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Madeline Island & more: Wisconsin’s coolest natural wonders

Madeline Island & more: Wisconsin’s coolest natural wonders

Photo courtesy of CrispAir via CC BY 3.0.

By Erin Yarnall

June 20, 2024

From Madeline Island to underground caves and towering cliffs, check out some of the most jaw-dropping natural wonders in Wisconsin.

There are plenty of awe-inspiring wonders in Wisconsin: the cheese curds and frozen custard from Culvers, watching as the Milwaukee Bucks dominate in the NBA, and of course, the Mars Cheese Castle.

Those are all fantastic in their own right, but what about natural wonders? While Wisconsin might not have any National Parks that are known throughout the world, ocean vistas, or soaring mountain ranges, that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in natural wonders.

Between the two Great Lakes that border it, the crop of jagged bluffs near the Mississippi River, and even underground caves, there are enough natural wonders in the state to make any adventure traveler eager to venture through Wisconsin. Hit the road and get ready to climb up rocky trails, or hit the water, to see some of the coolest naturally-formed sights that can be found throughout the state.

Here are eleven of the coolest natural wonders you can find in Wisconsin, and how to reach them. 

1. Cave of the Mounds

2975 Cave of the Mounds Road, Blue Mounds

One million years is an unfathomable amount of time — homo sapiens weren’t even around back then. But something in Wisconsin was: the Cave of the Mounds.

The cave, in Blue Mounds, Wisc., started forming approximately one million years ago. While it’s been around for a long time, the cave wasn’t discovered until the 1930s, when limestone quarry workers found it by accident after blasting a section of the quarry and exposing the cave.

Nowadays, it’s not just a breathtaking tourist attraction, but it’s also a National Natural Landmark. The cave is renowned for its beauty, and its plethora of natural formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, lily pads and oolites.

Tours of the cave are offered every day and operate hourly on weekdays. There are two tour options for Cave of the Mounds visitors: a self-paced guided tour, where visitors can walk through the cave at their own pace and read information from posted signage, or a guided tour, which lasts between 45 and 55 minutes. Tours cost $23.99 for adults, $14.99 for kids ages 4 to 12, and are free for kids ages 3 and under.

2. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Wisconsin is bordered by two Great Lakes: Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Both of these massive lakes contain islands, including the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior.

Made up of 22 islands, the Apostle Islands are renowned for their sea caves, which have been sculpted into the islands after years of wave action, freezing water, and thawing. While there are 22 islands in the island group, 21 of them comprise the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Each of the islands in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is remote, and only accessible by boat, while the 22nd island, Madeline Island, has opened up to commercial development and private ownership.

While it’s great to visit the islands in summer when they’re reachable by boat, they’re also a fascinating spot to see in the winter — if it’s cold enough, the sea caves will be taken over by icicles. The islands can be reached from the nearby city of Bayfield, Wisc., where visitors can rent kayaks or hop on a ferry or water taxi to visit them and see the stunning lakeshore for themselves.

3. Witches Gulch

Dell Prairie

Between the waterparks, amusement parks, and seemingly endless souvenir shops, it’s hard to imagine that natural wonders are abundant in and around the Wisconsin Dells, but that’s an incorrect assumption. Get out past the resorts and you’ll find places like Witches Gulch, a slot canyon that’s thousands of years in the making. 

Witches Gulch, a beautiful, winding canyon, was formed out of the bed of an ancient lake over thousands of years. While it’s not too far outside of the Wisconsin Dells, it’s relatively inaccessible, unless you’re on one of the Upper Dells Boat Tours. The tours traverse the Wisconsin River and include two shore landings: Witches Gulch and Stand Rock — a massive sandstone pillar.

The price of the tour ranges from $38.43 for anyone over the age of 12 to $19.22 for kids between the ages of 4 and 11. Kids under the age of 3 can take the tour for free.

4. Grandad Bluff

3020 Grandad Bluff Road, La Crosse

There’s a misconception that the Midwest is all flat. While that might be true for some areas (we’re looking at you, Illinois), it’s not the case in Wisconsin, especially the bluffs near La Crosse, Wisc. One of the most majestic bluffs in La Crosse is Grandad Bluff, which towers 590 feet over the city. 

The bluff was formed by melting ice sheets from the ice age, but its shape was also formed by limestone quarry workers, as its limestone was quarried for many years before the land was purchased by La Crosse residents Ellen and Joseph Hixon in 1909. Three years later, the Hixons donated the land to La Crosse, so it could be used as a park, and it still is more than a century later. The park offers views of the city, as well as the Mississippi River, and parts of Minnesota and Iowa.

Madeline Island & more: Wisconsin's coolest natural wonders

Photo courtesy of Wikideas1 via CC0.

5. Devil’s Lake

S5975 Park Road, Baraboo

Originally, Devil’s Lake wasn’t a lake at all — it was a gorge along the Wisconsin River. After the Ice Age, though, the lake was formed out of a glacier, and is now one of Wisconsin’s premier hiking and camping destinations.

Devil’s Lake is part of Devil’s Lake State Park, which was formed in 1911. While the lake itself is a highlight of the park, it’s also well-loved for its towering quartzite bluffs.

