Willow River State Park

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Located in Hudson, Wisconsin, Willow River State Park is known for its picturesque falls, groomed trails and a rich history. The park occupies nearly 3,000 acres of land and is popular for camping and other outdoor recreational activities.[1] The Willow River area has rich geographical history, from glaciers to prairies, and the river itself has been used for outdoor activities and to supply hydroelectricity. Today, there are countless plant and animals species that are native to this area that are recovering from the emergence of man-made structures, such as dams.[2] Although, recent events are altering the course of the park with the reconstruction of the Little Falls Dam.

Sign of Willow River State Park located in Hudson, WI. (Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Bowker)

History of Willow River

Before mentioning the Willow River State Park, the Willow River area origins have to be uncovered. The Willow River winds through almost 70 miles from its source near Cylon, WI to the St. Croix River.[3] The gorges along the falls and the terrain are few of the many reasons why this landmark became popularized. It was first inhabited by Native tribes who used the plentiful resources of the river, then it was occupied by European settlers for transporting goods and to support agriculture.


It has been stated that the oldest exposed rock formations found in the park - such as the Eau Claire rock formation found at the base of the Little Falls Dam - date back to the Cambrian Period of the Paleozoic Era. Scientists have found fossils of trilobites, possible early ancestors of insects and spiders, in the rocks and have concluded that tropical seas submerged the area in the past. The reefs that were found contained calcium carbonate that was deposited by plants and animals, which eventually formed the magnesium-rich limestone called dolomite, which is present today in the gorges of the Willow Falls.[4] The period of the Ice Age, which scientists date back a million years ago, was present in the form of continental glaciers that swept through Wisconsin. The park is considered to be the furthest edge of the most recent glacier. The glacier shaped the terrain of the park by transporting trillions of tons of material consisting of rock debris, known as "drift." As the glacial ice melted, water slowly worked its way through the drift, depositing large amounts of sand and gravel to form pits within the rock, thus creating the Willow Falls gorge.[5]

Prairie and Forests

Over time, the weather continually got warmer and several droughts occurred. This warming process contributed to the glaciers melting throughout the Willow River area and, as a result, formed a prairie landscape. The remains of the continental glaciers were found to be particles of ground rock within the drifts called "loess," which provided rich mineral content and fine texture to promote the growth of grass seedlings. This favorable drier climate came about in part due to shifting weather patterns caused by the Rocky Mountains that rose about 25 million years ago. The mountains blocked the flow of moisture-rich air from the Pacific, thus establishing the production of prairies. The prairie land that occupies the Willow River area is known as the "Hudson Prairie" and is considered to be Wisconsin's northernmost edge of a tall-grass prairie. The native plants of the Willow River State Park, which is classified as "dry prairie," have been shaped by their environment to be resistant to droughts, where non-native plants that were introduced are not resistant. To rejuvenate and keep the prairie seedlings intact, Willow River State Park volunteers clear and burn the prairie areas along the main road around the campground.[6]


Archaeologists have concluded that the Willow River area has been occupied by Native tribes such as the Chippewa and the Santee Sioux. They used the land for hunting and gathering purposes as well as practicing the ritual of burying their dead in earthen mounds. During the 1700s and 1800s, there was an influx of European settlers that would use the river as an outpost for fur trade. Although, by 1830, the population of beaver had been declining and the settlement of Europeans had been increasing in the area, which would shift their attention from the fur trade to agriculture and logging. The logging industry was dependent upon the usage of rivers for transporting millions of board feet of timber along the river in a process called a "log drive." [7] For example, it was recorded that there was roughly 30 million feet of logs that utilized the Willow River alone in 1891.[8] This river was also a great for fishing, especially trout. A local confirmed that they caught "a mammoth of a trout weighing nine pounds, known as a Mountain or Rainbow Trout."[9]

Willow Falls located within Willow River State Park. (Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Bowker)

