Governor Dodge State Park is currently the 3rd largest state park in Wisconsin. (Buckhorn and Devil’s Lake are bigger.) As if to emphasize this fact, half of the hiking trails are over 2 miles long each, and almost everything shorter than that is either inaccessible directly or isn’t worth walking on its own.
That’s pretty harsh.
Well, maybe, but it’s true. Hiking in Governor Dodge State Park is going to wear you out.
This article describes our second visit to the park. On our first trip, we saw Stephen’s Falls, and hiked the 3 miles of the Lost Canyon Trail. Unfortunately, I don’t have the pictures from that trip. On this hike, we again went to Stephens’ Falls (because…why wouldn’t you?) and then did the Cave Trail Loop…which isn’t quick to get to…and may not be worth it.
You be the judge, after reading below.
The first time we saw Stephens’ Falls in 2021, there was a narrow stream of water tumbling (to be generous) over the rocks. In late August of 2022, there was….
But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you there one step (actually, several steps) at a time.
Near the parking area – not really a “lot”, but a widened portion of the road – there is a sign letting you know you’ve found one of the main attractions of the park.
After a short walk along a paved trail, you get to a crossroads, so there’s another sign. (The Springhouse is on the Lost Canyon Trail.)
Closer to the falls is this informational sign.
By now, based on the images you’ve seen of the falls in the past, you’re expecting something pretty neat, right? (Spoiler alert: Don’t hold your breath.)
Most of the area along the short path to the falls is sensitive, so mind what you say. You wouldn’t want to hurt its feelings.
To get to the falls, you descend these stone stairs, which are quite well made.
Finally you get to see the falls…sorta. At this time of year (in 2022), the falls should really be called a dribble. If you look closely, you can see a little water falling from the rocks to the valley floor. It actually sounded louder than it looked, if you take my meaning.
The Challenge of the Cave Trail
So, following this disappointment, we drove roughly 2 miles to the Twin Valley Picnic Area. This is the closest starting point (unless my math is wrong) for getting to the Cave Trail. To get to said trail, you have to walk about a mile and a half along the Old Orchard and the Woodland Trails.
Since the Cave Trail Loop is another mile long and you then backtrack on Woodland and Old Orchard to return to your vehicle, that makes the entire trek at least 4 miles long. For us, that’s a very long walk.
Near the parking lot (a real lot, in this case), there is a decent shelter that you can reserve.
There’s a set of swings.
And there’s a horseshoe pitch…apparently not often used.
Near this starting point of the Old Orchard Trail is this setup.
Governor Dodge seems to be a good place to go horseback riding. If you have trouble mounting your horse, you can hitch it to the post here, climb the steps, and get into the saddle.
We saw many horseshoe prints along the paths. We also sidestepped a fair number of horse apples. (Sorry, no pics of either.)
Part of the way along the Old Orchard Trail is this scenic overlook giving you a great view of Twin Valley Lake from its north end. There’s even a bench there so you can pause to take it all in for a while. (We didn’t.)
At strategic points along the trails, are the typical “You Are Here” map posts. However, the creators of the ones in this park got a little more creative than usual. Note the screws.
When we finally got to the Cave Trail Loop, there was a sign guiding us in the right direction. Why some of these signs are numbered, we’re really not sure. The only reason I can think of is for rescue operations. If you need help, you call and tell them which numbered sign you’re closest to…?
Not sure what that bottom sign used to say.
About halfway along the loop, you can look across a section of Twin Valley Lake and see the beach, which is near the parking lot (but down a different access road) where we started.
Eventually you get to the spur off the main loop that leads to the cave. At first, I thought the warning about the steep hill and curves pertained to the loop itself and must apply to horseback or bike riders (if they are even allowed here). It wouldn’t really matter for hikers.
But after actually hiking the cave spur, I’ve come to the conclusion that “ahead” really means “to your right” along the cave spur itself. The suggestion about using a carabiner isn’t really necessary, but I understand why they added it here.
The spur trail to the cave is narrow and steep and thus difficult. You can see a large rock outcropping at the top of the hill as you approach.
Near the end of the trail is this opening which we first thought might be “the cave”, but it’s not.
The trail winds on past that point until you finally get to this sign…
…which is near this sign.
To the left of both of those signs is this cave.
If you take the final steps to the top and bend down, you can see this opening. (Apologies for the blurry shot.)
Now, there’s no indication that you can’t go in there, but it doesn’t exactly look welcoming either. I didn’t try to enter the cave proper. I’m sure some who are small enough have gone inside over the years.
That yellow Protected Habitat sign above warns that if you go near or enter the cave, you should decontaminate before going to another cave to prevent the spread of the white nose disease. No worries about that happening here.
Considering all the effort it took to get to this point, this was another disappointment. I was hoping for something more spectacular than this little gap in the rocks. Then again, if it was something greater, I suppose they would promote it as such. You’d likely hear about it at least as much as Stephen’s Falls, right? And maybe they’d even make accessing it a bit easier, right? I guess this is the reason they don’t.
Following the cave trek, we stopped for lunch at this bench, which faces yet another section of Twin Valley Lake. (Too many trees to get a decent picture of the lake.)
Thank you to the donors who made this bench possible. We wish there had been at least one more bench earlier along the loop.
Flora and Fauna at Governor Dodge
Back at the beginning of the Stephen’s Falls trail, there was this warning sign. We’ve seen notices about poison ivy before but didn’t realize till now that parsnip was such a problem.
Beware the Wild Parsnip, my son!
There wasn’t a lot of interesting flora to note along the trails, but we did see this huge mushroom.
There was this tree (or bush?) with grape-sized, red fruit. They sorta look like cranberries. Anyone know for sure what they are?
There were plenty of purple thistles as tall as me. Some were taller.
Nature provided one tree across our path.
He’s a little hard to see with wings folded, but at lunch there was this blue dragonfly.
We saw a few tiny frogs, much like the ones we saw at Merrick State Park.
And then there were a pair of deer (only one shown here). They were feeding on the trees just off the trail. They were maybe 15 yards from us and didn’t seem the least bit afraid. I wonder how close we could have gotten before they would have run away.
We think maybe that bench, which faces away from the trail, was placed there specifically for watching deer like these.
So, while the water and the rock were not so great, the wildlife was better than expected. Was it good enough for us to give Governor Dodge a thumbs up?
As I said at the top, you be the judge.
Dodgeville, Wisconsin (4 miles)
Nearest Emergency Facility
Dodgeville, Wisconsin (4 miles)
6:00 AM to 11:00 PM, year-round
Vehicle admission sticker required