A few weeks ago I wrote the post My Top Five Small Towns in Wisconsin, and it was so enjoyable to write. Whenever I get an idea to write something- be it a short story or a game review- that idea is only ever the skeleton of what the post becomes. So much of what the text is about is discovered in the act of writing. I often find I only need a vague, hazy image or idea- just enough to get started- and once I do, everything just kind of snowballs. A thousand ideas seem to seep in at once, tugging me this way and that. I never truly know how a piece of writing will turn out. When I write the memoir entries of my online journal- I surprise myself with how much I remember. But those details are only revealed through the act of writing. It is writing which brings them back. Before I start a memoir entry, I always worry that I won’t have enough material for a solid blog post.
Here we go! These are the top five places I have traveled to in Wisconsin that I consider to have been the most naturally beautiful.
#5 Devil’s Lake State Park – Sauk County
This was the first taste I got of the wilderness of Wisconsin, my first sense of it’s being a frontier. Prior to visiting, I had thought for some reason that the Badger State was going to be comprised of flat cornfields and yellowish prairie. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Wisconsin is known for its rolling hills, its dense pine forests, its rocky bluffs and its crystalline lakes. It actually has more freshwater bodies than neighboring Minnesota, whose license plates boast of it being The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. This is the country that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder to write the inimitable children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods.
Devil’s Lake seems to me like the quintessential Wisconsin state park. You have bluffs, a lake, and piney woods far as the eye can see. When I went there with my family in August of 2012, it reminded me of the scene where Shelley Winters gets knocked off the rowboat in one of my favorite all time films A Place in the Sun (based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy). The lake itself, like much of the topography of Wisconsin, was shaped by the glaciers during the last ice age. The glaciers are the brush and Wisconsin is the canvass. The lobes of these glaciers traveled across the land, depositing materials and then melting, and thereafter the land as we see it today took shape. This is how Devil’s Lake was formed, with the lobe essentially creating earthen dams out of terminal moraines. The lake is about 47 feet deep and by no means the deepest Wisco has to offer (that honor belongs to Big Green Lake in Green Lake County, which has a whopping maximum depth of 237 feet). Devil’s Lake seems to have derived its name from a misinterpretation of the Ho-Chunk name for the lake- Tawacunchukdah– which means Spirit Lake.
The time I spent here was short. My family and I had a picnic here and we discussed the image of Americans as being extroverts. A guy walked past, offered to take our picture, before pointing at our Doritos and exclaiming “I LOVE that flavor!”. It might sound like nothing, but this tiny exchange left my British parents in quite a state of excitement.
#4 Big Falls – Eau Claire County
This is a special place to me and my now-roommates Aaron and Anne-Marie. The summers of 2014 and 2015 are a particularly nostalgic era in our lives, in that it seemed like the last taste of freedom before our youth was finally and decisively ended. We were still undergrads and the summers then were a chance (before the responsibilities of true adult life sunk in its hooks) to treat every day as an opportunity for adventure. We went everywhere together, did everything together. Our thirst for excitement knew no bounds, and I had forever attached them to my idea of what the American summers meant. We became known as the Three Amigos, and perhaps no place exemplified our antics better than Big Falls.
We went four times to Big Falls- twice in each successive summer. It’s a favorite recreational spot for college kids and families of the Eau Claire area. The falls themselves are located on the Eau Claire River, and there’s a large beach area where we would set up our blankets and have the most amazing picnics. The three of us would wade into the waters and spend hours throwing the pigskin or the frisbee to one another, deliberately trying to get each other to dive for it. During the summer of 2015, we went there with Aaron’s sister Elizabeth, and somehow we got the idea that they would throw the frisbee and I would chase it like a velociraptor and try to catch it in my mouth. We have a bunch of memories from this place, from fording the river with our picnic baskets and coolers held above our heads to me getting bitten by a horsefly.
#3 The Prairie River Dells – Lincoln County
The Prairie River is a 40-mile tributary of the Wisconsin River, and I was lucky enough to visit it in June 2015. The word “dells” derives from the French “dalles” and roughly translates to “narrows”. It refers in general to rapids enclosed on either side by rocky gorges and ravines. We were spending some time Up North at Aaron’s family cabin, and Aaron’s dad- who Aaron boasted was an experienced woodsman- suggested we check out surrounding areas of natural beauty to satisfy our craze for photography. The Prairie River Dells Scenic Area is located near to the town of Merrill, and we were able to take the time to drive there after breakfast.
At this time our party consisted only of myself, Aaron, his dad, and of course Anne-Marie. We took close-up photos of flowers and insects, we took selfies (which we had to retake due something flying into my eye), and climbed the outcroppings that overlooked the river. It’s a beautiful, secluded area and perhaps the most wild place on this list. The river is surrounded in all directions by thick forest and the most brightly green shrubbery I have ever seen. The trail itself is for the most part natural and unpaved. All around the fragrance of wildflowers. Tag alders and tamarack.
The river itself has significance to the local area as a productive source of trout fishing. In order to help restore the river as a flourishing habitat for trout, the DNR removed four dams. The river is now free-flowing for its entire course!
#2 Witches Gulch – Adams County
Of course, the term “dells” is more famously associated with the Dells of the Wisconsin River. Like much of Wisconsin, it owes its existence to the glaciers that ran amok during the ice age. The story of the formation of these dells is pretty exciting- I promise a tale of mayhem and destruction! Although the dells were formed during the ice age about 15000 years ago, the rock that they were carved out of goes back an incredible 520 MILLION YEARS, during what geologists call the Cambrian Period. Basically, the rock that became the dells was sitting at the bottom of this shallow ocean. Then, skip forward to about 19000 years ago and the glaciers are coming in. Although the rock itself avoided the touch of the glacial lobes- given that it is located in the Driftless Region- it would still be shaped by them. When the glaciers melted they formed what was known as Great Glacial Lake Wisconsin, about 150 feet deep and roughly the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. What glacier remained acted as a massive dam of ice, which ultimately gave way causing a cataclysmal flood, whose waters then created the bizarre and beautiful rock formations we enjoy today.
I went to the Dells with my roommates in the summer of 2015. One of the things we decided to do during our weekend vacation was take a dinner cruise through the dells at sundown. It proved a great opportunity for photography, and we have many memorable snaps to mark the occasion. Halfway through the tour, our boat anchored at a little inlet shadowed by overhanging trees from the high cliffs above. We were at the beginning of what was known as Witches Gulch (yeah, I’ve looked it up and apparently it IS Witches Gulch and not Witch’s Gulch). The name itself seems kind of obscene. But the location is gorgeous. It’s basically a tight ravine that follows the narrowest of winding creeks. The whole place is straight out of a spooky fairy tale!
#1 The Northern Highland
I’ve mentioned several times on this blog my trips to Aaron’s family cabin. Well the cabin is situated in a remote part of Northern Wisconsin (which is basically one giant old-growth pine forest). You’ve got the Chequamegon Forest to the west and the Nicolet Forest to the east, and scores of lakes in between that were created by melting blocks of ice during the glacial drift. The cabin is right on one of those lakes, built over time by Aaron’s dad, who even constructed this massive dock for the boats. Going here really is a treat; one leaves the entire world behind. There is little to no cell phone service here. Everyone wears t-shirts and shorts. The girls don’t wear make-up or fix their hair. The emphasis of the lake life is comfort.
But this post is about areas of natural beauty, so I’ll save my stories about the cabin itself. But I will, however, initiate this comment by saying that one of the things we would do at the lake is go canoeing, kayaking, speedboating or pontooning. One night I went kayaking alone on the lake, which is a great way to appreciate its immensity. It was late in the evening, but it was summer and it was light. All around the trees were hushing. Being alone in that kayak I was struck with how loud these trees sounded, as if this was the only way to hear all of them together as a cohesive whole, as an orchestra of the forest. Sundown is a great time to be on a lake. On this one you can see loons traveling in pairs, every now and then diving down to catch fish. At the shore of the nearest island there’s a bare tree with branches like spikes. It’s the only tree on the shoreline without needles. On the top branch you can sometimes see a bald eagle surveying the lake below, occasionally making a sharp dive toward the water and reemerging with a fish. I took my kayak right under the branch it was sitting on, resisting the urge not to look up and see the talons that were sure to bury themselves in my eyes. But it turned out the eagle wasn’t so interested in me as it was in the fish.
The lake is abundant with wildlife, including large fish like muskie and pike. One time Aaron and I canoed to the furthest point of the lake, got out, and explored the nearby woodlands, before remembering the only thing we had to protect us from Wisconsin’s black bear and reintroduced timber wolf population were a pair of oars.
I just want to say thanks to my brother for helping me with the pictures for this post! If you enjoyed reading it, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe!