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Happy Trails: Big Manitou Falls river trail is a buggy stunner

Water rumbled down a 165-foot drop of the largest waterfall in Wisconsin, and I can't believe I get to live here.

The Big Manitou Falls flowed strong and heavy on June 26. This is the largest waterfall in Wisconsin with an 165-foot drop.
The Big Manitou Falls flowed strong and heavy on June 26. This is the largest waterfall in Wisconsin with an 165-foot drop.
Melinda Lavine / Duluth News Tribune
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DOUGLAS COUNTY — The Big Manitou Falls River Trail is well worth the drive.

Big Manitou Falls Trail.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Located in Pattison State Park, about 20 minutes south of Superior, parking was ample and well-marked on a Sunday afternoon in June.

From the lot, I followed a paved pathway across County Road B to the Big Manitou Falls south overlook. (Access the Little Manitou Falls trail about a mile south on Wisconsin State Highway 35.)

My friend, Laurie, my dog and I arrived at a clearing to take in the largest waterfall in Wisconsin. Water rumbled down a stunning 165-foot drop, so vast and close, yet far off.

Seeing this stirred disbelief and excitement that I get to live here.

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Several people pooled around the overlook to get photos, some taking advantage of the selfie station, others requesting help from lay people happy to help.

From there, we started the down-and-back trail that runs about half-mile to the Black River.

 Towering balsam fir, aspen and spruce hug the wide Big Manitou Falls River Trail.
The Big Manitou Falls River Trail is hugged by a mix of balsam fir, aspen and spruce.
Melinda Lavine / Duluth News Tribune

The hiking-only trail is smooth, pleasant — with minimal divots or tree roots — and it’s wide, allowing passersby and pets an ample berth.

I caught glimpses of the big falls through breaks in the balsam fir, aspen and spruce, and it felt a little anticlimactic to separate from such a main attraction.

Wooden and stone fencing along the way adds feelings of security from steep drops and a shire-like charm. A brown metal sign reads “trail to river” as we made our descent toward the waterway.

A set of weathered stairs leads visitors to the Black River on the Big Manitou Falls River Trail on June 26, 2022.
A set of weathered stairs leads visitors to the Black River on the Big Manitou Falls River Trail.
Melinda Lavine / Duluth News Tribune

We eventually arrived at a dilapidated staircase leading down a very steep drop. One of the posts was eaten away on top, discouraging use from this gal. I felt nervous walking down it, as my dog trotted ahead easily.

The Black River greeted us at the bottom, its borders wild and dry, with many rocks, fallen trees and scores of mosquitoes.

Various hikers popped in and out by the river: A one man scaled the rocks leading across it, another pair of young women sat and chatted nearby. An older man cautiously stepped down toward the waterway.

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Soft sandstone and clay hug the Black River south of Superior.
The Black River at the end of the Big Manitou Falls trail is calm and still.
Melinda Lavine / Duluth News Tribune

Clouded, sluggish water pooled and curved along the river’s edges, resembling patterns in an agate. The water was so eerily still it reflected the details of the gorge, the soft sandstone and clay with precision.

We headed along the river, climbing up and down its rocky shore and over branches, wild and loose. We didn’t make it far before the mosquitoes became unbearable.

It sprinkled as we trudged up that very steep hill, a welcomed refresher to my perspiration and rising heart rate.

A boy in a blue shirt steps onto rocks to cross the Black River.
A boy scales rocks across the Black River at Manitou Falls south of Superior.
Melinda Lavine / Duluth News Tribune

In the parking lot, we ran into a van of folks also wrapping up their hike.

Sachin Pentela, 12, his sister, Sahasra Pentela, 9, and family friends made a day trip from Madison, Wisconsin, to check out the state’s largest waterfall. They’re regular hikers, and Sachin is a rock climber.

It was the first time Punitha Manne, 14, and Umesh Manne, 11, had hiked this, too. Punitha liked the views; Umesh was ready to see more of the Twin Ports during the family day trip.

Asked what tips they’d share with others wanting to explore this trail, they agreed, “Bring bug spray.”

A brown sign reads "Big Manitou Falls South Overlooks picnic area" with a large arrow pointing ahead to direct guests of the river trail.
The Big Manitou Falls River Trail has good signage to let you know you're on the right track.
Melinda Lavine / Duluth News Tribune

Have a favorite trail you want us to check out? Drop us an email at outdoors@duluthnews.com with the subject line “Happy Trails.”

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A black butterfly with a blue head rests on single bright green leaf, among a sea of bright green leaves.
A butterfly rests on a leaf at Manitou Falls.
Melinda Lavine / Duluth News Tribune
Happy Trails logo.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
“I've dressed up for Halloween. I've hiked the Tettegouche," Cindy Stratioti said. "I’ve done a wedding on the top of Enger Tower, doing my best to hold onto the marriage license so it doesn’t go flying."

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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