The Wisconsin Dells: A Winter Wonderland of Holiday Adventure
Nov 26, 2013 11:23AM
By Megy Karydes
Photo Credit Megy Karydes
The reputation of the Wisconsin Dells, the kitschy water park capitol of the world, has soared as more travelers realize there is more to see and do than hang out at the amusement parks or catch a water ski show. Winter is a magical time to drive just three hours northwest of Chicago and discover a tasty food and drink culture, stylish shopping and healthy outdoor family adventures that we might not expect to find. It’s family-friendly, and yet perfect for when we need time alone with that special someone or on our own.
Devil’s Lake State Park (DNR.Wi.gov/Topic/Parks/Name/DevilsLake) Wisconsin’s biggest is where visitors can ski cross-country on seven miles of trails that weave through oak, ash, hickory and maple forests when there is enough snow. Guests can also snowshoe, ice fish, hike, climb and sled throughout the park. Devil’s Lake is a beautiful year-round park with fascinating natural history along the 1,000-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Bring a camera to shoot its magnificent views from 500-foot quartzite bluffs.
Ziplining isn’t reserved for warm weather at Bigfoot Zipline Tours (BigfootZip.com). As long as there isn’t any sleet, its Sky Ranger guides are ready to take thrill-seekers on any of the six signature ziplines that will have riders zipping under and over tree tops at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.
Snowmobile lovers will enjoy miles of trails that crisscross the area. Head to the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau Visitor Center (WisDells.com) in downtown Wisconsin Dells for a map to help plot an adventure.
Just 15 minutes away from the Dells is Cascade Mountain (CascadeMountain.com), in Portage, which offers 36 trails ranging from easy to challenging. It’s easy to get to the top of the mountain with its 10 lifts, including the high-speed Mountain Top Express.
Snow Train Weekend
The annual Snow Train (Midcontinent.org/Ride/Snow.html), a unique and unforgettable train ride experience, will run its 39th circuit on February 15 and 16. Enjoy Mid-Continent’s seven-mile, 55-minute round trip ride on a former branch line of the Chicago & North Western Railroad through a winter wonderland at the foot of the Baraboo Hills. All cars are heated by steam heat or coal-fired stoves. The upcoming Snow Train will feature vintage diesel locomotives. Visit its website for fares and schedule information.
Dine and Enjoy
Visitors to the Wisconsin Dells will quickly realize its dining scene is made up of family-owned local establishments. From well-known traditional supper clubs to breweries (and even a winery), it’s easy to find great food and drinks in and near the Dells.
Start with breakfast at River’s Edge Pub & Grub (RiversEdgeWisconsinDells.com), a unique rustic family dining experience complete with a log-accented building and a 4,000-gallon fish aquarium.
For lunch, head to one of Wisconsin Dells’ breweries. Enjoy one of 10 handcrafted local brews at Moosejaw Pizza (dellsmoosejaw.com), including Dells Brewing Company’s Rustic Red, the first bottled microbrew in the Dells, created by Brewmaster Jamie Baertsch, the only female brewmaster in Wisconsin.
For those that really appreciate the local craft beer scene, continue to Port Huron Brewing Company’s Engine House Tap Room (PortHuronBeer.com) to enjoy a sample flight of beers currently on tap. The facility is only open on Friday and Saturdays. Brewery Chief Tanner Brethorst used to have a Friday night running club where everyone would try a new Wisconsin beer or two after the run. Over time, the running died out, but the beer sampling grew. Try the Honey Blonde, Hefeweizen, Amber Ale Porter or Oatmeal Stout, and see why people keep coming back for more.
To appreciate the grape, travel about 30 minutes to Wollersheim Winery (Wollersheim.com), in nearby Prairie du Sac. Perched on a scenic hillside overlooking the Wisconsin River, this historic winery boasts award-winning wines from dry to sweet, with annual production of approximately 220,000 gallons. Enjoy a guided tour with visits to the wine garden, vineyards, modern fermentation room, original winery, underground limestone aging cellars, new wine cave and finally, a sampling in the tasting room.
Wine aficionados may not realize that Wollersheim Winery’s national historic site was selected for vineyards in the 1840s by Hungarian nobleman Agoston Haraszthy. The slopes reminded Haraszthy of his homeland and he knew this would be an ideal place to grow grapes. In December 1849, he decided to follow the gold rush west to California, where he eventually became known as the founder of the California wine industry.
No trip to Wisconsin is complete without cheese. Market Square Cheese (MarketSquareCheese.com) sells more than 100 tons of select Wisconsin cheeses each year, including some interesting cheese flavors like Guinness cheddar, chicken soup, ghost pepper habanero, apple jack, primo pizza, twice bleu cheddar, green olive and of course, Wisconsin cheese curds.
Nestled among the souvenir and knick-knack shops in the river shopping district of downtown Wisconsin Dells are locally-owned fashion boutiques such as Alpha Beta Karma (AlphaBetaKarma.com), which carries hand-picked apparel and accessories from fashion designers in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and all points in-between. Many of the items are handmade by artists and artisans, accompanied by rich stories that the staff is eager to share with their customers.
Two doors down is the Winnebago Gift Shop (ShopAbGifts.com), a landmark store that’s been in operation in Wisconsin Dells since 1949. Located in a historic building, circa 1860, generations have made their annual pilgrimage here to pick up a new pair of Minnetonka moccasins. It’s also a great place to buy men’s clothing and gifts.
In the opposite direction, but on the same side of the street, is Hand Blown Glass (HandBlownGlass-Gifts.com). The shop is the area’s largest selection of handmade dichroic glass jewelry and figurines, created by a resident glass artist that is often onsite creating his work for everyone to see.
Cross the street to H.H. Bennett Studio (HHBennettStudio.WisconsinHistory.org), the oldest operating business in Wisconsin Dells, which is also believed to be the oldest operating photography studio in the United States. It houses the collective work of Henry Hamilton Bennett, one of the best landscape photographers of the 19th century.
Where to Stay
If children are in the party, a family can’t go wrong by staying at Kalahari Resort (KalahariResorts.com/Wisconsin) or Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort (WildernessResort.com). Both boast several hundred acres of indoor water park fun and during those cold winter months, being able to walk around in a bathing suit is a welcome change to heavy winter gear.
For more sophisticated fare, book a stay at adults-only Sundara Inn and Spa (SundaraSpa.com). Choose from spa services that include massages, facials and body treatments like body wraps using essential oils.
Architecture fans will appreciate a stay in the Seth Peterson Cottage (SethPeterson.org), a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building balanced on the edge of a steep wooded hill that plunges down to Mirror Lake.
There’s plenty to eat, see and do in this Midwestern mecca, even in the middle of winter. The next time the family is considering a close winter weekend getaway, head up to the Wisconsin Dells.
Megy Karydes often writes about travel and food for publications that include Natural Awakenings, USA Today/10Best, Daily Herald and TravelingMom.com. Keep up with her adventures by visiting WanderingTastes.com.