The itinerary sounds quite appealing: A two-hour guided boat tour of the scenic landscape in the morning, followed by a round of golf—“real” or the miniature version— and a hot-stone massage. Late-afternoon there’s a trip to a local winery or distillery for some sampling, then dinner at an acclaimed steakhouse. The day winds down enjoying a live show. Think this itinerary calls for traveling to Milwaukee, or perhaps Lake Geneva? Think again. All of these activities are easily doable in Wisconsin Dells.
With more than 20 waterparks of every shape and size tucked within its borders, Wisconsin Dells is billed as “The Waterpark Capital of the World.” And you certainly can spend a lot of time here enjoying the latest and greatest in waterslides, lazy rivers, tube rides and more. However, it’s a mistake to assume that’s all the Dells is about.
A full 25 percent of visitors come without children, says Bianca Johnson, marketing and communications manager for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau. And with more than 90 attractions from which to sample—most of which are not waterparks—you’d have to spend more than a month here to experience them all. So what are some of your options?
The first visitors to the area were enticed more than a century ago by the captivating images of photographer H.H. Bennett, which showcased the unusual and beautiful Cambrian sandstone “dells” formations along the Wisconsin River. Those views remain today, and you can take them in through any number of water-based tours, such as a sunset dinner cruise or jet boat adventure, both offered by Dells Boat Tours. Additional peeks at the area’s scenic beauty are available via a guided tour of Lost Canyon, Wisconsin’s longest and deepest land canyon, and on horseback with Canyon Creek Riding Stables.
Museum buffs have a diverse array of sites to pique their interest. Circus World, one of Wisconsin’s 10 state historic sites, contains an amazingly rich collection of circus memorabilia. Two buildings are filled with intricately decorated circus wagons, while the museum proper details the history of the Ringling Brothers, who wintered in Baraboo, Wis., from 1886 to 1918. The H.H. Bennett Studio, another state historic site, contains exhibits on Bennett’s life and work, plus his actual 1875 studio and equipment. Make sure you’ve got a cast-iron stomach if you stop in at the Museum of Historic Torture Devices, which features chillingly real and recreated items, plus excellent descriptions and sketches so you will clearly understand how the devices were used. Kids and adults both enjoy the hands-on fun at the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, where you can do everything from play a game of virtual volleyball to pedal a SkyCycle along a one-inch cable 12 feet above the ground.
Live entertainment is a popular activity in the Dells. And once again, you’ve got quite a variety of options. The 75-minute Paul Bunyan’s Lumberjack Show entertains with competitive lumberjacking contests—logrolling, sawing, ax-throwing, pole-climbing and the like—interspersed with some history about timber sports and a bit of campy humor. Two master illusionists, Rick Wilcox and Jeremy Allen, will keep you entertained (and, at times, on the edge of your seat) with dramatic illusions and, in Allen’s case, white Siberian tigers. The 2,000-seat Crystal Grand Music Theatre offers top contemporary music acts, comedians and family shows, while the newer Palace Theater is producing classical Broadway musicals and Disney classics.
Enjoying the great outdoors is something you don’t necessarily associate with Wisconsin Dells, and that’s a shame. In addition to all of the activities centered on showcasing the impressive dells formations from the water, there are a wealth of prime outdoor activities available at the area’s three state parks: Rocky Arbor, Mirror Lake and Devil’s Lake. Rocky Arbor is the closest, just a bit northwest of downtown Dells, and features a campground and short hiking trail. Mirror Lake lies due west of the Kalahari and Great Wolf Lodge. You can enjoy ﬁshing, hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking and cross-country skiing in the park’s 2,200 acres; boat and bike rentals are available, too. While much of the park is comprised of wetland, sandy prairie, and pine and oak woods, pretty Mirror Lake is rimmed by 500-million-year-old sandstone cliffs that stretch 50 feet skyward, providing a stunning backdrop.
Devil’s Lake, 20 minutes south of town, is in a class of its own. Wisconsin’s most popular state park, it’s famous for the 500foot quartzite bluffs towering over the lake. People flock here for rock-climbing, hiking on the park’s 22 miles of trails, biking, fishing, hunting, skiing and all manner of water sports; watercraft rentals are available here, too. FYI: While you might be hoping to stay dry on your trip to the area, Devil’s Lake does allow scuba diving if that’s your thing. Finally, the 1,100-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail runs through the park (and also through Baraboo), allowing you to easily sample a bit of national-caliber hiking.
Foodies find the Dells has some pretty impressive offerings. For the high-brow palate, places like Field’s at the Wilderness, Kaminski Bros. Chop House and The Del-Bar are perennial favorites for steaks, fi ne wine and cocktails. High Rock Café wins kudos for its fresh, bold-flavored foods, such as the Pad Thai PB&J, a sammy made from spicy sambal cashew butter, orange marmalade, toasted coconut and fresh basil on wholegrain toast. Or the Street Beet Salad, where roasted beets are combined with fresh spinach, craisins, sweet red onions, sunflower seeds, toasted almonds and goat cheese, then tossed with a honey balsamic vinaigrette. Cheese Cake Heaven creates nearly 100 varieties of cheesecake, all delicious, plus fantastic homemade soups, salads and sandwiches. And a stop in at Carr Valley Cheese is a must; the company, known for its artisanal, aged Cheddars, constantly wins top awards for its cheeses.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects to Wisconsin Dells is that despite its often frenzied atmosphere, people do come here to relax, namely by heading to a spa. Most of the major waterpark resorts have a spa, plus a few day spas are scattered throughout the area. But the queen of them all, hands down, is Sundara Spa. Tucked into a 26-acre forest of fragrant pines, Sundara continually wins regional, national and even international accolades from entities like Travel + Leisure magazine, Trip Advisor, Good Morning America, SpaFinder.com and Condé Nast Traveler magazine.
“When Sundara opened a dozen years ago, you might say it set in motion the ‘Dells for grown-ups’ trend,” says Chris Scheel, general manager. “Today people from all over the country travel to Wisconsin Dells specifically for an eco-chic wellness getaway at our destination spa, which is remarkable really. The natural beauty of the area, abundant silent sports opportunities, and sophisticated supper clubs all add to the appeal.”
Besides providing guests an escape in a secluded, serene setting, Sundara offers a wealth of spa/salon treatments, such as the Purifying Gemstone Energy Massage, an Ayurvedic treatment, and the Calming Recovery Blueberry Facial. Numerous antiaging treatments are available as well, plus services for mothers-to-be. Guests can also enjoy any number of amenities such as yoga instruction; relaxing in the infinity edge pool; strolling along the Meditation Trail, which ends in an inviting nook in the woods laced with hammocks; and noshing on Sundara’s tasty wellness cuisine. And if you don’t want to leave? The spa resides within a sumptuous inn, so you don’t have to.
Now, what was this again about waterparks?
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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