Pothole Trail (Interstate Park, WI)

Pothole Trail, Interstate Park, July 2022

Evidence of ancient lava flows, prehistoric seas, and glacial erosion abounds at the Dalles of the St. Croix, a narrow gorge situated on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, about an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities. In addition to the high basalt walls that frame the dalles, the St. Croix River—once much higher and more powerful than it is today—has left behind peculiar potholes, some quite deep, with many dotting the clifftops on both sides of the waterway. Perhaps the best option for seeing them is the Pothole Trail, situated in Interstate Park on the Wisconsin side (not to be confused with Interstate State Park on the Minnesota side). The short, 0.4-mile loop also offers some of the area’s best views down into the gorge.

Map of Pothole Trail, Interstate Park, created using alltrails.com

The hike

To access the Pothole Trail, enter Interstate Park in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, passing the Ice Age Interpretive Center on the left. Continue around a left-hand and right-hand bend, then bear right and park in the small parking area at the intersection of the North Campground road with the main park track. Here one will find signs for the Pothole Trail, which doubles as the end of the long-distance Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Starting down the Pothole Trail in the late afternoon sun

Head west on the gravel-packed trail and stay left at the junction, following the widely-used track as it approaches the cliffside. Basalt boulders abound on both sides of the trail, remnants of an ancient faulting process dating to around one billion years ago. Within 1/10 mile, the Pothole Trail offers its first views of the Dalles of the St. Croix, a narrow gorge carved by relentless water flows at the end of the last Ice Age, when glaciers melted and the riverway carved a deep channel in the basalt. Downstream (south), the river takes an abrupt right turn before widening and easing as the dalles section ends.

Dalles of the St. Croix from Pothole Trail

Near the first look at the Dalles is a large stone marker signifying the western terminus of the Ice Age Trail, a 1,200-mile path that weaves up and down much of central and southern Wisconsin. The Dalles are one of the most visually-stunning features of the entire hike (as is Devil’s Lake in south-central Wisconsin, the subject of another blog post).

View north to the ferry launch

Here the Pothole Trail takes a hard right, continuing north, offering additional views down to the launch point for boat tours (on the Minnesota side), as well as the Taylor Falls Bridge, which connects the two sides of the St. Croix River. Here the trail can get trickier to follow: it appears that the new route has abandoned a couple old viewpoints, which were constructed with stone but now seem to have fallen into disrepair. Generally stay straight, following the cliff’s edge as the trail bounds in and out of small slickrock portions.

Potholes along the trail

Here one also encounters the iconic potholes—deep ovular incisions that appear to drop several feet, the result of swirling waters when the river once covered significantly more volume. This area has the highest concentration of potholes in the world, with some (hidden in the river below) reaching depths of more than fifty feet.

View of Taylors Falls Bridge from the Pothole Trail

Stay straight, heading toward the bridge, before taking the more evident path bearing eastward, returning to solid ground and passing through the deciduous woods. From here it is a short walk back to the start of the loop and the parking area. All told, the 0.4-mile circuit should take hikers 20-30 minutes to complete.

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King’s Bluff Trail (Great River Bluffs State Park, MN)

King’s Bluff Trail, Great River Bluffs State Park, July 2022

The mighty Mississippi River—2,300 miles long and the centerpiece of the United States’ largest drainage basin—begins in Minnesota, passing through the Twin Cities before settling into a broad valley on the border with Wisconsin. Here—around the town of Winona, Minnesota—the river is bounded by towering bluffs and rolling hillsides characteristic of the so-called “Driftless Area,” which was conspicuously spared from the many periods of glaciation that flattened much of the surrounding terrain. Such a landscape produces grand vistas amid the patchwork of prairies and hardwood forests, all encapsulated nicely in Great River Bluffs State Park, a 3,000-acre park situated roughly halfway between Minneapolis and Madison. The signature hike in the park is the easy, 2.3-mile out-and-back to King’s Bluff Overlook, a beautiful vista point perched above the Mississippi and across a steep valley from Queen’s Bluff, notable for its steep slopes and goat prairie, a relatively rare sight.

Map of King’s Bluff Trail, Great River Bluffs State Park; created using naturalatlas.com

The hike

Minnesota’s Great River Bluffs State Park is situated just north of Interstate 90 as it approaches the Mississippi River and Wisconsin. Take exit 267 and head north on County Highway 3, following signs for the park. Bear right on Kipp Drive and enter Great River Bluffs, where the road turns to dirt and gravel. Pay the modest (usually self-serve) entrance fee before continuing on to the first notable parking lot on the left. This is King’s Bluff Trailhead, which has space for a half-dozen vehicles.

Pine forest along the King’s Bluff Trail

The King’s Bluff Trail heads west, following a matted track at the edge of a restored prairie on the left. Soon, just after a trail junction (stay left), the trail bears northwest and enters a dense pine plantation; these coniferous plants were planted long ago and contrast with the natural hardwood forest, which is visible through the thicket to the left. At 2/10 mile, hikers can bear left to take a slight detour through the hardwood forest or continue straight on the quicker path, remaining among the pines.

