Big Falls County Park to County Road QQ:
A nearly wild setting with wooded hills, steep banks, and solitude surrounds the Eau Claire River here in one of its quieter, often over-looked segments. Quieter, that is, after you leave the raucous wonder of Big Falls, at the base of which this trip begins, a place of spectacular grandeur and iconic geological wonder. The only downsides are it will cost $5 to launch a boat at the county park put-in and perhaps $150 to pay for a tow truck to bail you out of the stranded ruts to get to the undeveloped take-out.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 25, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
~2-3′ per mile.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Eau Claire (Chippewa River): ht/ft: 3.00 | cfs: n/a
Eau Claire (Chippewa River): ht/ft: 4.46 | cfs: 3390
We recommend this level and there should always be enough water to paddle this trip.
Time: Put in at 1:50p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h 10m
Miles Paddled: 6.0
Bald eagles, woodpeckers and kingfishers.
6.3 miles. Perfectly fine for bicycling, although it’s a bit hilly. The roads here are pretty disorienting, as there’s a County Q as well as a County QQ, not to mention a N. Shore Drive that seems to run in all cardinal directions and possibly appear twice on two different roads (as in the intersection of N. Shore Dr when you’re already on N. Shore Drive). No wonder I got a car stuck, right?
Everything about this trip was in equal measures peculiar and particular. On the one hand, this oft-neglected section of the Eau Claire River was a long-awaited wish list trip for me (Timothy) personally, for mostly sentimental reasons. Around the time I’d first begun to get into paddling, back in 2008, I’d heard of a really cool waterfall in the Eau Claire area by none other than the ex-girlfriend who in some ways inspired the initial impetus to buy a kayak in the first place. Thank you, Carrie! Were it not for you, Miles Paddled would not be what it is today and there certainly would not be a south-central Wisconsin paddling guidebook. It’s funny and utterly fascinating how life works out like that, never having the least clue of what ripple-in-a-pond influences we have on others and the world around us…
Now let’s go from the sublime to the ridiculous. In 2010 I tried to find said waterfalls without having any specific intel on where it is. (Spoiler alert: it’s Big Falls, a very established county park.) I don’t know if smart phones existed back then, but I didn’t have one – hell, I still don’t have one and it’s more than a decade later. Neither did I have a map at the time, which is strange and quite unlike me, but I was technically in the area for work. Because I don’t know what the statutes of limitation are, it’s not in my best interest to delve into exact details here, but suffice it to say that I was driving a work vehicle trying to find this waterfall and it was getting to be around dusk. I turned off a main road onto an unpaved stretch with established tire ruts in it that would slowly but surely descend down a very steep bank, feeling a twinge of intuition that the waterfall would be below. Well, that led to the river all right, but not the waterfall. And said twinge of intuition quickly curdled into utter consternation. If the formula of tragedy + time = comedy, then I can say this: like a good tragicomedy, I got the car stuck in the steep sandbanks and could not get any traction to get unstuck. To repeat, a work vehicle for a job I’d only just begun a month before. Five hours later, several broken chains, and forking over $300 to a tow truck driver who seethed with as much resentment for me as I him on account of an inconsolably perfect debacle, I finally drove away at 1 am – still without having found that damn waterfall.
I’ve replayed that scene in my head and told the story aloud many times throughout the intervening years. As such stories do, the vivid scene took on wholly new dimensions, grew in size and scale, verging on mythology. So it was I’ve always wanted to go back there and redeem a part of me, ten years older if not altogether wiser.
All that sturm und drang said, this is a truly lovely section of the Eau Claire River. If nothing else, it begins at the base of one of the most extraordinary visual displays anywhere in Wisconsin: Big Falls. And then the subsequent six miles offer lovely scenery, next to no development, and easy-peasy conditions for brand new paddlers, kids, dogs, or even your parents looking to do something safe and fun outdoors during these pandemic times (although not in 28 degrees and actively snowing, as it was for us on our paddle).
But let’s be clear (claire?) about something right off the bat: its name notwithstanding, Big Falls does not even rank in the state’s top whatever of waterfalls. In other words, it’s not a height thing – no cliffs or chasms or cascades. What makes this big, however, is the power of the rapids (Class III-IV) and the utter drama of the scenery. For here, seemingly out of nowhere and otherwise surrounded by a kingdom of sand, the river plummets tumultously over a huge outlier of banded gneiss outcropping that’s part of the southern periphery of the Canadian Shield. One mile upstream of Big Falls, just above the bridge at County K, is so-called Little Falls, a fun but brief blip of boulder bed that offers a kind of goosebumps on the river’s surface of Class I-II rapids. It in no way foreshadows Big Falls, which is a genuine riot. But I mention it only for the sake of context in that virtually all of the river up to this point has been nothing but sandbars, sand banks, and sandy bottoms, with a relatively gentle current. And then that rulebook gets thrown out the window with fabulous disregard at Big Falls.
