Trip Report: Wisconsin Dells Is Great Lakes Natural Theme Park
Long before Disney World, MGM, Universal, and all the rest, Wisconsin Dells, in the south-central portion of Wisconsin, was entertaining visitors with natural wonders. Dell’s guided boat trips on the Wisconsin River through glacial carved canyons of sandstone have been going on for over a century.
My first trip to the Dells was 1998. I just made my second trip last week and was blown away by the appeal it has beyond all the nearby natural wonders and longtime attractions. Water parks, both inside and out, are large, numerous, and often a part of huge family-friendly resorts. Large theme parks have sprung up, and the African-themed Kalahari Resort is home to a massive indoor theme park, complete with a five-story Ferris wheel and eight restaurants.
These large resorts with indoor water and theme parks, popular with snowsports enthusiasts in the winter when they combine skiing and riding at nearby Devil’s Head Resort and Cascade Mountain, have provided the Dells with year-round clientele. Summer and fall’s beautiful autumn colors are the most popular times of year for visitors.
The natural beauty of the area is my draw. The Dells signature cliffs rise above the Wisconsin River like stacks of sandstone pancakes. Take a double-decker boat tour for the best views, and tour the H. H. Bennett Studio, a Wisconsin Historic Site. Considered one of the best landscape photographers of the 19th Century, Bennett's photography, from 1865 to 1908, captured the images that made the Dells famous.
Hike along the cliffs of nearby Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin’s top visited park, which rise over 500 feet above the lake. It’s the most western-like scenery around the Great Lakes. Views stretch for miles. Nearly 30 miles of trails wind throughout the park and rocky forests. Or, rent a kayak at Mirror Lake State Park and paddle underneath rocky bluffs that rise 25 to 30 feet above the no-wake lake. It’s perfect for an easy, relaxing paddle, and fall reflections in the calm lake will be jaw-dropping.
Just four miles from Devil’s Lake State Park is Parfrey’s Glen, the state’s first natural area. About a mile trail enters a deep gorge created by glacial action ending at a small beautiful waterfall at the upper end. Beautiful ferns, especially in fall, and unusual rock formations are throughout the gorge.
A visit to the International Crane Foundation is also worthwhile. It’s the only place in the world where you can see all 15 species of living cranes, many almost extinct. Take guided or self-guided tours through savanna and tall grass prairie, reminiscent of the Badger State prior to settlement.
Other attractions include the famed Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Show, a Dell’s tradition since the 1950s. It was featured on Bryan William’s Rock Center last year. In nearby Baraboo is the Circus World Museum, another Wisconsin Historic Site. It’s home to the Ringling Brothers Circus, which was started here in 1884.
I stayed at the Ho-Chunk Casino Hotel and Convention Center, which is perfect for adults not interested in water parks. It’s close to all attractions, excellent rooms and one of the best steak houses in the area. Steaks are grilled on a wood fire of Wisconsin hardwoods and mesquite, which imparts a wonderful flavor. It’s one of the Midwest’s largest casinos. You can gamble, or not and just enjoy the ambiance.
The Dells has a wealth of good restaurants that cater to all tastes. Moosejaw Pizza and Dells Brewing Company offers great micro-brews, pizzas, ribs and burgers in a rustic three-story log restaurant. The Del-Bar, established in 1939, is known for its steaks and seafood. It features a unique Frank Lloyd Wright architecture with beautiful dining rooms overlooking gardens. You can’t beat a breakfast at Mr. Pancake, every kind of pancake imaginable, and a steak and egg breakfast at the rustic River’s Edge Pub and Grub will start your day. Just visiting the log lodge with its 4,000 gallon fish aquarium is a treat.
Photo: Wisconsin Dells (Mike Terrell)