By Amanda N. Wegner
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
There is something raw in this experience. I am literally standing in the middle of a waterfall and the sound of rushing water bounces off walls of dirt, stone and trees around me, creating a cacophonous song of nature.
Above me, the Upper Potato River Falls roars and foams as its water crashes into a misty cauldron before leveling out and streaming toward me. The loud cascades drop 20 feet before gathering momentum as the water races toward its next descent: 30-feet over the Lower falls.
Iron County is a winter playground, getting more than 200 inches of snow per year. But when that snow begins to melt and the ski trails and snowmobile paths turn to mud, Iron County has another ace – or rather, more than 30 aces – in the hole: a fabulous cache of waterfalls.
“Our waterfalls are largely undiscovered by those outside of the area,” says Gene Cisewski, owner of Hurley’s Anton-Walsh House and local historian. “They are our best-kept secret.”
While Marinette County markets itself as the “Waterfall Capital of Wisconsin,” Iron County is tops in total falls, ranging from bubbling cascades to five of the state’s 10 tallest falls providing a full array of waterfall-watching opportunities.
Several are located within public areas with marked paths leading the way to fall’s edge, some are located on private land (with public access), but almost all are remote. Half the fun of waterfall watching is actually finding them. The other half?: the physical adventure of getting to the fall’s edge.
Peterson and Interstate Falls
Peterson and Interstate Falls are open to the public but located on private land. We take U.S. Highway 2 north from Hurley, but it’s not long before we see our guidepost, a sign for Ero Nasi Construction. We turn onto the unnamed road just past the sign, follow it down about 500 yards, and find a small parking area, large enough for two or three cars. Compass in hand, we turn due north to find a break in the trees signaling the footpath. It’s something of a guessing game, which trodden path to take, but we grab one and go.
The hike is not long, through a damp, misty woodland, and we hear the waterfall well before we see it.
Located on the Montreal River, the two falls drop for a combined 35 feet, directly onto a hunk of quartzite that broke off the fall’s ledge, probably hundreds of thousands of years ago. The path continues downstream, but we sit instead, on a large, flat rock near the fall’s crest, mesmerized. Off in the distance, a female voice calls for her dog, and the trance is broken.
Spring Camp Falls
Remote does not even begin to describe Spring Camp Falls, nor can I describe how we found it.
Following Lisi’s directions in Wisconsin Waterfalls, we started well, but a wrong turn and the occasional cryptic sign sent us on a perilous tour, apparently along ATV trails.
Eventually, we found a brown county sign pointing down an unnamed, one-lane dirt road, pocked with pond-size puddles, to Spring Camp Falls. Not sure if our vehicle could handle the road, we parked and walked. The wind through the towering trees sounded remarkably like tumbling water. Convinced the waterfall was just over the next ridge, we walked, and walked, and walked before finally finding it.
Fed by the West Branch of the Montreal River, Spring Camp Falls drops 20 feet, its cascade wedged between a stone embankment and a ledge of basalt. Its energy is dampened by the pool it drops into before running downstream, straight into a small rock island formed by boulders cast off by glaciers. A tree, some bushes, and a few clusters of ferns have taken root here.
Potato River Falls
To the right of the parking lot, there’s an observation deck offering an obstructed view of the falls.
This view does not suffice, however, and we start exploring. We find a path that’s more steep crevasse than trail, but it leads us to the middle cascade that stands between the Upper Potato River Falls and the impressive Lower Potato River Falls. I cautiously scurry out on the smooth basalt, made possible by the fall’s low water. Lying deep in a gorge, red walls of Keweenaw conglomerate seem to contain the falls, which are spread out over 400 feet of the Potato River. Standing here I feel both free and contained, on the edge of something dangerous. Of all the falls we have visited, here I am the most humbled and inspired.
After our walk on water, we head back up and cross the parking lot to a sign directing us down another trail. Initially, we are thankful that this trail contains stairs, but after 150 steps, I lose count. At the bottom we get an upstream view of the falls. Dripping with sweat from the hike down – and dreading the climb back up – we pull off boots and socks and dip our feet into the water and rest, hypnotized by the scene.
As we pull into the parking area of Superior Falls, we are greeted only by a looming hydroelectric station – and, as for all the other falls we’ve visited, with the exception of Copper Falls State Park, we see no other cars or people.
To the left of the parking area, a sign points in the direction of the falls. The trail and view are uninspiring, so we opt to forge our own path. It’s not difficult to find our way to the waterfall’s edge, as explorers have left beaten paths. We crabwalk and gingerly leap along some rocky inclines and find ourselves inches from the moving, tumbling water. Nearly 75 percent of the waterfall’s power has been diverted by an upstream dam, but it is still awesome, dropping 90-feet into a beautiful reservoir that reminds me of a goldfish bowl; it’s a perfect spot for swimming and kayaking.
To the right of the parking area is the entrance to the Montreal River Scenic Outlook & Access Trail. As this branch of the Montreal River marks the border between the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin, we step over the state line and find a steep path paved with rough cement leading to the Lake Superior shore. The winds are rough, so we only pay homage to the lake before following a path that loops behind the pumping station and delivers us to the river’s edge. The winds and waters are calm here, though the water falls just a few hundred yards away. The waterfall is just as impressive from this view, only louder thanks to Lake Superior’s brutal, pounding waves.
Located two miles upstream of Superior Falls, the eons-long struggle of man versus nature is evident at Saxon Falls.
Almost 90 percent of the waterfall’s flow has been diverted for hydroelectricity; as such, we park near an upstream power dam and follow a sign screaming “Danger! Falls ahead.” On the left, a fenced walkway leads us over an enormous water pipe that crosses the Montreal River. We come to a cement bulkhead and then continue walking atop the pipe to a power station, about a quarter-mile ahead. About halfway there, we notice a short plankway to the left leading into the forest, but continue to the power station (we’ll come search this out later). From the power station, it’s possible to glimpse Saxon’s still-awesome power, but there’s an illusion at play. The upper falls, which drop along the left bank, disappear behind walls of rock before spilling, white, foamy and full force, over the bottom right-bank drop. We consider trespassing by making our way down a steep staircase on this Michigan side, but I have no doubt that there’s a locked gate at the bottom, so we double back to the plankway.
No more than two feet wide, the plankway leads to a trodden footpath through the woods. We follow its curves, bobbing under low-hanging branches. The path brings us right to the top of the waterfall. We laze for a few minutes on some large boulders just upstream of its drop, then wander along the land’s edge, getting an ever-improved look at the 75-foot cascade.
We call it a day after Saxon Falls and head home on U.S. Highway 2 toward Hurley. The landscape is dotted with small signs pointing to waterfalls, beckoning us to scamper and explore just one more. There are many we missed: The remote Foster and Wren waterfalls, Rouse Falls, where romantics find privacy behind its diaphanous curtain of water, or a waterborne visit to Rock Cut Falls to test our kayaking skills.
The call is strong, but we don’t stop. So many times over four days, we faced the raw power of water, even tempted it by coming within inches of its terrible, awesome strength. Perhaps it was the clean invigorating air, ionized by the mist of the falls, or the opportunity to explore paths less traveled. Maybe it is the connection to something greater and sharing this experience with nature and northern land. In any case, the quest for Northwoods waterfalls is unforgettable.
Amanda N. Wegner is an editor and freelance writer in Madison.