Our visit to Wisconsin’s largest state park, Devil’s Lake State Park, included three other hikes as well – in Natural Bridge State Park, in Tower Hill State Park, and through Cave of the Mounds. The hike around Devil’s Lake was by far the most difficult of these and is probably the toughest hike we’ll take anywhere in the state.
But more on that later.
We arrived in nearby Baraboo (of circus fame) on a Sunday evening. We stayed at the WilloWood Inn which is just outside the southern limits of the town and just a mile or so from the park entrance. We had supper at the nearby Tumbled Rock Brewery and Kitchen, a very nice restaurant whose name’s significance you will soon discover.
How To Hike around Devil’s Lake
As I mentioned earlier, Devil’s Lake is the largest of the Wisconsin state parks. I think that most of its visitors concentrate their activities around the lake itself, either on the north or the south(east) shore. The east and west shores are dominated by huge bluffs, unimaginatively named West Bluff and East Bluff. These are two of the main reasons the lake exists.
Most visitors are likely to arrive in the north shore area as that’s where the main buildings are. Being largely conformists, this is what we did too.
From the area near the North Beach, we headed west to circle the lake counterclockwise. If you intend to walk around the lake as we did, I highly recommend going in this counterclockwise (anti-clockwise, if you prefer) direction. The reason will become clearer later.
Tumbled Rocks Trail
We elected to stay low, after passing the beach, and took the Tumbled Rocks Trail instead of climbing the West Bluff. This, I think, proved to be another wise decision. There is no such option on the east side of the lake. There you must climb the bluff.
The reason for the naming of this trail (a bit more imaginative than the bluff namings) becomes clear almost immediately after you start to hike it. This trail, I think, also has much to do with the naming of that restaurant I mentioned above.
Virtually all the way along the east shore of Devil’s Lake, which is about three times longer (north to south) than it is wide (east to west), the terrain is filled with large, tumbled rocks. I don’t know how many of these arrived at their current positions naturally and how many were put there by man.
Somewhere along the path, you may see this “dented” tree.
I don’t know how long it’s been there or how long it will remain. If you’ve seen it, how long ago was that?
There are a handful of homes right along the southwest shore that have been there for quite some time. (You’ll be able to see them below in a shot from the East Bluff.) Other than that, there’s not much to see along the Tumbled Rocks Trail. And that’s probably just as well because you have to keep your eyes on the narrow, blacktop path most of the time anyway.
Devil’s Lake South Shore
As the path bends eastward, you actually have to walk along the road for a bit. That is, there’s no real trail for a while. There is this informational sign about fish along the way.
When the trail does appear again, it’s in the form of a concrete “boardwalk”. At least, the park map seems to call this a boardwalk. It’s really what we normally call a sidewalk.
The real, shorter, wooden boardwalk comes a little later.
It was in this area that we saw several birds on the lake that we’re pretty sure were loons.
I wondered aloud if they were loons or anhingas. My thoughts about the birds stemmed from our plays of a game called Wingspan. While an anhinga looks a little like a loon, it seems their territory doesn’t normally include Wisconsin.
So these were probably loons we were seeing. Later we heard one of them calling, and it sounded kinda loony to me.
What the map calls the “South Shore” area is really the southeastern shore. There we found a place (one of several) that the designers apparently considered a place where you could get a scenic view of the lake and its surroundings.
There are also boats (for rent in season?) and picnic tables in the area. (The geese come and go.)
Food is available in season. We must have been too early for all of this.
There is a Bird Mound in the area. It’s that weedy, unattended area in the picture. I sometimes wonder why we leave Indian mound vegetation grow wild. Wouldn’t it be just as (if not more) respectful to trim the grasses so the mound would look more pleasing – and visible – to the eye?
Conquering the East Bluff
As you leave the South Beach, you cross a single set of railroad tracks, which are still used, before you must climb the East Bluff to complete your circuit of the lake. These tracks are the reason you can’t stay low as we did on the west side.
Climbing the East Bluff from the south is not for the faint of heart – or legs and lungs. Virtually all of the trek upwards looks like this.
What you see in the picture above is not actually part of the path. It’s what you see all around on either side of the manicured, stone trail. The trail itself consists of – in our best estimation – about 500 or more steps or stairs made of large, flat rocks.
The designers did a decent job on this winding trail to get you to the top as quickly (and easily?) as possible. It’s not a path I would want to hike down though. There is no railing. In multiple places, if you were to lose your balance, the resulting fall could be injurious. Probably not deadly though.
Still, we did meet several small groups (usually pairs) of hikers who were coming down in the opposite direction. Fortunately there are places along the way where you can step off the track and let others pass. If there weren’t, this trail would be really dangerous.
Do not attempt this trail in either direction if the stones are wet. They can get slippery easily. I fear you wouldn’t get very far without getting injured.
Part of the way along this climb, we saw Balanced Rock, several yards off the main trail.
Somehow we managed to miss noticing Elephant Rock. Actually, we probably saw it but just didn’t realize what we were seeing.
I took the following picture just to prove we made it to the top.
Yes, I realize this doesn’t exactly prove it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
There are several good places to take in the view of the lake below from the top of East Bluff. This is one of them that shows the houses I mentioned earlier.
As we got nearer our starting point, we could see the North Beach and Baraboo (I think) in the distance.
There are steps at the northern end of the East Bluff trail, but most are much gentler than those at the south end.
We finished our visit to Devil’s Lake State Park with a lunch at one of the several picnic tables amongst the buildings along the north shore. There was a strong wind coming off the lake, but it was bearable because the temperature was rising and we were still quite heated from the hike.
Our day wasn’t over though. We went on to Natural Bridge State Park for one more short hike.
Baraboo, Wisconsin (2 miles)
Nearest Emergency Facility
Baraboo, Wisconsin (2 miles)
6:00 AM to 11:00 PM, year-round
Vehicle admission sticker required
Note that daily passes cost slightly more than at most other parks, except for those 65 or older.