Wisconsin River XIII: “The Upper & Lower Dells”
River Bay Road to Norway Drive
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Divided perfectly to highlight the best of the upper and lower dells, these 11.5 miles are full of breathtaking formations, bluffs, overhangs, nooks, crannies, inlets and outlets to discover. You haven’t experienced the dells until you’ve given yourself the time to explore the dells.
October 11, 2015
Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: 2.73 | cfs: 3,140
This part of the Wisconsin always has enough water to paddle. This was a little on the low side but in no way did it result in any navigability issues, aside from not being able to paddle through the slot canyon in Witches Gulch and encountering some minor scraping in the shallows near the take-out.
River Bay Campground boat launch, River Bay Road, Lyndon Station, Wisconsin
Norway Drive boat landing, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 10:45a. Out at 6:15p.
Total Time: 7h 30m (with lots of diversions)
Miles Paddled: 11.5
Ducks and geese.
My impression of the Dells is probably pretty similar to many others; a gawdy tourist-trap that was the highlight of my summers as a kid (it was the next best thing to Disney). But never in all the time I’ve spent there, have I actually explored the natural features that this area was built around until this trip.
The Dells has changed a lot in the 30+ years from when my family made it an annual summer vacation destination. The “Old Dells,” located at the eastern end of Broadway towards Highway 13, still gives glimpses of what it once was; fifties-era hotels with outdoor pools (the good ones had a slide). The downtown remains similar; an abundance of souvenir shops and other tourist oddities. With the expansion and sprawl of Lake Delton, outdoor-only waterparks gave way to year-round indoor-waterparks in recent decades.
Gone are parks like Family Land, Riverview Park, Storybook Gardens and attractions like the Wonder Spot, the Wax Museum, the helicopter rides near Xanadu and even the original wire that hung over the bar at the original Monk’s on which your order would be slung across the length of the bar towards the grill. But you’ll still find some original Dells attractions like Tommy Barlett, the Wisconsin Ducks and Dells Boat Tours. These latter two, are the ones you’ll encounter on this trip.
As an aside, I’ve always thought there was some strange, maybe supernatural energy to the Dells and Baraboo area. There’s a whole host of curiosities that are equal parts larger-than-life, unique, mystical, haunting and delightful. It’s a fascinating mix of history if you think about it; from Native American, to the circus, to lumbermen, to a government ammunition plant and personalities like Dr. Evermore. Yet, now it’s known for its water parks. The Dells is indeed a strange place.
Anyway, with all my time spent in the Dells, it wasn’t even until a couple years ago when I rode a Wisconsin Duck for the first time (a “Wisconsin Duck” is an amphibious military-style vehicle that has been part of Dells history as long as the Dells has been around – basically a pontoon boat with wheels). It was a fun little diversion and it’s one of the only attractions that still takes tourists out of the waterparks and into the more natural spaces of the Dells. I actually enjoyed the ride and could see the appeal and understand this attraction’s longevity. But in a canoe or kayak, you’ll have the advantage to adventure on your own and the freedom to pilot your way amongst the rock formations on your own terms.
In what has now become an annual event, Timothy coordinated the third annual fall flotilla. This year, it was the best of the upper and lower dells. Taking advantage of the changing season and the colors of the turn, he plans it for peak or near-peak. Based on schedule availability and some incredible weather, we paddled this just before colors started to turn which was still very pretty.
Mr. Mike Svob, author of Paddling Southern Wisconsin covers these two segments as part of lengthier sections in his book. The mileage in total, 7 miles on the upper and 15.5 miles south of the dam is much more than one would need or want to bite off in one day. Enter Mr. Timothy Bauer, who has brilliantly figured out two equidistant sections from the dam in downtown Dells that captures the heart and soul of the Wisconsin Dells without the fluff of long, wide and arguably less-scenic, (in comparison to the dells, that is) river paddling.
