While Wisconsin Dells might be the waterpark capital of the world, there is so much more to do there. Just minutes away from the busy strip of great indoor waterparks are the great outdoors with exhilarating hikes, a pristine lake, horse-drawn carriage rides and more ~ all of which are young and older kid-friendly approved!
One of biggest, most beautiful and most visited parks in the upper Midwest, Devil’s Lake State Park is known for its spectacular 500 feet of bluffs overlooking a sparkling 360-acre lake. Walks range from stroller- and wheelchair-friendly asphalt to difficult steep trails through woods, valleys and meadows. Distances range from short .3 mile distances to the 13.7 mile Ice Age Trail which showcases outstanding glacial features and breathtaking scenic views from atop cliffs.
Within its 10,000 acres families can also camp, picnic, rappel, rock climb, swim, bicycle, scuba dive, canoe, kayak, fish and take in the amazing autumn colors.
During the winter months, head to the sledding hill, cross-country ski, ice fish and go snowshoeing. It’s open year-round. There’s a $10 per day parking fee for non-Wisconsin license plate holders.
Mirror Lake State Park is 2,200-acre park with a wooded shoreline with sandstone cliffs up to 50 feet high, a swimming beach and wetlands that are home to a variety of wildlife. It also includes Mirror Lake and because of the narrow waterways and highly porous sandstone, Mirror Lake is a restricted “NO WAKE SPEED” which makes it an ideal place for both novice and experienced canoeists, kayakers and paddle boarders.
As someone who cannot swim, the idea of paddle boarding was scary — but I was assured that because Mirror Lake is a no-wake lake, this was a great place to try it. Not only would I have a life vest on, the folks at Mirror Lake Rentals (located within Mirror Lake State Park and on Mirror Lake and where you can rent your paddle boards or kayaks) kept a close eye on me and gently talked me through the proper form of standing on the paddle board safely.
I started on my knees to get used to being on the water and I started paddling into the Lake. When I was ready, I slowly stood on the board, using my core muscles to balance. Before I knew it, I was paddle boarding. The process took about five minutes and once I overcame my fear, I was able to enjoy the serenity surrounding me including those stunning 50 feet high sandstone cliffs covered with huge white, red and Norway pine trees.
In 1956, horse-drawn wagon tours started through Lost Canyon, the longest and deepest land canyon in Wisconsin. The tours continue today though a magnificent mile of cliff-walled gorges in comfortable yet quaint horse-drawn carriages that carry up to 15 people each. At the narrowest passages, the guides must talk the horses through the tight squeeze. Remarkably, in some of the deeper parts, the sheer rock and sandstone wall have not felt the touch of the sun in more than 50,000 years.
Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the shallow, sandy beach, picnic tables and charcoal grills on the property before or after the 30-minute horse-drawn wagon tour.
For a different vantage point to enjoy the changing colors of the trees, try ziplining through them! Choose from three options:
- Wilderness Canyon Zip Line Canopy Tours takes you over Lost Canyon
- BigFoot Zipline Tours takes you over water
- Chimney Rock Park Zip Line Tours – Vertical Illusions is an eco-adventure with 15 continuous tree-to-tree lines that have you zipping at speeds pushing 50 mph without ever touching the ground after you hike up to the summit.
Children as young as 10 are permitted on some of the ziplines but they all have weight requirements. Vertical Illusions allow children to ride tandem with a guide if they don’t want to do it alone.
5. International Crane Foundation This city girl nearly got lost trying to find the International Crane Foundation because my GPS kept taking me through farmlands and back roads with no names. Turns out, I wasn’t lost at all.
The International Crane Foundation is located amid the farmlands of southern Wisconsin, just 10 minutes from the hustle and bustle of the Wisconsin Dells. Visitors who make it are treated to 15 species of cranes that inhabit five continents. Only here can one observe all of them in one place including the whooping crane, the rarest crane in the world.
Start your visit with a multi-media tour narrated by Tom Brokaw where you’ll learn the history of cranes, current threats to their survival and why researches began experimenting with costume-rearing of cranes (wait – what’s that?). Today researchers are caring for young Whooping Cranes at ICF wearing full-length crane costumes to hide their human form and use crane hand puppets to feed and interact with the chicks so they’ll be better prepared for life in the wild.
ICF is open to the public every day between April 15 and October 31 from 9 am to 5 pm. but guided public tours are offered only on weekends in October. Admission fees vary.