But it was barely 10 degrees and ferns were a faraway, warm-weather memory. I was on the hunt for something more acclimated to the current forecast: icicles.
In the winter, frozen water amasses in curtain-like cascades along the layered sandstone walls of the narrow gorge in Mirror Lake State Park.
Like other natural phenomena that depend on weather, they can be elusive — temperatures must be high enough for water to seep through the soft, porous rock, but then low enough to freeze once it drips through.
Some years, the ice sheets blanket the gorge. At other times, like when I visited, there are just a couple (or zero) small frozen cascades.
The narrow gorge is protected within the park as a state natural area. The vertical cliffs of layered sandstone are similar to the other cliffs that rim quiet Mirror Lake. In the summer, the gorge’s cool microclimate supports a variety of fern species. In winter, white and red pine provide a dose of green among the brown and white. Naked hardwoods including red oak, basswood and yellow birch mix with the evergreens.
A parking area off Fern Dell Road (west of the main park entrance) provides access. In the winter, when the stream that trickles through the gorge is frozen, it’s easy enough to hike through. There’s also an unofficial trail that snakes along the top of the west side of the gorge. It reaches a point above the gorge’s confluence with Mirror Lake.
The gorge can also be accessed from the main park via the frozen lake. Steep cliffs line most of the lake, so it’s best to enter at the boat ramp or beach area, then hike along the frozen surface to the gorge.
The gorge offers protection from bitter winter winds — a blessing that helped it feel warmer than it really was on a cold, sunny day.
The gorge narrows near its confluence with Mirror Lake, with a skinny passage through sandstone walls. It was there that I found my only icicles of the day, protected in the shaded passage.
Even without its winter drapes, the gorge is beautiful (and bug-free) in the winter.
The rest of the 2,200-acre state park offers plenty of other options for winter exploration. Its nearly 20 miles of cross-country ski trails are some of the best in the area. The park’s non-groomed trails, including the 2-mile Sandstone Trail and 0.6-mile Echo Rock Trail, are great for hiking or snowshoeing. The narrow, frozen lake is also great for hiking, ice fishing or even skiing if there’s a little snow. A handful of sites in the Sandstone Ridge Campground are open for winter camping.
While you’re there
Scenic gorges and rock formations are a staple of the Baraboo, Wis., area. Others worth a visit include Parfrey’s Glen, Pewits Nest and Ableman’s Gorge state natural areas, and Rocky Arbor and Natural Bridge state parks. Nearby Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin’s most popular, is also fun to visit in the winter, when there are fewer visitors.
Events and info
Mirror Lake has a winter snowshoe hike through Fern Dell Gorge scheduled for Feb. 10. The hike begins at 10 a.m. and will last about 90 minutes. Depending on conditions, snowshoes or ice cleats are recommended. Space is limited; RSVP by calling the park office at 1-608-254-2333.
Mirror Lake will also play host to a candlelight ski, snowshoe and hike from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 3. In addition to two milelong torch-lit trails, there will be bonfires, hot cider and treats available for a donation.
Hiking, snowshoeing, fat-tire bikes and pets are not permitted on cross-country ski trails when they’re groomed. Leashed pets are allowed on hiking and snowshoeing trails, including the gorge.
A state parks sticker ($28/year, $8/day) is required for admission to all areas of the park, including the small parking area near the gorge. Skiers age 16 and older also need a state trails pass ($25/year, $5/day). Stickers and passes are available at the park office.
Mirror Lake State Park (dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/mirrorlake) is at E10320 Fern Dell Road, Baraboo, about 210 miles southeast of the Twin Cities via Interstate 94. It’s also 5 miles south of Wisconsin Dells. The parking lot for Fern Dell Gorge is about a mile west of the main park entrance — it’s down a short, gravel road on the north side of Fern Dell Road. You’ll pass another small lot and a gated road before you reach the gorge lot.