Now is not the time or here the place to divulge much about paddling Big Falls simply because we opted not to. To be sure, the spirit was willing, but honestly it was too cold outside and our main purpose for this day was to paddle a short clip of the river below the falls as an end cap to a long weekend of fun before driving back home. To have run Big Falls would have added an hour to our day, easily, and we just didn’t have time for that. And no, to be perfectly honest, the prospect of going for a swim before then paddling a couple of hours on the river below the falls was less than enticing. We resolved to save it for another day – like sometime in summer.
But for the sake of respecting its beauty presently as a place where this trip begins, a brief description is due. The river cascades around a large cluster of rock-and-sand islands in two channels: left and right. The river-left channel (going downstream) is a precipitous ledge at least 8′ tall with an exceptional hole at its base. It can be run, but often isn’t because of its power and hazard. Whitewater paddlers do it, as it will have more water than the right channel, and as a place to practice your boof. The more popular and practical option is the right channel, which is a frothy staircase of cantilevered ledges at varying angles, bumpity-bumpity-bump, requiring not only chutzpah but technical maneuverability, especially if it’s “bony.”
And now for a quick word from our sponsors of the School of Amateur Geology… Rocks and sand seldom go hand in hand when used to describe a specific place, since the forces that created each are so vastly different. Such complex duality is not unlike a milkshake IPA, where a unique wink of sweetness from lactose sugar rests cheek by jowl with bitter hops. (I for one would say it’s the only kind of IPA that’s drinkable, while hopheads would contend that it’s an abomination.) Several distinct types of igneous and sedimentary rock are found here at Big Falls, which beg being listed solely for their delicious names: anorthosite (a crystalline rock formed in the Earth’s crust – think bedazzling bling), amphibolite schist, and amphibolite gneiss with bands of dark hornblende and light plagioclase. To be clear, I have no clue what any of these words really mean, but I just love their exotic nature! But people who do know assert that the rocks found at Big Falls have been folded and recrystallized at least three times during different periods of metamorphism as old as 2,500 million years ago. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty damn cool, no?
And yet you’ll find Cambrian sandstone here, too, principally in the hills surrounding the falls, way back when Wisconsin was an ocean. If you look at an aerial map of the falls, you’ll see this rock cluster girded by sand deposits, not to mention sandbanks and sandbars surrounding the area. It’s like you’re simultaneously at the beach and up in Canadian forests. Usually, it’s one or the other, but here it’s both. It’s a truly beautiful place, just make sure you turn down the right road to get to it.
Big Falls County Park has two parking area accesses, one on each side of the river. We opted for (and I recommend) the north/west one, off County Road Q, since it’s technically river-right and that will be the side of the river you’ll take out at, thus eliminating any need to cross a bridge. There’s a $5 fee to park a vehicle at the park – alas, this is the case for all Eau Claire County Parks. It’s a short 5-10 min schlep of boats and gear from the lot to the water.
Since we didn’t run the Class III-IV falls, we won’t pretend we did by describing it here and now, but instead will wait until next year (or whenever) when we do. But we strongly encourage you to spend some time here before all-aboard’ing your boat to soak in the scenery and scamper (carefully) around the astonishing rock formations. The north/west parking lot takes you as up close and personal to the right channel of Big Falls (the series of staircase ledges) as you care to be, while giving you more of a “long view” of the left channel (the precipitous drop). Should you attempt running Big Falls, it might be best to launch from the bridge a mile upstream of the park, at County Road K, since clambering about the slick, angular rocks with your boat/gear on your shoulder would be a bit cumbersome.
In addition to savoring the scene by foot, after you get into your boat and launch off the sandy banks, we recommend paddling as close to either or both channels of the falls as you safely, practicably can, since the perspective will be different and beneficial. The big pool at the base of the left channel is especially notable as its water will remain aerated for an impressive while. (Likewise, you’ll still hear the falls from behind you for a good half hour after paddling away from them.)
Once you do steal away from the falls and move on downstream, you’ll be greeted by steep pines along a tall bank on the left, soon followed by a striking sand dune-like steep bank also on the left. It’s easily 40′ tall and sharp as a 70-degree angle – nothing to sneeze at, but also not nearly as colossal as some of steep sand banks upstream of County K, where we first paddled in 2016. It will wrap around the meandering sweep of the river soft as a wool scarf. The right bank is similarly pretty, just not as steep. It’s there too where you’ll pass a few isolated houses, the only such occasion on this trip.
The river here is wide and slow, nearly 200′ from bank to bank. You’ve only just begun, of course, but the sandbars are gigantic and inspire pleasant respites to picnic and hang out. Classic summertime beach theme – or for us, actively snowing while we listened to the Packers game on the radio. By and by, that’s the gist of this short trip: broad river slowly flowing in long straightaways as well as elegant bends around steep sandbanks crowned with conifers, soft rolling hills in the backdrop, next to no development anywhere. All in all, it’s truly enchanting.
