By Amy Bayer
There are 24 designated public State Natural Areas in Sauk County. Each is a unique destination with an overabundance of natural wonders. Some are off the beaten path, while others are located a stone’s throw from one of our State Parks or Riverways. From rare plants and wildlife to stunning rock formations and sandstone cliffs, Sauk County is a treasure trove of beauty. You’ll want to add these destinations to your next visit to the area; or better yet, make a special trip to Sauk County and visit all 24, starting with these seven scenic wonders!
Adjacent to Devil’s Lake State Park, Parfrey’s Glen can be directly accessed from the state park by only a 4.5-mile section of The Ice Age Scenic National Trail. Otherwise it’s easily accessible by car southeast of Devil’s Lake. Parfrey's Glen, Wisconsin's first State Natural Area, is a spectacular gorge cut deeply through sandstone in the Baraboo Hills. A short path directs visitors from the parking lot to the gorge where large boulders and the glen walls are covered in moss, creating a soothing cool temperature on even the hottest summer days. This natural gem allows visitors to walk through the gorge to a small waterfall, located less than one mile from the parking lot. Tread carefully, because the mossy stones can be tricky to maneuver, but the views are spectacular.
Ableman's Gorge is a rocky valley cut by the Baraboo River located in the village of Rock Springs, just 15 minutes west of Baraboo. The cliffs and rocky slopes rise approximately 200 feet above the river to form a wall nearly three-fourths of a mile long. Here you can see the geologically renowned “Van Hise Rock” which is named after Professor Charles Van Hise. The professor used this area to demonstrate fundamental principles of geology and the area is marked with a plaque. There are two separate pull-over parking areas along the Baraboo River side of the gorge. The southernmost parking area has a locally famous artesian well where water is readily available. There is a 1-mile paved gravel trail connecting the two parking areas along the foot of the cliffs through an old quarry. Along the trail, you’ll see diverse rock formations, lush forest, remnants of the old quarry and an amazingly large, old cottonwood tree.
Baxter's Hollow is the Nature Conservancy’s largest preserve in Wisconsin and one of the more primitive natural areas in the state consisting of one marginally maintained trail that is often muddy. It’s because of this limited access that despite years of human habitation, the area still seems wild and untouched and is remarkable for the large area of deep forest and the mountain-like creek it protects. Baxter’s Hollow features a scenic gorge cut through quartzite by Otter Creek, a fast, clear, nearly undisturbed stream flowing over large boulders. This untouched area has allowed a wide diversity of species to flourish and is your best opportunity to bypass crowds while exploring some of the quiet natural wonders.
While visiting the State Natural Areas in Sauk County, you won’t want to miss the Devil’s Lake East Bluff, which can be found within the borders of the most popular and largest state park in Wisconsin. Located within the Baraboo Range, the East Bluff Natural Area rises 500 feet above the lake and is composed of quartzite boulders topped by a forest of hickory and ash. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail guides hikers along the top of the bluff, and other park trails like the Balanced Rock and Potholes trails offer difficult, but rewarding, hikes on steep stone paths for anyone up for the challenge. This natural area offers incredible opportunities for exploring stunning rock formations and soaking in scenic overlooks of the lake and park below.
Natural Bridge State Park contains the largest natural bridge known in Wisconsin. Created by wind erosion and the weathering of sandstone, the inside of the arch is 25 feet wide and 15 feet high. Nestled at the base is a rockshelter once used by Paleo-Indians. A partial excavation at the rockshelter revealed artifacts which estimates human occupation between 9000 and 8000 BC, making it the oldest documented site of human occupation in the upper Midwest. This site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are multiple trails in the park: one which takes you past the rock features and historic site as well as a scenic overlook, while the other longer trail loops through a wooded landscape resplendent in hardwoods and ferns.
Located five miles west of Sauk City, Ferry Bluff State Natural Area is a part of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. Ferry Bluff and the adjacent Cactus Bluff tower more than 300 feet above the confluence of Honey Creek and the Wisconsin River. At the nature area’s trailhead, hikers have the option to follow one trail down to the riverbank or the other trail up a 20% grade to the top of Cactus Bluff. This sandstone overlook offers scenic panoramic views allowing you to see for miles in most directions, while the river valley below is simply stunning. Dusk is considered one of the best times to hike the trail so you can see the moon reflected in the river surrounded by the soft hues of sunset.
Fern Dell Gorge, located within Mirror Lake State Park, features a small but spectacular gorge. The narrow mile long swath is a tributary to the larger Mirror Lake gorge and is blanketed in an ocean of ferns. Getting to this amazing variety of ferns isn’t an easy task, but it’s definitely worth the adventure. There are no maintained trails into Fern Dell Gorge, and the journey involves following deer paths. Visitors need to make their own way through the woods and bramble and clamber down the cliff walls, or enter the gorge by canoe or kayak from Mirror Lake tributary. Park Rangers at Mirror Lake State Park can assist you with directions to this truly hidden gem.
While you’re in the area, check out more of nature’s beautiful wonders at any of these other Sauk County destinations:
- Bakken's Pond at the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway
- Bear Creek Sedge Meadow at the Bear Creek Fishery Area
- Cady's Marsh
- Dells of the Wisconsin River
- Devil's Lake Oak Forest
- South Bluff/Devil's Nose
- Hemlock Draw
- Honey Creek State Natural Area
- Hulburt Creek Woods at Hulburt Creek Fishery Area
- Lower Narrows
- McGilvra Woods
- Mirror Lake Pine Oak Forest at Mirror Lake State Park
- Pan Hollow
- Pine Hollow
- Schluckebier Prairie
- Spring Green Preserve
Want to read more? Check out these seven natural wonders in our state, and keep an eye on TravelWisconsin.com as we roll out more articles in this series on scenic wonders by county.