About Willow Falls
Willow Falls was an impressively wide (said to be 100ft across) and multi-tiered waterfall within Willow River State Park.
Its wide and multi-tiered characteristic 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).
Ultimately, this river would drain into the Mississippi River, which eventually went all the way to the Gulf of Mexico while defining many other state boundaries along the way.
Willow Falls 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 photo above, the falls had a very healthy and natural look to it as a result.
Given the restoration of the falls, it was now possible to take one of the well-developed and pretty serene trails leading to a frontal view of the falls as well as a top down view of it.
Experiencing Willow Falls
The trail that I took began from its nearest parking lot (see directions below), which descended a paved walkway towards a trail junction barely 300ft away.
I kept left to continue the descent towards the Willow River as the trail would follow its southern banks upstream.
After about a half-mile from the trailhead, I reached the bridge over the Willow River where I was able to get nice frontal views of the Willow Falls (as pictured at the top of this page).
Beyond the bridge, there was a series of steps that led up to an upper lookout.
Up at that lookout, I was able to appreciate the view above the 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).
Optional Hike to the North Overlook
Back near the trailhead, I then took the other branch at that trail junction, which led to the North Overlook.
This flat quarter-mile (half-mile round trip) 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).
Nevertheless, 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.
Willow Falls resides in the Willow River State Park near Hudson in St Croix County, Wisconsin. It is administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
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 parking lot 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; as of late September 2015).
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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