A Few Days at Devil’s Lake State Park

Almost right in the center of the southern half of Wisconsin, maybe 45 minutes northwest of the capitol, Madison, sits the crown jewel in the Wisconsin state park system. Devil’s Lake State Park is a magnificent example of a different geologic time, featuring huge quartzite bluffs rising above a spring-fed lake with sandy beaches and wooded trails through unique ecosystems that lead to spectacular views like nothing else in the Upper Midwest. Devil’s Lake features camping and numerous outdoor activities in all seasons as well as offering the visitor a display of nature that seems almost out of place in the gentle rolling hills of central Wisconsin.

Devil’s Lake draws more than one million visitors a year, and though that did not appeal to me at first, due to my reclusive ways, I can attest that there is definitely a reason that so many people spend time here. There really is something for everyone to enjoy, even if nature generally isn’t your thing. One cannot help but be awed by the views from the top of both the East and West Bluffs, nor can one deny the appeal and challenge of the intricate lay of the stone steps which must be climbed in order to see those views. It is a wonder that so many interesting and breathtaking examples of natural beauty can be contained in one location, albeit that location is nearly one thousand acres.

Much of Devil’s Lake’s appeal comes from the geology of the area. The Lake was at one time a river that cut through a valley between two ridges in the Baraboo Hills, but as the Wisconsin Glacier grinded through the area during the last Ice Age, it halted and started to recede, leaving behind moraines that plugged up the river, creating Devil’s Lake. The Red Quartzite Bluffs that rise on east and west sides of the lake are compressed sandstone that was left over from the time when the Midwest and the Plain States were covered by ancient seas. Red Quartzite is an opaque, deep purple stone with faint glints of translucence, and when you are surrounded by steep hills of huge boulders of the stuff, you become enchanted and awed.

The Park is open all year, the summer being by far the most popular time to visit. Even though there are over four hundred campsites available in the high season, reservations are highly recommended, especially on the weekends. I went during the early and mid-week and didn’t have trouble finding a spot, but the weekends are impossible according to the ranger. The crowds dissipate as the temperature grows colder, so if you don’t like being surrounded by other campers, you may want to go in the early spring or late fall. Reservations can be made eleven months in advance, so if you can plan that far ahead, you can check out the DNR’s website for a link to the reservation system or you can visit www.wiparks.net or call 888-WIPARKS. The park itself doesn’t take reservations unless you are there in person.

There are three campgrounds on the north shore: The Quartzite Unit, The Northern Lights Unit, and the Ice Age Unit. The Quartzite and the Northern Lights are mostly RV-friendly with electrical hook-ups, whereas the Ice Age Unit is more suited to tent camping. Also, the Ice Age is wooded, and the other two are open with maybe a tree at the campsite. I prefer the Ice Age Campground: It seems a little more secluded. The Quartzite and Northern Lights Campgrounds are the type of sites that appeal to either those who have kids who can make friends and give mom and dad a little peace and quiet, or those who camp to meet their RV and Pop-up neighbors. Each of the Campgrounds has sub-sets in the shape of rings that feature a toilet and showers building. My best advice is to try to get a site that is maybe two or three sites away from a toilet (which are the pit-style), to preserve some civility and because the sites are not secluded enough and too popular to answer nature’s call in the wild . Being close to the Showers can be a little busy, but convenient if you have kids or are not the most outdoorsy, rustic type. Don’t forget your flip-flops for the showers.

Other than the big three campgrounds, there are two tipis available for renting, with space for tents around the site. There is also a group camp area on the South Shore of the Lake. These sites can accommodate more campers (up to 40) than the individual sites which can handle up to six guests. The group camp area is wooded, with each site having three or four picnic tables and multiple fire rings, and their own showers. So if you have a lot of friends or maybe a small family reunion in which money may be a factor, a group camp site can be an economical alternative while providing lots of activities to keep the younger and older members busy.

Camping fees are nominal, but the State has just increased rates two dollars, so that the rates for one night range between ten and sixteen dollars, depending on residency and day of the week. Any car that is brought to the park must display the State Park’s Sticker, which can be either five or ten dollars for a day pass or twenty and thirty dollars for an annual pass, again depending on residency. Campers must register at the Office before setting up camp, and camp can only be set up between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. The office hours decrease in the off-season, but there is a self-pay station outside the building.

The Park also offers some facilities and amenities that make camping easy enough for even the novice. There are campground stores, whose profits go back to the Park, that offer groceries, firewood, beach supplies, ice, beer, souvenirs. A Beach House on the North Shore rents out canoes and rowboats, the Nature Center allows campers to check out fishing equipment and nature packs that are filled with books, games, and activities for the whole family. There are Picnic Shelters, both enclosed and open, that can be rented for large group outings. There are dumpsters and trash cans throughout the park. Both the North and the South Shore offer picnic grounds with water, grills, and tables. The Park has been upgrading some facilities to accommodate the disabled as well. Check with the Visitor Center.

Besides swimming in Devil’s Lake, fishing and scuba diving are popular activities in the summer. Mountain Biking is allowed on some trails, totaling about 8 miles, although a bike trail pass is required and available at the Park’s Office. During the winter season, many trails are groomed for cross country skiing, and ice fishing is allowed on the lake, though only 18 campsites are open. Hiking is very popular as well, and the trails range from easy jaunts through the prairie to very difficult and steep climbs up the bluffs. Up in the Bluffs, there are those who are foolhardy enough to climb the rocks, with ropes secured at the top of sheer rock faces, but the park doesn’t maintain any rocks for climbing and to do so is at one’s own risk.

Being a hiker, I highly recommend giving yourself a few days at Devil’s Lake in order to take advantage of the trails. The visitor guide gives you a map of the trail system within the park, and you can always stop in at the Nature Center to ask the full-time naturalist (another nice feature of DLSP) about the trails. If the trail is designated as medium or difficult, I would shy away from it if you have small children, or at least if you have small children that you want to keep. The easy trails are mostly that, gentle slopes, groomed with asphalt or tree bark, whereas the medium trails can be easy but usually involve some sort of stone steps or a steep slope to climb (not for the elderly), and the difficult trails are a work-out. I followed a group with very small kids up the very difficult CCC trail (so named for the 1930’s New Deal group that built many buildings and lots of the trails throughout the Park), and I really couldn’t believe that some people could be so risky taking two-year olds up very narrow and uneven stone steps that were virtually cut out of the bluffs. If you take a tumble on the difficult trails, it would mean that something is going to end up in a cast.

All of the Park’s trails are described on the official park map. The easiest, while still being really challenging is the Tumbled Rocks Trail, along the shore below the West Bluff. It is even, but winding through enormous quartzite boulders. You can stop to swim or fish off of the rocks. This trail loops around to the south end of the West Bluff Trail or you can follow the shore of the Lake to the South Shore. There are the very popular bluffs trails, the West being hard to climb either way you attack it, but once you reach the top, it is fairly even, with awesome views from 500 feet above the lake and the surrounding area. Huge red quartzite outcroppings are great places to relax and take in the spectacle, but if you are afraid of heights, avoid the edges. The East Bluff Trail mirrors the West, and features Elephant Cave and Elephant Rock. My favorite trails were the CCC and Potholes. The Potholes was fairly deserted when I descended from the top of the bluffs on the south side of the East Bluff. It is named for the weird spherical depressions in the rocks found near the top of the trail. I found out later that they were caused by smaller stones being rolled around in a crevice in the larger rocks by water action. The “potholes” are extremely smooth to the touch, but there are only three or four of them, so if you think there are more up or down the path, there aren’t, but there is a fantastic rock formation that the path cuts through, creating a staircase through rock walls that creates a slight sense of claustrophobia.

The Ice Age Trail passes through the Park, following some of the Bluff Trails as well as part of the Johnson Moraine Trail Loop that begins by the Ice Age Campground. The Ice Age Trail continues east with the Sauk Point Trail and the Roznos Meadow Trail. The Ice Age Trail is still being developed by the State and the National Park System, which is 1,000 mile trail system that follows what would have been the edge of the Wisconsin Glacier in the last Ice Age. It is designated as one of the eight scenic trails in the United States. The trail passes through both public and private lands, so consult with the National Park System before tackling this one. You can get the official map and Guide for the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve at the Nature Center, and maybe this trail can serve as a theme for further adventures in Wisconsin.

However, before you set your sights elsewhere, there is more to Devil’s Lake. Out in the eastern part of the Park lies Parfrey’s Glen, named for the gentlemen who owned the land in the last century. This is one of Wisconsin’s State Natural Areas; the first one so named, actually. It is a short quarter-mile hike along a groomed trail and a boardwalk back into a gorge. The boardwalk is there to discourage people from climbing on the rocks and trampling the vegetation, which is very fragile and subject to abuse. It doesn’t discourage the ignorant, however, as I witnessed a gaggle of children climbing in an area just past the sign that asks you not to. Their parents stood by and smiled at their antics as they pulled mushrooms off tree trunks and moss off of the rocks. Dogs aren’t allowed in the Area, but children are, and I don’t know which is more destructive. But I digressâÂ?¦The Glen is spectacular, walls of sandstone rise above you as you follow the small creek back to a waterfall that is not nearly as impressive as you might hope, but the rocks more than make up for the trickle of water at the end of the trail. I highly recommend this one, it’s easy and it gets very cool down in the gorge, so it is a nice respite on a hot summer day.

Devil’s Lake is located near the small town of Baraboo, with plenty of stores and restaurants for those who need more amenities than the park can offer. Downtown Baraboo is quaint, a square built around the courthouse in the center. There is a coffee house/cafÃ?© here that can provide the urbanite with their morning mocha, and there are a couple of bars for those who want a semblance of night-life away from the campfire. The west part of town is more sprawl-driven, with chain restaurants and larger stores, such as Gander Mountain, in case you need any camping equipment or gear. The town offers the Circus World Museum ( a State Historic Site), which celebrates the town’s history as the winter quarters for major and minor circuses in the last century, most notable being the Ringling Brothers outfit. There is also a city zoo. Baraboo is geared toward tourism, and has made it easy with white signs on nearly every street pointing the driver in the direction of the Park and other nearby attractions.

If you are planning a longer stay at Devil’s Lake and are interested in venturing past the Park and Baraboo, there are some interesting areas not too far away. The Wisconsin Dells are just north of the area, along the Wisconsin River, as well as the town named for the sandstone cliffs along the River. The town is a tourist dream or nightmare depending on your personality, with water parks and amusement parks to tempt those that may have headed to the area for natural beauty, only to be sucked into throwing money away on cheap thrills. I would need a whole article to go into the Dells, but I don’t care for crowds, so I doubt I’ll be writing on that topic anytime soon.

Other natural areas and state parks can provide diversions as well. Natural Bridge State Park, which is only a day-use park which means no camping is allowed, is just west of DLSP, and features a loop trail that takes the hiker past a magnificent sandstone “bridge” and rock shelter that harbored some of the first settlers in the area up to 12,000 years ago. It really is neat when you are walking and then suddenly you find yourself looking up at this unique sandstone formation that towers over you. The trail is also a self-guided tour with signs that explain the plants and trees and the uses that Native Americans found for them. You can also check out the other natural areas nearby on the DNR’s website, such as Baxter’s Hollow, named by the Nature Conservancy as one of the 75 “last great places.”

I can’t recommend Devil’s Lake enough. If you’re new to camping, it is a great start to try State parks as they offer amenities that can make camping easy and foolproof.. If you are into nature, well, Devil’s Lake is awesome, even in comparison to this country’s more well-known and more publicized areas. It is an interesting and telling remnant of the geologic history of the Midwest and of North America. But if the kids ask, tell them there is a nice beach and some cool rocks to climb.

Devil’s Lake is 30 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin. You can contact the Park at (608)356-8301. You can find more information at http://dnr.wi.gov/ and at www.devilslakewisconson.com/

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