Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Split Rock River Falls - Minnesota

Split Rock River
Split Rock State Park, Minnesota

The Split Rock State Park is one of the most popular on Minnesota's North Shore, though few visitors ever make it farther than the historic lighthouse. When it comes to waterfalls, the nearby Gooseberry Falls get most of the glory, but the Split Rock River features at least seven major drops and one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the state. While trips to the lighthouse and Gooseberry have been staples of our trips for years, we had put off the 5-mile round-trip hike at Split Rock until the summer of 2013 because we were usually pretty exhausted by the time we got there. This time we made it a focal point of our trip, and while it definitely wore us out it was worth it.
Starting at a large parking lot south of the park's main entrance, the trail starts off well-worn and pretty level. The first major fall is actually on a branch of the main river, but it is one of the most stunning falls on the entire trip. Great views can be had from a bridge that crosses here, and there are many spots for viewing closer and even the chance to do some climbing.
Next up is the first falls on the Split Rock River, where the water makes a gradual drop before slowing to round a bend. It's hard to get a great view from the trail up above, but we had little trouble making a cautious approach down to the water's edge for a better view.
One thing that will amaze about the hike along the Split Rock is how close together all of these falls are. There is rarely a stretch of more than 5-10 minutes without a major cascade once you reach first falls, though some are harder to see than others.
The next set of falls had to be seen from a clearing before getting too close, as there were no views due to trees once we got closer. The MN waterfall book refers to these as "White Falls" and it's pretty easy to see why. After these falls, it wasn't long before we saw another set:
After that, we came across another nice set of falls, with a nice rock ledge that was the perfect spot for a break on this hike:
The trail conditions worsen after the first several falls, but we saw many people heading in each direction during our entire time along the river. From above, we next viewed a spot where the river splits and forms falls on either side of a small island:
Another great part of this trip, is that at one point you're at least 40 feet above the river staring into a breathtaking canyon setting, then minutes later you return to river level and find yourself looking up at the canyon walls you were just hiking on. There's also falls of every shape and size here, the next being a slide-style falls:
It's important to remember that the great scenery here isn't limited to the river alone, we also found these amazing rock formations up along the trail before reaching the last few falls:
The last falls are referred to as "Orange Falls" and a look at the colors on the rock to the right of them should easily explain why.
We followed the river upstream a bit from here by climbing on some rocks and found there was one last sight to behold:
What a finale to an amazing hike! I recommend that anyone doing this trip grabs the Minnesota waterfalls book shown below, I took it on the hike and it's the closest thing available to turn-by-turn directions. Descriptions of each falls helps, and while trail conditions and distances seemed slightly different the falls were described perfectly. We returned the same way we came in, and after reaching our car were treated to the sight of a bald eagle flying above the parking lot. This is easily one of my favorite hikes in the Great Lakes region, and rivals just about any other one I've ever done in difficulty and overall scenery. I linked a video of the entire river's falls below.

Getting there: the trailhead for the Split Rock River hiking trail is in a parking lot south of the state park, near mile marker 44 on Highway 61. The trail gets confusing in a few spots, so having the Wallinga's book or a map from the state park office is a good decision.

Overall: Amazing
Hike: Moderate to Difficult