In summer, the Wisconsin Dells buzz with tourists. Our visit, the end of September, missed that activity and until leaving town, we hadn’t seen the humongous-spectacular-over-the-top-closed-for-season resorts.
We did discover a beautiful area including a fun downtown and wonderful food (see below). While we waited for our boat, we took a short walk above the Wisconsin River.
Overlooking the river and our boat we started to get an idea of the place. Under the bridge in the distance is a dam (constructed 1906-09) that provides electrical power. The river is 50-60 feet lower. To take a ride on the Lower Dells, you have to pick it up at another location. You can also have a wet ride on Duck or Jet Boats – until things freeze.
I chose the Upper Dells because it was a longer ride – about 2 miles up river – and had a couple of stops. The ticket seller told us the difference between “Upper and Lower is that we would see different stuff.” Well said about many places. I think the Upper has more formations to see. Of course, some stuff is lost to view from the higher water.
We headed out with announcer and captain (who have been on the river for decades) and many other people.
As we had seen at the Natural Bridge, here too were layers of sandstone. Formed in the Cambrian Period 520 million years ago, melting glacial waters helped carve the sandstone. Well, water and ice are still at work. (More info? Stewards of the Dells.)
Our first stop was at Witches Gulch. As the story goes, H.H. Bennett skated upriver in 1871 and discovered this area. (It is also available from Hwy 13 to River Rd.)
A concession stand awaits you. Another historic (pre-1970s) tourist relic.
Back in the boat, we then headed across the river to our next stop at Stand Rock.
Along the boardwalk our guide kept talking about the jumping dog. What? That rock formation at eye level? No. Look up.
Above us waited a German Shepherd. It was going to jump across the opening to Stand Rock.
Can you see it in this picture below? Okay, not a great phone picture. The dog did make the return leap safely. A net is strung below. Not sure how I felt about this and I am sure it will offend some. The photographer, H. H. Bennett, who helped make the Dells popular through his photography, had developed a stop action shutter. In 1886, he made his son jump back and forth until he got the perfect mid-jump shot. (It took 17 tries and I’m guessing there wasn’t a net.)
We cheered the dog and walked on, encountering the rocks formations and the river from different viewpoints.
Sometimes the upper layer remained more resistant to erosion. In this case the upper layer broke off at perfect right angles.
On the rest of our trip we took in the beauty of the area.
Except near town, on the boat rides and at the concessions, the area is not developed. After the area had been logged, and the depression hit in the 1930s, George Crandall (married to Bennett’s daughter ) started buying up property. In the 1950s, the family transferred the property to the University of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and their subsidiary, the Dells Boat Company. For more details about the development from the dam to State or National Park, click Stewards Preservation.
Other than spending time in a beautiful landscape, the highlight of the trip was getting to see a juvenile bald eagle and one adult – who put on a spectacular show flying over the boat.
Great trip and without speed boats or water park. Of course, if you want that, come in the summer.
See you on the trail!
Words by Lynn Millar, pictures by Lynn and Mike Millar
Oh, and about the food. TripAdvisor did well. We had lunch at a place called Macs, where every item has cheese. Skillets of macaroni and cheese come with various add-ons. I had mine with hot dog; Mike had Popeyes (with spinach}. For dinner, we went to High Rock Cafe. (Fortunately, it had nothing to do with Hard Rock and something to do with the local terrain.) Mike had a perfect walleye. What else?