Tall Rocks, Still Waters

Rediscover the beauty of the Dells

By Julia Richards

The Dells’ character may seem type A—the biggest, fastest rides, and most shocking, stimulating entertainment jockey for your attention from screaming billboards. But what first drew people to the Dells decades ago was the natural beauty of the Wisconsin River and the lakes that feed in to it, along with the dramatic Cambrian sandstone formations towering above. “Our roots go back to our scenic and natural history—the bluffs,” says Leah Hauck, communications manager with the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Here are three possibilities for spending a day communing with the waters, beyond the swirling frenzy.

The newly renovated River Inn Resort in downtown Wisconsin Dells is an option that puts you right on the banks of the Wisconsin River. Many rooms view the river, as does the first-floor indoor pool and Jacuzzi space. “When you come into the hotel you’re surrounded by the ambiance of what people have come here for—to enjoy the Wisconsin River,” says Adam Makowski, general manager of the inn.

Located right on the scenic Wisconsin Dells River Walk, guests can stroll paved trails, stopping at scenic overlooks or at tables set up for a game of checkers.

If the urge is irresistible to get directly on the water, the inn has a four-slip boat dock where guests can park their own boats. And, for those who would prefer having someone else do the driving, the Dells Boat Tours are located right next door, offering two routes on a professionally guided tour.

End the day back on the water’s edge at the River Inn’s new 3,000-square-foot patio. The inn’s renovated bar, Drinker’s Landing, has offerings from local Port Huron brewery and Fawn Lake Winery.

Another option, that will completely immerse you in nature, is camping at Mirror Lake State Park. Miles of trails to hike and bike wind through the wooded park. At its center are the still waters of Mirror Lake reflecting those iconic sandstone cliffs. The extensive campgrounds include walk-in and group sites. There are also a couple sites reserved for visitors arriving via bicycle, since the park is near the linear trail system crossing the state. “That way there’s a guaranteed site for someone who would pedal in,” says Brett Johanen, park ranger.

If you want to splurge for a one-of-a-kind experience, rent the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Seth Peterson cottage. The secluded one-bedroom cottage is run by a private nonprofit and opens for tours the second Sunday of each month.

Mirror Lake’s slow, no-wake designation makes it ideal for kayaking and stand-up-paddling. These craft, along with pontoon boats, are available for rent next to the park’s boat landing.

For dinner go to Ishnala Supper Club, located right within the park. The menu focuses on steak and seafood, and the bar features classic Wisconsin cocktails and local brews. Ishnala has expanded its outdoor seating and added a new bar and lounge area, all overlooking the water.

An indulgently relaxing option, whether you’re traveling solo, getting away with a partner or celebrating with a group of girlfriends, is Sundara Inn & Spa. In the midst of an expansion doubling its size, the spa caters to both meditation, with features like a Zen garden, as well as intimate gatherings, with a private dining room and seating around fire pits. Its new “Cambrian oasis” includes casts of the area’s famous sandstone formations alongside an indoor/outdoor pool with swim-up beverage service. Sundara invites you to unplug, asking all guests to refrain from using electronics in common areas. “You’re not going to see people by the pool taking selfies,” says marketing and design specialist Heidi Michel.

According to Michel, “The majority of the expansion is really dedicated to experiences.” Start the day with a “moving meditation” sunrise pontoon boat ride on the upper Dells. The spa also arranges kayak and stand-up-paddle tours. The new full-service restaurant emphasizes light and fresh fare. At the end of the day retreat back to your suite and soak in the custom hot tub on your patio overlooking the woods. Ahhhhhhhhh.

GET STUNG BY ADRENALINE ON RAJA

The Dells bills itself, after all, as the Waterpark Capital of the World.  So, if you’re looking for a little breathtaking fun on your otherwise tranquil visit, head to Noah’s Ark, which is unveiling its new slide, Raja, the World’s Largest King Cobra, this summer. The park says the slide is the world’s largest and tallest, with riders starting their descent from six stories high. Then, they race in two- person tubes over 330 feet at speeds up to 30 mph. Finally, they’ll plunge 37 feet into the massive cobra’s mouth. The new attraction is sure to charm riders of all ages. –Julia Richards