Bluff Side Stairs
We wanted to go somewhere, do something other than just sleep away a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We thought about going to Whitewater State Park, one of our favorite places. We had wanted to go to Whitewater to hike as soon as the snow melted, but we still hadn’t gone. Instead, we decided to explore somewhere new, John Latsch State Park, just south of Weaver on Highway 61.
Though new to us, John Latsch State Park isn’t new, the park is ninety years old. In 1925, John Latsch, a local business man, purchased some of the bluff lands to donate to the state for a park. He loved to fish in the river below the bluffs of Faith, Hope and Charity (these were named such because steamboat captains relied on them to navigate the Mississippi River). The park offers a rigorous hike up to the top of the roughly 500ft bluff, Charity, for a bird’s eye view of the river valley. The park has a rich diversity of natural communities: floodplain forests, oak forests, prairie and bluffs.
Our reveling in the natural beauty of the bluffs and valleys carved by rivers began on the drive before we got to the park. Jesse and I decided to go through part of the Whitewater valley, taking the scenic route to Weaver on highway 74, past the former town of Beaver, now buried, following along the Whitewater River on our right, soaking in the large scale of the bluffs, their majesty. The glittering green of water plants densely covered the pools of water. Though the drive seemed long and slow, it was breathtaking and worthwhile. We went through the quaint town of Weaver, turned south on 61, watching for the entrance to the park.
There is no grand entrance and sign for this park to announce its presence, just a tiny, easy to miss gravel driveway called John Latsch Drive. Once we pulled in, I could see a large wooden sign declaring the name of the park, however it was almost completely hidden from view, and certainly couldn’t be seen from the highway. We entered under a thick canopy of trees. Only a handful of picnic tables could be seen and a fire pit or two for grilling. We drove past, thinking perhaps there was more to the park. An outhouse, nearly hidden from that angle, but then the road began to curve to the left, a loop, which brought us back to the picnic area. That was it. So we parked the car. Choose a picnic table that had a peek at the river through the trees, and ate our lunch. It was comfortable and almost felt cool beneath the trees with a perfect breeze.
After eating we set out on a hike, armed with a back pack supplied with field guides, snacks, and a large water bottle and my camera (we couldn’t explore a new place without my camera!). There was just one trail, a set of stairs winding up the steep bluff. Ferns blanketed the ground under the trees at the start of the trail. It didn’t take long before I was breathing heavily, we had barely started the climb and my lungs were burning and my heart thudding loudly. I felt terribly out of shape. The stairs however didn’t seem made for people my size, the steps were too high and too wide (just like all steps at state parks) and yet I was glad to have the steps and railing to grip at times. Along the way, I paused often not just to catch my breath, but more to take photos. Sometimes Jesse paused too but other times he kept going and was far ahead of me. Up and up, we climbed, or rather trudged. A few times we did pause to catch our breath and drink some water, though the only benches along the trail for resting were toward the bottom. I wouldn’t have minded a longer break, but Jesse was itching to get to the top to see the view. Again we started trudging up the steps. Still I paused here and there, distracted by the beauty of the park (didn’t help I was seeing it for the first time!) and wanted to try and capture that beauty with my camera. Like the trunk of an aspen or birch tree that was peeling, other trees were distracting too, and wildflowers. I marveled at these things. Looking up ahead there seemed to be no end to the climb. The seemingly unending stairs, often turning abruptly, so I couldn’t see far ahead also became a subject for the camera. We came to yet another turn, it seemed a little more open and I thought maybe we had reached the top. And yet, still the stairs climbed up and up.
Jesse was eager for me to catch up to him, since there was finally a view of the Mississippi River! It was stunning and so grand! Together we paused, soaking it in. I turned to look at the bluff across from us too. Words aren’t quite adequate, neither are photos, some things just have to be seen firsthand. Though the grandness of the river demanded to be marveled, my attention was caught by a lovely paper birch tree, perched on the edge of the bluff in front of us. On the side of the bluff above the birch tree, was a small patch of prairie. Wildflowers, mostly wild bergamot and gray-headed cone flowers, bobbed in the wind. Lead plants, purple prairie clover, and possibly marsh marigolds were some of the other flowers. While I was trying to capture a close up photo of the bergamot, Jesse pointed out a bee on another one nearby. Then I was momentarily distracted by the industrious bumble bee. These wild flowers, this small patch of prairie was so lovely, beautiful, I desired to linger a while longer. However, we still hadn’t reached the top and Jesse was eager to do so (he was interested in exploring and seeing the even better view the top promised). He started on without me, to encourage me to keep trudging up the steps.
Paper birches stood here and there along the trail. A branch of one had fallen across the trail up ahead, we easily stepped over it. The last climb seemed like it would be quite the effort but it wasn’t long before the desired top was reached. The steps had given away to large rocks, not dirt but boulders covered the surface at the top of the bluff. Jesse arrived a few minutes before me, already standing at an overlook, taking in the view. If there was any breath left in us after the climb it was gone, the view was indeed breathtaking and well worth the difficult climb. We switched lenses on the camera, giving us a longer range of view. At the top, we finally paused for a rest and to enjoy our view. Off in the distance, high above the river, two bald eagles soared. Jesse wasn’t able to see them until I gave him the camera. Then I let him have fun with the camera for awhile. Looking on without my camera for a bit, I stood in awe of the scale and depth of the river valley. The river looked so beautiful and majestic. We could see the algae growing in places, boats traveling the river, a lock and dam, farms, cars, a train, the Wisconsin bluffs and more. It was incredible. Tiny islands dotted the river, beaches leading up to dense trees. My attention was grabbed by things immediately before me. Staghorn sumac ringed part of the bluff edge. Further back on the bluff, a patch of bergamot blew in the wind. An interesting wasp flew about on the rocks near our feet. A side of the bluff was a sheer rock face. Goat’s beard, an interesting looking plant that resembles dandelions when in bloom, grew through the rocks at the top. There were spider webs woven between them.