July 8, 2020 marks my hubby’s 65th birthday. In the midst of a year of the Covid 19 corona virus pandemic, the challenge has become what can we do to honor and celebrate this unique milestone. Many institutions are closed and those that aren’t have limits on occupancy – even the state parks and outdoor recreational areas. I have come up with a set of four waterfalls within driving distance that we can visit in one day.
We leave at 7:15 a.m. on a hot muggy morning. The weatherman is predicting temperatures hitting ninety degrees today with heat indices near 100 degrees. We drop Claire, the golden doodle, off at the doggy daycare in Elgin, MN and then head northwest on Hwy 42 towards Wabasha. We have skipped breakfast at home and hope to find the little café, The Eagle, open for dine-in eating. One never knows these days as many restaurants are still not fully open due to the Covid 19 pandemic. We have brought face masks along in case we are required to wear them as is mandated in many bigger cities. But this is Wabasha, MN and not only is The Eagle Café open but no one is wearing a mask – not even the wait staff. One table is taped off to comply with the six-foot distancing requirement of the health department. We choose a table in the far corner all by ourselves. There are only two other gentlemen patrons and they are seated at what I would call “the bar.” We enjoy a country breakfast of hash browns, sausages for Gordon, and an omelet for me. This is the first we have eaten out at a dine-in eatery in over three months. Our appetite is satisfied, and we are ready to start our journey.
Crossing the bridge over the Mississippi River places us in Wisconsin. We turn north and follow Hwy 35 toward Hudson. A few miles into our scenic trek, I plug the address for Willow River State Park into the GPS. I expect that it will lead us north on Hwy 35 for most of the trip and then guide us to the state park when we get closer. Therefore, it surprises us when the mechanical lady tells us to turn right on County D. We make several turns and maneuvers before we finally come out again at – you guessed it – Hwy 35. Now what was the purpose of that jaunt?
We do arrive at the state park around 10:30 a.m. Prior to arrival, we drove under a very dark cloud that looked like it might dump buckets of precipitation on us. Instead it produced only a brief shower. The temperature is just a hair over 80 degrees and with the lingering clouds, the atmosphere, though muggy, is actually quite tolerable. We head towards the path that the few others that are here are headed for. We expected an overpacked parking lot but surprisingly, there are still empty patches of ground not being utilized for parking.
The path leads steeply downhill after a short stretch of level terrain. Ten minutes into this downhill coast, we look at each other. We are both thinking the same thing. “Are we going to make it back up this mountain?” After about twenty minutes of moving sharply downhill, the path levels into a more gradual descent.
“I hear the roar of water,” announces Gordon. There is hope then. We traverse the last few steps and there it is. The water thunders over a series of three or four drops as it cascades towards the lower river. Overall, the total drop of the various falls is about forty-five feet. The river is about one hundred feet wide as it flows through the gorge of rock and trees that border both sides. Various people in swimsuits attempt to wade in the rushing water. One young man tiptoes his way across the tumbling whitewater over and over. There always has to be one with a death wish.
At this fall, there is a special little platform on the bridge upon which to place your cell phone and take that unique photo of you and the falls together. I have never been much into selfies, but what the heck, I am open to trying something at least once. First, I have to figure out how to set up the phone camera on the timer. I notice some young amused teenagers eyeing us intently while we oldies fumble about on this fan-dangled device. We do finally get it set up and manage to snap two shots of ourselves with the falls in the background. Gordon spends a fair amount of time shooting scenes with a real camera before it is time to go.
Neither of us look forward to the return trek to the parking lot. At least it is not as hot as the weatherman predicted and the trail is shadowed by a canopy of trees. With regular rest breaks on the climb back up, it does not seem as far as feared and we soon emerge from the woods into the brilliant hot sunshine.
Our next stop is to be St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, MN. I type the address into our “trusty” GPS. Soon we are sailing westward on I94. The device somehow knows that there is road work being done and a detour. It recalculates a different route but then seems confused by its recalculations. We are instructed to exit at Exit 234B. It then instructs us to turn right at the first intersection onto Hiawatha Drive. But the first intersection is Snelling Ave, not Hiawatha Drive.
“Keep going,” I instruct Gordon, “There, the next intersection is Hiawatha.” We cruise just a couple of blocks and I see a sign for Mill Ruins Park.
“It has to be around here somewhere. There’s a parking lot.” I direct him to a lot with several openings. Here in the cities, they seem to have automated parking fees machines. We struggle to figure out the directions for using this one. Our fumbling around ends up with us paying twice for what we planned as a two-hour time allotment. Well, now we have four hours to wander around.
How are we going to find a waterfall in this inner-city bustle? Is the question. We are beside the Mississippi, so it has to be here somewhere. We begin our stroll alongside an enormous curving stone arch bridge that winds gently southward and across the river. Its surface has been converted into a bike path in the middle flanked by walking paths on each outer edge.
“Let’s go down the steps and under the bridge. Maybe we can find the falls by walking along the river.”
The sun beats down on us as we stroll along but there is a stiff breeze that reduces the blistering heat to a tolerable level. Off to our right is an ancient stone opening to the old flour mill ruins. The water in the aqueduct is green with thick algae. Ducks with goslings paddle lazily around the pool while a putrid odor wafts up at us from the dead animal floating on its surface. As we move on downriver, we pass the lock and dam operated by the Army Corp of Engineers. Tours of the facility are canceled, and the gates are locked tight due to the pandemic. Along with all these closures goes the access to any bathroom facilities. There are no boats going through the locks either- all is quiet. Once we get past the lock and dam and turn to look upriver, I spot the waterfall. Actually, there are several smaller falls to the sides of the river and a larger one situated across the full length of the river. It almost looks manmade but according to the literature and posted signage, it is a natural occurring phenomenon. Our view from this angle is partially blocked by the lock and dam.
“I bet if we go up on top of the stone arch bridge and walk out over the river, we will have an unobstructed view,” suggests my hubby.
We retrace our steps under the arch and up the stairs.
“Why don’t we eat something before we go for our walk?” I suggest. There is a food truck (Green plus the Grain says the sign on its side) parked along the edge of the parking lot. It seems like an easy and healthy way to fill our bellies without a lot of driving around. They are offering various salads and wraps and drinks and frozen yogurt. That frozen yogurt looks really tantalizing on this hot day and I order one with strawberries. I also order a Classic Caesar salad with ranch dressing while Gordon orders a Cowboy Salad with jalapeno dressing. It all seems relatively benign as menu choices go.
“I bet getting that salad dressing was a mistake,” mentions Gordon as we walk away to the only picnic table which is situated in the sun.
“You can eat mine if you don’t like yours. I have way too much,” I offer.
One bite of his salad and he is finished. I reach out and take a forkful to taste. Whoa! That is hot in a way different from the sunshine that blazes down on us. Guess neither one of us is eating that. There goes eleven dollars into the garbage. My lips and tongue burn even with frozen yogurt to cool the flame. My Caesar salad is edible but even that is spicier than we would normally consume. We eat it together. It is part of our adventure.
We finish our visit to St. Anthony with a slow trolling meander along the top of the stone arch bridge. Midway along, the angle allows for photographing the full length and beauty of St. Anthony Fall. It is now close to two in the afternoon and time to move on to the next falls on our list, Minnehaha, just a few miles away. The GPS makes the same mistake on the way out as it did on the way in but this time we are prepared. Don’t turn where it says – just keep driving.
After a short drive, we arrive at the 170-acre Minnehaha Park located in the midst of the city of Minneapolis. We are in need of a bathroom. We are so hoping that the park restrooms will be open. But there are those familiar signs on the door, “Restrooms closed.” Ugh! Now what do we do? Off in the distance we notice a line of porta-potties. I guess that works. But I’m confused by this system. How is having to use a porta-potty more sanitary and less likely to spread the corona virus than just cleaning a regular bathroom properly? I just don’t get it.
