Wisconsin Dells bills itself as the Waterpark Capital of the World, and for good reason. The area is home to half a dozen indoor and outdoor water parks, including America’s largest, Noah’s Ark.
The water parks are probably what first drew you to the Dells, and they’re worth a visit on a hot summer (or cold winter) day — especially this year, with new attractions like a rotating water slide at Mount Olympus, a tube ride with multicolored lights at Chula Vista, and two dueling waterslides at the renovated Wild West Waterpark at the Wilderness (to be completed by the fall).
But water parks are not the only things worth visiting in the area, and they’re not what first brought visitors more than a century ago. The area’s natural water attractions are to thank for that.
The dalles of the Wisconsin River were noted on maps as early as the 1700s as an important reference point for French explorers. Dalles, a French word that means narrows or gorge, was anglicized to dells, and the name stuck.
In the mid-19th century, tourists began flocking to those dramatic sandstone cliffs and narrow canyons thanks in part to the photographs of H.H. Bennett.
Today, those dells still provide a backdrop for a slew of adventures in the area, including a new natural water park, Land of Natura, that’s scheduled to open its first phase this summer.
There are also Dells classics like duck boats and Ishnala supper club — those only-in-the-Dells things you have to do at least once.
Here are some of those must-dos beyond water parks for your next trip to the Dells.
Dells of the Wisconsin River State Natural Area
It’s not a visit to Wisconsin Dells without seeing the actual dells. This state natural area protects five miles of that scenery along the Wisconsin River, including towering sandstone cliffs, rock formations and narrow canyons. The 1.5-mile Chapel Gorge Trail — accessible via a parking lot off River Road north of downtown — provides views of those, plus access to a beach on the east side of the river. You can also take in views at a wide spot in the river at the Cambrian Overlook, off 61st Street on the west side of the river. The overlook also has a carry-in boat launch for canoes and kayaks.
The Chapel Gorge Trail is free to visit. Visitors to the Cambrian Overlook need a state parks sticker ($8/day, $28/annual).
Original Wisconsin Ducks
Part land tour, part water tour, a duck boat ride is all Wisconsin Dells. Drivers recite a quirky, sometimes corny, script about the Dells as they take riders on a rollercoaster-like ride along private roads through woods and gorges and a stretch of the cliff-lined Wisconsin River.
The amphibious vehicles were created to transport troops and supplies during World War II and got their duck nickname from their official General Motors name, DUKW (D for 1942 production series, U for amphibious utility vehicle, K for front-wheel drive and W for twin, rear-driving axles). The first duck boat tour was given in the Dells in 1946 with just one vehicle, and more than 75 years later 92 ducks cruise the river and trails every summer.
The one-hour tours depart every few minutes from the Duck Dock, 1890 Wisconsin Dells Parkway, mid-March through mid-November (weather permitting). Summer hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; spring and fall hours vary.
One of the coolest natural attractions in the Dells, Witches Gulch is also one of the hardest to get to — it’s only accessible via a Dells Boat Tour.
Photographer H.H. Bennett first discovered the narrow slot canyon off a finger of the Wisconsin River in 1870s and put in boardwalks so tourists could visit it. Those boardwalks lead through a narrow, moss-covered sandstone canyon where water rushes underfoot and mist rises above — a spooky combination that inspired the canyon’s name.
The two-hour Upper Dells Tour takes visitors up the Wisconsin River to the canyon, passing other notable rock formations like Blackhawk’s profile, Chimney Rock and Stand Rock along the way. The latter is the site of a famous 1886 H.H. Bennett photo of his son jumping to the rock — the first stop-action photo, made possible by his invention of an instantaneous shutter. A trained dog makes the leap today as passengers on the tour disembark and watch from the ground.
The company also offers a nighttime Haunted Boat Tour to Witches Gulch, where actors in ghostly garb create a kind of haunted house in the canyon.
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Both tours depart from 107 Broadway. Upper Dells Tours are offered daily mid-March through mid-November; Haunted Boat Tours are offered nightly Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day and Friday and Saturday nights in September and October.
