I love day trips. I also LOVE waterfalls and hiking. My kids do not enjoy road trips yet, especially ones where we are in the car for more than a few hours. Thankfully there are lots of great hiking and waterfall options within a two hour drive of Appleton. Why two hours? It is the perfect distance for families with little kids. We leave late morning, making for an early nap on the drive for the littles. We either have packed lunch or grab something to enjoy as we are just about to the park. Then, on the way home we can enjoy a movie and ice cream and be home in time for a late dinner and early bedtime. (Because as much as memories, that is what it is about, right? Getting them to sleep.) Whether you are going for memories, sleep, or anything in between, here is some information about and some tips for my favorite two waterfall destinations within two hours of Appleton.
Dave’s Falls – Amberg, Wisconsin
I will start with Dave’s Falls, as that is where we visited most recently. The drive is easy. Take 41 north, then follow 141 North (it splits just north of the NEW Zoo exit). Follow 141 all the way through Wausaukee. You can’t miss Wausaukee, it has a 25 mph speed limit. It is a cute little town with a nice roadside ice cream shop. About five miles after Wausaukee you will see a sign for Dave’s Falls County Park. If you end up in Amberg; you have gone too far. From Appleton, it is only an hour and a half drive. It does feel longer than that though. Parking for Marinette County Parks is a $3 fee for the day or $12 for the year.
Notes about the park:
- Bring exact change or a checkbook. It is a self-pay station.
- There is a fun old fashioned pump for well water, a small playground, and picnic area.
- Fair warning: There are only pit toilets!!
- BRING BUG SPRAY. Better yet, just bathe in it before you leave and when you get there. The last two times we have gone the mosquitoes have been horrific! I am from Wisconsin; I get mosquitoes and they are particularly bad here.
After you have paid, parked, and coated yourself in six kinds of bug repellent, it is time to explore! There are relatively easy to maneuver paths, but they are not stroller friendly. You can enjoy the main part of the falls without leaving a fairly even trail. There are wood stairs with a railing (about equivalent to the stairs for a second story patio), a footbridge, and rocks, but the main area is pretty easy navigating.
Once you get down the steps, your adventure begins! There are trails and paths winding all around the falls and the woods. The rock formations around the falls are great for kids and adventurous adults to climb. The ones near the river will make any mom nervous, but they are easy climbs and have amazing views. The rocks and little sand area across the bridge and to the left are my favorite. The girls like skipping stones, while my little monkey boys like climbing the rocks. Think playground size danger – if they fall it would be similar to if they fell from a playground slide or something, so I try to let them have fun.
There are enough paths and places to explore and climb that you could spend almost a whole day at just this park alone. If you are on a tighter schedule, you can see the sites, take a few frame worthy pictures and be done in 45 minutes.
Other Marinette County Parks:
It has been a few years since I visited the other Marinette County parks’ waterfalls. There is one, Twelve Foot Falls, which you can see the falls from the parking area. From Twelve Foot Falls Park, you can hike to see eight foot falls and eighteen foot falls. I do not remember being impressed by these when I went before kids. Perhaps once the youngest is able to keep up and enjoy hiking we will explore these some more. It might be a nice spot for a picnic, but for now, if you are headed to Marinette area, Dave’s Falls is your best bet.
The Dells of the Eau Claire River – Aniwa, Wisconsin
The other not quite two hour drive day trip – and by far our favorite – is The Dells of the Eau Claire River Park and campground. The first time we visited, we unknowingly parked near the beach area. There is also a more popular (and more crowded) lot up by the big part of the falls. Both are free, and both have pit toilets. If you are up for the exploring, I would recommend parking by the beach. It eases you into the big waterfall area. You can enjoy the sounds of the river as you walk, first you hear the rapids, and soon the dam. As soon as you cross the dam you are able to climb and explore down by the water. It is relatively protected, so my mom-nerves were only on medium high alert.
Following the path along the river, you will cross a road, and then you will see it. The most wonderful natural playground you could ever imagine in central Wisconsin! There are rocks to climb, waterfalls to watch, natural pools to splash in, frogs and bugs, and I don’t want to think about what else galore! I like nature, but am still a squirmy city girl.
The big area has some trails that follow the river. These can be scary hiking, as some of the drop offs are quite steep and high. The overlook also makes me super mommy nervous. But it is well worth it, and fun to explore. There is also a camping area, and our kids had just as much fun hiking the wooded trail between the waterfall area and campground.
Outside of the two hour drive we have ventured up to Eau Claire and Duluth. Amnicon Falls was great, but not worth the drive when The Dells of the Eau Claire river is so much closer and nearly the same hiking, terrain and swimming. There is a waterfall at Amnicon Falls park where you can hike behind the falls. Not for non-swimmers or kids under about 10. You have to go through water and there really isn’t much of a path. Cool for older kids. Not cool for littles. The Duluth area was beyond crowded when we went, and the fee to park at Split Rock was quite high on top of the crowds, so we stopped at a boat launch just south of Split Rock. It was wonderful! Not worth the drive, but it salvaged our trip. We will go back when the kids are older, but managing kids and crowds is just too much for me.
I have not been to Parfrey’s Glen or Stephen’s Falls near Dodgeville, Wisconsin or Cascade Falls by Osceola, Wisconsin – but those are also on our bucket list. And the last one, far outside the two hour drive, but which I would be remiss not to mention, is Sliding Rock in North Carolina. My family stopped there on a road trip home from Florida when I was about ten. I still remember it and look forward to taking my kids. Because doesn’t everyone really just want to ride a waterfall like a slide?
Thanks to our guest writer, Sarah Sellnow. If you’d like to be a guest writer send your story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.