Devil’s Lake invites exertion, introspection

Novice hikers are easy to spot at Devil’s Lake State Park. They’re the ones clambering up the east bluff, jumping from boulder to boulder, seemingly oblivious to the perils below.

Back in the day, we scaled the quartzite bluffs of Wisconsin’s largest state park the same way, drawing on our adventurous inclinations during otherwise sedate Sunday afternoons. We were young, inexperienced and lucky we didn’t wind up as another grim statistic.

Turns out, people get injured scaling the to the bluffs overlooking Devil’s Lake. Occasionally, someone takes a fatal fall. Carefree can come at a cost.

Once atop the 500-foot-high bluffs, however, the struggle to get there feels worth every strained muscle and bead of sweat. Even veteran hikers are awed by the commanding view of the Baraboo Range — a view so dramatic that it invites observers to pause and reflect on their place in the universe.

The product of melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago, Devil’s Lake occupies a gorge with no visible inlet or outlet. The lake lies at the south end of the Baraboo Range, just south of the city of Baraboo. Its current official name is a mistranslation of the original Ho-Chunk name Tawacunchukdah, which means “Sacred Lake” or “Spirit Lake.” This 369-acre body of water looms large in the tribe’s oral history.

Circumnavigating the lake

Many people come to Devil’s Lake to camp, picnic on the beaches or swim, an activity made less pleasant earlier this year by an outbreak of Swimmer’s Itch.  There also is canoeing, kayaking or just plain floating away the afternoon on the quiet lake. Motorized craft are forbidden.

But for many, a hike circumnavigating the lake along the bluff trails is mandatory, and can be accomplished in a matter of hours.

Traveling clockwise from the more popular north shore, hikers of all capabilities will find wide, well-marked and gently ascending trails that offer multiple views of the lake and terrain beyond. Some days the trails become a thoroughfare of humanity that can back up on narrow passages along the cliff’s edge.

The descent at the south end of the lake is challenging, marked by a series of switchbacks that take hikers down to ground level. This end of the bluff is most often favored by rock climbers who like to practice their skills along the bluff’s sometimes sheer face.

The south shore beach tends to be less populated than the north shore, where the park’s amenities are more plentiful. A splash in the lake or simply a comfortable stroll to the western bluff allows hikers some respite and a chance to catch their breath for the more challenging part of the trail.hiking Devil's Lake State Park

The ascent of the western bluff is more strenuous than that of its eastern counterpart. The trail — which alternates through coniferous forests and boulder-strewn terrains — requires a little more care and a lot more energy to climb. Luckily, flat boulders along the way make comfortable places to rest and gaze across the open spaces. Hawks and eagles are often seen circling in the distance, lazily riding the updrafts as they scan the ground far below for their prey.

Absolute silence

The western bluff is part of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, the 1,200-mile trail that follows the terminal moraine from the last Ice Age. The trail, which starts at Door County’s Potawatomi State Park in the east, scoops far south to Rock County on the state’s southern border, then back up past Devil’s Lake to Interstate State Park on the St. Croix River near the Minnesota border.

The descent at the northern end is more challenging than the gradual ascent on the other side, ending in a stretch of narrow trails along the lake level. Many hikers seem happy to be back at ground level, but few regret their decision to hike in the first place.

Hiking Devil’s Lake is a pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon, even when the trails are crowded. But nothing beats the experience on an early weekday morning, before visitors start arriving and campers stir from their bedrolls.

The absolute silence at the top of the bluff always opens new vistas for us, ones that inspire as much introspection as the vast views. In her novel The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath may have said it best:

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery — air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’”

Standing atop the bluff, the lake shimmering below and vistas stretching to the horizon — happiness indeed.

And wait until you see the bluffs dressed in their fall colors.

Devil’s Lake State Park

Devil’s Lake State Park, founded in 1911, is Wisconsin’s third oldest state park and the state’s most popular, attracting an average 1.5 million visitors annually. During the paddle boats at devils lake state parkpark’s early years, resorts and homes dotted the water’s edge, primarily along the south and north shores of the lake. The park had its own post office and train depot.

Trains still run along the tracks on the east side of the lake, but they no longer stop at the park. The resorts are gone and only a few private residences remain on the lake’s rugged western shore. Ownership of the private homes has been grandfathered to subsequent generations of family members, but eventually the homes will become part of the park.

The 9,217-acre park, dubbed one of the “Last Great Places” by The Nature Conservancy, boasts roughly 40 miles of hiking trails. The trails atop the bluffs skirting the lake are by far the most popular and, on summer weekends, the most heavily traveled.

Devil’s Lake State Park is located at S-5975 Park Road., Baraboo, Wisconsin. State park entrance fees apply.

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