On a perfect fall day, a friend and I hiked the first so designated State Natural Area in Wisconsin, Parfrey’s Glen, just east of Devils Lake State Park. From my house near Milton, WI the drive took just about an hour and 20 minutes, traveling on I-90/I-39/I-94.
My companion had been before, a couple of decades earlier, but we were prepared for the changes wrought by strong floods over the years and especially in 2010. The floods aren’t surprising but they must have been amazing. The “glen” a Scottish word for a narrow, rocky ravine is like a mini gorge or canyon. When we saw it, a merry little stream bubbled excitedly over and around the rocks. But even a cursory look at the rock walls (that eventually rise to about 100 feet) reveals the carving action of strong water flows and you can see it fairly high up those walls, too! How strong those raging waters must have been.
We will still see the evidence of the 2010 flood.
Our hike starts in a parking area, nearly deserted early on Friday morning in October. Around us is grass and woods – pretty typical Wisconsin landscape (apart from farms). The path we take branches off from a section of the Ice Age Trail that is also accessible from this parking lot. As we walk towards the glen, our constant companion is the stream I mentioned earlier. The effect is captivating: Dappled with sunlight, surrounded by the colors of a brilliant autumn, Parfrey’s Glen Creek meanders cheerfully on its way toward lake Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River.
As we walk, our elevation begins to rise. We have to cross the stream, jumping from stone to stone, balancing on wet and slippery rocks which, fortunately, are in just inches of water. The stream gets wider and the crossings a bit more challenging. Wet feet are an easy reward for falling, but we manage to balance with the help of thick sticks we find along the way.
When we come to the end of the path, a sign warns us that we are continuing at our own risk. Here, the destruction of the flood is apparent. Tall trees still litter the path and the water, their bulk changing the way the water pools and flows. Intrepid to the end, we are going to make it to the “falls.”
We had to climb and scramble over rock. We had to ford the stream with our makeshift walking poles. All around us the beauty of the autumn colors, the magnificent sunshine and the cool fresh air built an intoxicating sense of well-being. Oh to be alive and out in the woods on such a day!
The glen is notable for its geology and its flora. If it means something to you – this rock dates from the Cambrian period. Distinct layers of sandstone alternate with heavy layers of sandstone mixed with a conglomerate quartzite with everything from boulders to pebbles (called “plum pudding” stone). The appearance is quite strange actually. The underside of the layer is what is exposed. It is like no other I have seen.
The walls of the glen hold in cool air and moisture so there are lots of ferns and mosses…or were before the flood. We can still seem them up overhead, but the rock is still bare down where we are on the ground. The microclimate in the glen is much more like northern Wisconsin so there are trees and plants here that are uncommon in this part of the State. We aren’t paying much attention to that: We are busy oohing and aahing over the colors.
Probably the most important thing I can tell you about hiking in Palfrey’s Glen is don’t give up and turn back too soon. You do have to hike out along the same “trail” you hiked in, but it would be such a shame not to make it to the “falls.” They aren’t so much a spectacular destination as they are a culmination of a spectacular walk! So keep going. If your feet get wet, I think you will consider it a small price to pay. (And we did pay it on the way back!)
The trail got pretty crowded as the morning wore on and the parking lot was full to overflowing when we returned. It is free unless you have a dog. Then you will need to pay a permit fee. Depending on how often you stop to take pictures, the walk can take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes (it is just .8 miles each way).
Lucky you if the weather and the season lend themselves to a picnic while you’re there.
Here are some links to get you started:
For a nice comprehensive look at the geology of the region: