Wisconsin is home to many natural splendors only a hike away, many of these being the magnificent waterfalls scattered throughout the upper northern parts of the state. Contrary to the popular TLC song which states “don’t go chasing waterfalls, stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to,” I’m here to encourage you that you should in fact go chasing waterfalls – and here’s some science to guide your chase.
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire hydrogeologist Sarah Vitale said geology controls the location of waterfalls. With the higher elevations of North Wisconsin, it should come as no surprise that waterfalls are therefore more common in these areas. Igneous and metamorphic rocks are also key components here; erosion-proof rocks are where waterfalls are found due to being closer to the surface and/or sticking out of the water to help form waterfalls that last for centuries. Vitale has pointed out that the land elevation differs between northern and southern parts of the state – northern Wisconsin sits more than 1,500 feet above sea level which is twice the elevation of most of southern Wisconsin, which sits around 600 to 800 feet above sea level.
Many in the past believed that the Ice Age may have helped isolate most waterfalls to northern Wisconsin, however, scientists now know that the Ice Age did not have much of an influence on the formation of the state’s waterfalls. “Glaciation did a lot in terms of scrapping off what was on Earth’s surface,” said Vitale, “And so any place where you have a lot of glacial deposits, that’s going to be easily eroded. I mean, some of those rivers probably were initially related to glacial activity, but in terms of where they flow and where they’re positioned, a lot of that is determined by bedrock geology.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources doesn’t keep track of how many waterfalls the state has, but maps do suggest there are more than 100, most in northern Wisconsin and along the eastern coast. Big Manitou Falls in Pattison State Park, near Lake Superior, is the tallest waterfall in Wisconsin and one of the tallest in the upper Midwest, falling from a height of 165 feet. The state’s most northeastern county of Marinette bills itself as Wisconsin’s waterfall capital boasting 15 waterfalls on public lands. The Four Seasons’ Island Resort of Pembine last summer became the first business to offer guided public tours of all Marinette County’s waterfalls. Marinette County also has more than 300 miles of ATV trails and many of the trails have access to the waterfalls.
If you are in Northern Wisconsin and in need of some reconnection with nature, why not turn off the TLC and instead chase those waterfalls from coast to coast – you can always return to the rivers and lakes you’re used to another day.