Touring Devil’s Lake in Devil’s Lake State Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
An extraordinarily short but delightful paddle within Wisconsin’s most popular State Park, this little adventure provides a different perspective to the towering bluffs of Devil’s Lake, and is especially appealing during the peak colors of fall.
October 20, 2019
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
Barring end of times, there should always be enough water to paddle this lake.
Put-In + Take-Out:
North Shore boat launch, Devil’s Lake State Park, Baraboo, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 3:20p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 1h 10m
Miles Paddled: 3
Eagles, ducks, geese and humans.
I’ve spent more time at Devil’s Lake than any other State Park. It might actually be where I fell in love with the outdoors (after dating Camp Tesomas as a Boy Scout, of course). It’s sentimental, nostalgic and never lets me down. It’s a curious place where as trodden as it is, I always find something new to discover. It’s equal parts gorgeous and glorious. My first trip there was as a first year Boy Scout, and then every year thereafter I’d return with the troop on an annual trip. When I was a teen, I climbed my first real rock face on the East Bluff as part of an extracurricular High School rock climbing club. I hiked there in my twenties, and I camped amongst the giant teepees with my kids in my thirties (sadly, the teepees are no longer). Add to that, the memories of a karaoke-style wedding next to the chalet, a family reunion on the North Shore, and that one night a giant raccoon brazenly stole a brat from the “live grill” my girlfriend and I were cooking on (ballsy little fella, he was). From weekend camping with friends to large group camping, those memories are untouchable and this place continues to be special to me.
I’ve seen a lot of Devil’s Lake and I do contend that the best way to experience the park is to hike it. There’s really no other way to appreciate the sheer beauty of not only the quartzite bluffs (and many unique formations like Balanced Rock and Devil’s Doorway or the hidden caves and interesting crevices that only exist in this kind of world), but also those views at 500′ high where you might contemplate a once giant ice mass covering and carving the area. There’s nothing like that to my mind’s eye.
To me, this is a hiker’s park and I’ve never really considered paddling Devil’s Lake (it is a lake afterall, I much prefer moving water). But the idea and the catalyst for this paddle suddenly appealed to me two-fold. One, I had a new boat I needed to try out – a solo canoe (once owned by Mr. Cliff Jacobson, at that) that I procured earlier this year. So, where do you take something special? You take it to someplace special, and I figured this was the perfect place to test it out since it was a short paddle, clocking in at only three miles. And two, I know just how beautiful Devil’s Lake is in fall. Having checked the fall colors site, I knew this was going to be the perfect weekend to do so.
The bluffs at Devil’s Lake are part of the Baraboo Range, which are believed to have been formed 1.6 billion years ago, making them one of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America. The area between the bluffs was once a gorge of (what became) the Wisconsin River. When the glacier melted, it deposited moraines at both the North and Southeast ends, essentially damming the former stream that flowed through this valley. The Wisconsin was rerouted, finding its way east of the Baraboo Hills and the result was the creation of Devil’s Lake. (If you look at a map and wonder why the Wisconsin River suddenly veers East around the Baraboo range instead of due south, it kind of all makes sense.)
The lake is spring-fed and varies in depth from between 40 and 50 feet. It reaches 500′ tall from the lake to the top of the quartzite bluffs. Between the fallen rocks and stoic outcrops, you’ll find a mixed conifer-deciduous forest, and this foliage makes for an especially perfect palette for fall to paint.
People visit from miles away for hiking, camping, picnicking, beaching-it, fishing, boating and of course, climbing – which has been popular for decades. It’s only been in my lifetime that Devil’s Lake main draw became a camping/hiking/watersports playground, which is quite interesting because its history is quite varied.
Devil’s Lake State Park was founded in 1911 and was only the third State Park created in Wisconsin (Interstate State Park being the first in 1900, followed by Door County’s (also) very popular Peninsula State Park in 1909). During the depression, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was set up inside the park where work began on many of the projects that we still benefit from today; from building trails (literally moving boulders by hand), benches, signs, buildings and even acting as guides for adventurers throughout the bluffs.
Modern campgrounds (as we know them today) were created in the 1920s and 30s at the northeast corner of the lake. In the 30s, Northern Lights Campground was created, in the 60s, a once-lived golf course was converted into Quartzite campground, and in the 80s, the Ice Age campground was developed.
The park grew in popularity more surely than slowly and then basically exploded. In fact, Devil’s Lake and Peninsula State Parks account for the majority of revenue in the entire State Park System, which affords the lesser-supported 70+ other State Parks to benefit from equal revenue sharing. With 2.5 million people visiting on an annual basis, Devil’s Lake is an incredible treasure that helps support all those other treasures we hold dear in Wisconsin.
Still, the century-plus between Devil’s Lake becoming an official park to the day I took this canoe trip was, of course, only a small chapter in its history. Its backstory is wide-ranging (and sometimes odd, as everything in the Baraboo/Dells area seems to be). From elephants cooling off in the lake because the Ringling Brothers owned property there, to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant riding the lake’s first steamboat, to a race between a paddler and a hiker, to one bluff-top resort failing because the public was alarmed when the manager died of typhus, there seems to be no shortage of interesting bits about this park. Not to mention, it was once home to five resorts, a post office, jail, vineyard, winery, and even that aforementioned golf course. For more on these stories, I highly recommend reading this fascinating article from the 2011 centennial edition of the park newspaper.
Additionally, I found this fantastic Google Map on Devil’s Lake State Park Historical Sites which uncovers some of the locations mentioned in that previous article. It makes for a great companion piece.
There are plenty of options to put-in at Devil’s Lake. First, anywhere along the beach on the South Shore. One could also go a little rogue and put-in on the southwest shore near the pet swim area (or just north of there off Cottage Grove Road). Or you can start due north at the, uh, North Shore boat launch, which is where I started my maiden voyage.
Depending on the time of day, you may choose where to launch based on how busy the park is. Or, you may have no choice as the North Shore parking lot notoriously fills up on a busy weekend (they usually put up signs at the gate entrance to send you to the South Shore in this case – and there was one greeting me there on this particularly gorgeous Sunday, but I took my chances and got lucky by finding the last free space in the boat launch area when I arrived). There, you can basically launch anywhere since the rocky shore is shallow and as wide as the parking lot.
The next consideration is whether to paddle clockwise or counter? This is mainly a photographic and comfort consideration. Early in the day from the North Shore you’ll catch the light on the West Bluff, but paddling counterclockwise will put you heading into direct sunlight (if indeed it is sunny, of course). But by mid-afternoon the sun will tuck behind the bluff and shade some of the wonderful outcrops (making it difficult to photograph them in low-light).
Conversely, paddling early in the day from the South Shore, you’ll be able to catch the light on the West Bluff but the East Bluff may still be in shadow until it moves across the sky. And if you go in a clockwise fashion, the sun will eventually be in your face all along the East Bluff. It’s kind of one of those play-it-by-ear things depending on when you get there and where the sun is.
But basically, high noon offers the best opportunity to capture both bluffs in light, but then again it’s that high noon light which is not ideal for photos and well, your eyeballs.
Before we get started, I should note that most of the unique and popular rock formations of either bluff can’t be seen or truly appreciated from the deck of a kayak or seat of a canoe, but there’s still plenty to love amongst the colors, and part of this paddle is just enjoying this different, if not flat, perspective of the bluffs above.
Anyway, I started in a clockwise direction, since I already lost the sunlight on the West Bluff – it was already receding behind it so I wanted to catch the East lit up as best I could. Launching from the boat landing, which is also the North Glacial Moraine where the main entrance, ranger station, parking lots and shelters are located, you’ll head towards the West Bluff past the Chateau. Soon, in this season (or is that out of season?) you’ll be greeted by the lovely colors adorning some delicate trees poking out from the boulders along the shore.
Along the West Bluff, you’ll see the Tumbled Rocks trail which is named for – wait for it – the giant masses of tumbled rocks set in place from above. It’s also where many folks climb around and often break limbs (it’s more common than you’d think). The amazing 25′ freestanding spire known as Cleopatra’s Needle and the wide-open view from Prospect Point also reside on the West Bluff, but neither will be able to be viewed from this vantage point. Do, however, glance across the lake from time-to-time because the span between either bluff is so immense that distance only makes the heart grow fonder – or in this case, the heart will think fondly of the beautiful reflection of colors and boulder fields of the Eastern bluff as well as the scant opening where outcrops crop out.
At the end of the West Bluff, you’ll come across the last few houses/cabins that reside directly on the lake’s shoreline, now used for park staffers. Past the cabins, the bluff tapers and the pet swim area is immediately to your right. Straight ahead you’ll encounter South Lake Road, which you’ll parallel on your way towards the South Shore beach. The road is loud and noisy on a busy weekend, but at this point it’s been slowly-building on my approach so it’s not abrupt, but it’s not all that pleasant either. And it’s an annoyance you can minimize by just cutting across the lake towards the beach earlier.
The South Shore has some nice colors and a beautiful boardwalk which is gorgeous for pictures anytime of year, FYI. Plus, its backdrop is the often ignored South Bluff. Heading slightly northeast, you’ll paddle past the South Shore beach sitting atop the Southeast Glacial Moraine.
Then, you’ll head straight towards Balanced Rock on the corner of the East Bluff. This bluff is my (and most people’s) favorite, be it rock-climbers because it has more sheer, unbroken cliff faces to climb, or hiker’s for the unique rock formations like Balanced Rock, Devil’s Doorway or the subtle formations of the Potholes trail (both of the latter are accessed off the main trail). And while you also won’t see Elephant Cave or Elephant Rock on the North end of this bluff from the seat of a kayak, there’s still a perspective here that most don’t take in.
Paddling north with the East Bluff flanking your right, you’ll find more giant boulders at the water’s edge like the West Bluff base, but here there are also more “open” areas between the foliage where you can see some shapely chiseled outcrops that are much closer than the other side. Eventually, things open up and the bluff tapers off along the railroad tracks and soon you’re back where you once begun. It’s all so brief, but pretty. Three miles really is that short.
What we liked:
Well, first and foremost, I was absolutely delighted to get that boat out on the water finally – my first solo-canoe trip (not in a giant aluminum boat, that is). It was the perfect place to test out a boat of this caliber. Plus, the weather was gorgeous and most importantly, the wind was non-existent.
Second, this is just a gorgeous (gorgeous?) sight to be seen – Devil’s Lake at peak fall colors. This should be a go-to fall trip on any paddler’s agenda. Mirror Lake and the Upper Dells on the Wisconsin River are probably my favorite fall-fix paddles nearest Madison, but this might be my next favorite. There will always be something new and interesting to catch in those bluffs above and those reflections below on a clear fall day. Plus, if you tack on a hike, you’ll get the best of both worlds in one solid day.
What we didn’t like:
To be real, the noise along South Lake Road is pretty ridiculous. It sounded like a car convention – or what can be expected if the F-35s make their home at Truax field in Madison, Wisconsin (which would be ridiculous, all things (and races) considered).
Sure, this can be expected on an unusually warm (and welcome) Sunday at Devil’s Lake where the foliage is the draw and makes it a popular time to visit, but it’s also a little obnoxious. Then again, while it can’t be completely avoided, it can be truncated by crossing the lake a little earlier (or, by avoiding the weekend altogether).
And though I wish Devil’s Lake wasn’t home to the Timber Rattler, I’ll just hope that in all my years venturing the park without ever seeing one, that I’ll be fortunate to have just as many years not crossing paths with one.
If we did this trip again:
This paddle is really more of a local diversion/consideration than a recommendation for anything than a late-fall paddle, but one that appealed to me because I know just how beautiful Devil’s Lake is in fall. The colors adds that extra element that aren’t otherwise present, and where I’d normally opt to just hike the bluffs versus gaze up at them, lake-view is a unique perspective to take-in. I would suggest catching these colors on a weekday for a slightly less noisy experience, because again, noise carries from everywhere and a constant stream of cars is a bit much.
One could also consider paddling this in spring when the trees are a little barer, and where you might catch a few more formations from the lake. Spring is often underrated for casual paddling, but there can be a visual benefit to bare trees that normally hide granite outcrops like these.
Devil’s Lake is special to me and thousands of others. It’s just immensely unique. I’ve got a lot of love for places like this – places I like to reminisce about. But Devil’s Lake isn’t soley about the past – there’s always something new, and I know others feel that way too. At the take-out, I overheard a conversation between a couple who were just launching their canoe, and a woman who was sitting out on a beach chair catching some late-day sun. They were chit-chatting/one-upping each other over how long they’ve been coming here. “45 years”, said the couple. The woman responded, “I was brought here as a two-month old, never forgot it, and I’ve come back every year for 62 years”. Maybe that’s a stretch, but who am I to doubt it? This place creates lasting memories for everyone who visits.
General: Devil’s Lake State Park Area Visitors Guide
General: Wisconsin DNR
Good People: Friends of Devil’s Lake State Park
Wikipedia: Devil’s Lake
Wikipedia: Devil’s Lake State Park
Miles Paddled Video: