When I first moved to the Ashland area last year, I was excited to be living near so many places I had enjoyed visiting and exploring prior to relocating.
So I was especially pleased when I learned that my new place was only 15 miles or so from a favorite hiking spot: the St. Peter’s Dome and Morgan Falls trail in the Chequamegon National Forest featured in Eric Hansen’s excellent “Hiking Wisconsin” guide. And I was equally chagrined to learn after we moved that the trail was closed due to damage from the June 2016 storms.
I called the Forest Service office religiously every month, but they were unable to complete the repairs and improvements before the snow fell. Since the spring I’ve been able to get back down there to explore, and it has been a delight.
One of the first things I learned as an Ashland-area newbie is that the hill is called “Old Baldy” by the locals, for the open cliff faces and talus slopes at the top. The “dome” is a round knob visible along the line of the hills to the south of Sanborn. It’s especially easy to spot in winter when the snow is visible on the rock faces.
The trailhead is four miles south of Highway E on Ashland/Bayfield Road, and you can’t miss it: the new parking area is quite large and open, with plenty of spaces as well as picnic tables and pit toilets. There is a $5 user fee if you don’t have an annual USDA sticker.
The beginning of the trail has been partially cleared as the original trail was washed out, but after a few hundred yards the forest closes in and there are several sturdy new bridges and erosion-control features. The new footbridges cross Morgan Creek, a class II trout stream. The side trail to Morgan Falls is a little over a mile round trip and isn’t paved but is flat and navigable for folks with limited mobility. It follows and crosses Morgan Creek below the falls, which are a 70-foot-high gem tucked into a hidden gorge lined with hemlocks.
Be warned, the falls area is very buggy in spring and early summer. This is a great spot for a picnic or just hanging out later in the season when the mosquitoes are less ferocious. The pool under the fall is perfect for wading.
The trail climbing St. Peter’s Dome is a fairly rigorous 3.8 miles round trip. The terrain requires some agility, with creek-crossings, mud and rocky areas, but it’s well-marked and easy to follow. The trail climbs through northern hardwood and mesic conifer forests with a number of interesting rock formations and outcroppings. Wildlife and plant variety are very diverse, and a number of plant communities are represented in the nearby State Natural Area. Rare plant fans will enjoy spotting Canada yew and Braun’s hollyfern along the trail.
This trail marks the northernmost point where I’ve heard the call of a wood thrush, louder and more melodic than our more common hermit thrush. As you approach the top the forest gets younger and dryer, and you’ll come out to a beautiful north-facing overlook and granite rock face. Bring binoculars to spot landmarks; you can see Chequamegon Bay to the far right, the Ashland water tower, and Sanborn closer in. If the weather and season are right, you might spot some turkey vultures catching a ride on the thermal air currents. There are several hardy mountain ash trees growing straight out of the granite, full of bright orange berries in late summer and fall and adding to the charm of the spot. After you take some time to enjoy the overlook, it’s all downhill back to the trailhead.
Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the Ashland County town of Gingles.