Devil's Lake is Wisconsin's largest and most popular state park, with 1.8 million visitors annually. That's more visitors than 85 percent of the National Park Service's individual properties receive. Visitors flock to the park, about 20 minutes south of Wisconsin Dells, because of its wealth of recreational opportunities and beauty, namely picturesque Devil's Lake, which lies at the bottom of two quartzite ridges. While the park is open year-round, summer is its busiest season. Luckily, there's still time to squeeze in a trip.
A landmark birthday
Devil's Lake is 100! In honor of its milestone birthday, the park has several celebratory events on tap, such as Old Fashioned Day (July 23), whose highlight is a period dance in the Devil's Lake Chateau. On Aug. 28, an ice cream social is scheduled while the Cork & Bottle String Band plays along the lakeshore. You can search for historical geocaches anytime, and browse through exhibits in the chateau, the Sauk County History Center (531 4th Av., Baraboo, Wis.; 1-608-356-1001; saukcountyhistory.org) and Al Ringling Theatre (136 4th Av.; 1-608-356-8864; Baraboo, Wis.).
Devil's Lake is considered as geologically significant as the Grand Canyon. The park was created among the Baraboo Ranges, a ring of hills about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. These hills began as beach sand 1.7 billion years ago. That's right, billion. After being compressed and then super-heated, the sand turned into the Baraboo quartzite you see throughout the park today. But don't let its pretty pink hue fool you; the quartzite is incredibly hard and erosion-resistant. The lake sits at the bottom of a gorge cut through the quartzite ridge. The native Ho-Chunk people, who held celebrations here, dubbed the water Spirit Lake. Later, European settlers called it Devil's Lake.
Outdoor enthusiasts, there's plenty to keep you busy here. You can hike the park's 22 miles of trails, which range from easy, paved paths to difficult climbs; bike on and off road; boat, canoe and kayak (rentals available); swim and scuba-dive; fish and hunt. In the winter, there's great cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sledding. Devil's Lake is also known as a prime place for rock climbing. Be aware, however, that the terrain is treacherous, and there are injuries every year, although usually with inexperienced or inebriated climbers.
The campground is generally full from the week before Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekend. If you want to book a spot for a holiday weekend in 2012, do it now. (It may already be too late.) If you're looking to camp this year, there may still be a few spots to reserve. If not, try to snag one of the few non-reservable sites by arriving at the park early on the day you want to camp. Plan C: Find accommodations nearby and drive over for the day.
You can't hike all of the park's trails in one visit. But you must hit the ones that pass the park's most famous rock formations. The Balanced Rock Trail -- tough to climb because it's basically a steep, rocky staircase -- passes a triangular-shaped boulder impressively balanced on its tip. Devil's Doorway takes you to a towering rock formation with a hole carved out in the middle. If you're brave enough to scramble over and stand in this doorway, it makes a great photo. Elephant Rock, on the other end of the East Bluff Trail, is an immense, pachyderm-shaped boulder, while Prospect Point on the West Bluff is a sentinel-shaped rock.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes about travel and fitness for a variety of publications. She lives in Sun Prairie, Wis.
Devil's Lake State Park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. A vehicle admission sticker is required, and licenses are needed for hunting and fishing. For more information, call 1-608-356-8301 or see www.startribune.com/a546.
About 15,000 years ago, glaciers slid over much of Wisconsin. In the Devil's Lake area, the quartzite Baraboo Hills were standing tall, with a dry, ancient riverbed running through them. The glacier dragged rocks and dirt as it inched along, and the debris eventually plugged up two ends of the riverbed between the hills. When the glacier melted, Devil's Lake was created. Today the spring-fed lake is 40 to 50 feet deep, and lies 500 feet below the top of the bluffs.
The park has three main campgrounds with 407 sites, 353 of which can be reserved. The others are given out first-come, first-served. Fees include a $17 park admission fee for out-of-state residents, plus a $10 reservation fee and $5 electric charge. Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance (1-888-947-2757; wisconsinstateparks.reserveamerica.com). Not into roughing it? You're in luck. One of the nicest B&Bs in the state is close by: the Inn at Wawanissee Point. Tucked into 42 wooded acres topping the Baraboo Bluffs, the 10,000-square-foot villa features four guest rooms with private bath, flat-screen TVs and WiFi, plus the use of a sauna, fitness area and in-home theater. Wine and cheese are served in the evening, and a full breakfast in the morning ($219-$279; 1-608-355-9899; www.innatwawanisseepoint.com).
While many people picnic at Devil's Lake, there are several good restaurants nearby. Hillcrest Restaurant, which sits on Lake Wisconsin in Merrimac, features upscale fare, such as tenderloin filet, shrimp and butternut squash ravioli. You can also feast at Thursday's all-you-can-eat taco bar (E12603 Kilpatrick Point Dr.; 1-608-643-5159; www.hillcrestrestaurant.com). Across the water is Fitz's on the Lake, a supper club-type establishment with a deck for waterfront dining. Try the Red Hook Ale-battered lake perch (W11602 Hwy. V, Lodi, Wis.; 1-608-592-3302; www.fitzsrestaurantlakewisconsin.com).