Willow Falls was an impressively wide (said to be 100ft across) and multi-tiered waterfall within Willow River State Park. It was a characteristic that wasn't very common in the waterfalls that we had seen so far in our travels. It was also my introduction to waterfalling in the Great Lakes area where many of the waterfalls we would end up encountering flowed on permanent rivers and drained either towards one of the Great Lakes or towards large river systems like the Mississippi River. In this case, the Willow River would drain into the St Croix River (defining the western boundaries of Minnesota and Wisconsin), then ultimately into the Mississippi River (which went all the way to the Gulf of Mexico; defining many other state boundaries along the way).
This was one of the few waterfalls that had managed to be restored to nearly its natural state after being inundated by a reservoir from a dam (built in 1924 and removed in 1992). As you can see from the photos on this page, that was a very welcome development as it was now possible to take one of the well-developed and pretty serene trails leading to a bridge across the Willow River, where I was able to get the most satisfying frontal views of the falls. The trail I took was from its nearest car park (see directions below), which descended a paved walkway as it eventually followed the river upstream to the aforementioned viewing spots.
Beyond the bridge, there was a series of steps that led up to an upper lookout, where I was able to appreciate the view above tree tops as well as a top down view of the multiple drops of Willow Falls. During my visit, I smelled some kind of grease-like scent, which I wasn't sure if it was from the nearby highway or from the remnants of the hydro infrastructure that was removed. In any case, it was a somewhat humid day when I did this trail, and the up-and-down nature of the otherwise easy trail definitely made me sweaty. I also noticed some locals deviated from the trail on the far side of the bridge so they could scramble to get a closer look at the falls (which was something I didn't do).
Back near the trailhead, there was a junction where the right branch led to the North Overlook. This flat trail ultimately led me to a view of the Willow River well upstream from Willow Falls. There were also remnants of machinery nearby the overlook, which I'd imagine was evidence of the water diversion and dam that was once here. So overall, I had spent close to an hour at the falls, which encompassed the optional North Overlook, the main viewing areas of the falls, and the upper lookout.
Finally, I noticed on the maps here that there was also a Little Falls. However, it was clear on that map that the other falls remained a casualty of a dam (something that can be appreciated from the size of Little Falls Lake). It appeared that the main park infrastructure (including campsites and the park office) were on the lake's southern shores. Willow Falls seemed to be on a separate more secluded part of the park, as a result.
Roughly 40 minutes drive from Willow Falls was the incredible Mall of America, which was perhaps the highlight of the trip according to our daughter given its extensive indoor amusement park
Just minutes from the Mall of America was the beautiful Minnehaha Falls, where it was hard to believe that such a beautiful falls was for all intents a purposes an urban waterfall
The Falls Parking Lot
The start of the trail to Willow Falls. Note the fork up ahead. The left fork descended to the Willow River and the Falls. The right fork went to the North Overlook
The open path leading to the North Overlook
Remnants of machinery at the North Overlook
View of the Willow River from the North Overlook
The paved walkway steeply descending towards the Willow River
The trail now following the Willow River as it approached Willow Falls
Approaching the bridge and lookouts for the falls
Looking directly at the falls from the bridge
More contextual look at Willow Falls. Note the person photographing the waterfall on the lower left, which gives you a sense of how big this falls is. Also note the gorge walls to the left, which gives you an idea of how high you have to go to reach the upper lookout
The stairs on the other side of the bridge leading up to the upper lookout
Looking back down at the steps for a sense for how high up above the trees I had gone
The upper lookout
Looking downstream at the Willow River from the upper lookout
It turned out that the Willow River State Park (which Willow Falls was contained in) was quite a popular place. Given its close proximity to Minneapolis, its popularity was very understandable. In any case, I'll provide directions from Minneapolis since that was route that I took.
From the Minneapolis-St Paul Airport vicinity, I headed east on the I-474 for about 16.5 miles. Then, I continued east on the I-94 for the next 13.5 miles crossing into Wisconsin (near the town of Hudson) and exiting at State Route 12. Going north on SR-12 for 1.7 miles, I then continued north on County Road A for the next 2.2 miles, where there was the Falls Parking Lot just off the busy CR-A. This car park had a self-help pay-and-display system, where I had to pay $9 since I didn't have a Wisconsin license plate ($7 if I did have one).
One thing worth mentioning was that there was a signed and more developed turnoff just a quarter mile south of the Falls Parking Lot. This well-developed turnoff with a manned payment kiosk led to the extensive campsite and recreation complex for Little Falls and the Little Falls Lake. I didn't hike from this complex, but I'd imagine the walk to Willow Falls would be a bit longer than from the Falls Parking Lot.
Overall, it took me about 40 minutes to make this drive.
For additional context, Minneapolis, Minnesota was 268 miles (4 hours drive) northwest of Madison, Wisconsin, 337 miles (5 hours drive) northwest of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and 408 miles (6 hours drive) northwest of Chicago, Illinois.
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