Next, we wander back across the park wondering which way to go to find the fall. People seem to be going through an opening in the shrubs. We follow them. Concrete steps lead downward and make a few turns. At least it is semi-shaded as rivers of perspiration have begun to pour off of us with even the smallest activity. We can hear the rushing water and soon the falls comes into view. Minnehaha Fall spills fifty three feet over a ledge and under a stone bridge to the river below. It is flanked by green foliage on all sides. The beauty of this place is striking – a hidden gem in the middle of a major metropolis. The water of the Minnehaha River eventually spills into the Mississippi. We make our climb out of the gouge up some steps on the opposing side. A short walk through the opposite side of the park brings us back to the car. We are hit by a blast of oven air as we open the car door.
“I want a milkshake,” I declare.
“I don’t know where to find a Dairy Queen,” responds my driver.
“Not a problem,” I say as we start out towards our next destination. Right around the round-about at the end of Minnehaha Drive is a Dairy Queen. Gordon waits in the car while I go in to purchase the ice cream as only five people are allowed in at a time and everyone has to stay six feet apart. Here our masks are needed too. When I finally come back out fifteen minutes later, Gordon points to the thermometer on the car dashboard – one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It’s time for a cool ride to our last waterfall in Nerstrand, Minnesota.
We are soon headed south on Hwy 55. I think this part of our trip should be a cinch as this is a familiar route for us. I have again plugged the address for Hidden Falls State Park into the GPS and faithfully follow its directions. We do fine until we need to exit the expressway. The “lady” tells us to go right at the end of the exit ramp, so we make a right turn. As we travel west, the device tells us to turn right and then right again. This makes no sense. We have just gone around in a circle. We pause at the stop sign. We are both confused.
“Just turn right and keep going on this road that we were on,” I instruct overriding the machine. As we travel a few more miles west, the GPS again instructs us to turn right. “Alright, just do what is says once and see what happens.” Two turns later, we emerge onto the expressway again north of the exit we got off at.
“OK. Let’s try this again,” I exclaim, “I think we need to follow Hwy 56 and we weren’t doing that.”
As we approach the end of the exit ramp this time, the machine again tells us to go right.
“No. Hwy 56 is straight ahead. Go straight,” I instruct. A few hundred feet later, we realize that now we need to veer off to the right. Now it makes sense what the GPS has been trying to tell us. It just forgot to instruct us with what to do at the stop sign. I don’t think we have had this many blunders from the artificial intelligence before. No wonder people end up driving down railroad tracks and doing stupid things while following its instructions.
We arrive at Hidden Falls State Park around 4:45 p.m. We need to head for home no later than six so that leaves us just an hour to find the falls. The sauna like atmosphere hits us as we step out of the car. I am glad it was not like this all day. Here there is a bathroom that is actually open. Such joy over small things. After a stop at the restroom, we start our slow trek down the angled trail. This path is not as steep as the one at Hudson, Wisconsin but losing altitude none-the-less. After all, I guess one does need to go down if he is going to come out at the bottom of a waterfall. I keep glancing at my watch, thinking that this might be a mistake in this heat. Thirty minutes later, the trail finally ends with a boardwalk and some wooden steps designed to protect a sensitive area where the endangered Minnesota dwarf trout lily grows. And there is the falls. It is not especially dramatic as it is only twenty foot tall but is still gorgeous. The water slowly trickles over the edge like water running off a table displaying a sparkling reflection in the afternoon sun. Several people frolic in the water below the falls. A father and young son stand beneath the falls holding out their arms and allowing the water to tumble over them. This calls for a few photographs before it is time to head back. A sign along the path indicates it is about a half mile back to the parking lot. That is not so bad if we could ignore the fact that it is all uphill and heatstroke weather. Gordon and I pace ourselves and step off to the side for frequent rests. Rivulets of sweat run down our brows and into our eyes. One step at a time. Ah we are back to the parking lot. It is time to head home. Happy 65th Birthday to my Hubby.