Big Manitou Falls, the highest in the state

July 10, 2011


No, you are not out west, but you are in the northwest of Wisconsin, in Douglas County, a part of Pattison State park, just south of Superior, at Manitou Falls, the highest in the state and the fourth highest east of the Rockies. She drops 165 ft., a little over half a football field. The water comes from the Black River and it’s on its way to Lake Superior.


This is a DNR map of the northern half of Pattison State Park. There is a small dam just a short distance upstream the falls that creates the Interfalls Lake, the other falls being Little Manitou Falls to the south off this map. The lake is a great recreation area at the park.


The best way to get to the falls is to stay on Hwy 35 if coming from the north, pass by the main entrance to the park, and hook a right on CH ECr-B. You will immediately see a sign for Manitou Falls on the right, and a parking lot on the left. There are two entrances to the view the falls. I recommend taking the one to the west, which gives an overview of the whole falls, and then go to the one just a bit up the road to the east, toward Hwy 35, where you can get right up close to the falls and feel its power. The Park people have done a fabulous job arranging for you to safely view the falls very close to it.


The terrain creating this falls was, in large part caused by an earthquake which created the Douglas Fault. The Douglas Fault (DF) on the map, highlighted by the red arrow, runs roughly from Ashland to Superior to just inside Minnesota.

I do not want to get too technical, but the Douglas Fault is part of what is known as the Mid-Continent Rift System (MCRS).


Just to put the Douglas Fault in context, the MCRS was caused by a split in the Earth’s crust about one billion years ago which extends for about 950 miles as shown on this illustration. As an aside, to be technically accurate, the Douglas Fault is called the Douglas Thrust Fault.

The Douglas Fault runs through Pattison State Park and can be seen downstream the Big Manitou Falls. The movement in the Earth’s crust caused the section now below the falls to rise at a 50 degree angle.

I tried to capture the beauty of the falls with my camera, and will finish with a photo gallery. I will first show you views from the southern side where you see the whole thing from a distance, and follow that with views from the northern side where you get right in there. By the way, no this is not for kayakers or rock climbers!


Note the brown tint to the water. That is not dirt, but rather minerals that washed into the river at this point.


This is the top of the falls. You’ll see this closer up when we get to the other side.


The middle


Dropping into the gorge. I now want to show you the interesting colors on the rock formations, most easily viewed to the left of the middle of the falls.


Recall my mentioning the color of the water. I am no geologist, but from my brief research, I understand that Cambrian sandstone overlies Archean granite here. The brownish-gold colors you see are either a weathered zone atop the granite, or Liesegang bands in the sandstone, or a combination of both. Liesegang bands are not well understood chemical structures often seen especially in sandstone, sometimes composed partly of iron oxide which would explain the color. Cambrian sandstone simply means it was formed during the Cambrian Age and about all I can say about Archean granite is that it is the common form of granite in this region and nearby Minnesota. Aspiring geologists may want study this more and let me know your conclusions.


This is a view again of the top of the falls, and you can see the lookout promenade built for us to get right in the thick of it. Let’s saunter over to the other side.

Okay, we’re over to the other side.


The first thing I spotted was the dam that creates the Interlake Falls from the Black River. Overflowing the dam, the Black River now proceeds to head for the brink of the falls.


A closer look at the dam.


Here’s the water after leaving the dam. You can see it’s all riled up already, knowing it’s headed for the big drop!


The river runs for a very short distance from the dam, and here you see it going over the ledge. Somehow that log got caught there, and I’m not sure if or how it might be removed. Leaving it there, in my view, makes it too tempting for some daredevil to want to walk across.


And thar she goes, over the top.


One of the interesting things to observe about this area are those tall, straight up vertical evergreens. They are spectacular.


And heading into the gorge below.


A closer look at the gorge.


After the river hits the gorge, it goes westward for a short period of time, and then makes and abrupt right to head to the north.


There goes the Black River heading northward to Lake Superior. You can see her dead center.

I have been to Niagara Falls many times, but never to see the great falls out west. I can only say that the Manitou Falls, in my mind, is special. I urge you to visit.