You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
Every longtime Wisconsinite has at least one childhood memory of the Wisconsin Dells. Maybe your family spent a weekend in a cabin, or maybe your eighth grade class took an end of year trip to Mount Olympus. No matter your family’s financial situation, the Dells offers at least some fun for everyone. If you live around here long enough, you’ll end up checking it out, sooner or later. I first heard of the Dells before I even lived in Wisconsin. This is one of my oldest memories, from when I was about five years old:
I sat alone, in darkness, on the floor of my grandpa’s den. He lived in a century-old farmhouse in the middle of lower Michigan. Though the home didn’t have safe drinking water, or stairs acceptable to modern building codes, it did have one advantage over my parents’ place in the Chicago suburbs, satellite TV. As I introduced myself to the History Channel, a commercial came on. I remember a man in a canoe, paddling away from the camera on a glassy still lake. The setting sun painted the water and sky a fiery orange, all I could see were the silhouettes of distant trees, and that of the singular man in his canoe. After a few seconds, two words faded onto the screen: Wisconsin Dells.
At least, I think that’s how it went. I can’t find this commercial online. The next year, my family moved to Wisconsin, and I grew to know the Dells as a place where water is enjoyed from a tube, rather than a canoe. Still, no trip to the Kalahari could completely erase the paddling man from my memory. I thought about him again recently, and realized: that commercial, if it was actually shot in the Dells, could only have been filmed in one place. The paddlers among you probably think this is obvious, but it only just hit me, that was totally Mirror Lake.
Mirror Lake State Park is perhaps the biggest Wisconsin State Park that I would ever feature on this show. What do I say at the top of every episode? I’m trying to highlight underrated places, and a park that receives over three hundred thousand visitors a year is hardly a hidden gem. But Mirror Lake backs right up to the Wisconsin Dells, and it’s normal for their water parks to host over a million people each in the same timeframe. Devil’s Lake State Park, only twenty minutes away, clears two million people a year, easily. So, when compared with its neighbors, Mirror Lake seems underappreciated. This is really strange, as the park isn’t lacking in amenities, or things to do.
Mirror Lake is named for the lake at its center, the first of two such artificial bodies of water, created by dams on Dell Creek. Unlike its downstream sister, Lake Delton, Mirror lake is hemmed in by cliffs and canyons of sandstone. These walls, which can be thirty feet high, at times, squeeze the lake. There are more open sections, but some parts are no more than twenty yards wide. Other than giving the lake its shape, the walls, and the trees they support, block a lot of wind from reaching the water’s surface. This means that big sections of the lake are completely still, resulting in a glassy, mirror-like surface.
Conversely, the lake is also kept still, to protect the sandstone walls. Motor boats are allowed, but to minimize erosion, they keep to no-wake speeds. This all combines for water uniquely well-suited to paddlers, more so than maybe any other lake in the region.
Why should someone from Madison bring their kayak to Mirror Lake? Well, honestly, none of the water around Madison is that great for paddling. The big lakes are filled with fast boats, and they can get choppy if there’s any wind. Lake Wingra and Brittingham Bay are pretty good, but if you’re even considering hauling your boat out of the city, you’re probably bored with our smaller bodies of water. Mirror lake may be narrow in parts, but it’s nearly three miles long! There’s so much to explore.
Devil’s Lake is the obvious choice for a nearer place to paddle, but the sightseeing from the water of Wisconsin’s most popular park is a bit limited. Most of the shore of Devil’s lake is either a sand beach, or a pile of giant boulders. The landscape is still beautiful, but it’s distant. At Mirror lake, you can paddle right up to the pockmarked sandstone cliffs, and the trees will even lean out to meet you. The nature, from the water is so in-your-face, in a way that’s different from many state park lakes.
If you don’t have a boat, that’s no problem. Dells Watersports operates a stand by the boat launch, where they rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, and even gas-powered pontoon boats, if you insist. There really is no better way to explore the heart of the park, but if you don’t want to bother with a boat at all, there’s a separate swim beach, too.
For those determined to keep themselves dry, Mirror Lake also sports miles upon miles of trails. There’s a loop loaded with informational signs, documenting a group of lakeside cabins, lost to time. The forested acres south of the park office are set aside for mountain biking. In the winter, many of the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, and where that’s not possible, snowshoes are permitted. One of my favorite year round trails takes hikers up the cliffs, under a canopy of massive cedar trees. You cross a long bridge over a ravine, and if you timed it right, Ishnala Supper Club is right on the other side, ready to serve up old-fashioneds. If all this sounds like too much to pack into one day, they have over a hundred and fifty campsites, many with electricity available. I’ve found Mirror Lake works great as a base camp for a weekend in the Dells.
Usually when I cover parks like this, I like to let my listeners know about any upcoming events the park happens to be hosting. There is one coming up this weekend, I’ll link it in the online version of this story as usual, but its description on the DNR website is a bit vague. Based on my conversations with park staff, and what I observed at the site, I’ll attempt to expand on that a bit.
This Saturday, from 6 to 8pm, Mirror Lake will host its annual Halloween Hike. As the sun sets, the forest will light up with the flames of dozens, maybe hundreds, of Tiki torches. Yes, Halloween is still a good two weeks away, but the weather for a night hike should hopefully be much better this weekend. Besides, I think the Halloween theme comes not so much from the timing, as it does from the advertised “Mystery Guest,” at the end of the trail. Could it be a witch, a werewolf? Someone your kids will actually be excited to meet, like the Minions? I can’t say, I’ve never done this hike before.
Participants will start from the beach, and search the surrounding trails for clues to the mystery guest’s identity. When they’ve collected all four, they can head to the amphitheater to see whether their hunch is correct. I don’t know much more than that about the mechanics of the mystery, but I do know that there will be a bonfire and s’mores at the amphitheater. For some people, that’s worth the price of admission by itself.
Honestly, it’s probably worth the price of admission to a lot of you, as that price is zero. The Halloween Hike is free and open to all. Technically, you need a state parks admission sticker on your vehicle, but I don’t know if they even check that at events like this. The hike itself is on trails the park designates as “easy” terrain, but the trails are unpaved, and a little uneven, so they’re not accessible to everybody. However, if you don’t mind cutting straight to the end, the Amphitheater has an ADA-compliant parking area, which makes an easy entrance for just about everyone. As it gets dark, the torches will be spaced close enough to easily follow from one to the next. I don’t suggest bringing a bunch of flashlights, as that could ruin the ambience for yourself or other groups. However, bringing one might be wise, as I’m not sure all the bathrooms are lit at night.
One last time, the Halloween Hike and Mystery Guest will be held this Saturday, October 15th, from 6pm to 8pm, at Mirror Lake State Park. You can find this information on the DNR’s website, or in the online version of this story, at wortfm.org.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.