Deep in the Marinette County forest, I bounced along unpaved forest roads praying my car wouldn’t get a flat tire. Small brown and white signs were the only assurance I was heading in the right direction: Horseshoe Falls or bust.
When I finally reached the tiny parking area and followed a short trail to the small series of cascades in a sharp bend in the Pike River, all thoughts of flat tires were far from my mind.
I sat in the bend and soaked in the scene. Photos cannot do these waterfalls justice — you need to see, hear and feel the mist from the roaring water.
It’s captivating, no matter how many waterfalls you’ve seen. The hissing sound hits you first — quiet, then building to a crescendo as the waterfall comes into view. Even the smallest of rapids projects the telltale sound.
And then you see it: water turned white by its collision with rocks and earth, scrambling in a mess of foam and spray to continue its journey downriver. The motion and noise are almost hypnotic.
And because it’s such a journey to get to them, you’ll most likely have them all to yourself.
Marinette County bills itself as the waterfall capital of Wisconsin, with more than a dozen named falls spread across the state’s northeastern corner. The area sometimes gets overlooked in favor of bigger falls in the northwestern part of the state. But like any underdog, Marinette strives to impress and definitely delivers.
It was a good place to start my summer on the road, with winter snowmelt and spring rains juicing up the falls for late spring and early summer viewing. And, boy, were they raging.
But before I threw myself into the forest, I made a stop at the Forgotten Fire Winery in Marinette, where Corey Jorgensen poured samples of reds, whites and ciders in a small tasting room. Next up was Mickey-Lu Bar-B-Q in Marinette, a small diner that has been cooking up burgers on an open-flame charcoal grill since 1942. No actual barbecue or fries, though — the joint doesn’t have a fryer — but you can get a creamy shake to chase your cheeseburger.
Fully fueled for two days in the forest, I set off for the small campground at Goodman County Park. Sites there back up to the Peshtigo River, where rapids provided that familiar hiss as I drifted off to sleep.
The park is home to Strong Falls, where I began my waterfall tour the next day.
A large picnic area and river bridges provide plenty of viewing spots for the 20-foot falls.
From Goodman, it’s about 20 miles to the next cascades. The county provides a waterfall tour map, and roadside signs also help with navigation.
I skipped the next stops on the tour — Carney Rapids and Four Foot Falls — in favor of three cascades on the Pike River off 12 Foot Falls Road. First up: Eighteen Foot Falls, a compact falls viewable a short walk down a winding trail.
From there I headed just down the road to Twelve Foot Falls at the county park of the same name. A large picnic area at the parking lot is a prime spot for seeing the falls from afar. This is one of the more accessible of the rustic waterfalls in the county. Most others require at least a short hike.
For more adventurous hikers, a trail circles around to the top of the small but powerful waterfall. Kids hung out on the rocks, snapping selfies next to the cascade. Guardrails are not a thing in Marinette County — you can get as close as you dare, but you’ll need to keep an eye on little ones and watch your own step on potentially slippery rocks and trails.
Just downstream from Twelve Foot Falls is its little sister, Eight Foot Falls. Follow the trail from the parking area, or cut through the campground for a less-wet hike.
From there it was on to Horseshoe, which tops my list of favorites. It’s not particularly flashy, but its remoteness and location on a picturesque bend in the river give it the feel of a secret you’ve stumbled upon.
I lingered the longest there, soaking up the serenity of the gradually tumbling cascade as it swirled around the forested shoreline before heading east to Amberg and Dave’s Falls County Park. There, a short trail and some steps lead to the Pike River, where two waterfalls drop 15 and 30 feet over the black and gray rocks.
East of Dave’s Falls is little Bull Falls. This is one of the few falls that isn’t labeled by roadside signs — follow Hwy. K east about half a mile from Hwy. 141 to find a small turnaround under power lines. Follow a narrow trail along the lines to the falls. Watch for ticks — they like to hide in the grasses.
I followed Hwy. 141 north to Morgan Park Road to find Smalley Falls along the Pemebonwon River. There’s a trail, but be careful — another trail leads about 1½ miles to Long Slide Falls, and a number of social trails intersect it, making it easy to get turned around. As with all of these waterfalls, the trails are not marked.
You can hike to Long Slide, or drive the short distance to its own parking lot. From there, it’s a short hike to the top of the beautiful 50-foot falls, another one of my favorites in the area. The trail continues to the cascade’s base for a terrific photo opp of the falls, which drop quickly over large black boulders through a narrow gorge.
On the border
The last stop in the county awaited about 8 miles north. East of Niagara, I crossed into Michigan to access Piers Gorge.
The stretch of the Menominee River, which serves as the states’ border, features Class II-IV rapids that are popular with white-water rafters.
A relatively easy trail on the Michigan side leads to four piers — rock ledges that the river tumbles over in a series of rapids along the wide river.
With sunset growing closer, I headed back into Wisconsin for one more waterfall to the west in Florence County.
A rough forest road led me to a parking lot for LaSalle Falls on the wild Pine River. The hike to LaSalle is about a mile, before you catch glimpses of the 20-foot falls as it slides through a scenic, milelong gorge.
It was an exhausting, exhilarating day of chasing waterfalls — 11 in all — so I was happy to find plenty of open campsites at Laura Lake Campground in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. I fell asleep to the North Woods lullaby: the eerily comforting coo of loons on the lake.