Pier Natural Bridge Park - Richland County

Pier Natural Bridge Park near Richland Center at Rockbridge
Pier Natural Bridge Park near Richland Center at Rockbridge

Pier Park is a small county park off Highway 80 in Richland County at Rockbridge WI. It features your usual menu of county park offerings: picnic tables, pit toilets, gravel parking lots,  a canoe launch, and one haplessly discarded tire. But, the reason this place should be part of your road trip into Wisconsin's Driftless Region is its large anomalous sculpted rock feature - through which the lazy Pine River flows - which may shed some light on why this township north of Richland Center is named Rockbridge.

While there are many ways to cross the pine river (one of which might include jumping from one side to the other), another way might be to scale this precarious rock cliff - walk its ridge line - and then climb down the other side. Fortunately, Richland County has eased this by establishing stairs by which you can access the top of the bluff - and has also burrowed a tunnel through the cliff to make your route a seamless loop.

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Trail Map and Directions
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Prepare yourself, we are about to dive headlong into arcane details of geology. The rock feature at Pier Park is an escarpment - which means it is a "long, precipitous, cliff-like ridge of land, rock, or the like, commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earth's crust."

No wait, it is not an escarpment, I mean it is, but it is also part of what was a super sized escarpment; the ominous Megnesian Escarpment. The Magnesian Escarpment is the most westerly of three prominent escarpments that run north-south in Wisconsin. It is soft rock sitting ontop of solid rock of the Cambrian period.

Natural Bridge over the Pine River
Natural Bridge over the Pine River
Let me break this down for you: these wild rock features which seem to be as numerous as they are mysterious in the Driftless Region are not products of glaciers like much of the rest of the Wisconsin landscape, they were formed by movements of the Earth's crust - in other words - they are mountains.

Okay, okay, geologist guy, I'll admit that I am way out of my depth here. The subject of geology has always kind of made me want to gnaw my arm off. To me, these escarpments are simply quixotic features that make the driftless region photogenic and interesting.

Standing within the protection of their shadows is akin to discovering the ruins of a lost civilization. They look like castles - which incidentally are man-made escarpments. I am certainly not alone in observing this. There are names for these rock features that indicate man-made attributions like nearby: Castle Rock, Stand Rock, Lone Rock - and of course Natural Bridge Rock itself.

These unique features have inspired awe and a sense of adventure for as long as humankind has existed here, and they are the singular reason that Wisconsin Dells had become a vacation resort metropolis.

American Indian nations imbued these rock features with sacred qualities. Perhaps, early moundbuilders were inspired to create effigies by the shapes of escarpments such as that at Natural Bridge County Park.

The first European to explore this area was Pierre Esprit Radisson and his exploration party. Radisson wrote of this area:

I can assure you I liked no country as I have that wherein we wintered . . . the country was so pleasant, so beautiful, and fruitful that it grieved me to see that the world could not discover such enticing countries to live in . . . the further we journeyed the delightfuller the land was to us. I can say that in my lifetime I never saw a more incomparable country, for all I been in Italy; yet Italy comes short of it . . . " 

Yes, Wisconsin is more beautiful than Italy. No contest.

But, here I will quote a latter explorer and settler to prove my point about recognizing the divine architecture of the Driftless Region. Henry Merrell wrote this upon discovery of these rocky outliers:

"At one point, we saw in front of us the rocks rising in one solid perpendicular front, a hundred or more feet, with the top scalloped, and pinnacles looking like some ancient fortifications, or the battlements of some old feudal castle. I wondered where the river was going to get by it, as it was directly facing us; but the stream here took a turn, and we left the towering rock to the right of us"
Pine River at base of rock escarpment
Pier Park Richland County
This is exactly as it is at Pier Park. The sleepy Pine River flows in from the west towards a seemingly impenetrable defense. The river then makes a hard turn to the North, outlining the base of the escarpment like a moat. It then slyly passes through the stone wall at a tunnel large enough to let through only one paddler at a time.

Surely the first explorers of The Pine River had written erudite poetry about this amazing natural wonder.

Today, it is a forgotten side show - at a forgotten park where people go to discard their used tires, meetup for some back seat necking, and leave their names outlined by crude hearts in picnic tables.

Still, the Pine River passes through the defeated rock unchallenged. It patiently records the stories of generations into its sandstone face in intricate detail; an unfaltering servant of some long dead noble and ancient architect.

Directions and Trail Map

Address for your GPS: Pier County Park Richland Center, WI 53581
| coordinates: 43.445232, -90.362111 |

From Wisconsin Dells1 Hour
From Milwaukee3 Hours
From Madison1.5 Hours
From Green Bay3 Hours
From Wausau2.5 hours
From Minneapolis3.5 Hours
From Chicago4 Hours


red bridge over pine river enterring tunnel

Two Rock escarpments converging to form a bridge over the pine river

panoramic view of sandstone escarpment rising out of flat valley land

pine river as it flows beneath the natural bridge

Pine river outlining the base of the escarpment like a castle moat

Red wooden stairs ascending sandstone escarpment

red wooden stairs with black dog at landing

Panoramic view of the pine river approach to natural bridge

wide angle view of water flowing beneath rock reature

pine forest ontop of sandstone escarpment

pine river creating a moat at base of sandstone escarpment

manmade tunnel through sandstone escarpment