Amazing sandstone bluffs along the Wisconsin River first attracted visitors to this region, but today’s guests also can choose from attractions ranging from live music shows to water parks.
By Pamela Selbert, F195400
It’s easy to be skeptical when you read that a tourist destination has something for everyone. That’s pretty unlikely, you might think. The range is just too wide. But let me issue a travelers’ advisory: When you read this about the Wisconsin Dells, believe it.
This town in southern Wisconsin, approximately 55 miles north of Madison, offers so much to do it’s astonishing. The local visitor and convention bureau material states that Wisconsin Dells has 90 attractions (most of them squeezed into just a few blocks), 80 restaurants, 140 hotels, and 20 campgrounds. That’s pretty amazing when you consider the town has approximately 4,000 residents.
Further, we visited several weeks after Labor Day, when many of the attractions have closed, so we believed we would have the place to ourselves. Not so. Crowds packed the sidewalks along Broadway, the main thoroughfare, as we drove into town. Fortunately, parking is plentiful, even for large motor coaches, so driving around Wisconsin Dells is not too difficult.
Whether your pleasure includes outdoor or indoor water parks; bumper cars; amusement parks; live country, oldies, and pop music; or museums focusing on all sorts of things “” automobiles, UFOs and science fiction, and even the bizarre at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! “” you’ll find it here. Casino gaming and bingo; horseback riding; miniature golf; magic shows; fun houses; a winery tour; and a water ski show all await your visit.
Perhaps you are more adventurous and would prefer a safari tour or a train ride (miniature and full-sized trains are available). Or a visit to an elk ranch, a crane preserve, an aquarium, or a fossil dig site. What you decide to visit depends upon the company you keep. If you have children or grandchildren in tow, they’ll surely tug on your sleeve when they see the many activities that are available.
Some of Wisconsin Dells’ most renowned amusements are its water parks. Noah’s Ark Family Park is the largest water park in the United States (more than 70 acres), and provides wet fun for the small fry, wild slides for the older children, and raft rides for the whole family. The park considers parents and grandparents, too, by making sure that 4,000 lounge chairs are available.
If you visit before or after the summer season, be assured that Wisconsin Dells still offers places to play in the water. With 18 indoor water parks, the Dells has the highest concentration of indoor water parks in the world.
Should you get a case of the munchies and want something to nibble on while you roam about town (because it’s entertaining just to check out all the possibilities), you can drop in at one of the many fudge shops. To us, there seems to be a greater concentration of fudge shops in Wisconsin than in any other state (except maybe Michigan), and we’ve visited nearly every state. And who knew there were so many different kinds of fudge? In the name of research, we stopped at several of the shops and discovered that you can make the confection out of just about anything.
Of course, if you want to discover the natural marvels that are the true “Dells,” you can do that, too. The Wisconsin Dells, literally, are the beautiful sandstone formations on steep-sided canyons of the Wisconsin River. Several boat operators offer tours at just about every hour of the day and evening, so you can see them at a leisurely pace. Amphibious craft called “ducks” also give visitors viewing time. The ducks, which are among the few that remain from World War II, are designed to run on land or water. They seem to be everywhere, lumbering along the streets of town and hauling up out of the river. You also can view the massive sandstone bluffs from above, by helicopter. Choose whichever mode you prefer, but do not fail to see these incredible works of nature.
We took a two-hour cruise on the Upper Dells on a slow-moving boat operated by Dells Boat Tours. (The Upper Dells is so designated because it is above a power dam on the Wisconsin River; the Lower Dells is below the dam.) Motorhomers who travel with pets will be pleased to learn that the animals are allowed on the cruise boats, and even on the bus that shuttles passengers from the huge parking lot to the dock.
Our tour guide had grown up in the area and knew all the ins and outs of the Dells. Low-key and informative, he explained what we were seeing along 15 miles of the amber-colored Wisconsin River, and how it all came to be there. It’s a fascinating trip that we highly recommend. One-hour boat tours of the Lower Dells are available also. Parking and shuttle service are free.
The 20 or so tour boats that operate in the area carry more than 500,000 passengers through the Dells every year. We were surprised to learn that this number represents only approximately one-fifth of the annual total number of visitors, for we can’t imagine being here and not seeing the magnificent bluffs.
Understandably, the river trip is easier today than it was in the 1850s, when the first tours were offered. Back then, river guides used rowboats propelled by long oars, which the passengers often had to man while the guide pointed out the various geological features along the way. In 1873, paddlewheel steamers began plying the waters, no doubt making the trip more enjoyable for the passengers.
The sandstone bluffs “” the Wisconsin Dells “” tower over the river on both sides, resembling mighty stacks of gold coins. In some cases, the “coins” at the bottom have become whittled away by glacier runoff and are significantly smaller than those above. The word “Wisconsin” is derived from a Chippewa Indian word meaning “dark rushing waters,” or “where the waters gather.” The Dells were given their name by French fur traders who settled here nearly two centuries ago. “Dells” is from the French word dalles, which means “flat layers of rock.” Wisconsin Dells is, literally, “where the dark waters gather at the flat layers of rock.”
The rock was formed more than 500 million years ago when a great inland sea covered most of what is now Wisconsin. When the sea receded, water from underground springs bubbled up through the dry seabed. Over thousands of years, the water’s minerals fused the seabed’s sand and silt to form these sandstone deposits. Thousands of years later, glaciers cut through the land, scouring away most of the sandstone. But the glaciers did not touch the Dells area, leaving the deposits intact. As the glaciers melted, the drift water bored through the rock, creating the Wisconsin River and the surreal sandstone shapes, some of which tower to 1,000 feet.
Tour boats make two brief stops along the river, where passengers can disembark and walk on pathways among the wondrous formations. The first is at Witches Gulch, where two huge bluffs, Signal Point and Sunset Cliff, guard the entrance to a strange world of narrow, rushing streams and mighty black walls that nearly touch, then open into cathedral-like rooms with open-air skylights. It’s a magical place “” with the moist air fragrant with the scent of pine, and filtered an eerie black-green. It’s fitting that the strange shapes in this spot are named Witches’ Bathtub, Spooky Lane, and Witches’ Window.
The other stop is at a very different site: Stand Rock, the Dells’ “trademark.” Here the lower reaches of rock have been carved by wind and water into spindles that support a table-like rock shelf high overhead. Resembling a mighty mushroom, 50-foot-tall Stand Rock is separated from the main cliff by approximately 5 feet. In years gone by, brave folks enjoyed jumping from one rock to the other, but this is no longer permitted. Now visitors who stop here are entertained by trained dogs that cleverly make the jump. (A protective net is strung some feet below the gap.)
On our second day in Wisconsin Dells, we visited Nanchas Elk Ranch, a working elk ranch where visitors can see more than 120 of these magnificent animals and listen to them “bugle.” (Actually, an unexpectedly puny grunt comes from such a mighty body.) Visitors watch a short film, then board wagons to travel to the pastures where the elk live. The ranch is approximately 10 miles from downtown Wisconsin Dells and is open Tuesday through Sunday from Memorial Day weekend to October 21.
Next, we visited the International Crane Foundation’s conservation facility, where various types of these gorgeous birds can be seen in natural settings. They include the tallest flying bird in the world, the sarus crane, which is 6 feet high; the wattled crane; and the red-crowned crane. Interactive exhibits and a short film, along with guided tours, make this a fine place to visit. The facility is 2 miles south of Wisconsin Dells and is open daily from April 15 to October 31.
In the afternoon we rode on one of the historic trains operated by the Mid-Continent Railway, part of a historical society and museum. The trains depart from an authentic 1894 Chicago & North Western depot in the quaint town of North Freedom. To get there, continue south from the Crane Foundation along U.S. 12, take State Route 132 west, then turn left on County Road PF.
Donations to the Mid-Continent Railway include a dozen antique steam engines and three diesels. None of the ornery steam engines could be persuaded to run on the day we visited, so our train of three 1914-vintage passenger cars was pulled by a diesel-electric locomotive. It’s a mighty 539 (indicating it was designed in May 1939) with a 660-horsepower engine that was built in 1942. The historic trains, sometimes towing as many as eight cars, make seven-mile trips that take approximately 50 minutes. The antique trains have carried tourists here since 1963 and make four runs daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and on weekends from May 12 through October 21. It’s a lovely trip through wide-open farm country rimmed by far-distant hills.
While you are in the area, you may wish to stop at the famed Circus World Museum in nearby Baraboo. The museum honors the circus in all of its glory, including the history of the Ringling Brothers Circus, which had its original winter quarters on the museum grounds.
Returning to Wisconsin Dells along U.S. 12, we passed the Ho-Chunk Casino & Bingo (the Ho-Chunk Indians were formerly known as the Winnebagos); the Antique Craft Mall, which claims some 500 dealers; and a nearly endless string of resorts, motels, restaurants, water parks, and campgrounds. Also along this road is Big Chief Karts and Coasters, where a 60-foot-tall Trojan Horse has a track running through its middle, and drivers get thrills on the Poseidon Underwater Go-Kart track.
If you’re looking for a place to bring the kids, consider Wisconsin Dells. If you want a place where adults can choose from a variety of attractions, restaurants, live entertainment, and campgrounds, consider Wisconsin Dells, too. Either way, it truly does have something for everyone.
Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau
701 Superior St.
P.O. Box 390
Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965-0390
The materials provided by the visitor and convention bureau include a complete guidebook and a list of the area’s 20 campgrounds. More information about the attractions mentioned in this article (including those just outside of town) also is included in the guide.