Eventually, the right bank will flatten and a road runs along the river – the first (and only) of its kind during this trip. You’ll see the guardrail. It’s still County Road QQ/N. Shore Drive, but you’ll see a sign announcing the intersection of County Road L. It’s notable here in that it provides a perfectly viable and far less dodgy take-out option than the powerlines less than one mile downriver. The right bank here is flat, and it’s a short schlep from the river to the road, where there’s even a small pull-out to allow for a couple cars or one vehicle lugging a trailer. The 0.8-mile remaining in this trip is pretty, to be sure, especially in the snow, where quaint hillocks and hollows in the river-left woods light up one’s imagination, but is it essential? Not really – especially considering the dodgy “road” at the take-out access.
OK, since I’ve now alluded to it enough, here’s the deal for the take-out at the powerlines. The landing itself is great: there’s a gravely apron at the lip of the right bank and the river, allowing for quick and easy, clean, access. And there’s generous parking all around. While on the water, just look for the powerlines above your head (they’re hard to miss), and then turn right. The catch is it’s a 0.3-mile drive uphill on a dirt-sand road that is deeply rutted and just dodgy. Now, it’s entirely possible that I myself am particularly sensitive – hell, maybe even paranoid – to this kind of scenario, given my driving debacle ten years ago. I won’t argue with that. But neither would I take a vehicle without at least AWD and a healthy ground clearance down this path. And I ain’t so sure I’d take any vehicle down it after a hard rain or spring snowmelt. Hence the safer, more practical alternative near the County L intersection.
What we liked:
From the ovations made earlier, it’s obvious that Big Falls pretty much steals the thunder for this trip. It’s a breathtaking sight in and of itself, whether you know anything about its history and back-story or not (or pretend to for the sake of a paddling blog). But I think even the most casual observer would sense that something is unique here, even if she couldn’t put her finger on it. There’s a reason why sand isn’t found, say, in the Boundary Waters, and likewise granite-gneiss rock clusters not found so closer to the Mississippi River. But here, in this joint compound – or compact – of rich, lush sand together with lustrous rock braided and interwoven like polymers of tulle, here for some reason it makes sense. That’s the power, and signifier, of borderlands, where two languages are spoken interchangeably, two distinct cultures of music and food mixed. Big Falls is a syncretism of Canadian Shield and Driftless. It’s very, very cool.
But there’s more to this trip than its flash-in-the-pan debut. Actually, there’s an intriguing dichotomy – or yin/yang complements – to this trip in that everything past Big Falls is so quiet, subtle, and assuming. True, we had the whole river to ourselves because A) the Packers were playing and B) it was 28 degrees and actively snowing. So, sure, in theory at least, you might be sharing the river with others in, oh I don’t know, let’s-go-for-a-swim or wanna-cold-brewskie? weather. Nonetheless, we savored the solitude and rustling quiet. That kind of quiet where you can hear the wind heave without howling, the always-constant but now not taken for granted current going against the grain of a downed tree and riffling around it, under it. The ululating whimper of a whippoorwill or kingfisher, the airy whistling thrush of duck wings flapping above you. Or, to be really Zen about it, the sound of a hundred thousand snowflakes dissolving into the river itself, silent smashing.
Too woo-woo? OK. The landscape itself is plenty pretty, with really attractive sandbanks that are as steep as they are shear. And lots of stately pines somehow rooted in that sand. Gentle hills and beguiling hollers. And just about no development. It’s a great little stretch that would lend itself to early-morning starts or summertime sunsets. Or, still, a bit of snow in a stiff wind in late October with one of your best friends while hearing Wayne Larrivee announce a “dagger” for a Packers’ win.
What we didn’t like:
Do I like forking over five bucks to a county park system where I don’t even live for what is nothing more than leaving a vehicle on a paved lot? No, no I don’t But it is (in this case literally) worth the price of admission. And could I have done without the ball-rolled knot of anxiety in my gut about the dodgy off-roading down and then back up the hill to access the take-out? You bet. Notwithstanding the appalling bad MPG for what is almost year 2021, Subarus earn their keep in other regards.
Honestly, that’s all I can think of. Just the couple hiccups at the put-in and take-out. Otherwise this is a fine section of river very much worth checking out.
If we did this trip again:
I really can’t think of a reason to continue downstream from the powelines, as Lake Altoona is less than two miles away and you’d run into its flatwater impoundment well before that, not to mention houses dotting the banks. If anything, I think putting in one mile upstream from Big Falls, at County Road K, could be interesting, but you’d have to scout, portage, or run the whitewater, of course.
So, in other words, there’s probably nothing we’d do differently. But we would do this trip again, yes.
Eau Claire River I (Eau Claire County): Lake Altoona Dam to Hobbs Landing
Eau Claire River II (Eau Claire County): Harstad County Park to County Road K
Camping: Harstad County Park
Wikipedia: Eau Claire River (Chippewa River)
Miles Paddled Video: