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Weird, Wacky Wisconsin

semi-overcast 15 °C

Sample Itinerary (from Chicago)
- Day 1: Rockford (Illinois), Madison, Baraboo
- Day 2: Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin Dells, Baraboo
- Day 3: House on the Rock, Mt. Horeb, Madison
- Day 4: Madison, Milwaukee
Optional: Pewits Nest Gorge, Parfrey’s Glen, Cave of the Mounds, Lake Geneva, Mars Cheese Castle

Where to Stay
- Ringling House B&B in Baraboo ($115 USD)
- Hotel Indigo in Madison ($170 USD)

Where to Eat
- Baraboo: Tumbled Rock Brewery (perfect place to visit after hiking Devil’s Lake), Baraboo Burger Company (open late serving up tasty burgers and salads), Coffee Bean Connection (cute place with flavourful lattes, mochas, and bagels), Driftless Glen Distillery (fancier dining)
- Madison: Chocolate Shoppe, Madison Sourdough, Glass Nickel Pizza Company

My Travel Diary
As an “alien” – yes, that’s the actual term used – there’s still a lot that I don’t know, and am curious to learn about the U.S. Enter Wisconsin. One of my closest friends had told me that while living in Chicago I had to visit Wisconsin, especially the Devil’s Lake hiking area, House on the Rock, and Madison. His spouse had lived in Madison temporarily and the two of them had explored the area to the fullest extent possible, so I trusted their judgment. Due to scheduling conflicts, I had to delay the trip until April, 2021. As it happens, spring is an excellent time to visit Wisconsin. Leaving Chicago, my travel partner (i.e., real life partner) and I decided to stop at Rockford, Illinois to check out the arboretum and Anderson Japanese Gardens. I found the Japanese garden really well-manicured and very peaceful, particularly appreciating the waterfalls and traditional Japanese zigzag bridge. We spent so long at the Anderson Japanese Gardens that we never saw the nearby botanical gardens or arboretum.

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The whole area was fairly residential, which made the search for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House a bit tricky. This house has the distinction of being the only Wright house designed for a client with a physical disability. Built in the 1950s, this house was referred to as Ken and Phyllis Laurent’s “little gem” although its grounds are surprisingly large. We parked on a side street and just wandered the exterior as it was officially closed and undergoing maintenance when we came; normally, it would cost $5 for students to enter and $25 for others. It may have been Wright, but we were probably wrong to just snoop around without paying – the consolation is that we never entered the building, or even the backyard. In a similarly creepy manner, we drove by Taliesin (also by Wright) but didn’t enter. It spans 800 acres, including the 37 000 square foot home, and is actually a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a number of tours available, including a two-hour highlights tour that is $65. Hopefully next time I’m in the area I’ll actually explore it in greater depth, not just do a drive-by.

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On the theme of architecture, I would be remiss not to devote time to the House on the Rock. The question is: how do you begin to describe the strangest place you’ve ever visited (excluding a robot café in Japan, naturally)? Here goes. Once upon a time there was a man, a very strange man, named Alex Jordan. With the heart of a dreamer and the mind of an engineer, he bought land in the 1940s overlooking a valley and began building a home into the huge rocks that dotted the landscape. The house grew and by the 1960s he was charging admission to tourists who flocked to the site to see the stained glass, low ceilings, and music machines. As time passed, his interests expanded: he assembled the largest indoor carousel in the world, he built a 218-foot scenic overhang (which shakes with the wind), and he curated wings of his house devoted to topics as divergent as aviation, doll houses, and musical organs (for starters). Nowadays, it takes hours to tour the house in its entirety. We opted for the “ultimate experience” and spent four hours exploring all three sections. It was musty, I had to duck at times, I felt watched by all the dolls and strange animatronics, but I can safely say that I never saw terrifying twins. Or Jack Nicholson, for that matter. Although I wouldn’t even be surprised if someone told me he’d made a cameo at one of Alex Jordan’s wild 1960s parties.

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Mt. Horeb, Baraboo, and Wisconsin Dells were also strange but combined they still wouldn’t even register on a scale measured against House on the Rock. To begin with, Baraboo is a circus city in every sense: from the Circus World Museum to all the businesses named after the Ringling brothers to the statues of elephants all over town. We spent two nights there, but in retrospect I would have rather stayed there one night and spent two nights in Madison instead. Briefly, our bright yellow B&B in Baraboo was actually built in 1901 by one of the famous Ringling brothers – hence the name, “Ringling House B&B”. I had been hoping for a tour of the home, but it never came. Regardless, it served as a good enough base for our regional exploring because it was well-located, clean, and fairly private. Surprisingly, our “modern” Indigo Hotel in Madison was actually a highly-renovated building from the early 1900s as well. Due to its former identity as a paint headquarters and manufacturing plant, the hotel has splashes of colour all over, which really added to its charm.

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Baraboo also has its own charm, but unfortunately it was fairly deserted while we were there which meant that a number of the businesses and attractions were closed. For entertainment, we walked the Riverwalk and watched a local baseball game. It felt wholesome, yet incomplete – mainly because I had no hot dog or peanuts in hand. In fact, the restaurants in Baraboo closed really early, so we faced a quandary after becoming so invested in the baseball game that we missed closing time for almost all of the local eateries! We strolled restaurant to restaurant hoping that one would still be open. We entered one and promptly left after receiving an intimidating stare down from the server and other patrons; the next one we entered, Baraboo Burger Company, was a much more welcoming environment (with delicious results!). It was eerie walking around at night, but at least there were no Galena-styled sirens.

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Mt. Horeb may have a few thousand less human residents than Baraboo, but it makes up for that with its outsized troll population. In fact, Mt. Horeb is known as “the troll capital of the world” and I took it upon myself to meet as many of the trolls as I could. I started by picking up my “trollway” map at the visitor center, heartily announcing myself with a vibrato “velkommen”. It turns out you don’t need to speak Norwegian to go troll hunting, which is helpful since in reality I don’t speak Norwegian. It turns out the area has had a strong Norwegian presence since the late 1800s, and Scandinavian culture has helped shape Wisconsin in ways that I hadn’t realized. Although I learned more than I’ll ever need to know about trolls, it was harder to find information about the Indigenous people who had lived there prior to the European settlers. Instead, I had to fall back on my old friend the internet. Search results told me that the area was part of the Ho-Chunk territory, which was “ceded” to the U.S. government over the course of a number of treaties signed in the early 19th century. So far wherever I’ve traveled in the U.S., I’ve seen little to no offerings for tourists (or locals) that incorporate or highlight the history and contemporary cultures of Indigenous people. It’s erasure and it’s disappointing, to say the least.

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While looking for more information about Indigenous cultures around what’s now known as Wisconsin, I learned that “Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation is the largest employer in Sauk and Jackson counties” (https://wisconsinfirstnations.org/ho-chunk-nation/). Part of the Wisconsin Dells is in Sauk county, so that was a helpful fact to keep in mind while visiting. That being said, I stayed as short a time as possible because it felt like it was trying to be Niagara Falls trying to be Las Vegas: funnel cakes, old timey photo studios, overpriced wax museums and all. After a quick drive through town, we felt in need of the purifying power of nature so we hiked the Chapel Gorge Trail. It’s fine if you’re looking for a simple stroll in the woods, but if you’re craving more excitement then Devil’s Lake is the place for you.

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We drove to the Devil’s Lake State Park fairly early by our standards, but nowhere near its opening time of 6 am. It was straightforward to pay the $16 admission fee, park, and then set off on our hike. The helpful attendant advised that we try the East Bluff Trail for the best views, as well as the chance to see Elephant Rock and Devil’s Doorway. Truthfully, Elephant Rock looked more like a giant brain to me; at least House on the Rock was clearly a house… on a rock.

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In any case, I found the hike challenging. It’s steep at times, but the real issue was the fact that you’re walking on stone steps that are significantly spaced at times and I actually cut my knee trying to scramble from one to another. It’s officially labeled as “moderate”, but for me it was difficult, and I doubt it would be easy for anyone aside from maybe mountain goats.

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On our way back to the car we followed the Tumbled Rock Path, which was a walk in the park (literally and figuratively). Tumbled Rock is a very easy and fairly quick walk whereas East Bluff Trail is far from accessible and would require at least two hours (at least).

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The views are spectacular though – especially from the Devil’s Doorway. Looking down you’ll see the green trees jutting out from purple rocks above the turquoise lake and under the cerulean sky, and wonder how you could be so lucky as to stand surrounded by such beauty. And yes, I said purple rocks. It turns out that Devil’s Lake State Park is the most commonly visited park in Wisconsin partially because of its Baraboo Quartzite: pink and purple exposed rocks that date back 1.5 billion years. I may not be a geologist (or a dad), but I can officially say that this place rocks.

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Now let’s talk Madison, the progressive gem of Wisconsin. Apart from it being a wonderful place to visit, I kept reflecting on how much I’d like to live there: from its multiple lakes (sunrise picnic at one, sunset picnic at another!) to its seemingly endless biking/walking trails (including an arboretum in the middle of the city with yet another lake inside of it!) coupled with its emphasis on respecting nature and humanity, I just felt so enamoured with everything I experienced. Maybe instead of just admiring the imposing Wisconsin State Capitol building from the outside, I should have been networking inside of it!

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As Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, it’s inherently political. The writing was on the walls all over the city, so to speak: protest slogans and inspirational images like a collage from May 30, 2020. We didn’t see any protests while we were there, but there was plenty of proof that it’s a civically-active city. It gives me hope when I see people actively engaging in democratic processes, and even more so when they’re creating those processes themselves. Policy changes culture, and policy needs to be responsive to local culture too.

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I’ll finish this blog post by focusing on my one true love: food. And the food all over Wisconsin, but especially in Madison, was phenomenal. We tried multiple restaurants, but our favourite had to be a pizza joint. It was so good that we ate Glass Nickel pizza at Olbrich Beach one day and then at Marshall Park the next (I highly recommend their chicken alfredo pizza!). Thankfully neither of us is lactose-intolerant, so we completed our first meal with tasty treats from Madison Chocolate Shoppe. Milkshake in hand, gloves on hand (it got chilly at night), we walked through the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus at sunset enjoying the reflections on the lake. Well, one of the many lakes.

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Upon leaving Madison, we decided to make one more stop in Milwaukee so that my partner could visit a friend and I could eat more dairy. The Milwaukee Public Market was the perfect pit stop: you can find anything from spices to smoothies. Now that I’ve had a taste of Wisconsin, I’m definitely craving more – as cheesy as that may sound.

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Posted by madrugada 20:19 Archived in USA Tagged lakes food architecture nature hiking elephants rocks university circus forests pizza geology arboretum weird picnics frank_lloyd_wright dairy illinois milwaukee madison wisconsin house_on_the_rock carousels baraboo rockford devil's_lake wisconsin_dells mt.horeb trolls wacky quartzite milwaukee_public_market laurent_house taliesin milkshakes japanese_gardens Comments (0)

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