Stay left at the next junction, then right at a second, formally entering the King’s and Queen’s Bluff Scientific and Natural Area, where the planted trees are replaced with natural hardwoods, the original treescape in the area. Hikers will quickly come across the first notable slope of the hike, a short and mild drop that further immerses visitors in the oak and hickory woodland.

As the ridge around you begins to thin, the King’s Bluff Trail routes uphill gradually at around 6/10 mile before levelling off again, with a bench offering a place to rest. Continue north along the wide path, coming to the hike’s first significant vista at 9/10 mile. Here one can see westward across a goat (or bluff) prairie, so-named because of their steep slopes braved only by goats. In summer, the field is brimming with wildflowers of vibrant colors, and the views down to Miller Valley—situated just outside the park—are absolutely lovely.

Wildflowers at the goat prairie

After this scenic vista, the trail briefly returns to the woods but quickly comes out at another open patch, situated at a saddle on the ridgeline. This is the end of the trail, with King’s Bluff Overlook offering views in both directions, including the premier look at Queen’s Bluff and the mighty Mississippi River. Queen’s Bluff is notable for its goat prairie and dry cliff habitats, situated atop the sandstone and limestone highline. Hikers can see eastward across the Mississippi to the many islets of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and the distant hills of central Wisconsin. Views northward are blocked by the continuation of King’s Bluff.

Queen’s Bluff and Mississippi River from King’s Bluff Overlook

Alas, this is an out-and-back hike, so visitors must return the way they came. But the return journey is mild and interesting; be sure to stop to read the various interpretive waysides, which describe the natural and human history of the area. The round-trip is about 2.3 miles in total (2.5 if one takes the short detour described above) and is easy and family-friendly.

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Fire Point Loop (Effigy Mounds National Monument, IA)

Fire Point Loop, Effigy Mounds National Monument, July 2022

Perched on the bluffs high above the Mississippi River Valley in northeast Iowa lies a hidden treasure of burial mounds, estimated to have been created by American Indians between 850 and 1,400 years ago. And these are no usual resting places: best viewed from the air, the mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument were constructed to take on wild shapes, such as birds, lizards, and bears. Many lie in neatly-arranged groups, resembling a flight of swallows or sleuth of bears, and are situated within striking distance of terrific bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Yellow and Mississippi Rivers. While the surprisingly extensive trail network at Effigy Mounds connects the rest of the mound groups, a short, 1.7-mile jaunt on the Fire Point Loop captures the basic flavor of the place: sacred mounds, dense woodlands, high bluffs, and wondrous vistas—certainly a surprise in a state not known for varied and interesting scenery.

Map of Fire Point Loop, Effigy Mounds National Monument; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Iowa’s Effigy Mounds National Monument, established in 1949, is one of just two National Park Service units in the state and is situated between the splendid hills of northeast Iowa and the grand Mississippi River. Split into three districts—North, South, and Sny Magill—the Effigy Mounds Visitor Center is the starting place for most visits and contains information on the history, natural scenery, and hiking trails of the park. The Visitor Center also serves as the starting point for the Fire Point Loop, a moderately-difficult jaunt covering 1.7 miles and 300 feet in elevation gain.

The hike begins right away with a bang, traversing a short bridge and then a boardwalk section with view of an initial set of mounds—these ones are not animal-shaped, but they rise considerably from the basin, clear signs of human construction. These are examples of simple conical mounds, a template on which the mound-builders would expand.

Initial conical mounds at Effigy Mounds

After this initial look, the trail bends westward and begins a steady ascent, hugging a south-facing hillside flush with vegetation and a high canopy of trees. The mulched path rises to a right-hand bend at about 2/10 mile, coming to—but not crossing—a modest ravine. From here the Fire Point Trail mounts four switchbacks, culminating with a bench that offers a place to sit and catch your breath momentarily. The onward path continues north, meanders around a right-hand bend, and comes to an intersection, about 1/3 mile from the start.

Rising on the Fire Point Trail toward the loop portion

This is the start of the loop portion: most will do the circuit clockwise, beginning with the mounds while leaving the overlooks for the second half. Bearing left at the junction, the trail follows dense tree canopy as its edges north-northwest. At 0.45 miles, the path rounds a right-angle bend. Look to the right for the start of the Little Bear Mound Group. The outlines of the mounds can be hard to see—and impossible if snow-covered—but the disturbed earth is evident: here Native Americans living in the area constructed a series of connected compound mounds, free of trees and thus visible in full from above.

Pass the initial mounds of this group on the right—and a bench on the left—then make your way north and east on a mild trail to the highlight of the Little Bear Mound Group: a bear-shaped effigy mound, which one can make out based on the contours of the grass-cutting. Little is known about why precisely these mounds were constructed as such, except that they likely were in part ceremonial, with large animal-shaped mounds perhaps bearing prominent families.

Little Bear Mound

Continuing straight, the Fire Point Loop approaches a string of small mounds, as well as another junction. Bear right at the fork (the left route heads north to Great Bear Mound Group, Twin Views, Third Scenic View, and Hanging Rock). The east-bearing path follows a long line of conical mounds—forming a greenway that extends for nearly ¼ mile and runs out to the bluffs above the Mississippi.

Path to Fire Point, paralleling the conical mounds

After dipping briefly, the trail rises again as it approaches Fire Point, a modest but beautiful viewpoint offering southward and eastward views across the Mississippi River to Wisconsin. The high point on the west side of the river is nearby Pike’s Peak. One can also spot the Saint Feriole Island Bridge downstream, as well as the distant bluffs of Wyalusing State Park on the Wisconsin side.

Fire Point Overlook
View of the Mississippi River Valley from Fire Point

Fire Point is one of the most interesting and accessible viewpoints in northeast Iowa, but the views on this hike are not yet over. Follow the onward path as it cuts back westward, hugging the shaded bluffs, with sporadic views down to the railroad and river below. Pass one overgrown overlook with limited vistas at about the one-mile mark, then continue as the trail skirts several small ravines. Soon, just as hikers begin to worry that perhaps the views are done, the Fire Point Loop returns to the cliff’s edge at Eagle Rock, an arguably even better overlook high above the marshlands formed by the Yellow River as it empties into the mighty Mississippi. The railroad running alongside the river adds to the charm, while the muddy river continues to lap up against the shoreline.

Eagle Rock view
Railroad, marsh, and Mississippi River from Eagle Rock in Effigy Mounds National Monument

From Eagle Rock, the Fire Point Loop continues its eastward journey, soon returning to the junction and end of the circuit portion. Turn left, retrace the initial section—now a pleasant downhill—through the lush forest. Drop down the switchbacks and return to the initial set of three conical mounds, finishing with the boardwalk that leads back to the Visitor Center and parking lot. All told, this moderately-difficult but family-friendly hike clocks in at a modest 1.7 miles and is a must-do at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

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Natural Bridge Loop (Natural Bridge State Park, WI)

Natural Bridge, Natural Bridge State Park, July 2022

Nestled in the unassuming woods northeast of Leland, Wisconsin, a sandstone bridge some 35 feet long and 25 feet high constitutes the largest natural arch in the state. Just below the aperture is the impressive Raddatz rock shelter, named for the family who once owned the land in the late 1800s and early 1900s but known for containing artifacts used by Native Americans more than 10,000 years ago, just as the glaciers that once blanketed much of the nearby area were receding. Together these two sites are the main attractions of Natural Bridge State Park, a very primitive preserve with limited facilities but decent woodland hiking. Combine a jaunt on the Indian Moccasin Trail with several short, unnamed routes to form a short, one-mile loop with a spur to a skippable “scenic view” that is often obscured by tree cover.

The hike

Natural Bridge State Park is a small day-use property straddling two modest uplands in south-central Wisconsin, less than an hour’s drive from Baraboo, Wisconsin Dells, and Madison. The sole parking area and trailhead, situated off county route C, is an overgrown blacktop with ample parking—somewhat crowded on weekends but often deserted on weekday mornings.

The route to the natural bridge extends north, following a clear-cut and keeping the trailhead restroom—the largest structure at the park—on the right. After a short walk, leave the patch of open turf behind and enter a lush, woody glen, taking a hard left-hand turn before climbing a modest uphill. Rise to a junction and open patch at 2/10 mile, then bear right, taking the well-trodden trail heading north. As the first sandstone bluffs come into view, the trail climbs a short staircase and rises to a gap in the sandstone outcrops.

Climb up to the notch, where hikers are rewarded with views of the two main attractions of the hike—the natural bridge and Raddatz rock shelter—situated one right on top of the other. Duck your head briefly into the rock shelter, imagining the Paleo-Indians who lived here more than 10,000 years ago, using the alcove as a shelter from the wind and cold of the area. Admire the natural archway—carved by the dissolution of mineral deposits—from afar, but do not attempt to climb it, an admonition backed by a big red warning sign here.

Natural bridge and rock shelter

Looking back at the natural bridge

After the bridge, a slender trail continues north and east, keeping the bridge to the right before it eventually fades out of view. Come to another trail junction at 3/10 mile, where hikers can choose to bear left on a short spur leading to a mediocre vista point marked on the state park trail map. The spur path ascends in fits and starts, climbing to a ridge with several small trail markers highlighting native trees in the area (quaking aspen, gooseberry, juniper, basswood, and black cherry). After ascending some final steps, the trail culminates at a high viewpoint that has some very limited vistas (though better in winter when the leaves have fallen) down to the nearby valley.

End of the spur trail and overlook

Return the way you came until reaching the main trail again, where hikers should bear left to continue the loop back to the parking area. The narrow route descends steadily, coming to another junction at 8/10 mile, here hikers should take a final right. From here it is a short walk through the thick deciduous forest to the open grass patch and trailhead, emerging from the woods to the left of the bathroom. This marks the end of the one-mile jaunt.

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Parfrey’s Glen (Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area, WI)

Parfrey’s Glen, Devil’s Lake State Park, July 2022

Given the significant focus on Utah and the American West, narrow canyons and slots feature heavily on Live and Let Hike. But these beautiful features can be found in surprising places, such as the limestone gorges of Starved Rock State Park in northern Illinois and southwest Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest. Another such surprise is Parfrey’s Glen in central Wisconsin—a dark and mysterious gorge under a canopy of deciduous trees, culminating in a nice narrows section and a modest waterfall. This 1.8-mile out-and-back is a nice complement to the nearby Devil’s Lake Loop and a relatively easier hike.

The hike

Situated within Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area, a subset of the broader Devil’s Lake State Park, the Parfrey’s Glen Trail begins and ends at a parking area about seven miles east of the popular north shore of the lake. The parking lot, situated just off DL Road, is moderately-sized, fitting around 20 vehicles.

The trail begins just beyond, starting as a paved track that quickly splits, with a detour to the restroom on the right and the main route bearing left, along the edge of the woods. Stay straight as the Ice Age National Scenic Trail cuts left into the dense thicket, remaining on the wide path, passing eventually over Parfrey’s Glen Creek. The route gets more interesting as it bears north and turns to gravel, following the perennial stream on the left.

The easygoing path continues past a plaque on the left, commemorating the establishment of Parfrey’s Glen as Wisconsin’s first state natural area. The stream valley narrows as the trail continues northward, thinning to a dirt track alongside the creek. At ½ mile, the route splits; stay right, following the wider and more apparent trail, then cross two bridges over thin tributaries.

Ascending path near the official trail’s end

At 6/10 mile, hikers will have to rock-hop over the main creek, coming back to the western bank. The Parfrey’s Glen Trail then ascends a stony staircase, skirting 10-foot cliffs on the left. Soon the trail descends again to the creek, and the official maintained path ends, with slightly more rugged scrambling and rock-hopping ahead.

End of official trail and entry to narrows
Entering the gorge at Parfrey’s Glen

Now in the creek itself, follow the drainage upstream through an initial set of narrows. (Note: It is usually possible to avoid getting your feet wet, but it requires some maneuvering.) Stay in the glen as the canyon rounds a left-hand corner and the conglomerate sandstone walls rise to more than 40 feet, an impressive and beautiful sight, especially for Wisconsin.

Narrowest part of the canyon

Continue to a boulder choke, where—with a careful eye—one can spot and climb the remains of an old stone staircase, which offers passage up and over the jam. Views back down the mossy canyon are some of the best of the hike.

Through the passage
Small waterfall at Parfrey’s Glen
Waterfall view

From here it is a short walk to the terminus of the walk: a small, glistening waterfall and a modest pool, a nice and worthy culmination of an easygoing hike. Enjoy the scenery in this splendid glen before heading back the way you came, descending the boulder choke and exiting the gorge back onto the wide, paved track. End back at the parking area, having completed a satisfying 1.8-mile hike.

View back down-canyon
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Devil’s Lake Loop (Devil’s Lake State Park, WI)

West Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, July 2022

It’s not too often that visitors are able to walk in a mountain range with rocky bluffs dating to 1.6 billion years ago, in addition to a rare freshwater endorheic lake—a body of water situated in a natural depression with no external drainage. And yet one can find such sights in perhaps the most unlikely of places—south-central Wisconsin—at Devil’s Lake State Park. Popular mostly as a summer beach destination, Devil’s Lake also has an extensive trail network, with the best hike being a 5.25-mile circumnavigation of the lake basin, including a short spur to Devil’s Doorway, the most recognizable rock formation in the state. This circuit hike—rated moderate to strenuous—can satisfy much of a day for visitors to the area and is unlikely to disappoint.

Map of Devil’s Lake Loop, Devil’s Lake State Park

The hike

Devil’s Lake State Park is located about an hour from Madison, Wisconsin and an even shorter distance from Wisconsin Dells and the town of Baraboo. There are two primary entrances—North Lake and South Lake—with either offering access to the Devil’s Lake Loop hike described. For ease of navigation, this description begins at the more popular North Shore, an area containing a lengthy lakeside beach, many concession stands, several campgrounds, and a modest Visitor Center. Drive past the Visitor Center, paying the fee for entrance, and make your way toward the parking area at the northeast corner of Devil’s Lake. On a busy day, it’s likely you will be compelled to cross the railroad tracks and turn right at the Additional Parking Area. This is all the better, as this is an even more convenient start/end point for the loop hike.

North Shore to South Shore via West Bluff Trail (3.0 mi.)

Once parked, make your way back north, beginning the loop in a counterclockwise direction. Reach a four-way road junction and bear left, crossing the active railroad tracks and staying to the left on a paved sidewalk. Pass parking on the left, then angle southwest on the wide strollway as it heads to the Park Headquarters, changing rooms, and North Shore Beach. You’ll have to pass hordes of noisy swimmers, sunbathers, and picknickers before you get some natural peace again, at the western edge of the beach, around 1/3 mile from the start.

Follow the paved track to its conclusion, at the base of a sloping rock pile of quartzite, the predominant rock type in the area. Here the onward route veers right and turns to crushed gravel, the start of the red-blazed West Bluff Trail. This marks the start of the first of two significant ascents on the hike—though it begins mildly at first as the trail keeps the quartzite slope and a small drainage on the left.

At ½ mile, the route rises to catch a bend in Park Road, the main entryway for the North Shore area. Here there is a map and signage for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a partly-completed, 1,200-mile route through Wisconsin that follows the formerly glaciated hillocks and valleys of the state from the Minnesota border to Sturgeon Bay on Lake Michigan. Devil’s Lake is one of the highlights of the Ice Age Trail, and hikers on the Devil’s Lake Loop will follow a portion of it for the next three miles.

Follow the path to the base of a sharp left-hand bend and start of a stony staircase, inaugurating the steepest portion of the West Bluff Trail. Hikers will have to ascend 200+ steps in the next ¼ mile, rising seemingly endlessly to the top of the quartzite bluffs overlooking Devil’s Lake. At 8/10 mile, there is a bench with one of the better vistas, followed by a short up-and-down section with two additional staircases. By now one can see across the lake to the railroad and East Bluff on the opposite bank: this depression formed during the uplift of the Baraboo Range, a modest syncline that stretches east-west for around 25 miles, with the sink filling with fresh water that has no natural outlet.

Views down to North Shore Beach
Devil’s Lake from West Bluff Trail

The next stretch involves a milder but persistent ascent, starting to leave the dull noise of the crowded beach behind. At 1.25 miles, with a short radio tower on the left, there is an official viewpoint on the right. Here one can look through the viewfinder at the lake and mountains below and walk out to the edge of the craggy bluffs, nearly 500 feet high. This is one of the most interesting vistas in the entire park—and perhaps one of the best in the entire state of Wisconsin.

Looking south across Devil’s Lake
Northward view

From here, continue south on the West Bluff Trail, following a weathered asphalt path that drops mildly to another spur with great views at 1.5 miles. This vista sits atop Cleopatra’s Needle, a named feature of the bluffs that is visible from South Shore Beach below.

View from Cleopatra’s Needle

Thereafter, the trail moves away from the cliffside and descends steadily, winding to an unknown spur at 1.6 miles (stay right). After swinging westward, the trail rounds a left-hand bend and makes its final descent to a road junction, where an unpaved, dead-end track merges with the popular South Lake Road.

Head straight, following the left shoulder of South Lake Road eastward. The road quickly passes a swampy inlet of Devil’s Lake on the left, followed by a road spur to the South Lake Boat Landing and Pet Swim Area. Continue along the road, eventually coming to a more established sidewalk that directly hugs the walled shoreline.

Trail alongside Devil’s Lake

This roadside walk doesn’t feel like a “hike” per se, but it is pleasant enough as visitors pass anglers and beachgoers with sweeping views of the lake and the bluffs to the north. At about 2.6 miles, stay left as the route turns into a boardwalk, leaving the road behind and flanking the edge of South Shore Beach. This shore, while still popular in the summer, is much less crowded than the North Shore side.

South Shore to North Shore via Balanced Rock, Devil’s Doorway, and East Bluff Trail (2.25 mi.)

Make your way past the concession stands, restrooms, and picnic tables at South Shore, eventually coming to the end of the paved track and start of a wide, dirt path. This is the Balanced Rock Trail, which quickly traverses the railway tracks again and initiates a steep and steady climb up the East Bluff cliffside.

Follow the narrow staircase through the boulder field, noticing the shift in the color of the quartzite from gray to a deep and attractive red. The exposed switchbacks can be slow-going if the trail is crowded—but be patient and take your time, using careful footing to work your way up the boulder slope. After a brief level section, the path rounds a right-hand bend with excellent views of the lake, then hugs a high cliff on the right.

Peering down at Devil’s Lake

Edging back eastward, the trail reaches a junction at 3.4 miles. Head right on a short and rocky spur to the trail’s namesake Balanced Rock, an impressive, tooth-like formation precariously perched on a bluff overlooking the South Shore area.

Balanced Rock in Devil’s Lake State Park

Make your way back to the main trail and continue right, traversing more stairs through shadier terrain. At 3.5 miles, there is an open cliffside view on the right, followed quickly by a junction where the trail levels off. This trail fork is your cue to head right on the 0.5-mile spur to/from Devil’s Doorway, a worthwhile detour.

Heading east on the partly paved track, it is an easygoing walk on the East Bluff Trail for 300 yards, with limited views through the trees down to the valley and South Bluff. At 3.7 miles, bear left on the marked spur to Devil’s Doorway, which drops precipitously down a shelf (which may require the use of hands) and then descends steeply to a natural ledge at the precipice of the cliffs. Look to your right, where an impressive collection of stony blocks has formed a natural archway, high above the lake below: this is Devil’s Doorway, one of the most iconic natural sights in the state of Wisconsin. (Note: The sun is best here in the mornings; by evening the setting sun casts a shadow over the rock face and it is tough to photograph.)

Devil’s Doorway

The Devil’s Doorway Trail continues past the arch for another 75 yards, ascending a staircase to return to the East Bluff Trail. Bear left, passing the initial entry to the Doorway area and retrace your steps back to the junction at the end of the Balanced Rock Trail. This time, bear right on the path nearest to the cliffside heading north: this is the continuation of the East Bluff Trail.