Evenly split, with 5.75 miles upstream and down- of the dam, keep in mind that the mileage may be identical but if you’re going to check out all the hidden gems (and you should because that’s the fun of it), you’ll put on a few more traversing the river.
Our flotilla consisted of eight paddlers this year. Best yet, we extended the flotilla invitation to fellow Miles Paddlers who have inquired about paddling with us this past season. Joe was the only one who’s schedule allowed for it but we look forward to future outings with others.
What we liked:
The put-in is located at River Bay Campground, which is also the home of the Princess Kay paddle boat tour. It’s a nice little camp resort with friendly folks who run a great little indoor/outdoor bar and restaurant. The large landing is an ideal place to launch due to its proximity to the Palisades. A $5 fee is required to use it but it’s worth the convenience (there is a self-registration box located near the dock).
The upper dells starts wide and flat and though you’ll eventually come to the same point in the river, one can choose from either side as you head towards Witches Gulch. On river-right begin the Palisades which are the unofficial beginning of the Upper Dells. Just beyond these, is Stand Rock, the rock formation made famous by H. H. Bennett. On river-left, some modest rock-cut banks gradually lead to larger, eroded rock walls that continue all the way to the entrance of Witches Gulch, a side channel, located between Signal Point and Sunset Cliff (by the way, the Vintage Wisconsin Dells site has an excellent collection of vintage photos of many of the rock formations you’ll encounter).
I made my way up to the tourist point of Witches Gulch. Unfortunately, water levels were low, so I wasn’t able to paddle through the little slot canyon. Instead, I waited for a tourist boat to back out and stared at the disgustingly thick and green like pea-soup algae in the waters around me. It is around Witches Gulch where you’ll encounter boat traffic for the Upper Dells as well as speedboats and jet skies and the traffic will increase as you make your way towards downtown.
From Witches Gulch to Rood’s Glen, the river narrows. Steamboat rock, perhaps my favorite little diversion, is a rugged little island with some amazing rock erosions. On this morning, there was a woman meditating from high above on a rocky lookout. I can’t think of a more perfect and serene place (well, except for eight kayakers disturbing the zen, which come to think of it, we were probably also the reason why we saw very little wildlife). Steamboat Rock also signals the beginning of an even narrower section which leads to the mouth of Cold Water Canyon on river-left (another boat tour stop and a must-explore side channel) and the northernmost channel of Blackhawk Island on river-right.
These two openings mark the beginning of “the narrows”, which is just that, a much narrower part of the river. It was tame in comparison to previous trips according to Timothy. In fact, I think the section preceding the narrows was even bumpier and splashier and one that I wasn’t necessarily attributing to boat traffic – there was just some lively current making for a fun ride.
At the end of the narrows is Devil’s Elbow which brings about even more stunning formations and crevices to paddle into. It’s probably the prettiest part of the upper dells. The river then widens again at the southern edge of Blackhawk Island. Some of us chose to actually circumnavigate the entire island at this point while others of us carried on.
Shelf-structures line the entire length of the left bank, past Chimney Rock, to the Jaws of the upper dells. The one on the right is called Romance Cliff (harder to see in our sunlight at the time we were there, but certainly very romantic) and on the left, is High Rock. Just past that is a really enjoyable stretch of intimate overhangs to paddle under (come to think of it, maybe that was my favorite part – too many things to like).
The river widens again as you head towards downtown and boat traffic increases as they make there way to and from the docks. There’s a large dogleg-right heading into a short stretch where you’ll pass under a train tressle and the Broadway/Highway 23 bridge. Just past the bridge is the dam. Best to stay river-left along the shore heading into town, where the access point is clearly marked.
While waiting for the rest of the group to catch up and portage, I ran up to the bridge on Broadway. A freight-train happened to be running the tressle that parallels the bridge which made for a great site from above (and I’m sure, quite unique from below).
