Right up front, I’ll admit that Lake Delton itself isn’t a top-notch paddle. It’s a bit busy…with the only perk being that you get to see some iconic tourist attractions. Most that paddle this lake or nearby Mirror Lake do them as round trips. But I don’t like backtracking, so planned a paddle starting at Mirror Lake, going down Dell Creek, across Lake Delton, and ending at the Wisconsin River. This one-way trip is one few paddlers attempt and would offer unique opportunities to see scenic parts of Dell Creek below both lake dams, which are five star paddles even if Lake Delton itself is not.
We started at the main Mirror Lake boat ramp…which is the biggest, most scenic, and most popular access on the Dell Creek watershed. This ramp has always been popular, but especially so in 2020 when the parking lot has filled up on numerous occasions. For this reason alone I likely can’t recommend this ramp for most paddlers. The Lakeview Road Ramp is a much better option and is conveniently located just upstream of the Upper Narrows.
After launching we headed north (or downstream) on the lake. Here Mirror Lake lived up to its name and provided some spectacular reflections. Part of the reason for this is that Mirror Lake is no-wake…but it also helped that there was little wind.
While there are many outcrops on the Dell Creek watershed, there are only two on the eastern lobe of Mirror Lake. The largest one is actually hidden by trees and is only visible in spring/fall. But the second one, located just below the Echo Rock trail, is always visible and is quite attractive. Here you can see tree roots working their way through the exposed rock face.
While the state park owns most land surrounding Mirror Lake, there are still some private residences in select spots. There’s even a private restaurant (Ishnala Supper Club). Its building, trails, and beach are inviting…but are restricted to only Ishnala customers.
Following the restaurant, the lake narrows and flows under busy I-90 which marks the start of the “Lower Narrows”. The bridge itself is super scenic and sits atop large sandstone outcrops over a narrow canyon. This is definitely not a spot where you want to drive off the road as it is a 100′ fall to Dell Creek. But…this has actually happened not once, not twice, but three times in the past nine years. We actually saw some broken branches from where the last SUV had plunged down the gorge…there are likely still vehicles parts and broken glass located at the creek bottom here. Following the bridge is the “Devil’s Post Office” which features a “window” in the sandstone face.
The next half mile of the Lower Narrows featured more scenic canyons and outcrops…the highlight of any Mirror Lake trip. It was quite sunny (which typically is unwanted when photographing cliffs), but it did provide some spectacular light reflections upon the sandstone rock faces.
We came to the Mirror Lake dam which is located in a scenic canyon under S. Burritt Ave. A large flour mill, Timme’s Mill, was located here until it burned down in 1957–ending 100 years of mill operation on the creek. A ramp, spillway, and stairway were added to the dam in 2010, finally making the dam practical for both canoe and kayak access and portaging.
Most paddlers turn around here, but we took out on the upstream ramp and put in below the dam using the public stairs. This is a neat area and an obscure access option that most paddlers don’t know about. Unfortunately the sandstone walls here (which include an artificial cave) are riddled with nasty graffiti. The dam is somewhat unique in that it has a special side chute just designed to catch and dispose of aquatic weeds…the idea being that this will keep Lake Delton clean.
After the dam, the scenery stayed top-notch with one sandstone outcrop after another. The banks were mostly wooded and topped with majestic white pines and hemlocks. It really puzzles me why most paddlers don’t portage the dam to see the rest of the Lower Narrows. On the downside, we did start to see some private homes…some of which were gaudy with large staircases and docks. One dock and its pontoon were parked perpendicular to the shore which practically blocked half of the creek.
The Lowers Narrows came to an end at the Hwy 12 and E. Adams Street bridges which mark the start of Lake Delton. Despite being separated by just a few miles, Lake Delton and Mirror Lake are quite different. Lake Delton is larger, heavily developed, and has a lot of motorboat traffic. Outside of a few “runts”, Lake Delton also lacks any of the iconic sandstone outcrops that were common upstream of Hwy 12.
We started on Lake Delton by exploring its westernmost spur by Hwy 12. Here we paddled past the stands for the Tommy Bartlett Show which were quite dormant (the entire show was shut down for the 2020 season). Typically buoys in the channel here warn boaters not to anchor by the stands…but these too had been removed for the season.
We paddled through a tunnel under the Hwy 12 bridge with the hope of exploring Spring Brook (an obscure Lake Delton tributary). Unfortunately the west end of the tunnel was blocked by a large tree stump and we had to cancel these plans. This stump wasn’t there when I last explored Spring Brook and I suspect it came from some recent clear-cutting done south of Hwy 12. Had we been able to continue we would have seen a spectacular gorge and canyon that I reviewed back in 2013.
After that we turned around and headed east along the shoreline of the lake. Here we passed several huge condos and resorts. Next to the “Wilderness on the Lake” was an obscure public beach which made for a nice break area. The boat traffic continued to pick up and the waves started to become annoying. At the north end of Lake Delton we came to Clare Island…an artificial island with a large mansion created by owner of Mt. Olympus Theme Parks.
Continuing east we paddled past the famous breach of 2008, which was where Lake Delton decided to bypass the dam and empty directly into the Wisconsin River. This area is a hotspot for ducks (the tour boats) and we did see a handful enter and exit the lake here.
Finally we came to the Lake Delton Dam. I initially considered portaging it along the north bank by Kaminski Park, but duck traffic was heavy in that area and the re-entry shoreline would have been been along steep sandstone cliffs. Instead we portaged along the south bank which was rocky but doable. The dam itself was surprisingly tall…30′! One has to wonder what used to account for all the gradient…are there hidden waterfalls and rapids buried under Lake Delton?
Following the dam portage, we enjoyed a short but pleasant paddle on Dell Creek…a stretch which few paddle. Here there were some surprise rapids that were fun to run. We had to be somewhat vigilant in this area as competing duck companies would come upstream on Dell Creek here before pulling off onto their respective private drives en route to Lake Delton.
We then paddled under Hwy A where there’s a small canyon and some surprisingly nice dells….something the vehicles passing overhead never see. After that, Dell Creek empties into the Wisconsin River. Our take-out was right at Newport Park…but we decided to paddle a bit upstream on the Wisconsin River to check out the Lower Dells.
The Lower Dells are phenomenal…one of the best water trails in the state and feature incredible sandstone outcrops with exotic layering and patterns. Unfortunately it’s also quite busy and there were a number of tubers, motorboats, and tour boats to deal with. The worst are the large “jet boats” which could be heard miles away and flew up and down the river like race cars at speeds over 40 mph. I used to commute to work along Hwy A and it wouldn’t be uncommon for the jet boats on the Wisconsin River to pass me, despite my being in a car. The waves they create are incredible…and I honestly don’t know why they aren’t illegal.
In reflection this was a tough trip to judge. Lake Delton itself was a bit busy and not super interesting outside of the novelty of seeing some unique tourist attractions. But the inlet and outlets to the Lake Delton were fantastic and five stars. I think I can only recommend Lake Delton if one does it as part of larger one-way paddle, like we did, connecting Mirror Lake to the Wisconsin River which can be a unique experience and a trick to avoid the backtracking traditionally associated with Mirror Lake paddles.
In 2008 record rainfall hit Sauk County resulting in widespread and unprecedented flooding. Typically Lake Delton/Dell Creek exits via its dam, but instead the lake cut a path through Hwy A and emptied directly into the Wisconsin River. The photos and videos of the breach made international news. All that remained of Lake Delton was an expanse of sand and a significantly smaller Dell Creek. Littered along the lakebed were stumps and stranded boats. Local and state politicians made a big deal about this and spent six million dollars of taxpayer money to fill in the breach and refill the lake.
I’m of the contrarian opinion that they should have left Dell Creek in its natural state, which likely would have been pretty cool. Immediately after the breach, Lake Delton was for the most part just a large sand field, but this was deceptive as the sand was largely a byproduct of artificial sedimentation created by the dam. In due time this would have been eroded into the Wisconsin River to reveal some natural canyons and perhaps even waterfalls (the grade under Lake Delton is 20’+ per mile, which is SIGNIFICANT).
- Wisconsin State Journal Photo Gallery
- Local Dells Paper Article and Photos
- Pictures of Spring Brook
There wasn’t much wildlife…likely because of all the people. There were several groups of mallards and 5 or 6 great blue herons–mostly teenagers and reluctant to fly. The highlight was seeing a great blue heron catch a fish right in front of my boat and and then try to swallow it.
