter and picnic area, and a “natural” playground with equipment made largely of natural materials.

John Muir County Park is located at N1424 County Road F, Montello, WI 53949. For more information, visit travelmarquettecounty.com or call 608-297-1000.

IS THERE A COUNTY-PARK GEM IN YOUR AREA?

We’d love to hear about it! If you have a photo, even better! Please upload any photos of your favorite county parks at wecn.magazine.com/submit-a-photo.

Pier County Park, Rockbridge

Pier County Park, located in Richland County about nine miles from Richland Electric Cooperative’s headquarters city of Richland Center, is one of the state’s smaller county parks. However, it’s got a big natural feature that makes it well worth a stop—a narrow, half-mile-long wedge of layered sandstone that rises some 60 feet or so above the point where the west branch of the Pine River meets with the main branch, creating a natural bridge over the water. The imposing rock structure, covered with pine trees and shrubbery, resembles the ruins of an ancient castle, with one end jutting out like the bow of a ship.

Its appearance might suggest that this rock formation is a gift left from the glacier, but Richland County is in the state’s Driftless Area where the glacier never reached. Rather, this strip of sandstone is an escarpment, a long ridge formed by the faulting or cracking of the earth’s crust.

There’s lots to explore at Pier County Park, with its half-mile ridge of sandstone that you can walk alongside, across the top of, or straight through via a tunnel.

Some added manmade features make the natural formation especially fun to explore, including a bridge that crosses the river and through a tunnel in the rock. If you prefer to cross the natural bridge from up high, you can climb the steps to the top of the rock formation and follow a half-mile trail across the top, catching some gorgeous views of the surrounding valley and distant Ocooch Mountains through the trees.

Other park amenities include six campsites, two shelters, picnic tables, and playground equipment.

Pier County Park is located at 17520 State Hwy 80, Richland Center, WI 53581. To learn more, visit parkscommission.co.richland.wi.us or call 608-647-2100.

—Mary Erickson

 

 

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