Baraboo, No. 2: Parfrey’s Glen awes year-round visitors

Washington and Wall Street may have brought new life to the cliché “an embarrassment of riches,” but it’s still nice to see places that came about their riches honestly.

Sauk County is one of those places. The long, slow processes of glaciation and melting, along with shifting waterways, erosion and other natural forces, have blessed the county with more than its share of physical wonders, including Devil’s Lake, one of our most popular state parks.

I’ve been to that park several times in a decade of Wisconsin residency, and after a fine day trip to the Baraboo Riverwalk in late November, I decided I hadn’t come close to my fill of the area. So I convinced frequent hiking buddy Chris Sadler to check out Parfrey’s Glen and a little more of the Ice Age Trail about a week later.

The first of Wisconsin’s state natural areas, Parfrey’s is a deep, rocky ravine that’s worthy of “Lord of the Rings”-scale fantasies. The rugged, boulder-filled end of the ravine, where a small waterfall pours into the gorge’s mouth, makes Parfrey’s an imagination-inspiring destination.


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The natural area, dedicated in 1952, borders the eastern side of Devil’s Lake State Park.  A parking lot that holds about 20 cars, along with an initial stretch of paved pathway headed up to the gorge, gives a good idea of how busy this natural area is compared to others in Wisconsin.

The asphalt gives way to a winding trail, a bridge over Parfrey’s Glen Creek, and a pleasant vista of sandstone bluffs as the open glen begins to narrow into the ravine.

The farther up a hiker travels, the more rocky and even foreboding the ravine becomes. The walls rise as high as a hundred feet, and about two-thirds of the way up the roughly mile-long trail, the few stone steps and the easy portion of the trail simply stop and a rugged, stone- and water-filled gorge floor becomes a hiker’s new path.

Major, destructive floods through the gorge in 2008 and 2010 demolished a boardwalk that used to lead up to the falls.  That was a good thing, as far as I’m concerned, and the walkway apparently will not be rebuilt, although visitors can still see several posts sunk into the ground that would have supported the boardwalk.

Finding one’s way all the way to the falls generally requires natural balance, a walking stick for added stability, and suitable pathfinding skills along stones. There are times when higher water makes finding those paths much more difficult, and I suspect many a hiker has gotten wet feet or worse while trying to reach the end of the gorge.

It is challenging, although not especially so, to negotiate the trail-free portion of the gorge. The first hikers we met, in fact, told us a story of slipping off one of the stones and getting soaked footwear.

They told us because they had an older dog that wasn’t able to negotiate the trail very well, they turned around. (Incidentally, pets aren’t allowed at Parfrey’s.)

Once at the falls, which cascade off a broad and fairly gentle slope of land, hikers are forbidden to go on. They also shouldn’t climb far off the floor of the gorge, as it can increase erosion and damage rare plants that grow in the cool, shady environment, which allows Parfrey’s Glen to have an ecosystem that’s more Northern Wisconsin than southern.

A jumble of boulders not far below the falls, wedged into a puzzle of interlocking pieces taller than most NBA athletes, attests to the power of the waters that must rush through here on occasion.

The curving path of ancient waters through the gorge has created a play area that, on a gray day like the one we visited, struck me as the best environment for enjoying the glen. It’s easy to imagine pitched battles with Orcs – although it might be more pleasant just to bring a lunch, sit, and hope that swarms of invading tourist armies didn’t ruin the meal.

We saw about 10 people on a late morning in December, so it’s also easy to imagine how crowded the glen must be in summer. Indeed, area writer Derrick Mayoleth of Skillet Creek Media in Baraboo has chronicled the travails of a natural area in his online blog “Devil’s Lake State Park Visitor’s Guide.”

That includes soil compacted to the point of destroying vegetation, exposing tree roots and generally loving and eroding the glen to death.

We spent about an hour hiking up, exploring, and then heading back down to the place where the Ice Age trail shoots out of Parfrey’s Glen. The IAT heads uphill to the west on a gradual, steep climb along what is known as the Sauk Point Segment.

We got about halfway through the heavily wooded 4.3 mile segment before turning back, as we were getting hungry for a late lunch. Not finishing the segment simply means another trip back, and because there are still portions of the Ice Age within Devil’s Lake that I haven’t done, there are plenty of reasons to return.

An indoor reason is Mama Mia just off the courthouse square in Baraboo, where we had some excellent hand-tossed meat lover’s pizza and bottled beer from New Glarus and Peroni. There are also pasta dishes in this down-home Italian place – the kind with fruit and wine-bottle still -lifes on the wall and a completely unpretentious atmosphere.

With the Ice Age Trail’s bifurcation occurring at the state park – meaning a good bit of trail yet to cover in several directions – as well as a couple of other spectacular natural attractions and at least a few more Baraboo establishments we’d like to try, you can bet it won’t be long until Sauk County beckons again.


This post originally appeared in the Dec. 14, 2017, edition of The Portage County Gazette.

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