On the map, the trip from Lake Winnebago to the small dot labelled Wisconsin Dells doesn't appear to be far. Of course, when you start the day sleeping in a bit, and then lazily get the morning business done, the whole day seems to go a bit slower. And, don't forget the inevitable side trip while I get lost for an hour or so. Whatever the reasons, we did not arrive at the dot until late one August morning. Even as we were approaching the town, we had little clue what we were getting into. Then, quite suddenly... it appears. To some, it might be the world's biggest tourist trap. To others, the town and surrounding area are full of history and nature. My wife and I fell somewhere in the middle of the two views. We spent 8 to 10 hours there, got to see only a small part of the town, and are eager to see more this summer.
Like many tourist traps, the town doesn't handle traffic especially well. We were there on a beautiful summer day, and the town seemed very crowded. One of the bus drivers who transported us between tour stops said the town was a little less crowded than usual. Still, the traffic was bumper to bumper through most of the downtown area. I guess what caught us by surprise was the fact that only a mile or two out of town, there was no traffic to speak of.
We were only slightly prepared for what we found there. As we were getting into town, we saw a number of tourist guide booths. We decided to check one out. I think most of them are set up to sell the tourists different package plans for the attractions. So exactly what are the attractions? Originally, the Dells was simply a wide spot in the Wisconsin River, with some interesting rock formations. It started, for the Europeans who settled there, as primarily a lumbering center. As the area grew, inns and taverns developed, and more settlers came. One such settler was H. H. Bennett. As a carpenter turned photographer, it was his pictures that opened the eyes of America to the wonders of the Dells. Depending on your point of view, the natural beauty has either been exploited by those who followed, or opened up for all to see. Today there are boat trips to take on both the upper Dells (above the dam) or the lower Dells (below the dam). But don't think the attractions stop with nature. The booth we stopped at had arrangements with 50 or more sites to see, including water parks, amusement parks, go kart tracks, thrill shows, a variety of museums... you get the point. We were confused with all the possibilities, but figured we were there primarily for the river, so we took boat tours on the upper and lower Dells, and signed up for time at a combination amusement/water park. With three you don't get egg roll, but you do get a small discount. I think Deb and I paid less than $50 apiece for about 6 hours of entertainment. The prices didn't seem outrageous, although the amusement park was a disappointment.
Both the upper Dells boat tour and the lower Dells Duck Tour focus on nature. The upper Dells has several neat sights to see. The most famous might be Stand Rock, where photographer Bennett was one of the first to capture live action in a still photograph. I'm not sure I would have used my son as a guinea pig for the jump between rock formations, but Bennett did: 18 times! Finally he captured his son on film, in mid air, 40 or 50 feet above the surrounding land. Tourists are encouraged to try to recapture the event as a trained German Shepherd leaps back and forth. I wasn't quick enough, but I do have pictures of the dog on both sides! Another impressive sight is Witches' Gulch. It is a narrow canyon with beautiful views. Even this is a bit touristy, as you are dropped off to walk up the canyon, to a combination gift shop/snack bar. The walk was cool and refreshing on the hot summer day we took our tour. The upper Dells boat tours are conducted mostly on ferries with 2 levels, the upper level being open-air. I am sure the area is fantastic during the fall color season, but even in mid summer it was truly beautiful.
We opted for the "Duck" tour of the lower Dells. For those not familiar with the vehicles, the ducks used in the Dells are former military amphibious vehicles. You can see them driving around the town some, but most are stationed near the dam, where the lower Dells begin. They have an elaborate set-up to load the tourists in, and they send out one Duck after another, each holding around 30 riders. The ride is combination history/nature/water/roller coaster/boat tour. You may get wet a little, but I think the driver can control this somewhat. He gave us the option of how wet we wanted to get at one water entry point. But, how do you get 30 passengers to agree on anything? He took it pretty easy on us as we went in fairly slowly that time. Other entries were all slow enough that only a slight splash occurred. The Duck tour has stone formations to see, like "Hawk's Beak" and others. There is a Fern Gully to go through, and other forests to enjoy, complete with wandering deer. Some time is spent on Lake Delton, a small lake formed by damming a creek leading to the Wisconsin River. Our driver let kids drive the duck as we cruised the lake for 15 minutes or so. There are historical buildings to see, and old statues brought up from Chicago to view, too. Because of the variety or terrain (hey, it is an amphibian), we enjoyed this trip a little more than the upper Dells boat tour. If you can only do one, choose the upper Dells for scenery, the lower Dells for variety and excitement.
Our third part of the package was pretty disappointing. The salesperson booking the trips didn't tell us that the water park was scheduled to close at 6. When we got into the park, we were fortunate to be able to ride the water rides until 7, due to the number of people there. We could have only gotten one water ride in had they closed the water park on schedule. The amusement park was a little hokey, too. They had one small roller coaster type ride, one adult go-kart track, several kiddie rides, and not much else. It is probably just as well, though, because by that time we were pretty tired. My sweet wife was kind enough to wait in line with me (more than 30 minutes) to ride the go-karts. All the while I was wishing we had signed up for the park across the road. It looked like it had 10 or 20 different go-kart tracks, some of them looking more like roller coasters than go-kart tracks. If you are going to go to the Wisconsin Dells, take some time to pick out the tours you want to go on. There is an awful lot to see. I am not sure you could take years to see it all, like they claim for the Washington, DC area, but you could spend a good part of a week there, even more if you are into that type of tourist mecca.