MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Wisconsin Dells

High drama at Devil's Lake

Rocks tell the earthshaking story of how the Baraboo Hills were created.

We’re at the end of the Ice Age, at the edge of an endless mound of blue ice whose vast, super-cold surface has sent 200-mph winds whipping into Wisconsin.

The winds can strip the flesh off a face in 30 seconds, so the local mammoth hunters have gone south for the winter.

Now the hunters are back, standing at the edge of a milky-white, 70-mile-long lake made by melting ice.

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H.H. Bennett's Wisconsin Dells

Thanks to a 19th-century photographer, tourists flooded in to see the famous rock formations for themselves.

H.H. Bennett wanted tourists to come to the Wisconsin Dells, and thanks to him, they came.

Boy, did they come.

In Bennett’s day, they stayed for weeks, playing croquet and checkers and going on picnics, boat excursions on the Wisconsin River and perhaps to a magic-lantern show of stereoscope slides from Bennett’s studio.

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Road trip: Wisconsin's Muir Tour

The sandy soil on the Wisconsin River is a springboard for naturalists, past and present.

In its marshes and woods, John Muir first discovered the joys of wilderness. On its sandy plains, Aldo Leopold became a pioneer of land stewardship. On its meadows, two young ornithologists created a haven for cranes.

The natural world found some of its greatest allies on a swath of rolling, glaciated land in south-central Wisconsin. Muir went on to found the Sierra Club and is known as a father of America’s national parks. 

Leopold inspired legions with such books as “A Sand County Almanac.’’ George Archibald and Ron Sauey founded the International Crane Foundation.

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The divine Devil's Lake

In Wisconsin's Baraboo Hills, a stunning state park makes people come running.

In Wisconsin, a bunch of rocks sets hearts aflutter.

They enchant geologists, of course, but also scuba divers, rock climbers and botanists. The rest of us, too — hikers, birders, campers, Boy Scouts.

We all go to give Devil's Lake its due.

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Baraboo's gilt complex

In Wisconsin's Ringlingville, the golden age of the circus never ended.

In the circus, nothing succeeds like excess. And no one succeeded at that more than the Ringling brothers.

In the last half of the 19th century, Americans clamored to be amazed. Tent shows traversed the countryside; Wisconsin alone had more than 100.

On the Mississippi, showboats brought entertainment to river towns. In 1869, two circuses — one was Dan Rice’s Own Circus, whose proprietor’s clown character was the inspiration for Uncle Sam — put on performances in the Iowa river town of McGregor.

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Wisconsin Dells in fall

For many, the scenery is best when the crowds are gone.

In the Dells, when the children go home, the adults come out to play.

Autumn is a quiet time in Wisconsin Dells. The outdoor water parks are closed, many attractions are shuttered and the water-ski show performers are in Florida for the winter.

In the rush of summer, many tourists spend a whole week in Wisconsin Dells and never see the dells that drew tourists in the first place.

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The quiet side of the Dells

Sidestep the Strip, and you'll see an area little changed since a photographer made the world come running.

See the FUDGE sign in blinking white lights. See the plane tail protruding from the faux-ruin façade of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. See the Wax World of the Stars, the Dungeon of Horrors, the Trojan Horse . . .

Yes, it’s Wisconsin Dells. But it’s not the only Wisconsin Dells.

Tourists always have been part of the scenery in this picturesque part of Wisconsin. The first settler was a printer and publisher, and one of the first residents was a young carpenter who crippled his right hand in the Civil War and became a photographer.

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Cranes of Wisconsin

Near Wisconsin Dells, a global village of birds lives, loves and thrives.

In Wisconsin, the rarest birds in the world live not far from the Dells.

Not just any birds, but cranes — the tall, elegant birds of art and myth.

In ancient Japan, cranes could grant wishes. In India, they're omens of good fortune.

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Making waves

The ever-expanding indoor water parks in the Wisconsin Dells have so many rides and slides, it's hard to know which one to pick.

First, we loved the water slides, geysers and whimsical fiberglass figures at the Polynesian’s Water Factory.

Then, we loved the bigger slides, chutes, lily-pad walk and tubing river at Great Wolf’s Spirit Mountain.

When the Wilderness opened Klondike Kavern, its second park, we loved its indoor-outdoor hot tub and long tube slides.

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