The portage is .3 miles and is best conquered with some help. Two by two, we all made our way up the ramp, down Finnegan Avenue and then down through a small parking area where a trail leads to the river. After the interruption of the dam and the portage, you’re again surrounded by the now familiar and rugged landscape of the Dells, with a beautiful beach setting and rock formations at your backside.
Boat traffic resumes and is a little more congested because it’s the lower dells where you have the added presence of the Wisconsin Ducks. There’s plenty of wakes to ride and you’ll hear plenty of amusing puns blaring from the megaphone-like speaker (that said, they do offer some interesting history and knowledge of the area, including the recent history of the levee break at Lake Delton – where a pair of my sunglasses still rests, RIP, my friend).
The river’s width continues consistent for most of the run, only getting wider near the take-out. There’s a pretty stretch past Echo Point, where, unless you know what you’re looking for, you may miss two more features, Pulpit Rock and Baby Grand Piano.
Resorts are more evident heading past the Lake Delton area. At a very scenic bend is a fittingly-named cliff feature, Hawk’s Bill, a jagged piece of rock that looks like just that, a hawk’s beak. Just around the bend, a USGS gauge is located which is always interesting for us paddling nerds.
Shortly after the gauge are some shallows on river-right. Hugging the shore will eventually lead you to A) an amazing rock feature to paddle through and B) an amazing feature to paddle through under somebody’s property. These are known as Sugar Bowl and Grotto Rock (it’s actually kind of amazing/disappointing that a property was allowed to be built on this unique feature – then again, I’d live there).
After Sugar Bowl, the tour continues towards the last of the notable features. Both sides of the river are flanked with cliffs but river-left has a continuous stretch of formations known as the Inkwells. These continue all the way to what is really the last feature of the lower dells, Lone Rock, which if you were like us, you had to wait for a Duck to make its way around before continuing around it ourselves.
From there, the river gradually gets wider and here was also the only place where we met some shallows that were easily navigated. This was a long and uneventful stretch (one where we gave our dear leader plenty of grief about where exactly the take-out was). But lucky for us, we had a beautiful sunset to head into as we made our way to the access point at Norway Drive, a convenient concrete boat landing with ample parking.
It was a good day, a great day in fact. We had seen so much and paddled many more miles than what the map calculated and I think we all felt it. It was that good kind of exhaustion though. After so many hours together on the river and with the beauty of the dells behind us, it was time to head home.
What we didn’t like:
The portage is indeed challenging. Not so much the terrain but the length of it. Especially if you have a heavy boat (or you’re helping Timothy who I swear, carries rocks or workout equipment in his). But seriously, it’s lengthy, so pace yourself.
Also, the boats and Ducks and speedboats and jet skis are on one-hand annoying, but at the same time, they’re a reality of this stretch. Our suggestion? Make the most of it. Playing in the wakes of these boats were actually kind of fun. If you think about it, you’ll see many happy passers-by who will only ever experience the upper or lower dells by some form of tourist boat. Consider yourself lucky to have the freedom to do it at your own pace and schedule.
If we did this trip again:
This is the crème de la crème of the dells. It captures the highlights and is really how you should experience the dells. Spring or Fall are really the best time to hit this trip as the Wisconsin Dells in summer will be much more congested. It’s a spectacular way to spend a fall day and at peak, it would be incredible.
We really recommend doing both the upper and lower but if you’re looking for just a good half-day trip, the upper dells has the edge on the formations, bluffs and nooks and crannies (and they’re more concentrated).
I’m really looking forward to paddling this again. There’s so much to take in that I know there will always be something new to discover. This is an annual trip that should be on everyone’s calendar.
Wisconsin River V: Lyndon Station to Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin River VI: Dekorra to Whalen Bay
Wisconsin River VII: Downtown Dells to Norway Drive
Wisconsin River X: Portage to Dekorra
Wisconsin River XII: Pine Island to Portage
Wisconsin River XIV: Castle Rock Dam to Lyndon Station
Photos: Rock Formations: Vintage Wisconsin Dells
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River
Miles Paddled Video: