The Vegas of the Upper Midwest. The Waterpark Capital of the World. Families flock to the Wisconsin Dells for the waterslides, roller coasters, mini golf, and magic shows. It’s entirely possible to spend your whole Dells vacation in artificial environments, clad in your swimsuit and flip-flops, and racking up arcade tickets at your waterpark hotel.
But that would be a mistake. The best way to do the Dells is to experience what brought tourism here in the first place: the Wisconsin River, its iconic sandstone bluffs, and the surrounding natural areas that make Wisconsin’s south-central region among the state’s most beautiful.
Top it off with some cheesy tourist fun, and you’re in for a trip to remember—with or without waterslides. Late summer and fall, during school breaks, are popular times for a visit.
History of the Dells
The Ho-Chunk people were here first. Their petroglyphs and pictographs can still be seen carved into the soft rock that lines the Upper and Lower Dells. The U.S. government forcefully removed the tribe in the mid-1800s, pushing them to Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota, until the policy was finally reversed in 1873. The tribe now holds title to 2,000 acres of land in the area.
The first boat tours began on wooden rowboats in the 1850s, with the first steamboat arriving in 1873. Soon after, a photographer named H.H. Bennett took a picture of his son jumping between two tall rock ledges, and would come to be known as the man who made
the Dells famous.
It wasn’t until 1931 that the Wisconsin Dells officially got its name (“dells” comes from the French word “dalles,” meaning slabs of flat rock), though the locals had been calling it that for centuries. Tourism really took off in the 1940s and ’50s with the arrival of land-and-water vehicles known as ducks, along with a man named Tommy Bartlett, whose water-ski show on Lake Delton was a fixture of Dells vacations until the pandemic sadly shut it down for good in 2020.
The Wisconsin River
There are several ways to see the Wisconsin River today. Tucked away from the busy downtown above, the quarter-mile Scenic River Walk offers beautiful views of the river and, at this time of year, fall colors along its towering bluffs. Scenic boat tours range from leisurely two-hour cruises to 30-minute jet-boat adventures. On fall weekends, the Ghost Boat sails after dark, including a stop to walk through shadowy passages on the river’s edge.
But the most fun option of all is a tour on the Original Wisconsin Ducks. How these tank-like Army vehicles still run is just one of the questions you’ll ask yourself on this hour-long jaunt through the woods and waters of the Dells. Other internal dialogue may include: Why are there pieces of the Chicago Board of Trade building in the woods? How many times has this thing hit a tree? Who writes the tour guide’s jokes?
The tour whisks up and down winding forest roads before splashing down—literally—into the river and adjoining Lake Delton. Along the way, you’re likely to see deer, bald eagles, waterfowl, and even coyotes as you learn about the area’s history and geography from the deadpan guide.
Opposite one of the Dells’ oldest attractions is its newest, the Land of Natura, which opened this summer on 150 acres of undeveloped land south of downtown. The first phase of the multi-year project included building a new body of water, Lake Wisconsin Dells, using a natural filtration process the owners perfected at one of their other resorts.
In true Dells fashion, the new lake is believed to be the largest of its kind in the world and in summer is home to the nation’s largest floating waterpark. In the fall, visitors can traverse the 1,100-foot canopy tour through the trees (North America’s longest, of course), hike and mountain bike on 10 miles of trails, and rent kayaks.
Devil’s Lake and Baraboo
After you’ve explored the river, more natural wonders await 20 miles south at Devil’s Lake State Park. It’s Wisconsin’s most visited and largest state park, and the fall colors are second to none, so a morning arrival or weekday visit is recommended.
Once inside, it’s clear why this park is a perennial favorite. Nearly 30 miles of
hiking trails take you through the woods and up and around the shimmering Devil’s
Lake, with breathtaking vistas as the reward for the steep, rocky ascents. Bring your best hiking shoes and be prepared for single-file switchbacks as you work your way to the picture-perfect overlooks.
Pack a picnic and settle in on the shore of the lake’s rocky beach. Better yet, stop at Tumbled Rock Brewery & Kitchen just outside the park entrance. Opened in 2019, the restaurant and its adjacent brewhouse is the type of place you want to simultaneously tell all your friends about and keep to yourself as your own secret discovery.
The daily menu is seasonal and fresh, with dishes that feature locally raised bison, Wisconsin-made cheeses, freshly harvested veggies, and plentiful vegetarian and vegan options. Brews include the Udder’s Up cream ale, seasonal Lost Creek rice lager, and Devil’s Doorway double IPA, named after the state park’s most iconic rock formation.
Between Devil’s Lake and the Dells is a true gem for nature lovers. The International Crane Foundation is dedicated to conserving cranes and their habitats around the world, and is home to all 15 species of this magnificent bird (11 of which are vulnerable or endangered). Spend as much time as you like visiting the birds, hiking the preserve’s trails, and learning about the foundation’s vital work. If you didn’t love cranes before you arrived, you will leave wanting to do whatever you can to save them.
Before heading home, soak in the views one last time from a waterside table at The Vue on the Wisconsin River or Ravina Bay on Lake Delton. As for the waterslides, they’ll be here waiting for you next time.
5 Fun Places for a Rainy Day
This indoor food-truck park features refurbished Volkswagen buses, RVs, and a Greyhound bus suspended above the bar where you can eat your tacos, pizza, and other feel-good fare.
Visit H.H. Bennett’s 1875 studio, re-create his famous photo, and learn more about the history of the Dells at this Wisconsin Historical Society site.
Equal parts wholesome and awesome, a husband-and-wife magic show has wowed audiences of all ages for almost 25 years with amazing illusions and pure Midwestern charm.
Soar over U.S. landmarks (the Dells included) while sitting in stadium seats that move over a gigantic screen. Located inside the Wilderness Resort.
The attraction formerly known as Robot World lives on in all its 1990s glory, complete with interactive science exhibits and a real space station that Tommy Bartlett bought from
the Russians in 1997.