History of Willow River State Park

Production of dams along the Willow River created electricity for the city of Hudson, however, the dams were removed due to inconsistent electric outputs. Thus, creating the area solely for educational and recreational enjoyment as a State Park. As mentioned above, the importance of agriculture spurred the cultivation of wheat around the Willow River area. Christian Burkardt, a German immigrant, purchased 600 acres along the Willow River and settled here with his family. He saw the potential of the river and used his past experience of operating mills near Buffalo, NY to build the first grain mill in 1868. When the mill burned down in 1887, Burkhardt rebuilt the new mill a year later, along with increasing his land holdings to 1,000 acres. Farmers from all over the area would utilize his invention and, under a new name, the Burkhardt Milling Company, provided an essential service to the farming community. However, Burkhardt didn't stop there. He became interested in electrical power and the study of power plants. He returned to Germany to observe a power plant on the Nectar River so that he could replicate the hydroelectric process back at Willow River.[10] When he returned in 1891, Burkhardt began operations to utilize the water power of the Willow River to generate electricity.[11] However, the construction of a dam on the Willow River subjected the Burkhardt Milling Company to violating the Waterpower Act of 1913. Though this action would test the boundaries of the Act by determining which specific streams are subject to the waterpower law.[12] Nonetheless, these revolutionary ways of using the river caught the attention of the Andrews Electric Company. Burkhardt and the Andrews Electric Company, later known as the Willow River Power Company in 1922,[13] built a total of four hydroelectric dams (the Little Falls Dam, the St. Croix Dam, the Willow Falls Dam, and the Mound Pond Dam) that would generate electricity through power plants for Hudson and the surrounding area.[14] However, the Willow River Power Company concluded that the Willow River had an unreliable water flow to provide sufficient electrical power for the city. In 1919, the Willow River Power Company constructed a back-up steam power plant in downtown Hudson, but the production of electric output from the river between 1928 and 1932 was slashed in half and went from producing 416,000 kilowatts per hour (or 90 percent of water power used) to 230,500 kilowatts per hour (or 45 percent).[15] Unable to keep up with the electrical demand of the city, the Willow River Power Company was purchased by the Northern States Power Company (NSP) in 1945.[16] The NSP experienced different problems with providing hydroelectric power. In 1967 there were conversations with the Wisconsin Conservation Commission (WCC), which is now the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), to create a state park in the Willow River area. This idea solidified in 1968 when the WCC approved the purchase of the 4,000 acres to become a state park, which was jointly financed by funds from the State Outdoor Recreation Act and federal grants. There was also an additional 1,180 acres sold by the NSP for $45,000[17] and about 1,120 acres from private landowners[18] that was included for the new Willow River State Park. The WCC agreed and decided to additionally pay for the repairs of the three dams for the sum of $75,000.[19] The Willow River State Park opened to the public in 1971 with development of campgrounds, trails, picnic areas, and buildings. With the removal of the Willow Falls Dam in 1992 and the Mound Pond Dam in 1997, the Willow River has been restored to its natural course to supply nutrients to fields and prairies.[20]

Little Falls Dam

Being originally built out of wood in 1892, the Little Falls Dam was slowly rebuilt out of concrete between 1916 and 1934 to prevent natural catastrophes such as fires or lightning.[21] The NSP confirmed that in 1967 the Little Falls Dam, as well as the Mound Pond Dam; the Willow Falls Dam; and the St. Croix Dam, would be retired and removed.[22] The Little Falls Dam created the 172-acre Little Falls Lake which was used for fishing, swimming, and boating.[23] However, in 2015 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR)began to drain Little Falls Lake after the dam inspections concluded the dam's structural integrity was questionable and that it was not compliant with state laws.[24] Today, there is marshland surrounding the river in the absence of the lake.[25] It was announced in 2017 that Governor Scott Walker (WI) would increase the budget for the Little Falls Dam reconstruction project from $8 million to $11 million, per the request of the DNR. Through the reconstruction of the dam, the DNR intends to maintain pre-beach lake water levels of the Little Falls Lake for aesthetic and recreational purposes. Walker confirms that "This project has a major impact on Wisconsin's tourism economy and our resources. Our top priority is to restore Willow River State Park and Little Falls Lake to its former glory while ensuring the Little Falls Dam meets all of DNR's requirements to maintain and protect our natural resources."[26] The Willow River State Park Manager, Aaron Mason, reports that the lake was a big draw for visitors and since the lake has been drained the campground attendance has dropped by about 10 to 15 percent.[27] Mason shares that the project of the dam will be completed by the end of 2019. Former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, currently the state's Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said that, "the Little Falls dam project faced no opposition on its legislative path to the Republican governor's [Walker] desk."[28]

The Willow River viewed from a scenic overlook on the Burkhardt Trail. (Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Bowker)

Present-Day Willow River State Park


There are countless types of animals and plants within the park grounds. The most common birds would be ducks, geese, woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and the American Crow, but one could spot the occasional Sandhill Crane and the Bald Eagle down by the falls.[29] The wildflowers that are populating the park can also not go unnoticed. The most widely seen wildflowers within the park would be the Bloodroot, Spring Beauty, Wood Violet and St. John's Wart, though it may be hard to find the clovers or sunflowers along the trails.[30] As for the forested areas within the park, there is no doubt that the abundance of Willow trees gave the river it's name. Along with Willow trees, Cottonwoods are abundant along the Willow River and provided lumber and fuel for Native Americans and European settlers. Eventually, the tree growth rose from the river bottom and became established over the Hudson prairie. The forest types in the Park vary from wet, lowland forest along the river to dry or xeric forest at the tops of the ridges. When walking along the trails it is easy to spot Basswood, Ash, hard and soft Maple, Black and Pin Cherry trees, elms, and many oaks.[31]


