By LINDSEY ANDERSON, ANN CHRISTENSON, CHRIS DROSNER, KARISA LANGLO and ADAM ROGAN with contributions by JANE BURNS, ALLISON GEYER, ELIZABETH JOHNSON and MATTHEW MARTINEZ.Not far from the bustle of Wisconsin Dells lies a quieter place with legendary natural beauty. The best way to experience the bluffs, rivers and glades of the Baraboo area is by loading up the bike rack or kicking the dust off your hiking boots. Great views, peace and solitude await. Of course, if you’re up for a circus or one of the quirkiest art installations in Wisconsin, you can find that, too!
Take a Hike
A MUST-HIKE TRAIL within a must-visit state park is Devil’s Lake’s (S5975 Park Rd., Baraboo) East Bluff Trail, a 1.7-mile (one-way), moderately difficult hike with a little something for everyone. Winding through the park’s fairy tale-worthy pygmy forest, up shallow stone steps and over jaunty boulders for a total climb of 500 feet, the East Bluff Trail supplies iconic rock formations and beautiful vistas in spades.
Looking to get off the beaten path? Just to the east is Wisconsin’s oldest state natural area, a tranquil, moss-blanketed retreat called Parfrey’s Glen (1377 County Road DL, Merrimac). The temperature drops as you venture deeper along a path surrounded by several rare plant species and “plum-puddingstone” conglomerate. Because of severe flooding in 2008, the Instagrammable falls deep within the glen are accessible only by traversing a stream and some rough stone, so bring waterproof, slip-resistant shoes.
For a more spiritual communion with nature, hit Durward’s Glen (W11876 McLeisch Rd., Baraboo), a leafy, 40-acre retreat center that’s open to the public. The languorous trails and bubbling brook make meditation a natural destination.
Get on Your Bike and Ride
IF YOU’RE ALREADY heading to Devil’s Lake State Park, bring your mountain bike and traverse the 4-mile Uplands Loop Trail, the park’s only biking trail. Not for the faint of heart, the Uplands Loop rises 325 feet in elevation over mostly mud and gravel.
A less demanding ride can be found on the 400 State Trail, a “rail trail” that stretches from nearby Reedsburg up to Elroy, 22 miles northwest. From the historic Reedsburg Depot (240 Railroad St.), it’s an easy 7-mile journey to La Valle. If you head all the way to Elroy, you’ll cross the Baraboo River 11 times and be able to link up with the Omaha Trail or Elroy-Sparta State Trail.
Beginners can instead opt for the 3-mile Baraboo Riverwalk, a leisurely, paved path that follows the Baraboo River as it snakes through downtown Baraboo. Stop in at Wildside Action Sports (880 Highway 136, Baraboo) for a tune-up or to browse their bikes and rock-climbing merch, both available for purchase or daily rental.
Where to eat
This classic supper club on Mirror Lake is all about the experience. Start with a festive Chief Ishnala cocktail and drag a breadstick through the complimentary mound of cheese spread. After your entrée – accompanied by tea-light melted butter – allow the waiter to tempt you with something from the tableside artificial dessert display.
S2011 Ishnala Rd., Lake Delton
Sample spirits from vodka to brandy to bourbon, tour the distillery’s production facilities and stay for an eclectic lunch menu of elk sliders, tuna tataki or a banh mi overlooking the river.
300 Water St., Baraboo
Wisconsin Selfie Stands: Located in 50 selfie-worthy spots across Wisconsin (including two around Devil’s Lake and a third in Mirror Lake State Park), the stands can hold any kind of mobile device and swivel to get your best angles.[/alert]
Love that Lavender
Sauk County has become somewhat of an unexpected hub for lavender farming in Wisconsin. Pick your own ($12-$20 per bundle) through the end of October at Devil’s Lake Lavender Farm (E11364 Highway 136, Baraboo), or try lavender-forward farm-to-table fare like pizza with lavender herbed oil or lavender-infused maple syrup brats at Devil’s Lake Bistro.
106 4th Ave., Baraboo
More to Explore
Tom Every’s roadside sculpture park is aesthetically dystopian, like the eerie prologue to a horror film. Surrounding the 50-foot-tall scrap metal Forevertron structure are various steampunk vignettes like an orchestra of pliers-beaked cranes with barbed wire plumes and an army of giant ants with snouts made of wrenches.
S7703 Highway 12, North Freedom
Tour the grounds that inspired esteemed conservationist Aldo Leopold’s The Sand County Almanac and learn about his “land ethic,” which called for a moral responsibility to the natural world. Guided tours of the Leopold Shack and Farm run through Labor Day, but the grounds are open for self-guided tours, birding and hiking year-round. E13701 Levee Rd., Baraboo
The circus is embedded in Baraboo’s very DNA. Once the winter headquarters of the touring Ringling Brothers Circus show, Baraboo’s Circus World Museum is now an encyclopedic archive of circus lore, with 64 acres of exhibits, daily performances in the Big Top tent (this year’s theme riffs on the ’60s) and the world’s largest collection of circus wagons. 550 Water St., Baraboo