Wednesday, October 10, 2012

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A Gardener in the Dells

Wisconsin Dells – “The Waterpark Capital of the World!®” -- isn’t exactly a gardening hot spot. Look past all the resorts, roller coasters and go-karts, though, and you’ll find lots of natural beauty. That’s especially true this time of year when Mother Nature uses her paint brush to dot the landscape with splashes of yellow, gold and orange.

It was the rough, sculpted nature of the Wisconsin River’s banks that originally drew tourists to this area way back in the mid 1850’s. The cliffs are made of sandstone formed in the Cambrian period more than 500 million years ago and were shaped when a large ice dam broke on a glacial lake about 14,000 years ago.

The view from our tour boat

The only way to properly enjoy the scenery is by boat, kayak or canoe. My husband, teenage son and I explored the Upper Dells, the area north of the Kilbourn Dam, during Columbus Day weekend with a two-hour boat tour.

It wasn’t cheap (more than $20 apiece), but the views were as spectacular as my husband and I remembered from more than 35 years ago. This time, of course, we got to share the adventure with our son.

Blackhawk Rock

While the maples had already finished their fall show, the oaks were just starting to turn. We loved the deep, narrow “Witches Gulch” and its towering cliffs decorated with ferns and fallen leaves. There also was Blackhawk Rock, which looks like the profile of a famous Native American chief, as well as Standing Rock, where a German Shepherd dog jumps to a freestanding "chimney" of rock and then back.

The shore retains its wild, untamed look. That's because hundreds of acres were bought in the 1920s and 30s by local entrepreneur George Crandall who felt that no man should own the Dells, that it should be preserved forever in its natural state. Crandall replaced thousands of trees cut down during early development and tore down buildings. His heirs eventually donated the land to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and it is now owned by the state’s Department of Natural Resources with limited access.

Kayaks on the Wisconsin River

By contrast, the rest of the Dells is very commercialized. Resorts, hotels and vacation rental properties line every inch of available shoreline. There are few public beaches. Many visitors seldom leave their water park hotels and, if they do, it’s often to visit the local outlet mall or a Native American casino.

That's really a shame as the Dells' natural beauty deserves to be appreciated more. So, if you go, be sure to set aside some time for the river. It will be there waiting patiently for you and future generations to enjoy.

Stand Rock

In Witches Gulch

A final look before heading back to the dock

By Karen Geisler


  1. Thanks for the wonderful pictures! Drove through the Dells last weekend on my way to the twin cities and was so frustrated didn't have time to stop and take pictures.

    1. Actually, I'm jealous of your visit to the Twin Cities. I lived in St. Paul for 15 years and really miss the fall color up there. Always liked to view the Twin Cities marathon along Summit Avenue as a result.

  2. Karen you brought back lovely memories of a family vacation to the Dells...we lived in N Indiana and took a couple of weeks once summer in the early 60s to explore Wisconsin and the Dells.

  3. Sorry. Would really like to meet sometime as well. I usually pop in and out of Madison for family-related stuff like birthdays.

  4. Been there many times. It is a beautiful place. Love all the rocks! Thanks for bringing back so many great memories. Here along the shores of Lake Michigan I have the Niagara Escarpment so there are plenty of rocks too. I have posted some in recent postings. As with the Dells, they add much. Jack