When we think of rivers in Wisconsin, most of us probably point to Wisconsin, St. Croix, and Mississippi Rivers. That’s normal. This section will address the Red Cedar River.
If you live close to something, there can be a tendency to miss its importance. Living in Eau Claire, I missed the importance of the Red Cedar River, and missed its scale.
The Mikana Marine Resort in Barron County says the river’s headwaters are at Mikana, flowing out of Red Cedar Lake. I have also seen reports saying the river rises out of Sawyer County, northeast of Barron County.
I’m inclined to agree with the Mikon Resort after examining multiple map presentations. However, I suppose Sawyer County is a possibility. I’ll tell you why. These four lakes are connected. Lake Chetac is in Sawyer County as is part of Birch Lake. Balsam and Red Cedar Lakes are in Sawyer County. Lake Chetac is connected to Birch Lake by a narrows. Birch and Balsam Lakes are connected by Birch Creek. Balsam Lake is connected to Red Cedar Lake by a narrows. Most maps indicate the Red Cedar River flowing southward out of Red Cedar Lake at Mikana, which you see at the bottom of the map. So there you have it, more than you probably wanted to know, but it was fun for me analyzing this.
Wikipedia says the Red Cedar River is 100 miles long. Travel Wisconsin says it is only 60 miles long and runs from Chetek, which I believe is incorrect. It does flow southward to the west of Chetek but does not travel through Chetek.
The Red Cedar drains parts of eight counties and dissects Dunn County in half north-to-south. It flows into the Chippewa River at Dunnville.
Along her way, the Red Cedar forms multiple lakes such as Red Cedar, Balsam, and Rice Lakes in Barron County and Tainter and Menomin Lakes in Dunn County.
I’ve discovered there is much to explore with this river. I will talk a little about Dunnville, the Dunnville Bottoms, the Devil’s Ravine, and the Red Cedar River Trail. In preparing this article, I also have been exposed to the Red Cedar River Savanna State Natural Area, which I have not yet visited. I’m sure there is a lot more, but I’ll run through what I have and follow up later as I explore more.
To start, I’ve done an article about Dunnville. Rhonda Fuchs wrote a book, “Wisconsin’s Lost Towns.” One of those lost towns is Dunnville. It is located on CH Y off Hwy 25 in Dunn County. It is twelve miles south of Menomonie and very close to the mouth of the Red Cedar River.
The Red Cedar River-Chippewa River and their trails all meet in the Dunnville Wildlife Area. The point at which the two trails meet is affectionately known as “The Dunnville Barrens” and “The Dunnville Bottoms.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural resources (DNR) describes the Dunnville Barrens,
“Situated on a broad, sandy terrace of the Chippewa River, Dunnville Barrens supports a pine barrens community dominated by scattered jack pine with black oak. The scattered trees or groves are interspersed with openings in which shrubs such as hazelnuts are prominent, along with prairie grasses and forbs. The groundlayer often contains species characteristic of "heaths", such as blueberries, and sweet fern.”
There is a historic Dunnville Bottoms Railroad Bridge here. It was built in the late 19th century.
The Red Cedar Trail meets the Chippewa River Trail at one end of the bridge. The Red Cedar Trail is 14.5 miles long and stretches from Menomonie to its connection to the Chippewa River Trail.
The Chippewa River Trail extends from Phoenix Park in Eau Claire, at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers, and runs to the Dunnville Bottoms. It is 31 miles long.
The Bottoms is a surprisingly beautiful beach that stretches along the Red Cedar River for about a mile. It is a favorite “go-to” place in the summer. It is secluded. The sand is soft and the water cool.
I should highlight how to get to this beach. One way is to take the Red Cedar Trail or Chippewa River trail to the point where they both meet. You can also do this by car and foot.
Take Hwy 25 south out of Downsville for about four miles. Turn right (east) on CH Y. Pay attention. Drive on CH Y for about two miles and look to your right just before you cross over the Red Cedar River. You’ll see a sign for the Dunnville Wildlife Area. It is a gravel road.
Take this gravel road for just less than two miles. It meanders around a bit. There is a gravel parking lot at the end. Look to the southwest corner of the lot and you should see evidence of a ungroomed trail. It will quickly connect to Dunnville Road. Again, pay attention as you will quickly see a short path up to the Red Cedar River Trail. Turn south on it. You will see the river to the east and more of the barrens to the west. You will come upon the historic bridge connecting to the Chippewa River Trail and, looking to the east, you will see the expanse of the beach.
I visited on a hot July day and was astonished to see sunbathers walking back and forth. I finally understood once I saw the beach. There were quite a few people there though my photo does not show them.
While the water is cool and refreshing, I warn you to be careful swimming in it. Some have drowned in the river after failing to take note of the current on the day they were there.
The river meanders in this area. The “Wisconsin Bike Trails” website says,
“The land broadens out onto the floodplain of the Red Cedar and Chippewa Rivers. The river bottoms contain sandy soil and are dotted with scrub oaks, jack pines, and red pines … The broad river below is surrounded by sandbars. On summer days, these sandbar beaches are filled with people sunbathing, fishing, and picnicking.”
Now let’s switch gears a bit.
I learned of Devil’s Punchbowl Preserve from reading the “Only in Your State” website. It showed a great photo of water "leaking" from a post-glacial ravine at the preserve in Menomonie, which I show here.
I visited in January 2023 and took this photo. I was not prepared to go down the stairs into the ravine to get a better shot, but you get the idea. I have also seen photos taken during the other three seasons and they punchbowl ravine is worth the walk down the stair and hike back up the stairs.
I think a friend had once brought me through this area but when I visited in January 2023 I was stunned by the beauty of this section of the Red Cedar River. It was winter, and there was much snow, so I did not go down the stairs into the ravine. The Landmark Conservancy says,
“The Devil’s Punchbowl has two short trails. The upper trail begins with a stairway that brings visitors to the top of the falls, and then through a small patch of woods overlooking the bowl. The second trail is straight ahead from the parking lot and brings visitors past the small prairie to a long stairway down the slope and into the bowl. Curve to the right and cross the creek to venture the short distance to the natural rock amphitheater, exposed rock face and waterfall. This trail is challenging.”
While driving on 410th Street-Rustic Road 89 near Menomonie, you get several great views of the Red Cedar River. The Red Cedar Trail travels along the river through here. You can access the trail in Menomonie, from 2nd St NW or the Menomonie Depot Visitor Center on Hwy 29.
I do want to introduce you to Downsville, the Scatterbrain, and the Red Cedar River Trail there. I’ve done a story on Downsville. I’ve always liked going to it. It’s small.
The Scatterbrain Cafe there is a super spot for coffee, snacks, ice cream or lunch. The town was known for its creamery which has been transformed into apartments. There is also a place there were retreats are held.
There is a handy parking lot and access point to the Red River Cedar Trail on the edge of town, close to Hwy 25. Here are a few shots of it.