The Wild Waterfalls of Iron County, Wisconsin – Part III

The tough ones.

I’m using tough in a generic sense. The falls I was able to find weren’t necessarily difficult to access or remote in terms of mileage on foot. However, they either involved fleets of steps, vague directions, or a lack of signage making it a bit of a hit or miss in terms of finding. That said, each of these falls is definitely worth visiting. Each ones presents an impressive view and in many cases an opportunity to enjoy the falls in complete solitude. Despite it being fall peak, these falls were not overly packed. In fact, with the exception of Potato River Falls, I was a lone hiker at each of these falls.

Potato River Falls
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This falls barely makes this list. The primary reason is the falls involves at least 150 steps to and from the parking. The waterfall is a 90-feet drop on Potato River near Gurney. The falls is located within a town park that has rustic picnic campsites. I also found the outhouse to be particularly photogenic among the golden leaves. Once in the park, you have two main options. The first is to head to a nearby observation deck where you can see the river valley. This does not provide great views of the falls, though. From there, you can take a footpath to the dramatic descent down. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne thing worth noting on this staircase, the step sizes vary dramatically depending on the steepness of the grade. In some areas I felt I could skip two steps each time while in other areas, a single step was the height of three. This is something to watch if you are use to uniform stair steps. In terms of finding the park, it is relatively easy. Take Highway 169 South from US 2 through Gurney. Turn west on Potato River Falls Road and drive approximately 1.5 miles. The park is clearly labeled.

Peterson Falls
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeterson Falls was my first stop of the day. At first glance, I thought this waterfall would be simple to find. To be frank, it ended up being way more complicated than it needed to be due to false directions. Both the Iron County website and Travel Wisconsin provide directions that reference an Ero Nasi Construction sign. I’m not sure at what point in time this sign existed and/or if I’m blind but after multiple drives along Highway 2 outside of Hurley and never noticing this large construction sign, I finally veered off highway 2 in frustration at Stoffel’s Country Store. It was here I noticed a dirt road heading the approximate direction of the falls. At the intersection of 2 and this road, a white TODD sign indicating Peterson Falls. Once you find that road, you drive approximately .3 miles. Directions imply a small turnaround. Highlight the word small. I missed what is the turnaround and ended up driving on what I can only describe as an ATV trail. Keep in mind this is literally 1 mile from a major state highway. Regardless, it definitely felt remote. Once parked, the rest is easy.

A spacious footpath through a dense forest leads you directly to the East Branch Montreal River. From there you follow the path and river upstream to Peterson Falls. It is a 35-feet drop and takes about 5-minutes to walk to. From there, you can continue along the footpath for additional views of the river. I followed the path for approximately 25-minutes before turning back due to a mixture of rain sleet. In addition to a couple of waterfall snapshots, I also enjoyed the side pools of water filled with swirling fall leaves.

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Spring Camp Falls
Since several folks have written about this waterfall, I have to believe the falls does in fact exist. However, despite my best intentions to find this remote waterfall I certainly could not find it. It doesn’t help that the Travel Wisconsin website cuts off its directions mid-sentence. My secondary source from the County was more helpful but I was unable to find East Branch Road. Or, if I did, I didn’t know it was East Branch Road and the rustic path signs never came into my view. After more than an hour of driving up and down gravel roads in this approximate area I gave up. Next time, I may have to use a GPS.

Foster Falls
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the flip side, finding Foster Falls was a walk in the park compared to Spring Camp. The falls is somewhat remote in the sense that you are once again driving on unmarked roads. However, this waterfall has just one dirt road you travel down making it easier to navigate. Also, the road abrubtly ends when it intersects with the Potato River. From there, you just put your car in reverse until you see a dirt road on your right. You travel down this road right into a remote riverside campsite. Once parked, you can hop out and hear the falls. Follow your ears to Foster Falls. The 25-feet falls is the only thing you’ll hear in this country. Not much for traffic, homes, hikers, anglers. I was not only the lone sightseer on this fall Saturday afternoon but the only car on Sullivan Road. To get there, go north from Upson on Highway 122 for 5 miles. Turn left on Sullivan Road (this was not marked when I drove so be sure to use your mile gauge) and proceed 2 miles until the road abruptly runs into a raging river. When you get there, you’ll know you’ve gone far enough.