Devil’s Doorway (with a different camera)

At first the trail keeps its distance from the cliffside and lake, weaving through dense woods and edging northeast. The path comes to a junction again at about 4.4 miles, with an unnamed connector coming in from the right. Stay left and head north, passing occasional rock outcrops and treading progressively downhill. The path comes close to the cliff’s edge again at a point called Pride Rock; vistas become more common as the East Bluff Trail descends further to Bison Rock and rounds a right-hand bend with a small but surprisingly deep cave on the right.

Devil’s Lake view north
Looking south from East Bluff Trail

After briefly inspecting the darkness of the cave, continue downhill on the East Bluff Trail, staying right at a prominent spur trail at 5.1 miles. Minutes later, bear left at the wide junction with the East Bluffs Woods Trail, continuing northward. From here it is a short and easy walk to the Additional Parking lot, capping off the 5.25-mile hike.

All told, despite the crowds and road noise, the moderate to strenuous Devil’s Lake Loop is one of the most scenic adventures in Wisconsin, a worthy day trip from Madison or the Wisconsin Dells area. Combine with a visit to nearby parks for a nice weekend outing or week-long stay.

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Silver Creek Pathway (Pere Marquette State Forest, MI)

Silver Creek Pathway, Pere Marquette State Forest, June 2022

The 54-mile Pine River, a tributary of the Big Manistee River, undulates gently through the modest hillocks of northwest Michigan, making for a popular floating destination—but also a few decent hikes. The Silver Creek Pathway—a nearly four-mile loop that is a short drive from Cadillac, Michigan—is one of the better short walks, featuring high bluffs, nice flora diversity, and attractive rivulets. The pretty circuit connects two campgrounds in Pere Marquette State Forest, with much of the time spent paralleling the scenic river.

Map of Silver Creek Pathway, Pere Marquette State Forest; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Easiest access to the Silver Creek Pathway is from the Silver Creek Campground, situated on a gravel track just off North State Road in Lake County. (Note: The nearest town in this heavily forested area is Luther, Michigan.) Make your way to the back of the campground, just as the road curves around a loop. Here there is a small parking area (near Site #10) with room for two vehicles; there is also a modest restroom, as well as a trail sign and small, tattered map.

Start of the trail at Silver Creek Campground

The marked and well-trodden path bears north from the campground, almost immediately coming into view of the quickly-flowing Pine River off to the left. Given the trail traces both sides of the river and follows it north-south for nearly the entirety of the loop, it is a bit surprising that the hike is called the Silver Creek Pathway. But hikers soon cross the namesake stream—Silver Creek, a tributary of the Pine—on a short bridge, with dense thicket surrounding the drainage.

First glimpse at Pine River

Following blue blazes, the path bobs up and down, traversing a second bridge, this time over a smaller tributary, at about 1/10 mile. Then the Silver Creek Pathway makes a steady ascent, rising amid ferns and beech trees to the top of some eroded bluffs about 50 feet above Pine River. At one point, hikers can peer down, through a break in the trees, at the wild bends of the river.

View down to bend in Pine River

Soon the river disappears from view again, and the trail levels off at around 4/10 mile, the peaceful forest marred only by the occasional sound of passing cars on North State Road to the east. At 6/10 mile, the trail reaches a second overlook from atop a bluff above Pine River. Now well above the riverway, the onward route intersects with a wide double-track that acts as an ORV trail. Stay left, following the doubletrack north for a brief period, but pay close attention to the blue blazes, which eventually signal a continuation of the singletrack trail off to the left.

The trail then merges with the doubletrack twice, the second at a modest clearing with more, slightly obscured, views down the bluffs toward Pine River. Continue north on the ORV road for a brief period before the pathway again exits left. At 1.2 miles, the trail comes to a circle at the end of another dirt road, with a spur path leading left to another viewpoint. Thereafter, the main trail bears right and treads downhill, reaching a small meadow area on the right. Traversing the lowlands, the narrow path soon comes riverside at about 1.5 miles.

High bluff view of Pine River

Here the route-finding gets a little difficult, with social trails crisscrossing the landscape. But generally, hikers should stay on the most well-established path—heading left, then right. Soon the trail emerges from the dense canopy and into a parking area for the Lincoln Bridge Canoe Landing. The river is accessible off to the left, but the onward route stays right, following the road around a corner and to the crossing of the 80-foot-long Lincoln Bridge. By now hikers have travelled around 1.6 miles, a little less than halfway.

Cross the bridge and come to the left bank of Pine River. On this side, the trail stays level with the river much of the time, offering regular access. But first, the onward trek requires following the muddy access road southward for a brief period before the singletrack departs again to the left, up about a 3-foot bank. Once back on the blue-blazed trail, the route levels off and traverses a floodplain stocked with beautiful, verdant ferns.

Crossing a field of ferns

At 1.8 miles, the trail returns very briefly to the road but then cuts left again, reaching an upland well above the main waterway. Stay left again as the route intersects with a minor ORV road. Thereafter the Silver Creek Pathway settles into a steady downhill, crossing a trickling tributary at 2.25 miles. By 2.4 miles, the path is riverside again; from this point on, the path keeps the river close on the left.