There are many trails that are accessible throughout the State Park. With a total of eleven trails, a hiker can walk a little more than 12.0 miles! The length of the trails vary from the shortest at 0.3 miles, called the Willow Falls Hill Trail, to longest at 3.0 miles, called Burkhardt Trail. Some of these trails offer scenic overlooks viewing the river. A bonus feature within the State Park is that there is a trail, Willow Falls Trail, starts in the campground and leads to the Willow Falls. Along that 0.9 mile trail, a hiker can experience the view of the Willow River as well as enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.[32]

Organization Groups

Founded in 1990, the Friends of Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks, Inc. works with the park manager to organize and fund supplemental park programs, events, and projects. This non-profit corporation is a members-based group led by volunteers who support, assist, and promote the Wisconsin DNR with recreational, educational, and related visitor services at the Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks.[33] The Friends organization helps throughout the year by hosting nature study programs and maintaining the trails for nature hikes, as well as maintaining the nature center in the park.[34] The Organization for Wildlife Learning (OWLs), which is part of the Friends group, assists with environmental programming and staffing at the park by raising funds for the salaries of an environmental educator at the Willow River State Park, as well as funding playgrounds, accessible fishing piers, ski trail grooming equipment and educational programs for various volunteers.[35]


  1. Willow River State Park Visitor, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Madison, WI: WDNR, 2004).
  2. Willow River State Park Visitor
  3. Natural History of Willow River State Park, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Madison, WI: WDNR, 2005).
  4. Natural History of Willow River State Park
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Willow River State Park Visitor
  8. "Lots of Logs Hung Up," Star Tribune, Jul. 4, 1891, 5.
  9. "Fish Stories," The Weekly Leader, June 8, 1891, 5.
  10. Willow River State Park Visitor
  11. "Harnessing Big Falls," The Weekly Wisconsin, Oct. 24, 1891, 2.
  12. "Charges Violation of Waterpower Act," Janesville Daily Gazette, Jan. 6, 1915, 1.
  13. Willow River State Park Visitor
  14. History of Little Falls Dam, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Madison, WI: WDNR, 2005).
  15. History of Little Falls Dam
  16. Ibid.
  17. "St. Croix Park Wins Approval," The Daily Telegram, May 13, 1967, 2.
  18. "To Become State Land," Waukesha Daily Freeman, Jun. 27, 1968, 18.
  19. History of Little Falls Dam
  20. Willow River State Park Visitor
  21. History of Little Falls Dam
  22. "NSP Announces Building Plans," The Daily Telegram, Jan. 25, 1967, 9.
  23. Willow River State Park Visitor
  24. States News Service. "Little Falls Dam to be Replaced at Willow River State Park". States News Service. Mar. 18, 2016, accessed 2018-11-30, ProQuest ebrary.
  25. Chelsey Lewis, "Waterfall Wonder at Willow River State Park," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 19, 2017, accessed 2018-12-11, https://www.jsonline.com/story/travel/wisconsin/day-out/2017/10/19/waterfall-wonder-willow-river-state-park/772074001/.
  26. States News Service. "Governor Walker Announces Little Falls Dam at Willow River State Park to Receive $11 Million in Capital Budget". States News Service. Feb. 20, 2017, accessed 2018-11-30, ProQuest ebrary.
  27. Lewis.
  28. Mike Longaecker, "Top 10: Political Might Sweelled Around Willow River State Park Dam," Hudson Star-Observer, Dec. 27, 2017, accessed 2018-12-11, https://www.hudsonstarobserver.com/news/government-and-politics/4379782-top-10political-might-swelled-around-willow-river-state-park.
  29. Birds of Willow River State Park: Checklist, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Madison, WI: WDNR, 2005).
  30. Wildflowers of Willow River State Park: Checklist, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Madison, WI: WDNR, 2005).
  31. Natural History of Willow River State Park
  32. Willow River State Park Visitor
  33. "Who are the Friends of Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks?" Friends of Willow River & Kinnickinnic State Parks, accessed 2018-12-12, https://www.willowkinnifriends.org/about-the-friends-group.
  34. Joy Marquardt, "Park Profile: Willow River State Park," Wausau Daily Herald, Aug. 3, 2016, accessed 2018-12-12, https://www.wausaudailyherald.com/story/life/2016/08/03/park-profile-willow-river-state-park/87959830/.
  35. "OWLs Donate $17,000 to State Park," Hudson Star-Observer, Dec. 21, 2007, accessed 2018-12-12, https://www.hudsonstarobserver.com/sports/outdoors/962201-owls-donate-17000-state-park.

Additional Published Resources

If you would like to learn more about which birds and wildflowers are present in the Willow River State Park throughout the year, check out:

  • Birds of Willow River State Park: Checklist, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Madison, WI: WDNR, 2005).
  • Wildflowers of Willow River State Park: Checklist, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Madison, WI: WDNR, 2005).

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