Devils Lake State Park: Grand Canyon of Wisconsin

Is Devils Lake State Park the Grand Canyon of Wisconsin?  Unlike many other states, Wisconsin doesn’t have a place that is commonly referred to as “the Grand Canyon of Wisconsin.”  There is an excellent website that talks about 11 canyons in Wisconsin, no canyon is singled out as being grander than the others.  As I looked at this list, I realized that Tom and I had already been to most of them.

Three of the 11 canyons are in Wisconsin Dells.  We have visited Wisconsin Dells several times and we always enjoy exploring, but it has become so crowded and over-commercialized that it just isn’t fun anymore.  The pictures here are from a trip in 1990 when we took a boat tour and hiked Witch’s Gulch.  Wisconsin Dells is now known more for its waterparks than its natural beauty.

The website also lists the caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.  While interesting and beautiful, caves are not canyons.  Another canyon listed is the waterfall at Copper Falls State Park.  Although beautiful, the waterfall doesn’t have much of a canyon associated with it.

Three of the canyons on the website are part of St. Croix National National Scenic Riverway which we visited last summer.  Again, it was a beautiful place to visit, but it didn’t feel much like a canyon.  I would call it a river valley.  Apple River Canyon is a state natural area that you can access by kayak, but there aren’t any hiking trails in it.

St Croix National Scenic Riverway

Two of the remaining canyons on the list were in or near Devils Lake State Park on the south side of the Baraboo Hills.  Tom and I headed there to check it out and were amazed and awed by what we found.

Devils Lake State Park is the largest and busiest state park in Wisconsin.  It has 10,000 acres of recreational area and wilderness.  Iconic bluffs rise 500 feet above a pristine lake.  There are more than 30 miles of hiking trails that take you around the lake and up to the highest points on the bluffs.  It is a very popular spot for rock climbers.  The park has camping, an interpretive center, a store, and a restaurant.  During the summer there are all kinds of special programs.

Because of glacial activity in the area, the east shore of the lake has numerous rock formations.  Tom and I hiked the East Bluff Trail and checked out Balanced Rock, Devil’s Doorway, and the Potholes.  The climb up was gradual with stairs cut into the rocks in many places.  On the way back down we took the East Bluff Woods Trail, which allowed us to make a loop and see all the formations.

Visitors Center
Trail map
Devils Lake
Devils Doorway

The area around Devils Lake was a wonderful place to explore.  Tom and I were surprised we had never heard of it before.  We would have loved to spend a couple of nights there so we could hike more trails, but we had more places to see.

Parfrey’s Glen is the part of the park that has “Grand Canyon” aspirations.  This unique and stunning spot was Wisconsin’s first State Natural Area. It’s a gorge on the south flank of the Baraboo Hills. Most of the walls are made of sandstone dating back around 500 million years. According to the DNR, these ancient hills are formed of quartzite rock, which consists of grains of sand tightly cemented together. The small creek that runs through here used to be a much larger river. Ancient seas deposited silt here and the glaciers helped compress it into quartzite.

The hardest part of visiting Parfrey’s Glen was finding a place to park in the small parking lot.  Tom was driving the RV, and we would have pulled off along the road, but the DNR had placed big boulders every place we might have parked.  Tom masterfully and carefully backed in to a regular car-sized space.  Then we took the one-mile trail to the glen.  Once there, we were underwhelmed.  It was a lovely hike, but the glen wasn’t any more spectacular than the rocks along most of the bike trails in Ohio.

Parfrey’s Glen

Is the Parfrey’s Glen part of Devils Lake State Park the Grand Canyon of Wisconsin?  Maybe.  But Devils Lake State Park is definitely worth a visit.  The rocks, the heights, and the hiking are spectacular to visit even if you find a better canyon elsewhere.  Admission to the park is $16 per vehicle which does not include camping fees.