When your in-laws live just a few miles from the Wisconsin Dells, you are bound to learn a thing or two about the “Water Park Capital of the World.” In the beginning, I did not see this as a bonus. My husband and I pointedly avoided the Dells in the early days of our marriage. It was easy to do. My in-laws had a beautiful farm—with Morgan horses—on the outskirts of Baraboo. With its sweeping views of the Baraboo hills, wooded paths, and a creek where we could do plenty of exploring, we certainly didn’t need any man-made attractions.
But over the years, things changed. My father-in-law passed away, the horses were sold, and we had three boys. My oldest son is 12 now, and since he came along, we’ve been to at least 10 of the Dells’ best-known hotels and water parks. So many that I have lost count.
Taking in the colors by boat
Beer tasting at Autumn Harvest Fest
Riding in a World War II amphibious vehicle.
Photos courtesy of Wisdell
We have spent too much money and had a blast at Kalahari, the Wilderness, Grey Wolf, and Chula Vista. And I have to admit the Dells won me over with experiences like the time at Noah’s Ark two summers ago, when my youngest was 5. I envisioned myself hunkering down by the wave pool with a piña colada while my kids hit slides that looked terrifying to me. But my boys insisted I join them on Black Thunder and Time Warp. “Stop being such a wimp, Mom! It’s awesome!” They were right. It was awesome. (Thankfully, Scorpion’s Tail was too frightening even for them. They didn’t admit it, but I could tell they were secretly glad they didn’t meet the minimum weight requirements.)
But I can only handle about 24 hours in one of these hotels before the noise and continual wetness start to get to me. Then it’s time to venture out. And for this reason I especially love to visit in the fall. One of my favorite trips was in October over the long MEA weekend, when the Dells Autumn Harvest Fest—with scarecrow stuffing, pumpkin carving, an art and craft fair, pony rides, live entertainment, and microbrew tasting—is in full swing.
First, however, I should mention there is a downside to visiting in autumn: Noah’s Ark, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest water park,” will be closed. There is also an upside: Noah’s Ark, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest water park,” will be closed. The crowds are smaller in the off-season, so some attractions shut down or have reduced offerings, which means you need to do your research before you go and set your expectations accordingly. But there is still plenty to do, and it’s nice to do it with less traffic.
After some looking online, we found a great deal for a night at the Atlantis Waterpark Hotel that included free admission to the Mt. Olympus Hotel water park and tickets to its annual Halloween amusement park event. Mt. Olympus is a Dells icon. Its Trojan horse towers over downtown, and the Hades roller coaster is known for its harrowing underground section of track. Olympus also has multiple go-kart tracks, including one that goes right up into the Trojan horse. At night, the park was transformed into a “not too scary” Halloween park with zombies, goblins, and a live DJ playing songs like (what else?) “The Monster Mash.”
After all that spooky fun, I was ready to go to Baraboo in search of magic. The next day we made the 20-minute drive. Baraboo is the original home of the Ringling Brothers Circus. In the fall, the full circus (a summer delight) is not performing, but the museum is open and the magic show—which includes lots of audience participation—is truly impressive and highly entertaining for all. It’s a great escape on a cold, rainy day and a way to warm up after exploring the natural wonders outside.
Photo by Jonah Westrich
If you visit the Dells and don’t learn about the amazing geological history of the area, you are really missing out. The Sandstone that forms the Dells is found only four places on the planet—Germany, Switzerland, New York, and Wisconsin—and the rock formations and gorges are truly stunning.
There are many ways to traverse the area. The Original Wisconsin Ducks, World War II amphibious vehicles, let you do so from land and water. The drivers tell lots of “cheesy” jokes (this is Wisconsin, after all), but the Ducks are not cheap and our boys, who got their first Duck ride this summer, declared them “kind of boring.” Next time, they want us to opt for the jet boat ride. You can rent a pontoon, too.
Glaciers also played a role in creating the Dells. Many glaciers from the most recent ice age ended here, leaving behind incredible rocks, bluffs, and natural beauty as they receded. Devil’s Lake is the handiwork not of the devil, but of a glacier with a diabolical sensibility. Or at least it’s fun to spin such tales as you hike trails that lead down into this very deep, very dark lake surrounded by towering bluffs and pass through rock formations with names like Devil’s Doorway. Once there, my kids love spending time skipping rocks and climbing on the giant boulders around the shoreline.
Near Devil’s Lake is another one of my favorite hikes. Parfrey’s Glen is not very well marked, and from the flat, boring parking lot it doesn’t look like much. Don’t let that stop you. A small creek leads to an impressive slot canyon of Cambrian sandstone and Baraboo quartzite. A sturdy boardwalk winds through the rock formations, and tiny trout dart in and out of the shadows. This quiet, peaceful gorge, with exposed rock that is millions of years old, is like no other place in the region.
That’s my kind of Halloween magic.
Where To Eat
Buffalo Phil’s Pizza & Grille. This kid-pleaser delivers your food by train. 150 Gasser Rd., Lake Delton, 608-254-7300, buffalophilsgrille.com
High Rock Cafe. A popular American bistro. Check to see if it has created a special dish for the Autumn Harvest Festival. 232 Broadway, Wisconsin Dells, 608-254-5677, highrockcafe.com
Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub. Our boys love sampling the unusual soda flavors as well as the traditional root beer and cream soda. 644 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Wisconsin Dells, 608-253-9109, sprecherspub.com
More Thrills and Chills
Haunted Walks. Hear stories of the spirits that still roam downtown during a one-hour walking tour by flashlight. Tours happen Oct. 18–19 and Oct. 31, starting at The Coffee Bean. 701 Oak St., Baraboo, 608-963-2821, barabootours.com/index.php/hauntedwalks
Big Foot Zipline. It promises “spine-tingling excitement.” 1550 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Wisconsin Dells, 608-244-3668, bigfootzip.com
Rick Wilcox Magic Theater. Magic shows, magic shop. 1670 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Wisconsin Dells, 608-254-5511, rickwilcox.com
Tommy Bartlett Exploratory Interactive Science Center. Do experiments that are literally hair-raising. 560 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Wisconsin Dells, 608-254-2525, tommybartlett.com/exploratory