By Michelle Scheuermann
If you are familiar with Wisconsin Dells, then the first image that comes to mind is waterparks. And tourists. And those little fudge shops. Located just north of Madison, Wis., “the Dells” is definitely all of that– but its also located near three state parks, on two lakes, a major river system and two well-known state bike trails, which are all ingredients for what my friends? Adventures on a budget.
Rock formations inside “Witches Gulch,” which is just a little inlet off of The Narrows on the Wisconsin River. This limestone is only found in one other place in the world; Germany.
My best friend and I first came to the Dells a number of years ago as we were drawn to the vast amount of recreational activities located in a scenic area – both during winter and summer. You see, if you’ve ever done one of those “duck tours” here, then you’d know Wisconsin Dells is made up of limestone that is only found in ONE OTHER PLACE IN THE WORLD; Germany. And that limestone, which is soft by its limey nature, has been carved into fantastic rock formations over the years that are best seen when cruising on the water.
Cruising along Witches Gulch.
With that said, I’m diving into the best adventure in the Dells during the summer months, which is by kayak or canoe. Luckily, you can pick up a kayak for around $300 at Sportsman’s Warehouse. Spend a little more if you want increased seat comfort (planning on being on the water for longer periods of time) and more options like dry hulls for your gear. And if you are on a tight budget, no worries, talk to my friend Easton at Vertical Illusions. For a minimal fee, one of his guides will offer a perfect afternoon of kayaking.Beginner Paddlers: Mirror Lake Paddle
No motorized boats on this smaller lake! This is a quiet and easy paddle that’s full of wildlife. You will need a state park sticker to put in and park your vehicle. After paddling, be sure to stop at Ishnala Super Club, which overlooks on the Lake. (see more on this restaurant below)Beginner & Intermediate Paddlers: Lake Delton Paddle
Beginner paddlers should put in at Ravina Bay Bar & Grill. Once in, head to your left and go under the Adams Street bridge. This narrows as you travel back towards the dam and is very quiet; teaming with small wildlife. When finished, be sure to get a bite to eat at Ravina, where you can watch the Tommy Bartlett’s Stage, Ski and Sky Show from their deck.
Intermediate paddlers can put-in and park by Wilderness Lodge & Resort on the corner of Adams Street and Canyon Road. Motorized boats put in here too, so be careful.
You can watch Tommy Bartlett’s Stage, Ski and Sky Show from the comforts of your kayak. If you have an anchor, drop it in the ‘safe zone’ (just follow line of pontoon boats in the area). If you don’t have an anchor, ask a pontoon if you can tie to them. Most are more than happy to do so. Lake Delton is rather large, so you can continue downstream to where it turns into the Wisconsin River (you’ll have to portage around a dam and highway), but be careful of speed boats during high traffic hours. Cruising close to the shoreline is best and most interesting for house viewing.
Intermediate to Advanced (depending on time of year) Wisconsin River Paddle (Upper Dells)
Cruising around Blackhawk Island on the Wisconsin River in a kayak is the best way to see truly phenomenal rock formations.
To access the Upper Dells, launch at the city boat ramp at the intersection of River Road and Illinois Avenue. Built for boats, (aren’t they all?) but I’m hearing talks on modifying the docks to include easier access for kayaks and canoes this year!
Flush with history and logging lore, this part of the Wisconsin River, known as The Narrows, can be an easy trip or a very tricky one. In early spring, give Vertical Illusions a call to check the water conditions. Dangerous eddies can form, sucking you in and spitting you out downstream. Many a logger in the 1800’s feared this area, as the wide river of the Upper Dells quickly narrows around high cliffs with zero shoreline, which instantly created logjams and turbulent water. (Stop by the H.H. Bennett museum (small fee) in downtown Dells on a rainy day to check out his innovative photographs of this time period. Did you know he was the first to photograph fireworks?) After the spring flooding recedes, The Narrows becomes safer and calmer. Time it right. Go early morning or dinnertime, when jet boats and Ducks aren’t out, is the quietest, making for fewer wakes to navigate.
Where to Stay
View from the queen suite at Sunset Bay Resort. Note the kayaks along the shoreline are free to use on Lake Delton!
Thankfully the Dells provides everything from posh spas to budget motels and campgrounds. Bonus – most now offer free passes to a waterpark. So if you are keen on traveling down a water tube for thrills, you can still do that for free.
Motel 6 in Baraboo (offers free passes to Chula Vista Resort’s Waterpark) Clean, reasonable and right off the ramp for I-94.
If you want waterfront, go for Baker’s Sunset Bay Resort (offers free passes to Kalahari’s indoor park and free kayaks to casually paddle around Lake Delton). Or Cliffside Resort & Suites is on the same road and same side of lake. They offer Noah’s Ark tickets to their guests (the largest waterpark in the Dells). Bonus for both of these is you can put in on Lake Delton for a sunset paddle before cooking your marshmallows.
There are a variety of options for camping too. But the motels are so reasonable and offer free waterpark passes, so money-wise, it’s a better deal.Where to Eat
I like to eat breakfast in my room, which is why I like the Sunset Bay Resort on Lake Delton if you get a Suite room with a small kitchen. And I usually pack a lunch for my afternoon paddles to keep costs minimal. But for dinner, I want a good meal, which is why there is nothing ‘budget’ in my suggestions below. If you are truly pinching pennies, then get a burger and custard at Culver’s (a Wisconsin fast-food burger place).
High Rock Café – located on the main street in downtown Dells. Perfect for people watching if you wait for a table along the windows on the second floor. Their specials change with what is currently in season, but start with the garlic tots and finish with either the Strawberry Poprocks Cheesecake or Kit Kat dessert.
Ishnala Supper Club on Mirror Lake – Open seasonally. While High Rock offers the best people watching, Ishnala offers the best wildlife/scenic view with its perch above Mirror Lake. You will wait for a table here, but you can sip on your brandy old fashioned at the 70’s chic bar while listening to the keyboardist play polka.
Best Brunch – Trappers Turn Golf Course – if you ate at Ishnala the evening before, you might see the same keyboardist here for brunch. The mashed potato bar and omelet stations are my favorite, plus the included mimosa. Have kids? They even have a shortened ‘kids table’ with selections for the little ones to get their own bites.If Kayaking Isn’t Your Thing:
Into Biking? Make sure to bring your bike with Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail and 400 Trail just a short drive away. Some paved, mostly limestone and very scenic.
Into Wine? Wisconsin is not immune to the winery craze sweeping the nation. Stop by Fawn Creek Winery in the Dells, Baraboo Bluff a short drive away in Baraboo or Wollersheim Winery and distillery in Prairie du Sac (the most well-known winery). These offer either complimentary or minimal charge tastings.
Like any vacation spot, the Dells can nickel and dime your family if you only insist on doing the touristy attractions. But if you are into “taking it outside” like the Sportsman’s Warehouse motto, your adventure will be that much more memorable and that much lighter on the pocketbook.