The park, located in Sauk County, receives more than 2.5 million visitors per year, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and is the most popular state park in Wisconsin. Visitors to the park can bike, hike, and rock climb along the bluffs, but should also make sure to enjoy the 360-acre lake that’s thousands of years in the making.

6. Willow Falls

1034 County Road A, Hudson

Although Willow River State Park is firmly rooted in Wisconsin, it’s seen as a popular day trip from Minnesota’s Twin Cities. The Wisconsin state park’s biggest highlight, and arguably the most beautiful sight in the nearly 3,000-acre park, is Willow Falls, a tiered waterfall that’s nearly 100 feet wide.

Visitors can take two routes within the park to end up at Willow Falls: the Willow Falls Trail, a 0.9-mile hike that follows along the shoreline, or a steeper shortcut along the Willow Falls Hill Trail, which is 0.3 miles long. The park is open year-round and is especially beautiful to visit during winter when there are drifts of snow and ice in the waterfall.

Madeline Island & more: Wisconsin's coolest natural wonders

Photo courtesy of McGhiever via CC BY-SA 4.0.

7. Big Manitou Falls

6294 S. State Road 35, Superior

There’s no exaggeration in the name Big Manitou Falls — it’s a seriously massive waterfall. At 165 feet tall, Big Manitou Falls is the tallest waterfall in Wisconsin and is one of the tallest waterfalls in the United States located east of the Rocky Mountains. The waterfall is located in Pattison State Park, a 1,400-acre park in Superior, Wisc.

The waterfall is part of the Black River, which runs for 190 miles through the state, and lies over basalt stone which began to form from volcanic activity nearly a billion years ago, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Big Manitou Falls can be reached by a half-mile-long hike. 

8. Horicon Marsh

N7725 Highway 28, Horicon

Like most natural wonders in Wisconsin, Horicon Marsh was carved out thousands of years ago by a continental glacier. Nowadays, the area is home to a 33,000-acre wetland marsh that is so spectacular that it’s even been recognized by the United Nations, who named it a Wetland of International Importance. There are hiking trails throughout the marsh, as well as a visitor’s center, which offers seasonal events.

Most notably, Horicon Marsh is a bird watcher’s paradise: It’s home to more than 300 different species of birds, including the Canada goose, trumpeter swan, and blue-winged teal. Bird lovers should also be sure to stop by in May when the marsh is home to the Bird Festival, which features guided hikes, boat tours, and other events celebrating the marsh’s avian residents.

Madeline Island & more: Wisconsin's coolest natural wonders

Photo courtesy of Allen C via CC BY-SA 2.0.

9. Cave Point County Park

5360 Schauer Road, Sturgeon Bay

Wisconsinites are very proud of the state’s proximity to two neighboring Great Lakes — Lake Michigan and Lake Superior — and for good reason. One of the best ways to enjoy the lakes is by exploring waterfront parks, like Cave Point County Park in Door County. It’s not just beloved for its proximity to Lake Michigan, but also because it’s a stunning natural wonder. 

The cliffs and underwater caves have been carved out by violent waves crashing over a span of centuries.

Visitors can enjoy a day at the park by lounging at the beach or kayaking and marveling at the stunning limestone cliffside. Kayaks can be rented, and visitors can even head out on kayak tours of the park. Experienced scuba divers can also check out the park’s namesake underwater caves, and may even spot the remains of some historical shipwrecks.

10. Madeline Island

Technically, Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands, a group of 22 islands in Lake Superior off of Wisconsin’s northern coast, but it’s not included in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, so it’s worth a trip on its own. Madeline Island, which has a year-round population of 302, is the only Apostle Island to open itself up to commercial development and private ownership. It’s only accessible by ferry from the nearby city of Bayfield.

But if shopping and ferry riding aren’t your thing, there are still plenty of reasons to check out Madeline Island, especially its unbeatable scenery. One of the highlights of the island, beyond its pristine naturally-formed shoreline, is the Madeline Island Wilderness Preserve — which contains more than 2,600 acres of forest and wetlands, as well as several trails. 

11. Cathedral Pines

Cathedral Drive, Lakewood

There’s no actual cathedral at Cathedral Pines, but going there could feel like a religious experience for serious tree lovers. Cathedral Pines, in Lakewood, Wisc., houses a 40-acre grove of white pine, hemlock, and red pine trees, and it very nearly avoided being chopped down.

In the 1900s, the grove just missed being cut down by lumberjacks, but was saved when Lucy Rumsey Holt, the president of Holt Lumber Company’s wife, fell in love with the site and persuaded her husband to spare it.

In 1939, the land was dedicated for preservation by the Holt family, and it’s now part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Arborists have determined that the trees in Cathedral Pines began growing in the early 18th century, making them older than the United States.

Madeline Island & more: Wisconsin's coolest natural wonders

Photo courtesy of Aaron Carlson via CC BY-SA 2.0.

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.Madeline Island & more: Wisconsin's coolest natural wondersMadeline Island & more: Wisconsin's coolest natural wonders

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