Being nestled between the Dells and Devil’s Lake may sound like a recipe for being an outdoor-recreation also-ran, but the city of Baraboo has its own fresh-air gem in its Baraboo Riverwalk.
Part of the Ice Age Trail, the Riverwalk is only four miles of mostly-paved walkways meandering through the heart of Baraboo. It shows off a charming small city in its best light and it’s worth a trip for its own sake, although there’s plenty of bonus entertainment that comes along with it.
Hiking buddy Chris Sadler and I recently took two vehicles, parking one at the northern trail endpoint at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County campus in Baraboo. We extended our hiking distance by heading to a parking area just off State Highway 113 in the eastern portion of Devil’s Lake State Park, where the Devil’s Lake segment of the IAT starts.
The park wasn’t in our itinerary for the day, although it and other area local spots are on the agenda for future columns.
There’s so much going on in the vicinity that return trips are as inevitable as tall tales out of Washington, D.C. — but Baraboo is much more civilized.
Speaking of politics and other big, hairy, stinking fictions, one of the first things we ran into was a large cutout of Bigfoot, which we saw in a driveway just off of 113.
We were on an IAT connecting route to Baraboo, part of the trail’s western bifurcation, which begins in the main portion of the state park. We actually took a slightly different route to the east, and I’m glad we did just because of our Sasquatch friend, one of two such cutouts we saw that day.
Their presence made me run a quick online search for Bigfoot activity in Sauk County. Despite at least one lighthearted, naturalist-led program at the park last year, it doesn’t appear that the mythical primate is very active in the region.
At least no more than honesty lurks in the machinations of tax-plan authors in our nation’s capital — which is to say there have been no confirmed sightings of either the monster or tax-plan truth, but I digress.
We did our first Baraboo River crossing southeast of town, passing a long, narrow, old brick building that juts out toward the river. Sun shining through its rear windows backlit the interior and made me want to rent space and set up a permanent footrest of a desk with a water view, but we kept going.
And we were really happy that we did. Despite the presence of only a few hundred yards of dirt trail along the Baraboo IAT segment, it was a picture-perfect l day and couldn’t have been better for a late-fall walk through the river valley.
We eventually reached the official start of the Baraboo segment, in a quiet neighborhood in the southeastern part of the city, where an asphalt trail begins its winding path along the river.
From there, the walk passes through several parks and the downtown area, passing right by Circus World Museum, which is open only in the warmer months.
For an urban walk, this is a delightfully peaceful, relaxing and mostly quiet outdoor experience. Only light traffic passed nearby – this is probably not so in summer — and we saw only one couple walking on the eastern stretches of the three-mile Riverwalk.
We did see plenty of ducks, a bit of remaining fall color, and a big top’s worth of sunshine. Temperatures were chilly and there was a slight breeze, but our walk warmed us up and we had almost as much peace as we did in the short Devil’s Lake portion of woods that took us to our connecting road.
There are occasional benches for rest stops to watch the current drift on by, heading towards the Wisconsin and on to the Mississippi, but it was one of those days when it seemed there was no time passage and no destination – just living in the moment.
We also paused for a dawdling lunch in the Driftless Glen Distillery, a fine place next to the river with huge picture windows that made the airy dining room seem as much outdoors as the restaurant’s patio. The restaurant, by the way, is actually named Baraboo Restaurant – probably something to do with liquor laws dreamed up by the same people who “cut taxes.”
Driftless Glen made us wish Stevens Point had a great eatery downtown on the water. We both had fantastic bourbon barbecue burgers – perfect slices of avocado, Nueske’s Applewood-smoked bacon, smoked gouda and red onion that almost made the beef unnecessary, along with a sauce made with the distillery’s bourbon.
We stuck to a tap offering of Central Waters, but agreed before resuming our walk that a return trip to sample Driftless Glen’s liquid products might be necessary.
The rest of the walk was as perfect as the meal. Trains across the river, a salvaged-metal ostrich sculpture on the hilly path, and the bustle of downtown along the river gave way to more serenity west of downtown. A bluff hosted a neighborhood above where the riverbank hugs stone walls. A couple of ball fields, grassy expanses and park playgrounds, along with a classic old bridge with trestles over the rippling water invited a lengthy picture-taking session in the golden light of late afternoon sun.
Eventually, we reached Ochsner Park, where the IAT departs the Riverwalk and where there’s a small, free zoo, which we had to skip. The IAT then zigs and zags through streets past Baraboo High School and up through some woods, past the disc-golf course at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County and to the trail segment’s end.
This was one of those trips that ended too early. But that’s OK, because we wouldn’t even wait another week before heading back down again. Next week’s column: Parfrey’s Glen, pizza, and pretty much any excuse to see Baraboo and its offerings a second time.
After all, how can you get to a third or fourth without the second?
This post originally appeared in the Dec. 7, 2017, edition of The Portage County Gazette.