Field tripping: Wisconsin Dells

Monday, November 23, 1992

P.I. Russell

The Wisconsin Dells are situated an hour northwest of Madison. The area offers enough family entertainment, spectacular scenery and geology to keep you interested for at least a week. Camping facilities are available in State Parks and private campgrounds. Motels have waterparks and the area is also well endowed with mini golfs and other attractions.

The Wisconsin Dells became a popular tourist area due to the work of Harry H. Bennett who began to photograph the Dells in 1865. Harry invented the first instantaneous pictures using a rubber band shutter to stop the action. Visitors travelled to the area from Chicago and Milwaukee by train.

The name of the area "DELLS" comes from the French word "Dales" which means "flat layered rocks." The Wisconsin River cuts through Cambrian sandstones which are the equivalent of the Potsdam or Nepean Sandstone of southern Ontario. In Wisconsin, it is known as the Mount Simon Formation. Overlying the sandstone are younger Paleozoic limestones and dolostones.

At the end of the Wisconsin Glaciation, the Green Bay lobe of the Laurentian ice sheet moved southwestwards from Canada into central Wisconsin. Glacial Lake Wisconsin was formed in the area bounded to the south by the resistant quartzite Baraboo Hills; to the west by a divide to the Mississippi River; the north by the high land of northern Wisconsin; to the east the Green Bay Lobe of the ice sheet contributed meltwaters to the lake.

Drainage from Lake Wisconsin flowed through the sandstones cutting spectacular gorges. A three-hour boat tour of the Upper Dells takes visitors to two narrow moss and fern covered gorges, Cold Water Canyon and Witches Gulch. Another stop is made at Stand Rock, illustrated above. This rock was made famous in a Bennett photograph showing his son jumping across the gap. The jumping stopped when someone was seriously injured. Today a dog jumps the gap for the tourists.

Devil’s Lake State Park, unit of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, has Devil’s Lake and its gorge as the centre of attraction. The Devil’s Lake outlet carried water out of the southern end of Lake Wisconsin before it was blocked by the Johnstown moraine. Devil’s Lake is 1 km wide, 5 km long and 145 metres deep. Along the gorge are talus slopes of Precambrian Baraboo quartzite which forms a resistant inlier. The gorge was cut in the Late Cambrian, or earlier. Evidence for this is the Cambrian sandstone found in the gorge near the lake level. Paleozoic rocks are found at higher levels on the Baraboo Hills, showing that the gorge was completely covered during Paleozoic times. The Baraboo Hills are similar to the quartzite hills of Manitoulin Island, Ontario, which were covered by Paleozoic rocks in the same way. The Devil’s Lake park has numerous hiking trails and a museum describing the lake’s formation.

Mill Bluff State Park to the northwest of Wisconsin Dells on highway 90/94 features sandstone buttes which were once islands in glacial lake Wisconsin.

Be sure to take the family to see the 50 acre Circus World Museum in Baraboo. In 1884, Ringling Brothers circus was started in Baraboo.

Mineral Point is a historic mining community an hour’s drive southwest of the Dells. The drive is through contour-ploughed corn fields. The farmers must take to this environmentally sound practice or loose their government subsidy! Mineral Point prides itself as being the place where Wisconsin began. Mineral Point was founded in 1827, when Wisconsin was still part of Michigan Territory. Miners from Cornwall, England settled the area. The stone buildings of the area are constructed in the same way as those found in the west of England. Mineral Point was the centre of the lead mining region. Visit Pendarvis and Merry Christmas Mine Hill. Pendarvis offers tours of six miner’s cottages by interpreters in period costume and footpaths to Merry Christmas Mine Hill which contains hundreds of abandoned lead and zinc mines. The hill is names for a mine which was found on Christmas Day. Some of the early mines are small craters excavated by the "Badgers" – single miners who used to live in the holes they dug. Cornish pasties and saffron cake are available at the local bake shops and restaurants. If you wish to visit an underground mine, drive half an hour further south to Platteville and the Bevans Lead Mine at the Rollo Jameson Museum. The area to the south of Platteville includes the lead district around Galena, Illinois.

Pay a visit to the Geology Museum on the University of Wisconsin – Madison Campus. The museum has an excellent collection of minerals and displays illustrating the geology of Wisconsin. Dinosaurs on display, including an Edmontosaurus, were collected by university faculty. A window viewing the research area allows the visitor to watch dinosaur bones being extracted and prepared.

An enjoyable way to return to Ontario from Wisconsin is to take the four-hour ferry ride from Manitouwoc to Luddington, Michigan. The Lake Michigan ferries are used to transport trains across Lake Michigan all year round to various ports. Only one ferry is working now during the summer months.


Glacial Lake Wisconsin by Lee Clayton and John W. Attig, Geological Society of America Memoir 173 available from the GSA, 330 Penrose Place, P.O. Box 9140, Boulder, Colorado 80301.

Brochure: Ice Age National Reserve, available from Ice Age National Reserve, DNR Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.

Wisconsin Dells Attractions: Wisconsin Dells Visitors and Convention Bureau, 701 Superior Street, P.O. Box 390.