Midwesterners know of the zany fun that can be had June through August in Wisconsin Dells, a leading summertime tourist mecca. But fall is also a great time to visit. This is the time of year when summer’s heat has drifted away, along with the season’s crushing crowds.
In the fall, those who prefer a more calming travel environment can hit their favorite Dells attractions without worrying about waiting in long lines or jostling elbows. So go for that ride on the Dells Army Ducks, or duck into the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, where you won’t have to stand in line to ride the high-wire skycycle or operate the giant lever. The vibe around town is calmer, too, yet by no means stuffy or staid.
There are also plenty of autumn-specific experiences to be had in the Dells.
Halloween is said to be America’s second most popular commercial holiday. So it’s not surprising that Wisconsin Dells dishes up plenty of ghoulish fun. The Dells Ghost Boat ferries you along dark waters to the eerie Cold Water Canyon, where you’re required to walk through a mysterious, shadowy passageway (1-608-254-8555; dellsghostboat.com). Red Ridge Ranch in neighboring Mauston, Wis., offers myriad autumn and Halloween activities, such as corn and hay mazes, pumpkin painting and hayrides. The intrepid should opt for the ranch’s haunted hayride or haunted corn maze (1-608-847-2273; redridgeranch.com).
If you have little ones, the Country Bumpkin Farm Market has a kids’ straw-bale cave, hayrides to a pumpkin patch, a pumpkin catapult and campfires with s’mores. That’s in addition to its regular offerings, which include a petting zoo, pedal-kart raceway, pint-size zip line, Lil’ Bumpkin Play Village and the popular Country Bumpkin Express, a bucket train that chugs around the 30-plus-acre farm (1-608-254-2311; countrybumpkinent.com).
In mid-October, rail enthusiasts should head for the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, Wis., for the Pumpkin Special. The train whisks passengers to Quartzite Lake, where rows of pumpkins are waiting to be chosen by enthusiastic little hands (1-608-522-4261; midcontinent.org). The Riverside & Great Northern Railway runs several pumpkin trains on weekends in October; hop aboard its 15-inch gauge steam locomotive for a unique and fun ride, not to mention your very own orange globe (1-608-254-6367; dellstrain.com).
Of course, there’s nothing like a haunted house during Halloween season, and the Dells has two: The Haunted Mansion (1-608-253-1568; wisdellshauntedhouse.com) and Ghost Outpost Haunted House (1-608-254-2127; ghostoutposthauntedhouse.com), the latter of which features 17 eerie chambers including the Vortex Room and the Hallway of the Dead.
Don’t forget to check out the various holiday events scheduled at the area’s water-park resorts. At Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort, for example, kids can hop aboard a wagon to be ferried over to a pumpkin patch; on Saturdays in fall, a trick-or-treat trail is available (1-800-867-9453; wildernessresort.com). Chula Vista Resort celebrates “Spooktober” with scavenger hunts, a Halloween parade and a costume contest (1-608-678-3119; chulavistaresort.com).
Wisconsin Dells sits just north of the ancient Baraboo Bluffs, forested quartzite outcrops that burst into a riot of color during autumn. Hike in and around the bluffs at Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin’s most popular state park, or at neighboring Mirror Lake State Park or Rocky Arbor State Park. Altogether, the three parks have some 50 miles of trails. Maps of scenic fall drives are available on websites run by the Devil’s Lake State Park Visitor Guide (devilslakewisconsin.com) and the state Department of Tourism (travelwisconsin.com).
If hiking and driving aren’t adventurous enough ways to drink in the fall color, try a zip-lining trip with Vertical Illusions (verticalillusions.com). The company offers thrilling zips through Chimney Rock Park, including flights over its cliffs, canyons and lush tree canopy. Zipping excursions with Bigfoot Zipline will send you flying over majestic stands of oak and pine (1-608-254-5555; bigfootzip.com).
Food and drink
If you never were able to snag a table at the Dells’ popular Ishnala Supper Club in the summer, now’s the time to go. The fine-dining restaurant was built from a 1909 log cabin perched on a bluff overlooking Mirror Lake, and features the original stone fireplace, log walls and staircase. Diners love to ogle the Norway pines growing through the roof, not to mention the gorgeous views of the lake, which are prettiest when set against a backdrop of fiery fall color (1-608-253-1771; ishnala.com/menu).
Fawn Creek Winery in the Dells (1-608-253-4400; fawncreekwinery.com) and Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wis. (1-800-847-9463; wollersheim.com), are also set in scenic locales that are especially beautiful in autumn. Fawn Creek is tucked into 36 quiet wooded acres of maple, oak and pine, while Wollersheim is nestled into the base of a forested hill above the Wisconsin River. Sample some wines on Fawn Creek’s backyard deck or in Wollersheim’s wine garden.
Maybe next year
The Dells holds two main autumn shindigs to check out in 2017. One is the Wo-Zha-Wa Fall Festival, returning next year on Sept. 15-17. The other is October’s Fall Festival. The annual celebration was Oct. 14-15 this year, and includes events such as the Monster Dash 5K, an arts and crafts market, and live entertainment. Kids can take part in activities such as scarecrow-stuffing, pumpkin decorating, hayrides and pony rides. Adults may be more tempted by Dells on Tap (Oct. 14, 2017), a microbrew extravaganza where you can sample a wide variety of finely crafted suds.
Wisconsin Dells is about 215 miles, or three hours, southeast of the Twin Cities via Interstate 94.
For more information on Wisconsin Dells, call 1-800-223-3557 or go to wisdells.com.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes about travel and fitness. She lives in Sun Prairie, Wis.