Mirror Lake State Park to Lake Delton
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One of the prettiest lakes in Central Wisconsin, Mirror Lake, located just outside of the Wisconsin Dells/Lake Delton area, offers a diverse and scenic paddling experience not often found in a lake setting, and it’s especially appealing in Fall.
October 17, 2016
Put-In + Take-Out:
Mirror Lake State Park, Baraboo, Wisconsin (closer to Lake Delton/Wisconsin Dells Area)
Time: Put in at 9:25a. Out at 12:30p.
Total Time: 3h 5m
Miles Paddled: 9.25
Wildlife: Turtles, Eagles and heron.
Years ago, when Miles Paddled wasn’t even a glimmer in Google’s blogging eye, we had some lean reports (they were afterall, just some meager notes for us to remember a paddle, not really intended for public consumption at the time). So it occurred to us that we really needed to revisit Mirror Lake and do justice to this paddle with a proper report. It being so close to Madison, which makes for a quick and easy daytrip and the fact that it’s just so darn beautiful, it’s an easy paddle to recommend to paddlers of all skill levels.
The first time we paddled this was in 2008, literally a couple weeks before catastrophic floodwaters washed away an earthen dam and drained Lake Delton into the Wisconsin River. But a lot has happened in six years. The dam was rebuilt, reinforced and the lake was refilled (this is the dells of course, there was no question whether it would be refilled – it survives on tourism).
But then, even after the lake itself recovered, the Wisco of Oz (aka “the village”, a term that suggests that many voted on this decision, but it really means that a few business leaders made it themselves) decided that pouring a bunch of liquid dye called “AquaBlue” into the lake would make it more appealing (as if it were a water fountain in front of somebody’s split ranch).
It’s a sick and duranged sentiment if you think about it. A perverted sense of beauty and what constitutes it was arranged by a few for the sake of brochure photography. But the Dells has a history of odd behavior and it continues to grow and wierder and unwieldy (the Mount Olympus Waterpark land grab alone is creating an unsustainable and ill-advised drive between Lake Delton and the Downtown Dells on any given day) but then again, it always has been that way.
Back to the topic at hand. While we’re traditionally not lake paddling fans, what makes this excursion different is that Mirror Lake offers some stunning sandstone bluffs, particularly in the west arm of the lake where Dell Creek enters and becomes one with the lake before it narrows again on its approach to Lake Delton.
Another catalyst for paddling this time of year was that I really wanted to experience the autumn colors on Mirror Lake – the reds, oranges, yellows and greens of fall – and even the greens of the water (village board be damned!) There’s really no better time to visit than fall, when the bustle of Lake Delton is tempered.
What we liked:
We decided to retrace our strokes from our first paddle and again circumnavigate the lake, then up through Dell Creek and into Lake Delton before returning back to the boat landing – figuring this would make for a more compete report, and just generally more interesting with some time between visits to compare and contrast. The thing is, it really was just how I remembered it – a very pleasant paddle, with lots to look at.
The put-in at Mirror Lake State Park is as ideal as they come with plenty of parking, facilities, a sloped boat landing as well as a dock. And on a random Monday morning in Fall, I was amazed to meet many friendly and conversational folks, as well as other activity already on the water – canoers, kayakers and SUPers.
Starting at the put-in and heading left, the south “arm” of the lake is probably the least interesting. It’s wide before becoming marshy near the far southern edge. The only landmark of note is the park’s swimming beach. This day, there were ducks everywhere, heading into flight, wing to wing, and though it was rather overcast, the colors had turned a bit and made for a magnificent backdrop for the birds.
Heading back to the opening of the west arm, essentially Dell Creek proper, this is where things become really magnificent. Here, the lake becomes narrow, a corridor filled with breathtaking sandstone formations and rock cuts lining both banks. And here is where fall paddling, when the leaves are thinned out (or Spring), benefits paddlers because the trees, tightly snug to the bank often impede the view at normal times. But here, when trees are thinned out, you’ll get a clearer view to rubberneck the dense makeup of structures on either side.
I found this a very enjoyable section, one to take my time with, peering between trees to see some of the awesome formations and grabbing pictures here and there. There are moments when the temperature is right and fog rolls cross the water, adding to the experience. The similarities to the Upper and Lower Dells, of course, are no surprise, it’s what makes this part of the state so special and this part of Mirror Lake, in particular.
Eventually, it widens and becomes lake-like again. Once you reach the far southwestern edge, you’ll see where Dell Creek enters the lake in Dellwood.
Turning around and heading back affords you the beauty of rock formations from a different perspective and you’ll naturally catch some things you hadn’t seen the first time. Heading back towards the center of Mirror Lake and then northeast, you’ll see more cabins and houses lining the banks. Across the way, you’ll spot a couple of large rock walls and of course, Ishnala Supper Club towering over the water.
Soon, the lake will start to narrow again, where Dell creek becomes a creek one final time, connecting Mirror Lake to Lake Delton. And that part of Dell Creek is beautiful too – more (and more substantial) sandstone scenery, nooks and crevacies to leer into – of course, almost all of this is private property. It’s heavily built upon and the closer one gets to Lake Delton, the costlier the cabins and structures look.
But those aren’t even the most interesting features of this mile-stretch. The first, is an amazing man-made structure – the Highway 90/94 bridge, towering high above this canyon-like creek. It’s loud but it’s pretty just based on sheer size.
The second structure is the spillway, not far past the bridge. It’s a neccessary portage – easy to land on creek-left. Then there’s a staircase down to the water. The only issue with the spillway portage is that they could’ve made the stairs wider. It’s not like an extra foot would’ve set them back that much. It just would be so much easier to descend with a kayak on one’s shoulder.
From there to Lake Delton, the houses and cabins become more impressive as do the intermingled rock formations and sandstone cuts. Soon, you’ll pass a couple bridges until it opens up to Lake Delton. Here, you’ll be greeted with condos, high-rises, hotels and the Tommy Bartlett “grounds” in the distance. On a normal summer day, it’ll be busy and congested – another reason to do this in fall or spring.
The return trip up dell creek is easy as there really is no current despite the spillway. Paddling this in rewind, again, affords you the opportunity to see some of the same awesome formations but from a different lens – it’s hard to see a problem with that.
After the portage and Highway 94 again, you’re back on the lake. Holding tight to the left bank, you’ll soon make your way around to get a closer view of Ishnala (which by the way, is one of my favorite supper clubs of all time – simply amazing from the food to the view to the ambiance). Just past that are a few more rock walls and then the fishing pier and boat landing for Mirror Lake.
What we didn’t like:
There really isn’t much to dislike about this paddle. It can get really busy during the summer months so be aware of that.
Here’s a minor thing but let me caveat it with: take the “didn’t like” lightly.
A Monday morning in fall at Mirror Lake has got to be a peaceful and perfect time to paddle, right? I mean, who would be out there at that time? Well there’s an answer to that. Kindergarten field trippers! While putting-in, a big ‘ol yellow schoolbus pulled in and the shrill yips and yaps of excited kids filled the air and made there prescence known. On one hand, I’d rather see kids out in the woods having a good time, but on the other, totally selfish hand, it was loud as hell. And the excited rabble-rousing echo lasted the entire length of the southern arm of the lake as they hiked the banks, hooting and hollering along the way.
Later on, however, when I returned to the boat landing take-out, I saw the same (or perhaps different?) group paddling, probably twenty kids and adults in the biggest canoe I had ever seen. I kid you not – 20 people in a canoe. It was an amazingly cool site. I sat in awe and smiled.
Actually, chalk all this up to “like” – there’s nothing to dislike about these kids out exploring nature. I sound like a crabby old man!
If we did this trip again:
We’ll be back to Mirror Lake again – it’s a great paddle – leisurely with enough scenery and interest, natural and even man-made to explore, and it’s even better in the surroundings of fall colors.
Dell Creek: South Avenue to Dellwood
Camp: Mirror Lake State Park
Good People: Friends of Mirror Lake
Map: Mirror Lake
Outfitter: Dells Watersports
Wikipedia: Mirror Lake State Park
Miles Paddled Video:
Previous Trip Report:
May 24, 2008
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While not technically the first paddle for us, this was the first paddle we posted (back when Miles Paddled was just a place to jot some notes down for future reference). So, details and images were leaner back then they are today. That said, for posterity, these early trips are a reminder to revisit them.
Total Time: n/a
What we liked:
Mirror Lake is an absolutely beautiful (albeit, small) body of water situated just southwest of the Wisconsin Dells/Lake Delton area. It’s a great place for beginning paddlers to get their feet wet since it’s quite shallow and there is a no-wake restriction, making it paddler friendly. Winding around the outer banks of the lake that branches off in many directions, you’ll come across a lot of wildlife and beautifully manicured property. The historic Ishnala Supper Club is perched high above the lake offering what must be a beautiful view of paddlers like us below.
We put in at Mirror Lake State Park which is the most accessible put-in to the lake. While we’re not huge on lake paddling in general, what’s cool is that Dell Creek connects Mirror Lake to Lake Delton. The creek is narrow and pretty. Not too far after exiting Mirror Lake just under the Ishnala Road bridge, you’ll come to a spillway/dam that must be portaged. It takes a bit of work to get up on the concrete landing (with slippery rocks below) and then climb the stairs with your canoe or kayak in tow so it’s best to have a hand in making this portage.
The channel between Mirror Lake and Lake Delton known as Dell Creek, is very cool. As you paddle through a tree covered canopy, you’re surrounded by the kinds of rocks and bluffs you’d expect in the Dells. The creek continues on until the rather impressive Highway 94 bridge and into the man-made Lake Delton.
During the summer months, you’re bound to be greeted with all sorts of activity on Lake Delton. If you’re lucky (or time it right, I suppose) you could catch the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Sky and Stage Show, which on this day, we were in luck. Even as the Dells has evolved, Tommy Bartlett is one of the oldest attractions still drawing crowds. We caught the show and a hell of a lot of sun and then unfortunately, while sitting out in our kayaks in the middle of the lake, I drop my sunglasses in the water.
Ironically, a rather historic event happened two weeks after our trip, Lake Delton drained into the Wisconsin River. On the morning of June 9, a 400-foot section of the dike wall broke, draining the entire lake. It drew national attention and much has been written about the accident and the effects on the Dells, specifically tourism.
It was a pretty shocking sight as evidenced by videos like these and having just enjoyed our time there, it was surreal. Not to make light of the situation but as people combed the lake-bottom for long forgotten (and lost) treasures, I figured that surely someone found my sunglasses. I expected to see someone wearing them during a news interview but I have no confirmation of that happening.
What we didn’t like:
Mirror Lake has some really interesting features but I would stay away from the large marshy area in what I would call the West leg of the lake. It’s pretty mucky to paddle through.
And losing my sunglasses wasn’t all that awesome either.
If we did this trip again:
Mirror Lake State Park is a beauty of a park but Mirror Lake is really the centerpiece. The beaches are great, offering easy water access. The camping is on par with what you’d expect at any State Park in the southern part of Wisconsin during the busy season (busy State Parks = noise). The park also offers a lot of trails for hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing. Of course, there is also opportunity for fishing but I have no idea how that is or how the drainage will effect that in the coming years.
When Lake Delton is one day refilled of course, I would highly recommend this as a different kind of diversion in the Dells area (not that the Dells needs anymore diversions). The Dells are beautiful and it’s worth packing your kayaks if you’re heading to the area and might have a couple of hours to spend on the water.
You can also rent canoes or kayaks at Lake Delton Watersports. We stopped in to ask some questions and they were really friendly (and very accommodating, offering up parking and a put-in/take-out). Of course, if you’re heading up for a day trip and the weather doesn’t cooperate, we always recommend visiting the original Monk’s downtown. The charm of old has been polished and the menu tweaked but the burgers are still pretty good and you can still shake the dice.
Lastly, we’d take much more sunscreen. With no clouds in the sky, it got hot and we got crispy.