As the campfires flickered along the shores of Devil's Lake, stories flitted around like sparks. So it must have been across the centuries, when tales were passed on about the mesmerizing lake tucked below 500-foot bluffs in southern Wisconsin's Devil's Lake State Park. The Winnebago Indians, who camped on its waters when Europeans arrived in the 1840s, called it "Spirit Lake." Other tribes, like the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo and the ancient Effigy Mound Builders, camped along these shores for perhaps 400 generations before the Europeans.

Tales of fiery meteors, volcanoes and epic battles between water spirits and powerful thunderbirds all helped the native tribes explain how the rugged bluffs and tumbled boulders around the handsome, 360-acre lake came to be.

Perhaps these myths and legends conjured up images of evil spirits in the new settlers, inspiring them to begin calling it Devil's Lake.

The Wisconsin River once flowed where Devil's Lake now lies. As the last glacier retreated, it blocked both ends of the river's quartzite gorge with moraine, leaving a clean, blue, rectangular lake at the foot of the massive bluffs. It's a scene as alluring now as when the first campfire blazed here perhaps 10,000 years ago.

Today, campfire stories in the park tend to reflect tales about water sports, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking and other exploits. Wisconsin's largest state park (9,217 acres) is also its most popular, averaging about 2 million visitors per year.

The lake has always been the main attraction. Elegant hotels lined the south shore from 1866 into the early 20th century. Ulysses S. Grant and Mary Todd Lincoln toured the lake on one of the steam excursion boats. Ladies in ankle-length dresses played croquet on shaded lawns.

When the park opened in 1911, elegant pleasures gave way to the simpler, more active diversions still popular today.

Spring for a quiet hike

A springtime visit to the park is a quieter way to become immersed in the park than during the bustling days of summer.

"April and May are great times to get out and do some hiking," park manager Steven Schmelzer said. "The trails are usually in great condition and with no leaves on the trees, it really lets you see the lay of the land and some of the park's geologic features."

Schmelzer is a 23-year veteran of the park. He is proud of the fact that Devil's Lake State Park recently was designated a State and National Historic Place. "The National Register [of Historic Places] will further protect the historic structures in the park and possibly allow for grants to renovate our historic features," he said.

When asked about his favorite spots in the park for a spring hike or picnic, he pointed to the East Bluff, West Bluff and Tumble Rocks trails. "This is a great time to view spring ephemerals. My personal favorite is the Jack in the Pulpit. We've had golden eagle sightings recently and the migrating birds are returning now. After a hike, the North and South Shore picnic areas are both shady spots for family gatherings with great views of the lake."

In a park this grand, you won't be able to see and do it all on one visit. Here's a sampling to get you started:

What to do

Hiking: Sixteen trails (41 miles) from easy to difficult. Part of the 1,000-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail winds through the park. Trail system highlights include fanciful rock formations such as Devil's Doorway, Balanced Rock, Elephant Rock and Prospect Point.

Biking: The park maintains 8 miles of mountain bike trails. Visitors sometimes bike on the park roads, but vehicle traffic can be heavy.

Parfrey's Glen: Wisconsin's first state Natural Area is managed by the park. The glen is a wondrous gorge cut deep into the south flank of the Baraboo Hills. The narrow, rocky ravine is cool and moist and offers a most interesting diversion from the hubbub of the main park.

Rock climbing: For decades, the 500-foot quartzite bluffs surrounding Devil's Lake have attracted novice to advanced climbers from around the country to hone their skills on over 1,600 established climbing routes.

Water sports: Kayaks, canoes, paddleboats and rowboats are available for rent at the park concession beginning May 2 (no gas motors on the lake). The game fish season opens on May 2.

The lake is stocked with brown trout; walleye, northern, bluegills and largemouth and smallmouth bass are other popular catches.

Interpretive programs: The nature center is open year-round. Contact the park office for details (1-608-356-8301).

Regatta: The University of Wisconsin is hosting a regatta at the park May 2-3 with seven to 10 other university rowing teams expected to participate.

Jim Umhoefer is a travel and outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.