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A fun, brief trip on the big lake past attractive sandstone rock walls to a beautiful protected state natural area that you can paddle into a cove enclosed within a mini-canyon (and depending on the time of year and/or recent rain) a gorgeous waterfall at the end.
Another angle of the cove.
By Timothy Corcoran Bauer
A Miles Paddled contributor
August 14, 2014
Great Lakes Paddling
Put-In + Take-Out:
Memorial Park Campground, Washburn, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 5:00p. Out at 7:00p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 3.75
Wildlife: Cormorants and seagulls.
Time worth driving to: 1 hour
If you have been to Parfrey’s Glen in Sauk County just east of Devil’s Lake State Park proper or Fern Dell gorge at Mirror Lake State Park, add these two wonders together, plop them down on the shore of Lake Superior and this is what Houghton Falls State Natural Area is like. Sound too good to be true? It’s not. It’s a great spot that’s easy to get to by kayak or car, with lots of lovely hiking trails to boot (as it were). If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth checking out.
What I liked:
The novelty of paddling Lake Superior doesn’t get old. For this trip you’re on the eastern side of the Bayfield Peninsula, which means that the small city of Ashland will be just to the south, while huge Madeline Island (the only developed island of the Apostles) is to your north. Also, because you are launching from Washburn, there are houses dotting the shoreline. Thus, this is not the conventional Lake Superior paddle around the Apostle Islands kind of trip where little to nothing is developed or civilized. But that doesn’t really diminish this quick trip whatsoever. Indeed, even the backyards of the shoreline houses along the way to Houghton Point are pretty and captivating. Don’t get me wrong; all the rock walls, tiny rock islands and 20’-high bluffs are nothing like what lies on the northern and northwestern tip of the peninsula, the true character of the national lakeshore but it’s still quite pretty on this side too.
When I paddled this there was a reputable wind coming from the northeast, so little 1-2’ waves were lapping up; nothing to worry about but enough to warrant paying attention. Even though this was a there-and-back paddle, not a point-to-point trip like when on a river, the direction of the waves made the experience unique coming and going. Paddling directly into them was fun and constantly active, while heading back allowed for mini-surfing and riding them out, which was even more fun.
It’s less than two miles to reach Houghton Point from Memorial Campground, from which I launched because that’s where I was camping. The mouth of the opening into the state natural area is easy to spot since it’s a cove. Paddle into this opening where the scenery just lures you. Careful of random logs bobbing up and down, especially in pushy waves, these obstacles can be hazardous. While the water is pretty shallow here, Lake Superior tends to be very chilly, so going for an unexpected swim is best to avoid. Two downed trees presently obstruct the creek after the cove, so portaging is required if you want to proceed. And don’t get too cozy, there’s only 75 yards or so of paddleable water until the falls.
Now, I want to be clear here, lest I be accused of misleading. I paddled this in mid-August and there wasn’t even a trickle of water coming down. This was my first time here so I have no idea what it looks like after snowmelt in spring (or, this being the Bayfield peninsula, June!) or after a heavy rain. But I doubt it’s significant, as above it, there isn’t really a creek so much as a tiny canal that putts through a culvert. But even without a true fall of water, the rock formation is quite fetching. It’s not the easiest climb to the top but it’s certainly doable. Your other option for hiking is to access this area by road, whether car or bicycle or even a hike from the campground. It’s worth the short trip.
While pretty much random, this area is hardly a well-kept secret. I was there on a Thursday during late afternoon/early evening and I ran into two hikers and two separate groups of five picnickers each. So don’t expect much solitude, unless my happenstance was more the exception to the rule. But the company doesn’t compromise the experience in the least.
What I didn't like:
The access is a little tricky. I launched from my campsite since a trail right there led directly to the lake 20’ below. Still though, it’s a steep trail and schlepping a 15’ kayak is a bit awkward. The quote unquote “beach” at Memorial Campground isn’t much more forgiving. It consists of a steep staircase directly into the lake water below. Maybe in lower water there is a beach at the base of the stairs – maybe – but it was all awash when I checked it out. You can still put in here but just be prepared for a missing beach.
Otherwise, this is a fun little trip. Of course it would have been awesome to see real falls and all that but it’s a lovely little oasis nonetheless.
If I did this trip again:
I would paddle this in the morning or early afternoon. The entrance into the falls area faces east, so it would be best to appreciate the colors and light more in the direct sun and/or when the sun is higher in the sky. I paddled this in the late afternoon/early evening and while there was plenty of light for the naked eye, taking any decent pics was tricky. And needless to say, the deeper into the cove canyon you go, the darker it becomes.
Also, this would be a great prospect in autumn. Not only would the leaves be lovely but with many of them fallen, you’d better see the contour of the landscape and its unique geology. Pre-Cambrian Sandstone baby!
Camp: Memorial Park
Photos: Aaron Carlson
View Lake Superior: Houghton Point in a larger map
Adventuresome put-in at Memorial Campground Park.
City of Ashland to the south with the Penokee Hills in the background.
Attractive buoy with Madeline Island in the background.
Waves on Lake Superior made for a wet lens and shaky hands!
Inside the cove - watch for bobbing logs!
Towards the end of the creek by the "falls".
Beautiful geology inside the cove gorge.
Looking up the dry falls.
Great hiking trails at the top.
Lush forest throughout the hiking trails.
Rock shelf shoreline at Houghton Point with jade green water below.
Choppy waters with Madeline Island in the background.
The sheer vastness of Lake Superior.
S.U.P.per's ready (seen from campsite above the lake).