If you can put up with the Dells, you’ll love Mirror Lake

Morning coffee and park guide

State parks are family, and we love them unconditionally. But sometimes it’s harder to tolerate the hangers-on who family members bring along as baggage.

That’s the case with Mirror Lake State Park, which is like your cool brother who has a lovely wife. Let’s just call her Rocky Arbor State Park, and let’s just NOT talk about her father, the highly successful but brash and overbearing guy whose name is Wisconsin Dells.

OK, let’s.  You can’t discuss Mirror Lake without the conversation turning toward the obnoxious father-in-law, who, truth be told, has his good points.

So this week’s column will be about bad weather, good shelter, wonderful trails, high prices and everything else that comes with a foray into Wisconsin’s most beautiful and overpopulated tourist attractions.

Plan B for “beautiful” 

The intent had been to drive Thursday to Devil’s Lake State Park, south of Baraboo, and hope we were lucky enough for a first-come, first-served camping spot before another busy weekend.  A week before, the online reservation system had shown no reservable sites available at Devil’s Lake, but there were still multiple sites available at Mirror Lake, just up the road.

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Knowing what we know about non-reservable sites, we figured we at least had a shot. They’re often available during the week, but we needed a backup plan.

Frequent hiking buddy Al Bond and his family were going to camp with mine, so I drafted his 18-year-old son, Trevor, to claim and help occupy whatever sites we were able to get. Turns out we needed the backup at Mirror Lake, where about two-thirds of the 16 first-come sites at the Bluewater Campground were available.

Mirror Lake has the type of large tent sites that you don’t find that often, and we picked a couple in proximity to each other, set up camp, and then headed to Sun Prairie to pick up my family’s new screen shelter, which had come in the night before (just hours after I constructed a makeshift replacement for eight feet of bent steel pole on our old shelter).

The shelter would come in handy on our third night, when a little more than a half-inch of driving rain poured out of the sky in about 40 minutes.  The shelter worked like a charm, although we heard cursing from other campsites in the storm’s aftermath and saw at least one tent in the dumpster on our way out on Sunday.

Before the rain, there was an awesome lighting storm that had campers setting up chairs on a playground near the camp showers, plus cell-phone recordings by the dozens.

The shower facilities at Mirror Lake are great, with individual shower rooms that are spacious and well designed – but there are only seven for Bluewater’s 57 regular and three group sites.

There are also 89 other individual campsites, along with four more group sites, in the park, along with their own shower and bathroom facilities.

Besides the spacious and relatively private sites (ranked four and three stars, respectively, in Kevin Revolinski and Johnny Molloy’s guide The Best in Tent Camping Wisconsin), the wooded sites are quite beautiful, and I’d agree with their four-star ranking for that. But the real pleasure was discovering that Mirror Lake has some stellar hiking trails on its 2,200 acres.

Some of the 19 miles of trails were apparently closed due to extensive rain earlier in the week, but Trevor and I took in several, including the Echo Rock and Ishnala trails, on Friday morning. All are in the more developed area north and east of park headquarters, which is only about a fifth of its property, but we were quite pleasantly surprised by how attractive and quiet they were.

In two hours of hiking, we saw no more than a dozen people on the trails, even though the Echo Rock trail is a paved, accessible walkway to a lovely, forested, round sandstone formation that looks across an inlet of a small creek to the Ishnala Supper Club, one of the state’s most famous, tucked into a small piece of non-park property.

After exploring the rock from top to bottom and enjoying all its outcroppings and views, we headed across a tall bridge over the creek to the Ishnala Trail.

Parts of the trail are not so attractive, running just a few yards from Interstate 90/94, but the best parts meander through the ravine below the bridge, where ferns, more rock formations, the burbling creek and the quiet woods are a delightful respite from the outside world.

The park is what you’d expect around the rest of the Dells area in terms of terrain – lots of interesting geological formations, opportunities to climb and take in expansive views, and plenty of water.

We liked the trails so much we did them again Saturday when the families were there, ignoring the 3.6 miles of hike-and-ski-only trails across Mirror Lake to the west. (Trails on the south side of the park also allow biking.)

We saw even fewer people on the trails on Saturday afternoon, which surprised us because the park was basically full at that point.  But it was slightly more humid and we supposed most folks were happy with boating opportunities from the park concession, Dells-area entertainment, or just lazing around, as we were the rest of the time.

There’s a swimming beach at Mirror Lake, which didn’t attract our kids on Saturday morning when they went out exploring. They seemed content with short morning and afternoon hikes, sandwiched around mealtimes and relaxing around the campsite, including the requisite fire-building and s’more-making.

Despite the noise of the interstate at night, which we really only noticed when in the tent, Mirror Lake is the quintessential Wisconsin summertime experience – trees, water, peace and quiet, and plenty of beauty. Kids and adults stay entertained and get their quotient of the outdoors.

Al and I had planned to do a little Ice Age Trail hiking in the vicinity, but were enjoying ourselves so much just relaxing that we put it off for another time, along with the rest of the park’s trails in the up-and-down, rocky, bluff-filled forests along the two main branches of the lake.

I’d never considered visiting this park and was quite glad I did.  We’ll be back.

And then there’s the Dells

Just a bit north of Mirror Lake is Rocky Arbor State Park, a 251-acre unit that is only staffed for summer camping, but accessible the rest of the year and is known for its rock formations. That’s now on the list of places to see in Wisconsin.

One of the things the always-interesting Trevor wanted to do on Friday (besides go get lunch) was figure out where workers in the Dells live.  Those who have visited know who we’re talking about – all those primarily younger, often international seasonal workers who keep the waterparks, restaurants and other businesses open.

So we did that, but that’s a story for another time.

Anyone can criticize the Dells, and outdoor sorts probably find it particularly easy to do for multiple reasons – including the expense.

The barbecue restaurant we chose on our way out of town Sunday, a famous chain (in fact, it tells you so in the name) reminded us of trying to eat in an airport. The side salad alone was $7, and the only entrees below $15 tended to be hamburgers at Tokyo or New York prices.

Truth be told, though, it was nice to be close to “civilization.”  We had planned for flexibility on this trip, as our no-reservation start and differing arrival times called for playing it loose.

Groceries and supplies were basically a stone’s throw away, and our original destinations,  Devil’s Lake and the Ice Age Trail, were only a few bounces of a cheese curd beyond that if we wanted to head in that direction.

As noted, we’ll be back.  No regrets here – just more good memories of discovering for ourselves another Wisconsin jewel.

Author’s note: This column originally appeared in the July 21 edition of the Portage County Gazette.

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