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Wren Falls
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOf all the waterfalls in Iron County that I visited, this was my favorite. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, it was the drive in. It was particularly picturesque. It was also the most adventuresome portion of my journey. My 10-hour journey took place immediately following a solid 12-hour rainfall. Many of the roads were muddy and at times had standing water that I was never quite sure about. Each time, though, my trusty Subaru plowed through… except this time. During my drive to Wren Falls, I hit a particularly muddy patch of road. Unfortunately, my car halted. I’m confident, with a little acceleration motivation, I would have continued along my journey. However, it was during this time that a lone truck drove around the bend. In it, a man determined to rescue the damsel in distress. As someone who has watched a few too many after school specials, not to mention my remote location, it caused me great angst. Once standing in the muddy waterhole knocking on my car window and gesturing he could help, I decided to accept his help. In addition to being quite nice, he was very effective in getting my Subaru back on dry land. The timing was odd given he was the first and last truck I saw in this portion of my journey, but sometimes that’s how life works. I continued along until I hit the hairpin turn where a center road would take me to the entrance of the trail to the falls.

To my surprise, when I hit this turn, a large sign summoned me to the falls. The only downside – it was a rusted out sheet of metal, filled with bullet holes and spray painted Wren. It didn’t exactly scream pristine waterfall but at least it verified the directions. Once parked, I hopped out my car and made my way to the falls. The falls, which is located on the Forks River, is 12-feet. While this may not sound large, the vantage point from where you can see the falls makes if feel much larger. While there isn’t much in terms of a footpath to walk along the river, the natural rock formations lend themselves to scrambling up and down over ridges providing a number of angles to look at the river. In every case, the view doesn’t disappoint. I ended up spending nearly an hour taking in the sites of this waterfall and wandering through the woods. For those wanting to spend even more time exploring, a primitive campsite positioned just a hop, skip and jump from the falls await. To get there, head 5.5 miles south on US 2 on Highway 169. Take a left turn on Vogues Road. Travel about 3.5 miles until a hairpin turn. From here, take the center road for about 1 mile where the road forks. You can hike up the hill to the primitive campsite and waterfalls from there. (I missed that part of the directions though, and drove which is also a possibility. In all honesty, it is very easy to mix up ATV trails and dirt roads in this country).

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YOLO: The Wild Waterfalls of Northern Iron County, Wisconsin

This isn’t meant to be a political post. Over the course of the past year, news from Iron County has inundated my Facebook feed via a flurry of political, economic and environmental posts. The posts were often triggered by a proposed mine that may or may not ever happen. But buried within the posts were references to countless, unknown waterfalls that I hadn’t seen referenced on a regular basis in travel publications or local news stories.

Waterfalls mesmerize me. I’m naturally drawn to water and there is something cascading waterfalls that calms my soul. When my husband and I completed the Lake Superior Circle Tour, we stopped at every easily accessible waterfall on Lake Superior. We’ve done countless North Shore trips, day hikes and exploring in our neck of the woods to photograph just one more fall. By default, this included at least 2 waterfalls in Iron County. But, after some digging on the Iron County website and reading an article on the Travel Wisconsin website, I learned there were at least a dozen documented falls that were accessible to the public.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn a cool, crisp, and extra wet fall morning I decided to load up my trusty Subaru with my camera, snacks and a worn-out gazetteer to see just how many of these falls I could find. I had 10-hours and a full tank of gas. Given my time constraints and location (I live two counties away), I had to limit myself to northern Iron County. By my initial estimate, I thought I could photograph and explore seven waterfalls. My initial estimate was wrong. I didn’t factor in a torrential downpour, mismarked roads, flooded backroads, incomplete directions (thanks Travel Wisconsin), and at times a lack of common sense on my part.

By day’s end, I managed to discover and enjoy seven of the nine waterfalls and a gorgeous overlook where I enjoyed some serious windburn and a beautiful view of the Penokees. As usual, Mother Nature did not disappoint me. Many of these waterfalls were remote. Fall colors were at their peak with the rain and haze drawing out the vibrant golds and radiant reds against the grey sky. Swirling leaves, rapid waterfalls and solitude provided the perfect backdrop for the photographer in me to pause for a moment and reflect on what an incredible place I live.

The day held one flaw I saw repeated over and over again in the backroads of Iron County. A disconnect between man and nature. As someone who loves hidden gems, I understand the value of locals keeping some things private. I also get many of these backroads aren’t meant to be major thoroughfares for folks to travel. But, would a simple, occasional road name sign be so much to ask? Or better yet, could we limit the bullets to hunting animals (in-season of course) versus signs? As a lone, single women in God’s country, it is not very comforting to find the path to what you hope is a waterfall posted with a graffiti ridden bent metal sign filled with bullet holes. Last time I checked, this isn’t the wild, wild, west in the 1800s. It is disheartening to see remote, pristine campsites posted with a simple request of no cutting trees, next to a series of stumps. But I digress.

I end my day at Superior Waterfalls. Here the Montreal River makes a final 90-foot plummet before finding its way home to Lake Superior. It is an impressive way to end a day full of discoveries and a thunderous reminder that sometimes exploring in your own neck of the woods is as calming and invigorating as any far away place.

Over the course of the next days I’ll share directions and additional photos from this day but in the meantime, here are a few of my favorites: