Autumn is a spectacular time to explore the Wisconsin Dells country. As the region’s oaks, hickories, aspens, maples, and other hardwoods shift to bold fall hues, the landscape takes on an entirely new dimension. If you’re a fan of natural scenery and outdoor recreation, you’ll find the Dells formations as well as surrounding ecological landscapes among the richest and most evocative corners of the Upper Midwest.
The Dells of the Wisconsin River
The scenic grandeur of the Dells reflects a suitably dramatic geological origin. The last of the great ice sheets that covered most of Wisconsin during the Pleistocene dammed the Wisconsin River to form 1,800-square-mile Glacial Lake Wisconsin, which may have been 160 feet deep in places. For several thousand years the lake persisted, perhaps occasionally draining and reforming with minor ice retreats and advances.
Around 14,000 years ago, however, the glacier commenced its ultimate withdrawal, and the lake breached its dam in what was likely a massive, rapid, and cataclysmic flood. These surging, debris-filled currents drilled out the Dells as they drained to the Mississippi.
Today, the beautiful sandstone formations of the Wisconsin River Dells speak to the legacy of Glacial Lake Wisconsin, as do the Central Sand Plains sprawling northward–representing the old, sediment-filled lakebed. The occasional craggy, steep-sided buttes and mesas scattered throughout the Sand Plains–Quincy Bluff and Roche-a-Cri are examples not far north of Wisconsin Dells–were once islands in the massive lake.
Along with joining one of the famous guided boat trips through the Dells and partaking of its other outdoor adventures like zip-lining, consider hopping into a canoe or kayak: following the busyness of summer, autumn waters are comparatively uncrowded.
Wisconsin Dells RiverWalk
A quarter-mile paved walkway along the Wisconsin River, this pleasant downtown thoroughfare offers fantastic views of the channel and its shoreline ledges and woods. If you need a break from the fun and excitement of the town’s entertainment centers, the RiverWalk is your answer.
Rocky Arbor and Mirror Lake State Parks
Two wonderfully scenic state parks near Wisconsin Dells offer the chance to get out hiking in the autumn woods and appreciate rock formations related to those exposed along the Wisconsin River. Rocky Arbor State Park showcases a sandstone gorge carved by the Wisconsin River, but now about a mile-and-a-half west of the present channel. You can get up close and personal with the layered cliffs looming in the woods on the one-mile nature trail, pitch a tent at the campground, and relax at the playground and picnic area.
Mirror Lake State Park is an amazingly serene site along a reservoir of Dell Creek, a Driftless Area tributary of the Wisconsin River that here flows through an intricately carved sandstone canyon. A large campground anchors the park, and numerous trails through the surrounding pine-oak forests invite exploration on those lovely, crisp, leaf-crunching days of Wisconsin autumn. A portion of the park supports a particularly impressive stand of rugged white pine and oak woods, given special status as the Mirror Lake Pine Oak Forest State Natural Area.
Devil’s Lake State Park
A wonderful counterpart to the Dells of the Wisconsin River, Devil’s Lake State Park to the south is one of the Badger State’s most awe-inspiring locations. The namesake lake lies in the heart of the Baraboo Hills, a circular, deeply forested range of 1.6-billion-year-old quartzite–an extremely durable rock derived from old seafloor sediments that has been re-exposed as weaker overlying and surrounding layers eroded away.
Geologists believe that, prior to the last round of Pleistocene glaciation, the Wisconsin River flowed through the Baraboo Hills via the Lower Narrows and Devil’s Lake gaps. The Wisconsin Glacier dramatically altered the area’s drainage; ridges of glacial material called moraines, left as the ice body retreated, blocked both the northern and southern gateways to the Baraboo Hills and rerouted the Wisconsin River to the east of the range. Devil’s Lake now lies in the old river channel behind the moraine plugging the Devil’s Lake gap to the south.
You can take a canoe or paddleboat out onto the waters of the lake, marveling at the looming cliffs surrounding you, or break a sweat hiking up into them for the reverse view. Devil’s Lake also includes a number of indigenous effigy mounds on its shores.
Other Nearby Public Lands
Swathed in forests, swamps, and marshes, Central Wisconsin is rich in public lands, and plenty of outdoor-recreation opportunities beyond the state parks already mentioned lie in easy proximity to Wisconsin Dells. These include:
*Quincy Bluff and Wetlands: This is a Nature Conservancy preserve north of the Dells protecting ancient sandstone mounds, pine-oak barrens, mixed woods, and wetlands.
*Roche-a-Cri State Park: Roche-a-Cri is one of the most notable of the many Central Wisconsin buttes. Visitors to this park can climb to the top of the 300-foot-tall landmark for the expansive view, and also marvel at the American Indian pictographs and petroglyphs along its basal rock-face.
*Buckhorn State Park: Another fine destination for the outdoor enthusiast, this state park north-northwest of Wisconsin Dells lies on Castle Rock Lake and features camping, hiking, and boating–including a self-guided interpretive canoe trail. Unique ecosystems like the sandy Buckhorn Barrens State Natural Area, located within the park, are key attractions.