Midwest Weekend Getaway: Baraboo And Devil’s Lake State Park In Wisconsin

devil's lake state parkChicago is a world-class city but there are many occasions when those of us that live here want out, at least for the weekend. And while the city is a terrific flight hub, quick and dirty road trip options are limited, especially if you’ve lived in the city for a long time and have exhausted most of the choice destinations. A few years ago, my wife and I took a hiking excursion to Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake State Park, about an hour northwest of Madison, and vowed to return for a camping trip one day.

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We finally got our chance the last weekend of September, and were blessed with glorious sunny weather and blue skies to complement the changing leaves. Planning a camping trip for a family of four feels like preparing for war though, and three hours into the drive with our are-we-there-yet sons, ages 3 and 5, our nerves and patience were shot.

It was about 5:30 p.m. and we were hoping to score one of the first-come-first-serve tent sites at Devil’s Lake State Park, as all their reserved spots were full. We were blindly following our GPS to the park when Julie, our friendly Australian GPS navagatrix said, “Turn right onto the Merrimac Ferry.” We were all excited to be only 10 miles away from the park and thought we’d be there in 15 minutes, but all of the sudden we were sitting in a fairly long line of cars waiting to get on a ferry.

As soon as we pulled in, more cards pulled in the line right behind us, so it wasn’t possible to back out, and the GPS indicated that any detour would be time consuming. At first, I was irate because I thought we’d have to pay for the ferry and was concerned that by the time we found a campsite, we’d have to erect our tent in the dark.

merrimac ferry wisconsinMy wife asked the two cars in front of us how much the ferry cost but alas, they were also following their GPS’s as well and were just as clueless as we were. But the ferry turned out to be free, the line moved quickly and we took the opportunity to get out of our car and enjoy the fresh air and the views of the Wisconsin River. The odd thing is that almost everyone remained inside their parked cars; both in line and on the ferry itself, despite the fact that it was a beautiful early fall evening.

Tent sites at the park were all booked up but we made it to a more expensive and less salubrious campground a couple miles outside the park just before darkness fell. (Tip: book way in advance to get a $17 per night tent site at Devil’s Lake S.P.; it’s the best deal in the area by far) Nevertheless, we were still able to enjoy Devil’s Lake in all of its early fall splendor.

Devil’s Lake is huge. It’s a 360-acre lake that is flanked by 500-foot bluffs. In the late 19th century, the park was home to a number of resort hotels and a train line brought tourists in from all over the Midwest. These days, camping is your only option in the park itself but there are 29 miles of hiking trails to explore, including portions of the 1,000-plus-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail. I’m partial to the West Bluff trail, which starts near the north entrance to the park and offers a good workout and some incredible views down over the lake.

We were prepared to love Devil’s Lake, but the very pleasant surprise of the weekend was Baraboo’s eminently loveable old-school downtown, which features two good bookstores, one new, one used, a classic, circa 1915 cinema, a free zoo and a host of enticing restaurants and shops. The Ringling Brothers put the town on the map by basing their circus there and that legacy lives on at the Circus World Museum, which is part museum, part working circus.

barabooAs we lingered at a Saturday morning farmers market outside the town’s stately courthouse, an older man in a flannel shirt noticed my camera and asked if we wanted to know more about the town. The man, who introduced himself as Gary, was hanging out with his brother Rick on a bench, and I had the distinct impression that they sit there every day.

“Do you remember JFK?” Gary asked us.

“Of course,” I said, wondering where he was going with the question.

“He walked right up those steps over there and shook our hands here when he was campaigning for president,” he said as though the event had just happened recently.

After shooting the breeze with Gary and Rick, we checked out the Al Ringling Cinema, which was built for $100,000 in 1915, during the height of the silent film era. It’s a beautifully restored old cinema that still hosts live theater, movies and a variety of other events. I ambled in for a look and a woman named Charlene, who works there, told me that only one member of the Ringling family still lives in the area, and he’s in prison for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.

Nevertheless, the town still clings to the Ringling connection – there are several Ringling Brothers banners posted around town, and it’s still a great place to visit. If you want to take an alternate route back to the Chicago area, consider a stop off in New Glarus, a handsome little town founded by Swiss immigrants from the canton of Glarus in the 1840s, on your way home. The town retains its distinctive Swiss character and is situated right off of the Sugar River State Trail, a really nice bike path.

We happened to be in New Glarus for their annual Oktoberfest, which on its final day featured, oddly enough, a roots and blues band but no German music. But they did have New Glarus Oktoberfest beer, which was a sweet way to end a glorious early fall weekend in Wisconsin.

IF YOU GO: The drive to Baraboo takes about 3-1/2 hours from Chicago, depending on traffic and where you start. We stayed at a private campground near the park, which charges $28 for tent sites or $31 if you use a credit card (almost double the price of Devil’s Lake State Park). I can’t recommend the place because the tent sites are very close to each other and the owner is a bit of a crank.

Try to get a spot at Devil’s Lake State Park itself, if you can. Reservations are hard to come by on the weekend, but each day they also set aside 54 first-come-first-served spots, so get there early. For good, inexpensive Mexican food with gigantic portions, go to Los Nopales, and try Jen’s Alpine Café for a very good, if time consuming, breakfast. It’s an old-school place right downtown that’s been around since the 1930s.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]