A scenic view from on highPEPIN COUNTY — Before embarking on a hike at the Maiden Rock Bluff State Natural Area I noticed a message on the information kiosk warning of timber rattlesnakes.
By: Ryan Nilsson, The Republican Eagle
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a weekly summer series that examines outdoor activities in the area.
PEPIN COUNTY — Before embarking on a hike at the Maiden Rock Bluff State Natural Area I noticed a message on the information kiosk warning of timber rattlesnakes.
The bluff is “one of the very few remaining natural habitats for timber rattlers,” according to the sign. I read on and learned that the venomous snakes are a top predator in the eastern North American forests they call home.
Somehow, both “Discover! America’s Great River Road Volume I, The Upper Mississippi River Valley” — the guidebook that alerted me to the natural area —and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Web page devoted to the natural area neglected to mention the snakes’ presence.
The sign did say that timber rattlesnakes “pose little risk to humans and livestock.” (I’d love to meet the farmer who takes his cows on scenic hikes overlooking Lake Pepin.) The sign concluded by advising, “Please stay on the marked trail.”
Such reassurances eased my fears enough to set off down the 1.5-mile long looping path by the kiosk.
The first part of the dirt trail dissected the forest and was shaded by the green, leafy canopy. The dirt path was clear of obstacles for the most part, but it was not wide. In spots, plants brushed up against my ankles and made me wish I had worn pants instead of athletic shorts.
The route itself was tame. I think my 7-year-old brother could navigate it without much trouble.
There were a few steep stretches, but they were neither prolonged nor too taxing. At one incline, a few logs had been placed across the trail and served as steps to ease the climb.
I came to the natural area because “Discover!” said it provided “dramatic panoramic views of Lake Pepin and the surrounding area.” Given the length of the trail I figured the scenery would appear in short order; however, it failed to materialize.
I could hear the rumble of a boat motor off to my left, but because I couldn’t see it I started to have my doubts: If it neglected to mention timber rattlesnakes, maybe it exaggerated the views. Maybe I should have come in the fall when the trees are barren.
Just as these thoughts crept into my mind, the trail rose a bit and I caught a glimpse of the Minnesota shoreline and a wedge of Lake Pepin through the trees.
As I walked further along the trail I walked into a clearing and saw Lake Pepin almost from shore to shore. There would be three more spots that offered a clear sightline across the Mississippi River, a couple of which had been made possible by cutting down obtrusive trees.
Earlier in the day I had biked from Maiden Rock to Pepin and back on the wide shoulders of Wisconsin 35. The road hugs the river for long stretches, but it was tough to appreciate the view as my legs churned on a Fuji 10-speed. I caught a peek of just a few sailboats. When I stopped it was to fix the chain that had just fallen off or to grab a quick drink of water, not to sightsee.
On the trail I felt free to linger and enjoy the scene from the bluff high above 35 on the cool, overcast day.
The natural area’s remoteness also was appealing. I set the camera bag and notepad down on the trail and set off in search of the bluebird that flew away while I was changing lenses on the camera. I knew both items would be there when I got back and that they wouldn’t be in anyone else’s way. I never saw another person in the 90 minutes I was at the natural area.
When I arrived at a T in the trail that uneasiness that I experienced in my stomach at the start returned. Which way was the marked trail?
I took a right, assuming it was the safer route, and walked around a charred tree that had toppled over the path.
Then I returned to the T and walked in the other direction and was rewarded for taking the perceived risk. The path seemed to approach the edge of the limestone cliff (I didn’t get too close and find out for sure) and offered the trail’s best, most sweeping view of Lake Pepin.
The second half of the trail had a very different identity. The path was cut through a dry prairie and it was much wider than it had been in the woods.
By the end it seemed like I had walked more than 1.5 miles, but that could have been because my legs were sore after the bike ride and my frequent stops to jot down observations prolonged the hike. I wasn’t going to complain, though, because I neither heard nor saw a timber rattlesnake.
If you go …
What: Maiden Rock Bluff State Natural Area
Where: From the intersection of Wisconsin 35 and County J in Stockholm, go north on County J 0.7 miles, then northwest (left) on County E for 1 mile and then west (left) on Long Lane for 0.7 miles.
Did you know: In addition to being home to timber rattlesnakes, Maiden Rock Bluff is one of the few natural sites along the Mississippi River where peregrine falcons nest. The bird, which is an endangered species in Wisconsin, is the fastest animal on earth. It can reach speeds of more than 250 miles per hour when diving.
Several rare plant species can be found in the area’s dry prairie, too, including cliff goldenrod, dragon wormwood and prairie sagebrush, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.