Cutting along the Pine River, the singletrack trail comes to a shoreline opposite a 40-foot sandy bluff on the other bank. Staying largely streamside for the next 1/3 mile, the trail passes a lovely stand of pine trees that includes a nice dispersed camping site. This is a nice spot to stop for a snack or break before heading on.

Near the dispersed camping area along Pine River

At 3.1 miles, the Silver Creek Pathway continues over a short bridge. Within 2/10 mile, the path then splits, with a spur heading left. The main track takes a hard right, following a hairpin bend in the river. After about a tenth of a mile, the level, easygoing jaunt is suddenly interrupted by a steep but brief uphill slope. Soon the trail settles again into a flat tread, reaching an open field and track coming in from the right.

Silver Creek Pathway along the river

Stay straight here, continuing to keep the river on the left and coming to a bridge over another tributary at 3.7 miles. Hikers are now in the home stretch, passing a wily juniper on the left and crossing another short bridge.

Silver Creek Bridge at the end of the trail

The hike terminates another 1/10 mile later, as hikers reach the Silver Creek Bridge, constructed in 1988. Now hikers are back in the campground, although not quite where they started, but it’s a short walk (left) to return to the trailhead. This concludes the 3.9-mile loop hike—not a stunner, but a varied and enjoyable walk in one of the most scenic watersheds of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

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Empire Bluff Trail (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI)

Empire Bluff Trail, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, June 2022

What happens when a combination of glacial recession, wind, and erosion produces a perched dune atop a glacial moraine atop geological debris from the most recent Ice Age? The result, in Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, is the Empire Bluffs, a 400-foot headland overlooking Lake Michigan and home to one of the park’s most interesting hikes. The short, family-friendly involves ¾ mile of walking through a pretty beech/maple forest, punctuated by an unobstructed overlook above the third-largest of the Great Lakes.

Map of Empire Bluff Trail, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The hike

Start and end the 1.6-mile out-and-back hike at the Empire Bluff Trailhead, situated along Wilco Road, just a mile south of central Empire, a small town that hosts the main visitor center for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The signed parking lot has a moderate number of spaces, as well as a small pit toilet. The one and only hike from the trailhead begins by treading westward on a neatly-maintained path, initially keeping an open clearing to the right. Soon the gradually-ascending Empire Bluff Trail enters thick deciduous woodlands sporting mostly maples, pines, and beech trees.

Farm implement along the Empire Bluff Trail

After a few minutes, hikers will pass a rusted farming implement off to the right: this was once part of a mowing machine, now long-abandoned after becoming obsolete. Although the surface here is largely sand, it boasts a lush woodland landscape, with a relatively precipitous drop-off off to the north. Soon the incline eases, and the trail even descends for a brief period, treading through a pair of minor clearings. The second, at around exactly ½ mile, features a bench with a northward view, through the clear cut, to Empire, South Bar Lake, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and, of course, the beautiful blue waters of Lake Michigan. This is known as South Bar Lake Overlook. The embayment lake visible below was the result of a rising sandbar, followed by declining lake levels, leaving the smaller lake stranded from its much larger cousin.

View of Sleeping Bear Dunes from South Bar Lake Overlook

After admiring the window view, continue as the trail treads westward, clearing a minor gully before climbing a steep but brief staircase. After a couple more ups and downs, the Empire Bluff Trail at last emerges at its stunning climax: a wide-open vista of Lake Michigan, way down at the base of the 400-foot Empire Bluffs. The terrific vantage point offers views as part north as the Sleeping Bear Dunes and South Manitou Island and westward across the big open blue toward the state of Wisconsin (not quite visible).

Boardwalk at the end of the Empire Bluff Trail

But this isn’t quite the end – there is still some more trail as the path routes abruptly southward, following a sand-caked boardwalk, culminating at an even better viewpoint complete with a couple benches, a wooden railing, and a short, final loop-around.

Empire Bluff O

That is it for the Empire Bluff Trail; onward passage amid the steep and dangerous bluffs is prohibited. But it’s a pleasant and relatively mild return along the same trail back to the start. All told, the round-trip hike comes in at about 1.6 miles; the relatively easy tread and limited elevation gain makes this a nice, family-friendly walk in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area.

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Dune Climb (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI)

Dune Climb, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, June 2022

Spanning 65 miles of the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is easily the most interesting National Park Service unit on Michigan’s lower peninsula. Once buried under the Continental Ice Sheet during the most recent Ice Age, the retreating glaciers left behind a landscape of glacial kettles, moraines, towering bluffs, and dozens of smaller lakes—followed soon by thick, windswept sand dunes. It is those dunes, of course, that are the biggest draw. And these are not your average mild sand drifts you might find at your local beach: the Sleeping Bear Dunes are massive, multi-tiered ridges, rising as high as 450 feet above the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s no wonder then that one of the most renowned challenges in the area is the so-called “Dune Climb”—a stiff ascent up and over the highest dunes. (Note: To be fair, the elevation gain from the parking area is perhaps 100 feet; continuing on the Dunes Trail down to the lake and back is a far more strenuous walk.) The most popular activity at the Dunes is to simply wander: trekking in and out of shady ravines and up along high ridgelines with excellent views westward to Lake Michigan and east to Glen Lake.

