Seven Wonders of Wisconsin: Devil's Lake and the Baraboo Hills
Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.
BARABOO – It is a haven for outdoors enthusiasts, swimmers, hikers, campers, rock climbers and those looking to just get away from it all for a day. It's also a geological marvel.
Like many of the most famous natural features of Wisconsin, Devil's Lake and the surrounding area is the result of glacial activity.
The bluffs surrounding Devil's Lake are part of the Baraboo Hills, an oval-shaped range stretching 25 miles wide and 10 miles long, centered around Baraboo.
In prehistoric times, the hills were part of a massive mountain range and through millions of years, have been weathered by the effects of erosion. Today, the remaining rocks – mostly Baraboo Quartzite – are among the oldest exposed rocks in North America at approximately 1.8 million years old.
Geologists aren't exactly sure how the lake was created but the most popular theory is that the ancient Wisconsin River at one time flowed through the gorge and was eventually blocked by glaciers, which pushed their way into the area from the north and east.
The glaciers' halt left two large terminal moraines along the north and south ends of the park, trapping the river, geologists say, between the bluffs and creating what we today know as Devil's Lake, a 360-acre spring-fed body of water that has been captivating visitors for generations.
Today, Devil's Lake is the centerpiece of Wisconsin's largest and most popular state park, encompassing approximately 10,000 acres surrounding the endorheic lake and attracting approximately 1.8 million visitors per year.
The area had long been a popular destination for tourists, even before the state established it as an official park – and long before the upper Midwest was visited by the first European explorers.
Evidence suggests that prehistoric people used portions of the area for shelters nearly 10,000 years ago with mound-building Native Americans arriving about 1,000 years ago. A number of effigy mounds remain in the park today.
The first non-Native American to visit the park is believed to be John De La Ronde in 1832, and naturalist Increase Lapham noted "a large body of broken fragments have accumulated along the edge of the water" in 1849.
The first hotels and resorts began appearing on the property in the 1860s and Devil's Lake became even more popular when the first rail line was completed in 1873. Those early resorts catered to the upper class, who arrived by train from Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
That's when things really took off, says park superintendent Steve Schmelzer, who has been at Devil's Lake since 1992. "We're situated halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis, so it was kind of a natural stopping point. There was a train station here and once the trains started coming in, hotels started popping up around the lake to cater to the people coming through."
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