The true “Wisconsin Dells” are an amazing natural wonder lost in the shadows of an enormous cash cow. While it’s not hard to believe that at one time the towering sandstone cliffs on the Wisconsin river were the main attraction of Wisconsin Dells, it still amazes me that these days they’ve almost been forgotten, relegated to a logo on a website or image on some bit of kitsch sold to tourists at a gift shop.
On a level I’m not quite being fair. You can still find the Dells of the Wisconsin if you can get on the water. In Wisconsin Dells you’ll find tour boats, WWII Ducks and jet boats taking paying customers roaring up and down the mighty river. Still, I’ve been told by folks in the business that it’s been hard to fill those boats these days. While jet boats do a bit to address the modern need for thrills, the river, nature…, is just not the attraction it used to be. What’s more, it’s not all that easy for folks to get onto the water either, especially paddlers. Between the scarcity of suitable public landings and the outrageous summer water traffic, canoeists and kayakers really don’t dare enter the water between May & October without taking their lives into their own hands.
Putting all of those “Dellsy” issues aside, the Wisconsin Dells, the real Wisconsin Dells is an amazing place, and a wonderful destination for paddlers. As I said, the trick is to visit when the crazy boat traffic is off the water, beginning in mid-October until the water is frozen and again in the spring before mid-May. Often within this window, especially on week days, paddlers can have the river to themselves.
I’ve written about the “Upper Dells” before. This is the section of the Wisconsin River above the Wisconsin Dells Hydroelectric Dam. Today I’ll share a bit about the Lower section.
When we paddle the “Lower Dells” we generally paddle a 5.5 mile (11 miles round trip) section from a small boat launch on Indian Trail Parkway (off of Country Road A – see map below) north up to the hydroelectric dam in Downtown Wisconsin Dells. This route will take you against the current for the first half of your trip, then let you ride the current back to the launch for the last half of the day.
From the Indian Trail boat launch, and about 3/4 of the way north to the Dells, you’ll encounter pretty classic Wisconsin River conditions. The depth can change quickly, sand bars that are there at one time, may be gone the next, and the current can be easy to challenging depending on the flow of the river. On this first 3/4ths of the trip, you can see a lot of wildlife along the river banks from Bald Eagles, to Turkey Vultures to turtles sunning themselves on rocks along the shoreline.
Of course, for most people, the real attraction to the Wisconsin Dells are the amazing sandstone formations that scientists now believe were formed over just a few days or weeks when a glacial plug let loose, and all the water of an ancient inland sea ripped and gouged through the sandstone at amazing speeds. On the lower Dells, these sandstone formations only make up the last, or northern most 2 miles of the river before reaching the dam. The best section is a stretch of less than a mile just south of a boat landing at Newport Park. In fact, if a paddler only wants to see the sandstone features, they can launch at Newport Park and paddle less than 10 minutes to reach the most impressive formations including what we sea kayakers would call a “sea cave” carved through a sandstone ledge on the western shore. (Marked on the Google Map below.)
If you plan to paddle this section, let me remind you again that this is a treacherous paddle in the summer. The jet skis, speed boats, and tour boats are “bumper to bumper” during peak season and weekends. Small boats are hard to see and paddlers risk getting hit or tossed up against the rocks by wakes. The Wisconsin river is also not a safe place to swim. Paddlers should always wear life jackets and appropriate clothing for water and air temperatures.
Check out our gallery from yesterday’s paddle on the lower Wisconsin Dells and Google Maps below.