It seems that every major urban area has a favored natural retreat that draws its residents when it comes to getting away for a while. For Angelinos it’s the beach. Atlantans head for the family ‘camp’ on a lake somewhere, and New Yorkers head upstate. If you live in Chicago, or anywhere in northern Illinois or Indiana, you might make your vacation plans for the Wisconsin Dells.
The Dells are the Gatlinburg of the North, miles of kitschy, vintage tourist traps and t-shirt shops set amid dozens of waterparks, definitely not off the beaten path. And still, in the course of a week spent there recently, we found that this place has interesting and less-known stories to tell.
To begin with, the word dells is a corruption of the French word dalles. You’re likely familiar with the dalles of the Columbia River in Oregon, which posed a considerable obstacle to the pioneers headed west on the Oregon Trail. The word describes a place where a river is squeezed through a deep rocky gorge, resulting in formidable rapids. Europeans first became familiar with Wisconsin as part of the fur-trading empire of the voyageurs, but it soon became a source of vast quantities of timber. Huge rafts of logs were floated down the Wisconsin River toward what is now Chicago. At the Dells, the rafts were broken up into smaller units and guided through the tight turns and churning water caused by the sandstone walls.
You’d never know about this, or even see the beauty of the river, from the area’s roads. We took a two hour boat trip through the upper Dells (above the dam), and saw little but water carved sandstone formations and hillsides of trees, preserved from development by forward thinking residents a century ago. The boat made two stops, one for us to wind our through a narrow canyon along a boardwalk while water rushed beneath our feet, and one to climb to an overlook above the river. It was quiet and tranquil in the midst of a thundering vacationland. For a slightly more rollicking experience, you can take a similar trip on the Lower Dells in surplus military amphibious vehicles called ducks.
Wisconsin Dells is one of three towns that make up the resort area. Lake Delton, the second, appeared to be a solid mecca of tourist delights. T he third, Baraboo, is home to several interesting sites. The first we came across was a casino operated by the Ho-Chunk nation. If you like to wager a bit now and then, you might enjoy this large and glittering collection of gaming tables, restaurants, and slot machines. Also in Baraboo is the International Crane Foundation. After visiting the Platte River in Nebraska for the sandhill crane migration, we were interested to see this attractive operation with an extensive network of trails and the opportunity to view every specie of crane found on Earth in a large display habitat.
We spent most of our day in Baraboo at the Circus World Museum. Covering several city blocks, this was the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus. The circus, which was operated by six of the seven Ringling Brothers, performed continuously from 1884 until it closed in 2017. The grounds, now owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society, include a splendid collection of restored circus wagons, displays covering history and costumes, and documentary films. Best, though, are the live acts including a tiger show and big top performance, all included in the admission price.
Perhaps the most interesting, and least known, discovery of our visit was Wisconsin’s long love affair with supper clubs. That deserves its own report, so we’ll save it for next week. Meanwhile, safe travels to those of you headed for the Roadtrek photo event in Glacier National Park. If you’re avoiding the interstates, and eating at the mom and pop diners, or spending the night in small town municipal campgrounds, you’re likely to come across us, Patti & Tom Burkett, out there off the beaten path.