Lost Canyon Tour
This tour offers a way to see the Dells like some of the first tourists did — from a horse-drawn wagon. The half-hour ride takes visitors through Lost Canyon, the longest and deepest canyon on land in the area. The driver provides history and geology of the area while the horses sometimes barely squeeze between the narrow sandstone gorge walls.
Tours depart from 720 Canyon Road from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, typically March through November.
This 15-inch gauge railway of the Riverside & Great Northern Railroad might look familiar to Milwaukeeans — it was built by the same company that built the train at the Milwaukee County Zoo. But this one takes visitors through the woods and rock formations along the Dells of the Wisconsin River, including over the world’s largest 15-inch gauge railway bridge, according to the railroad. The family-friendly attraction has a gift shop and concession stand, and visitors are welcome to bring their own food for a picnic as well. The train has a railcar that can accommodate one wheelchair (call ahead to arrange).
About 20 miles to the south in North Freedom, the Mid-Continent Railway Museum offers 55-minute rides in century-old steel coaches along a former branch of the Chicago & North Western Railway in a valley in the Baraboo Hills. The grounds also include an indoor-outdoor museum with exhibits and more than 40 cars and locomotives on display.
The half-mile Riverwalk is a quiet contrast to downtown’s Broadway Avenue, where it departs from. The paved, accessible walkway offers views of the river and its sandstone cliffs in a slice of nature that was not accessible to the public until the first segment opened in 2003. Informational signs along the route tell the story of the town and its natural beauty, including its ties to a Milwaukee founder, Byron Kilbourn, who gave the town its original name of Kilbourn City.
The aptly named River Walk Pub is situated near the path’s midpoint, offering food with a view from an expansive deck overlooking the river. The restaurant also has a beer garden that’s open in the summer.
Broadway Avenue, Wisconsin Dells’ main drag, represents the other more touristy side of the Dells, with the typical T-shirt and fudge shops you’ll see in many tourist towns, plus plenty of restaurants and bars for a night out.
High Rock Café is a popular option, serving modern American fare for lunch and dinner in three dining rooms — including one on the second floor that offers views of Broadway from above — and an outdoor deck. The restaurant also serves brunch on Sunday.
Monk’s Bar & Grill is a favorite for their famous Monkburgers — half- or third-pound patties that come in a variety of combinations. The restaurant now has six other locations around Wisconsin, but it all started in the Dells in 1947.
By the end of the summer, you should be able to visit Elm Street Plaza, a new 35,000-square-foot plaza with a stage for performances, interactive water features and a mural wall. In the future, the plaza will play host to free entertainment, farmers markets, seasonal celebrations and more.
Also on Broadway is Latte Stone Brewing Co. (pronounced LAT-tee, not LAH-tay), a nanobrewery that opened in a converted 1909 mansion in 2021. The brewery serves a full bar menu, including other local beers, alongside a small menu of Chamorro cuisine, which comes from the island of Guam and includes items like lumpia and Chamorro-style skewers. Owners Ryan and Jennifer DiGiacomo and bar manager Tom Rasmussen are from Milwaukee, but both Ryan and Tom have family in Guam, where they spent time working in the food industry. A large beer garden provides a spot for sipping outside.
For more brews, head to Moosejaw Pizza & Wisconsin Dells Brewing Co. Brewmaster Jamie Baertsch was Wisconsin’s first female head brewer, and today the brewery has a range of brews for every taste. The family-friendly restaurant serves everything from pizza and pasta to burgers and sandwiches, plus a breakfast buffet on Saturday and Sunday.
The area is also home to a handful of wineries, and you can see a few of them — without having to designate a driver — on a Dells Trolley Tour. The five- to six-hour Full Winery Experience tour includes tastings at three wineries and lunch at a local restaurant. The wineries the tour stops at change weekly, but they include Fawn Creek, Baraboo Bluff, Balanced Rock, Broken Bottle and Prairie Hawk. The company also offers a shorter Wine Tour Express, which includes visits to two wineries and lunch.
