Known as one of the Midwest’s premier rock climbing parks, Devil’s Lake State Park is also a hiker’s dream. This 9,000 acre park includes a 360 acre natural lake, banked on two sides with 500 foot tall bluffs, and over 20 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult.
Located just outside of the town of Baraboo, Wisconsin (only about 40 minutes northwest of the Capital city of Madison), the park is within the Baraboo Hills, a national natural landmark. These hills are over 1.6 billion years old, and were once part of the Baraboo Mountain Range which was probably taller than today’s Rocky Mountains.
This area was at the southern end of the most recent glacial activity, and the bluffs were not scoured by the movement of the ice. The lake was formed when the glacial till was deposited at both ends of the hills, closing off the area between. The main rock here is Quartzite, a very hard rock that was once sandstone beneath a great sea. Over time, the sandstone was subject to pressure, turning it into this unusual rock found only in a few places in the country. Due to the silica content of the rock, it does not hold much soil, so the rock outcroppings are generally visible with very few trees and plants on them.
There are plenty of trails to hike at the park, but most interesting to the majority of visitors are the East Bluff and West Bluff Trails. These trails are approximately 1.5 miles each, and circle Devil’s Lake from high above the 500 foot tall bluffs. Our hike began at the south side of the West Bluff Trail, where there is little parking or other activity. Looking back, it was probably a good idea to begin the hike at this end - the halfway point of the two trail hike would pass through the visitor’s center where food, drink, and rest were available. Beginning a hike at the visitor’s center would demand a complete circle of the lake before any comforts were available. Be prepared for a rocky trail up and down the bluffs. The trails are maintained well, and in some places consist of asphalt poured between rocks, while other places are made by naturally fallen rocks arranged into steps.
You don’t need to be a rock climber to enjoy the bluff trails, but hiking these trails makes one wish they were. There are so many opportunities to climb, one must resist the temptation. Even without any climbing ambitions, visitors will find the trails interesting. There are seemingly endless vistas overlooking the rolling countryside below, each one better than the previous. Caution must be taken if one ventures onto some of the rocky areas of the bluffs, as there are no guardrails or fences, and some areas drop off hundreds of feet.
While only a bit over a mile and a half, these trails take quite some time to complete. This is not only due to the rugged terrain, but also to the numerous places to stop and take in the view. With dozens of places to stop, hikers get a real sense of the entire lake in context with the landscape as they circle it from high above.
Listed as difficult, these two trails were challenging. Rugged to say the least, they didn’t require any rock climbing, but the trails were often difficult to find in the areas of fallen boulders, because the trails actually ran through the boulders. That said, there are so many different people hiking these trails - some jogging, some hiking, and others clearly not used to such a workout, but nonetheless all enjoying the experience at a slower pace.
The West Bluff trail offered some beautiful views of the Baraboo Hills, but the East Bluff trail promised most of the famous rock formations for which Devil’s Lake State Park is known. Our halfway point in the hike was the north end of the lake where we refueled with some food and drink and headed up the next 500 foot bluff.
Storms threatened us all morning, and were getting closer and closer, but our car was over 1.5 miles away, and there were only two ways to get back to it - turn around and climb the West Bluff again, or go forward and climb the East Bluff. We chose to experience the unknown and continue our hike. Turns out the storms stayed away and we only received a bit of drizzle.
We were now excited to see some of the rock formations, and followed the small loop trails to view them. First was the famous Devil’s Doorway, a formation with two towers of rock and a doorway-shaped space between.
The trail was relatively easy to navigate, but had some areas where a careless person could fall and get injured - even killed. This did not stop several young men from climbing the formation. Apparently, some of the boys had been here before and climbed a portion of Devil’s Doorway, while another had not. The latter approached the formation, looked below and mentioned he was a bit apprehensive about climbing up. The two others walked over to help him climb up.
At this location, the drop off wasn’t hundreds of feet down, but only about ten. However, if someone were to fall or slip off of the rock ten feet below, the drop was significantly greater. Climbing any higher on this formation increased the danger of a deadly fall off the other sides.
After the assistance up, the boys took in the view, posed for a few photographs to prove they climbed into the formation, then jumped down to continue their hike. Moments after they departed, another group of young men climbed up to the opening in the rock.
While we carefully photographed the formations and the valley below, more and more hikers passed by to view and climb the rocks. One in particular jogged down the narrow path, and without stopping, hopped from the path onto three small outcroppings until he reached the outermost (seen above at the right). This point had no ledge below, and a fall off of this six foot wide rock meant a drop of hundreds of feet.
Standing at the furthest point of the overlook without any fear of falling is one thing, but the most dangerous part was the jogging and jumping out to this point - on slightly wet rock! He made it back perfectly safe, I’m happy to report.
Continuing our quest for great views and rock formations, we found another short loop trail that lead to a formation called Balanced Rock. This trail was quite challenging, but well work the effort.
This formation appeared to have been constructed, yet it was natural. Thousands of years of water seeping into the cracks in the rocks and ice expanding them caused boulder after boulder to break away and tumble down the bluff. The bluffs were littered with boulders, and from a distance looked like gravel, but in reality were four to six foot wide boulders. I can only imagine how this place looked hundreds of years ago - thousands of years ago. What formations were present then?
Our hike was almost over, and we made our way to the bottom of the bluff. This was no easy task, because the trail down led directly through the collection of boulders which, over time, fell from the bluffs some 500 feet above the lake. Someone took the time to make the descent a bit easier, buy placing some flat boulders in a line creating a switchback trail on the hillside. Easier to climb down than a hill, or the untouched boulders, some hikers had a bit of trouble navigating the trail, while young kids ran down with no fear. I was in the middle, no trouble, but respectfully stepping to avoid a long fall over the edge.
Once at the bottom, the remaining hike was flat as we walked along the shore of the lake. We could then look above for landmarks of where we were, and remember the sweeping views of the Baraboo Hills.
Hikers dare to get closer and closer to the edge for a better view, or to tempt fate? Perhaps a bit of both.
Either way, spending time at Devil’s Lake State Park must include a hike around the lake on the East and West Bluff trails. The landscape is like nothing in the Midwest, and makes one think they are in areas near the Rocky Mountains.
An autumn or winter hike would be amazing here, and I certainly have plans for that, but first, a summer filled with many other scenic hikes.