Big Manitou Falls, Pattison State Park

Just a few miles south of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin’s largest metro area flows the highest waterfall in either state. Short overlook trails in Wisconsin’s Pattison State Park offer a variety of scenic views of Big Manitou Falls.

Summer marks the most comfortable time to visit the falls, but each season provides a unique experience. Winter offers mist rising off the falls, spring brings thundering water flows, and autumn reveals the fantastic ancient rocks forming the gorge below.

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Big Manitou Falls reaches a height of 165 feet, making it the fourth highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains and as tall as Niagara.

To reach the park, take Wis. Hwy.  35 south about 13 miles from Lake Superior. The entrance and parking lot is on the left. A $5 entry fee is required per vehicle. For the trailhead, head to the southwest corner of the parking lot and take the pathway through the park’s grassy picnic area past the nature center toward Interfalls Lake. Even though trees block the waterfalls, you’ll be able to hear its rumble.

At the lake, follow the pedestrian tunnel under Hwy. 35. The half-mile-long trail’s difficulty level is easy with minimal elevation gain. Past the tunnel, stay on the north side of Black River, which the Ojibwa Indians who once lived here called “Mucudewa Sebee,” translating to “dark.” It aptly describes the brown-tinted river, the coloration caused by decaying leaves and roots spilling into the waterway.

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The Black River cuts a gorge through the Wisconsin wilderness below Big Manitou Falls.

Short trails leading off the main one give you two views of Big Manitou Falls. At 165 feet, the falls is the fourth largest east of the Rockies and the same height as Niagara. The falls exists because of the dark basalt, the remains of a 1.2-billion-year-old lava flow that covers much of the Wisconsin-Minnesota border area. The Douglas Fault runs downstream from the falls, with the southern side of the fault rises at a 50 degree angle. Today, Black River runs down this gorge formed long ago by volcanic action and earthquakes, eventually meeting the Nemadji River, which flows into Lake Superior. A century ago, developers almost wiped out the falls with a planned hydroelectric dam. The park’s namesake, Martin Pattison, purchased land to deliberately block the dam’s construction, however.

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The Black River tumbles over a black basalt cliff to form Big Manitou Falls

For a longer walk and additional views of the falls, head back toward the tunnel but before reaching it take a connecting trail that heads across the river. This provides two additional views from the south. Though you’ll probably be focused on the falls, keep an eye out for the local wildlife in this boreal forest. More than 200 bird species, including hawks and owls, as well 50-plus mammals, such as porcupines and black bears, call the park home.

On the way back to your vehicle, stop at the Gitchee Gummee Nature Center for its exhibits. The popular state park also hosts nature programs and boasts a sandy beach. For children, the nature center loans out two different nature exploration backpacks full of fun activities. Pets on a leash are allowed. Also, this is a carry in/carry out park, so you’ll have trouble finding garbage cans.

 

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About the author

Rob Bignell is an avid hiker, long-time editor, and former infantry grunt who’s been taking his son on day hikes for more than five years. Together they’ve scaled summits almost two miles high, crossed America’s driest deserts, and walked beneath trees soaring 15 stories over their heads. He’s the author of the “Hikes with Tykes”, “Headin’ to the Cabin”, and “Hittin’ the Trail” hiking guidebook series.

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