Frugal Family Fun: Waterfalls and Woodland Walks, Stephens Falls, Governor Dodge State Park, Wisconsin

We once planned an entire vacation around the waterfalls of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota near Lake Superior (We used the book Wisconsin Waterfalls: A Touring Guide by Patrick List, Prairie Oak Press). We have a waterfall closer to home that we visit every spring. It has become a family tradition to visit Stephens Falls at this time each year ( .

Governor Dodge is one of Wisconsin’s largest state parks and boasts two lakes for fishing, swimming, canoeing,  and kayaking; miles of horse trails; caves and waterfalls; a pioneer graveyard and other historic features; prairie, woods, and bluffs; an interpretive nature trail; and camping, hiking, and picnicking areas. Some folks like to climb the sandstone rock formations here—they call them “problems”—I’ll stick to the trails! (Check out this video― .)

Stephens falls is fed by a spring filled with water cress and rough stones. It emerges from the side of a hill and runs through an old spring house at one point then downward over the falls. In the winter and very early spring the fall is frozen, but the water still runs under the ice. Crazy people climb the falls when they are frozen, but it’s not my idea of a good time. It was adventure enough following the trail down into the valley (clinging to the steel pipe hand rail) to reach the base of the falls. This dead end canyon has other unnamed falls coming down its sides later in the spring. The rain and melt water sheets over the edge and ripples down the rock faces into the wide cobbled steam that winds through the valley.

The Stephens Falls Hiking trail boarders the watercourse and crosses and recrosses it. When the trail branches, stay to the right on the trail that takes you up through the woods to the road (then turn right and walk along the road) about an eighth of a mile from the falls parking area. (Go to the Governor Dodge link above and click on Maps to find a pdf map of the park and its trails and features.)

Stephen’s falls was liquid the day we visited, but the trail down to its base was a sheet of ice. The ground in the wooded valley was covered with snow at least 5 inches and deeper among the trees. The valley is shadowed by the rock faces that line its sides, so it always has some of the last snow to melt in the park. The sound of water is wonderful, and there is the surreal feeling of walking through a winter landscape without the cold of winter. The microclimate of the valley retains snow and ice while the air temperature and blue sky is that of a pleasant early spring day.

The rock in the valley is highlighted at this leafless time of year. As we hiked, I noticed a lot of icicles clinging to rock overhangs. Hanging waterfalls of ice have formed on some of these rock features off the trail. Snowshoes would have come in handy getting this picture!

At the base of Stephen’s falls, I noticed an oak leaf in the snow—a sure sign that spring is just around the corner. (Some of the oaks hold onto last year’s leaves until the new ones begin to push them off.)  It is not unusual to see deer and wild turkey while traversing this area. Farther up in the valley, we saw a small herd of deer filing across the brow of the hill. If you are in the area and decide to visit Governor Dodge State Park, Stephens Falls is a must see. Begonia

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