The tours are offered Friday-Sunday year-round. Tours depart from Bobber’s Island Grille, 750 Wisconsin Dells Parkway South, and the company offers hotel pickup for an additional charge.
Rocky Arbor State Park
The smaller of two state parks in the area (not counting Devil’s Lake, which is about 20 miles south in Baraboo), Rocky Arbor is often overlooked for the bigger Mirror Lake State Park. But the little park offers big scenery, with a 1-mile trail traveling along a beautiful sandstone gorge. The park also has a campground that might be easier to get a reservation for in the summer than Mirror Lake, and is a bargain compared with other state parks ($15 per night during the week, $20 on weekends). Choose an interior site to get away from the traffic noise from I-94/90.
The park is open year-round, but the main gate is closed in the off-season (usually Labor Day through May). Visitors can still park at the gate and walk into the park in the off-season. A state parks sticker is required year-round.
Mirror Lake State Park
Mirror Lake State Park seems a world away from the bright lights of Broadway and towering water slides of Noah’s Ark, but it’s linked to the Dells via Dell Creek, which runs through the park’s eponymous lake before heading into Lake Delton and eventually the Wisconsin River to the north.
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The glass-like surface on the no-wake Mirror Lake is perfect for paddling, with many cliff-lined fingers off the lake to explore. Canoe, kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals are available near the main boat launch, along with a specially adapted kayak available to borrow for use by people with disabilities (contact the park office before your visit to arrange for use of the kayak).
You can also see those gorges from above on more than 19 miles of hiking trails, including a 0.6-mile paved, accessible trail that crosses a gorge via a 150-foot bridge. The park also has a small beach, mountain bike trails, three campgrounds and an accessible cabin.
A state parks sticker is required for admission.
Seth Peterson cottage
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright near the end of his life in 1958, this small cottage is one of the few Wright-designed homes in the country you can rent — if you plan far enough in advance.
The small cottage represents Wright’s Prairie-style architecture with natural sandstone rocks, a soaring roofline and large windows that overlook Mirror Lake. The state purchased the cottage in 1966 as part of the newly created state park, and it sat boarded up and fell into disrepair until a nonprofit began rehabilitating it in 1989. Three years later, the group opened the cottage for rentals and tours.
Reservations for an overnight stay cost $325 per night April-November and weekends in winter ($300 on winter weekdays), with a two-night minimum; they fill up years in advance. Tours are easier to join. They’re offered at 1 and 3:30 p.m. the second Sunday of every month, and reservations are not required. Tours cost $5 for adults and children age 13 and older.
The Seth Peterson Conservancy, which maintains the cottage, will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its rehabilitation from 1 to 4 p.m. June 12.
One of the hiking trails in Mirror Lake leads to Ishnala supper club, which has some of the best supper club views in the state. Expansive decks and a wall of windows in the dining room and a horseshoe bar allow for views of the pine-rimmed lake while sipping an old fashioned (served in Instagram-friendly Ishnala-branded glasses) and enjoying classic supper club fare from seafood to steak.
The restaurant is only open seasonally, typically April through October. Reservations are not accepted, and waits can be long in the summer; get there early or visit on a weekday for a shorter wait.
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Another supper club option in the area, The Del-Bar dates to 1943 and is housed in a Prairie-style building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé James Dresser. The menu includes steak, seafood and a Friday fish fry, plus a variety of cocktails (including old fashioneds, of course), wines and beers. Reservations are not only accepted, they’re recommended.
Grateful Shed Truck Yard
Food trucks meet food hall at this trendy spot that opened near Noah’s Ark in 2019. The food trucks — offering things like tacos, grilled cheese and milkshakes — are inside, along with a full bar (with many craft beer options on tap) and an eclectic array of decorations, including a Greyhound bus (suspended from the ceiling), VW vans and truck beds that serve as dining spaces. When the weather allows, garage doors open to outdoor space with picnic tables, lawn games, fire pits and live music.
The food trucks are open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday, Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday. The bar is open 11-2 a.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11-2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Contact Chelsey Lewis at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.