For more than four decades in the Chippewa Valley, this beautiful site evaded Julian Emerson. That changed recently.
When a friend of mine asked me recently to join him for an early morning hike in Area 178 east of Chippewa Falls, I did a double take.
During my more than four decades calling the Chippewa Valley home, my nature-loving self had visited numerous state and county parks along with many other natural areas in the region. I enjoyed the sights and sounds each had to offer. But I had never heard of this site known by its numerical, decidedly non-creative title.
The location’s moniker sounded more like a UFO landing site than a place for a walk surrounded by nature’s beauty. Or maybe its title denoted a little-known location to test nuclear weapons?
Turns out Area 178 does indeed exist. It’s a 9-mile loop sandwiched on land just east of Chippewa Falls and just west of Lake Wissota. The scenic property is comprised largely of woods, mixed with intermittent patches of open prairie land, bordered by the Chippewa River.
As I crossed a bridge over the river and pulled into the small parking lot near one end of Area 178, I wondered what awaited. Without a sign marking the location, accompanied by a map of intermittent trails, I never would have known that a maze of recreational hiking activities was hiding behind the treeline.
Shortly after taking one of the trails, following my friend, I realized this spot was more scenic than I would have guessed. A mix of hardwood and softwood trees, along with underbrush, lined both sides of the path. While most trees had dropped their fall plumage by this early November day, some still clung to shades of yellow, orange, red, rust, and brown, seemingly reluctant to give up their leaves and acknowledge the approaching winter.
The morning sun lacked the voracity it possessed even a month ago, but it still retained a bit of summer in its golden light, illuminating trees with a mid-afternoon glow. As we continued our trek, birds chirped overhead periodically. One squirrel, then another, dashed across the trail before me.
But animal sightings were scarce on this brisk day. Many birds have already headed south for winter, and the critters that remained seemed to be hunkering down, expecting cold.
Our excursion that had begun on mostly flat, smooth trails through a mix of woods and open spaces turned deeper into the woods. I heard a quiet swooshing sound, at first just a whisper, then slowly a bit louder.
Suddenly, to my left, the Chippewa River came into view, its water flowing steadily along, its surface mirroring the mostly gray sky. I enjoyed the relaxing notes of the flowing water, the only sound in our surroundings.
Rocks—some of them large—became more numerous as we walked, and a short while later the view before us was nearly all stone. Rocks of all shapes and sizes, many of them gigantic, created the landscape. The boulders form the spillway for the Lake Wissota dam, the space where water flows when its level is deemed too high and dam operators send the lake’s overflow overboard.
The rocks were mostly dry on this day, but remnants of the last spill remained in some of the crevices time had etched into the hard surface. Hiking through this stony morass was a definite challenge. Simply not twisting an ankle was a feat for the feet in this undulating, unforgiving terrain that involved climbs and descents. In a few places leaps from rock to rock, across water below, were required.
However, the rigor was worth it. As my friend and I stood near an apex of the rock mountain, we surveyed the picturesque views, appreciative of the peaceful solitude—so close to the nearby noise of vehicles and civilization, yet somehow a world away.