Below is a small collection of photographs from a late June visit to the Dunes.

Looking down the Dune Climb to the parking area and Glen Lake
J-Rod at the dunes
Glen Lake from Sleeping Bear Dunes
Looking south across the dunes
More dunes between us and Lake Michigan
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Bailly/Chellberg Trail (Indiana Dunes National Park, IN)

Bailly/Chellberg Trail, Indiana Dunes National Park, June 2022

A prominent French Canadian fur trader, Joseph Bailly settled in the Indiana Dunes area in the early 19th century, establishing a trading post in 1822 near present-day Porter, Indiana. Decades later, Swedish immigrants Anders and Johanna Kjellberg purchased 80 acres of land on the other side of a small forest, establishing a small family farm and tapping the sugar maples to make maple syrup. Today, both the Bailly Homestead and Chellberg Farms still stand, incorporated into Indiana Dunes National Park and easily combined on a short, easy loop hike. In addition to the historic sites, the Bailly/Chellberg Trail traverses a fine section of deciduous forest and includes a spur to the impressive Bailly Cemetery. This easy walk covers about 1.75 miles and is a family-friendly hike in the Porter area.

Map of Bailly/Chellberg Trail Loop, Indiana Dunes National Park

The hike

There are several options for connecting to the Bailly/Chellberg Trail loop, but the starting point that makes the most sense is the trailhead off Mineral Springs Road, just north of U.S. Route 20 and south of Oak Hill Road and the Park Headquarters area. (Note: The trailhead is marked “Little Calumet River Trail” on Google Maps.) There are several picnic verandas here, as well as a volunteer information station, which has limited hours.

The trail begins at the east end of the parking lot, marked by a large information board/map. (Note: The trail maps for Indiana Dunes are quite good; they are also available on the NPS app.) Immediately the partly-mulched path enters a dense forest of new growth and splits in two. Head left first, starting the loop and pursuing it in a clockwise direction.

Heading toward Bailly Homestead

Here the wide track treads southwest, above the banks of an unnamed creek bed on the right. Soon the trail drops to cross the (often dry) drainage, then climbs briefly back to return to the flat basin. Head west through a sea of maples, oaks, and other deciduous varieties and emerge at around 3/10 mile at an open field. Look to the left for a historic plaque marking this area as a National Historic Landmark. Ahead, to the south, is the Bailly Homestead, a series of renovated structures dedicated to telling the story of Joseph Bailly, a fur trader who had unusually good relations with the Native Americans in the area. The main house on the property is an example of vernacular architecture: a building constructed without professional guidance and occurring outside any particular architectural tradition, usually made from local materials.

Bailly Homestead
Main home at the Bailly Homestead

Visitors can sometimes tour the property and house, although, as of summer 2022, the Bailly homestead was closed for renovations. To continue the loop, backtrack across the open field, heading for the northwest corner of the property. Here you will find a singletrack and sign for “historic cemetery.” Proceed this way, returning to the thick woods.

Thick woods en route to the cemetery

Pass a trail fork at ½ mile, continuing right and climbing a mild incline, followed by a row of four impressive, spindly oak trees. Come to a second fork at 7/10 mile, bear left, then stay right at a third junction minutes later. From here the Bailly/Chellberg Trail descends to clear the same drainage from before, crossing a bridge over a surprisingly deep-cut gully.

Impressive oaks

Here hikers can bear right to continue the loop, but it is worth a ½-mile detour to visit the nearby Bailly Cemetery. To take this spur, heading left at the junction just after the bridge, staying straight as the trail intersects with the Porter Brickyard Bike Trail and crosses Oak Hill Road. Once across, the hum of Highway 12 grows stronger, but the walk is peaceful nonetheless as it snakes through the dense woods. At 1.1 miles, after a short uphill, the spur ends at Bailly Cemetery, a brick-encased plot situated on a bluff that once overlooked Lake Michigan. The entire Bailly family is buried here.

Approaching Bailly Cemetery
Graves at Bailly Cemetery

Visitors can encircle the cemetery or simply turn around, returning across Oak Hill Road. Once back at the bridge, stay straight, keeping the drainage cut on your right. Soon there is a wooden staircase down, descending into the woody couloir. In this pretty section, the route traverses three bridges, followed by another wooden staircase—this time going up. Pass a huge birch tree on the right, cross another bridge, and then climb up to another open field.

Descent into drainage

Here there is an unmarked junction. Bear right, entering the Chellberg Farm and approaching the various historic structures from the north. The Swedish Kjellberg—or Chellberg—family travelled to the United States in 1863 and eventually purchased this land and operated a working farm. The property was passed down two generations before being sold to the National Park Service in 1972. Today, visitors can tour the farm, which has a handful of live animals.

Chellberg Farm
Main home at Chellberg Farm

Follow the path between the farm and the woods as it bears southward, approaching the very interesting maple house on the right, a small structure where the Chellbergs stored equipment for tapping the sugar maples of the area, producing delicious maple syrup.

From here, it is a short walk along the wide path back to the initial junction, where hikers can bear left and step out onto the parking lot again. All told, this 1.75-mile stem-and-loop hike should take hikers between 1-2 hours to complete.

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