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Devils Lake State Park

Devil's Lake from East Bluff (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

Devil's Lake from East Bluff  (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

Devils Lake, established in 1911, is the largest and one of the oldest and most beloved state parks in Wisconsin.   The year-round park is located several miles south of the city of Baraboo, deep within the Baraboo Bluffs.  Covering over 9,000 acres, Devil’s Lake State Park has something for everyone, from camping, hiking, nature study, picnicking, and rock climbing in the warmer months to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.  The deep clear cold 360-acre lake surrounded by 500-foot bluffs offers plenty of swimming, canoeing, kayaking, motor-less boating and fishing opportunities.  The lake is spring-fed and varies in depth from 40 to 50 feet.  The park has 29 miles of hiking trails, and park trails connect to sections of the Ice Age Trail outside of the park.  As many as 2 million visitors come to Devil’s Lake every year, making it the most popular state park in Wisconsin.

The park contains a variety of specially protected sites called “State Natural Areas (SNAs).”  SNAs represent the “best of the best” ecologically and geologically important sites in Wisconsin.  At Devil’s Lake these include:  Parfrey’s Glen, South Bluff/Devil’s Nose, East Bluff and Devil’s Lake Oak Forest.  Descriptions of these natural areas are found elsewhere on this website.

A total of 880 plant species are found in the park’s diverse ecosystems that include different woodland types, marsh, kettle pond, wet meadow, prairie, oak savanna and goat prairie on the bluff tops. These diverse habitats offer nesting opportunities for a wide variety of birds; nearly 100 species of birds nest in the park.  The park contains a healthy population of nesting turkey vultures and a tremendous diversity of woodland birds.

Geology of Devil’s Lake (from DNR website):

Devil’s Lake State Park’s bluffs are made of erosion-resistant quartzite that comprise the Baraboo Range, which scientists believe were formed 1.6 billion years ago, making them one of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America. The Baraboo Range includes the North Range and South Range of hills, which surround a canoe-shaped depression called the Baraboo valley. The city of Baraboo is near the center of the valley. The north and south ranges meet in the east (just west of Interstate Highway 90-94) and west (at Rock Springs, Wisconsin).

These ancient quartzite rock consists of grains of sand tightly cemented together. According to geologists, the sand was deposited by rivers as they drained into shallow seas covering this area a billion years ago. As the sand accumulated, it first formed sandstone (a porous sedimentary rock) and then, under great heat and pressure, became quartzite (a non-porous metamorphic rock).

Photo by Joshua Mayer

Photo by Joshua Mayer

After the seas withdrew, the quartzite was buckled upwards in such a way as to form the North Range and South Range, with a depression between the ranges. The depression was filled with rocks softer than quartzite.  The area was then dry ground for a very long time.  During this period, the Baraboo valley was formed as the soft deposits in the depression eroded away.  Parfrey’s Glen is one such gorge. The glen was eroded by water action because the rock formation there is not quartzite, but a Cambrian sandstone with quartzite rocks embedded in the sandstone.

New seas re-invaded this area and their sediments accumulated on the land outside the Baraboo Hills, on the sides of the quartzite ranges, in the gorges, and eventually on top of the Baraboo Hills. The gorges were thus filled and the bluffs completely buried under sandy and limey deposits.  After the retreat of these seas, an ancient river or rivers removed most of the sediments from the Baraboo Hills and the surrounding area, thus exposing the quartzite bluffs again, and reopened the Lower Narrows Gap and the Devil’s Lake Gap (these gaps may have been partially cut when the Baraboo valley and the gorges were being formed).

Baraboo quartzite talus (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

Baraboo quartzite talus (Photo: Joshua Mayer)

Exposed outcrops of the quartzite that weren’t covered by the glacial ice pack were subject to freezing and thawing conditions. Water seeping into cracks in the quartzite expanded as it froze and eventually broke pieces of the bluff away.  The thawing and freezing cycles also formed the piles of broken rock called talus on the slopes of the bluffs.

The final chapter in this fascinating story took place about 15,000 years ago, when a sheet of ice (the Wisconsin Glacier) crunched into this area. The glacier covered the eastern half of the Baraboo Hills with ice, but not the western half. We know this because its outermost boundary is marked by a ridge called a terminal moraine. This ridge consists of rocks and gravel dropped by the glacier as it stood and melted along this boundary.

The Wisconsin Glacier rerouted the ancient river(s) elsewhere and deposited dams of rocks and earth at the two open ends of the Devil’s Lake Gap. These dams are part of the terminal moraine. Devil’s Lake therefore is between two glacial “plugs” in an abandoned valley of an ancient river.  If there had not been a Wisconsin Glacier, presumably the ancient river(s) would still be flowing through the Lower Narrows and Devil’s Lake gaps, and there would not be a Devil’s Lake.

Destination Information

Devil's Lake State Park
S 5975 Park Rd.
Baraboo, WI 53913-9299

Phone: 608-356-8301

Website: DNR Website

Size: 9,000 acres

County: Sauk County

Property Managed By: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Google Map Directions (opens new window)

Driving Directions: Devil's Lake State Park is in south central Wisconsin about 3 miles south of Baraboo. From the south or east on Interstate Highway 90/94, take State Highway 33 west about 15 miles to Baraboo. Turn left (south) on State Highway 123 and go 3 miles to the park. From the northwest on I-90/94, go right (south) at exit 92. Take US Highway 12-East about 10 miles to State Highway 159. Turn left (east) on Highway 159 and go about 2 miles to the park. From the south on US 12, turn right (east) on Highway 159 and go about 2 miles to the park. From about April through November, the park can be reached via the Merrimac free ferry, State Highway 113 and County Highway DL.

Hours of Operations: •Devil's Lake State Park is open year-round from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. •Visitor center hours are from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily in the summer and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during other seasons. •The nature center hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily in season. After October 14, the nature center is closed most days.

Additional Files:

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