Seven Wonders of Wisconsin: Big Manitou Falls
Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.
SUPERIOR – You have to really love waterfalls to make the 400 mile, seven-hour drive to Pattison State Park just outside Superior.
But when you get there, you'll be greeted by Big Manitou Falls. Really, the word "big" doesn't do it justice.
The fourth largest waterfall east of the Rockies is jaw-droppingly big, actually. It seems like a natural marvel you'd see cascading from atop a mountain, but certainly not in far northwestern Wisconsin.
"It's the same height as Niagara Falls," says Superior Convention and Visitors Bureau director Jan O'Brien. "It's just a lot skinnier."
Skinny, maybe. But certainly tall. Very, very tall.
"We're from the Midwest," jokes the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Kerry Isensee. "We're just not used to this kind of height."
Of course, getting to the park is a journey in and of itself. From Milwaukee, you pass Madison, then head northwest through Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, up Highway 53 – way up – until you get close enough to take a few smaller highways to the park, 6294 S. State Road 35.
The entrance is big and grassy, but the falls themselves are not immediately visible.
"When you're not anywhere near the falls, you can hear this rumbling, and all of a sudden you can see the spray and splash," says O'Brien. "It's really quite a gem."
"Everyone who comes in expects the falls to be right next to the visitors center, but it's very accessible," adds Isensee. "It's hidden by the trees, and that's what makes it special. It's extremely close."
Yes, you have to walk a bit when you get there; the park guides who showed us around Pattison said some campers miss the falls entirely during their stay at the almost 1,500 acre park.
That would be pretty unfortunate, though, since Big Manitou Falls is 165 feet high with a mineral-rich, white, orange and brown deluge of water flowing from the Black River. The Ojibwa call the river "Mucudewa Sebee," meaning "dark," which describes the unique root beer tint of the water from decaying leaves and roots of vegetation.
"Each time of the year, it offers something different," says Isensee. "The mist in the winter, the thunder of the rain in the spring and the rocks in the summer. It's the grandeur that makes it special, certainly."
A still, artificial lake with a long, sandy beach sits just before the falls, and this entire park is a testament to the Civilian Conservation Corps and the efforts that led America out of the Great Depression.
You can still see how this park once was a Mecca for recreation, with rustic yet sturdy buildings that served as dance halls and a place where local vacationers made life-long memories.
But the park is also low-key, and even Isensee says he didn't know about it when he worked a mere 40 miles away. "We have plenty of accessible Minnesota parks close by. Ours are much less visited, which is what people like about them."
Says O'Brien, "People have been coming for generations. When I was young, we used to come for the day to picnic."
Until 1935, the facilities were quite modest, but once FDR established Camp Pattison Co. 3663, the park sprung to life, as thousands of men worked over seven years to transform this park into a spectacular landscape.
When you get close to the falls, you'll see very little of man's imprint, though
amazingly, Big Manitou Falls almost ceased to exist a century ago.
Martin Pattison was a lumberjack and miner from Michigan who began logging the Black River in 1879. He eventually sold his lumber interests, but in 1917, he heard about a plan to build a hydroelectric dam on the river which would've destroyed the waterfall. He secretly purchased 600 acres along the river, saving Big Manitou Falls, and the state dedicated the park in 1920.
Thankfully, Pattison's act preserved a landmark that has attracted nature lovers for literally thousands of years. Save for trails and viewing stations that overlook this natural wonder, man could not improve upon this splendor.
While the Black River below Big Manitou Falls is occasionally fished, the DNR has stopped stocking the area. Indeed, this is a landmark to enjoy silently and in awe.
Tours are self-guided and Big Manitou Falls Trail offers a chance to see 200 species of birds and 54 different mammals. It's a park where beavers, porcupines, hawks, owls and black bears are listed as "common sightings." You may even see a moose.
For me, Big Manitou Falls was an all-too-short visit en route to another one of Wisconsin's Seven Wonders, Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, and the right way to really experience Pattison State Park is to camp.
The park offers 59 family campsites (18 with electricity). Given more time, I would've liked to hike out to the three backpack sites, approximately 1.6 miles from the parking area. It's almost impossible to believe that the park is on the outskirts of Superior, a city with almost 30,000 residents – in this scenic setting, civilization seems a million miles away.
"When you're there, you're in an entirely different world," says O'Brien.
And it doesn't feel crowded, though some 150,000 visitors come to the state park each year to hear the voice of "Gitchee Manitou," the "Great Spirit" that thundered through the gorge of the Black River to create the mighty waterfall.
If you made the long trip to this part of the state, you might as well also visit the more approachable Little Manitou Falls in the park (Isensee's favorite) and Amnicon Falls, a bit northeast on Highway 2. Amnicon Falls State Park in South Range is not as dramatic as Big Manitou, but the three 30-foot waterfalls are best viewed from the scenic covered Horton bridge. Amateur photographers will be in heaven up here.
This is my favorite place. Since moving to Milwaukee it is the thing I miss the most!
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