Mirror Lake Boat Ramp: Note, there are two ramps on Mirror Lake. We put in at the main one (located on the east shore) which was a good launch with outhouses. Be warned that this ramp is quite popular and fills up quickly. When that happens the park staff will post a sign at the front entrance warning that it’s full and to use the beach instead. Note, this is in a state park so a state park sticker is required. However, you can’t purchase these at the front office (as of 2020) and must do so online. If you purchase online, you can write your state pass number on a piece of paper and put that on your dash.
Alternate Put-ins: There are many…for a complete list see my overview map.
- Mirror Lake Beach. Located just south of the main ramp, this is an ok put-in option. The only downside is that it’s a long walk from the parking lot to the water.
- Lakeview Road Boat Launch (1.1 miles upstream of main ramp): This is a very underrated access. It has an outhouse, no state park sticker requirements, and is conveniently located just upstream of the Upper Narrows.
- Mirror Lake Dam (1.5 miles downstream of main ramp): There is an obscure but good public access by the dam. If you launch downstream of the dam, you may need to negotiate some stairs…but I didn’t think these were too bad and there is an alternate nearby fishing trail you can use to put in. Note the entrance road is gated at night and during the off season. The only downside to this access is it splits the scenic Lower Narrows in half, so you’ll miss out on some good sections of Dell Creek.
Newport Park: This is a relatively new and expensive park ($2 million+) located on the Wisconsin River that overlooks the scenic Lower Dells. Amenities include a boat ramp, large beach, bathrooms, and picnic tables. The park does charge a fee ($8.50) to use the ramp, but as long as you don’t park in the trailing parking lot, you shouldn’t need to pay this. The non-trailer parking lot does frequently fill up. When that happens you’ll need to use the overfill parking lot across the bridge. We took out at the beach, which in hindsight was maybe a mistake since we had to drag our boats some ways uphill to reach the parking lot. In hindsight we should have simply used the ramp.
- Lake Delton Options: There are numerous access points on Lake Delton. The best ones for paddlers include the public beach by “Wilderness on the Lake”, and the public pier by the breach (Hwy A). For more details see my Dell Creek Overview Map.
- River’s Edge Resort: This is a private boat landing coincidentally located just next door to the Newport Park landing. Typically, Newport Park is the better access…but if it fills up this is an option. Note you must get permi$$ion from the resort to park here.
- Indian Trails Launch (4.1 miles downstream of Newport Park): This trip would include a nice stretch of the Lower Dells. Indian Trails Launch is a decent public access.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
Bike Shuttle: Newport Park to Mirror Lake Boat Ramp (6.0 miles and 233′ of ascent): This would be a longer bike shuttle but would be scenic. A shortcut would be to cut across Echo Rock Trail to Ishnala Road, but you’re not supposed to bike on the hiking trails so you would need to walk your bike. This shortcut would save 59′ of ascent and 2 miles. A third option would be to simply launch above the Upper Narrows as that bike shuttle is 5.7 miles long and includes 187′ of ascent.
- Mirror Lake Rentals: The state park allows a private company to rent out kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and pontoon boats by the main landing. Warning…their prices are steep. Kayaks cost $16 per hour or $45 per day. Shuttle services are not included (all trips are assumed to be round trips). This same business also services Lake Delton.
Hazards and Concerns:
Rapids: There is practically no current on the entire trip…but…there are surprise rapids just before Hwy A. These are maybe a weak Class 2 or a strong Class 1…not too difficult.
Ducks: The ducks (amphibious tour boats) are very active at the north end of Lake Delton, the Lower Dells, and on Dell Creek below the Lake Delton Dam. Try not to get run over by them…the tour drivers don’t always pay attention and the boats appear to have large blind spots. The biggest concern is by Hwy A, where competing duck companies head right up narrow Dell Creek before getting off on private roads. Fortunately the ducks are slow and loud, so they likely won’t surprise you.
Jet Boats: On the Lower Dells these bus-sized monstrosities fly up and down the river at 40+ mph. The wake they create is massive and can easily swamp an unsuspecting paddler. Be very careful around these.
Dams: This trip portaged two dams (for Mirror Lake and Lake Delton). These were straight forward portages…but note, if water levels are high you want to be careful not to get too close to the spillways.
Waves: Mirror Lake had no waves…but Lake Delton is very busy and on summer weekends can have some big waves to deal with. The Lower Dells mostly isn’t bad for waves except for when jet boats go by….the waves they create are very serious.
Wind: Lake Delton is very open and susceptible to wind. Be mindful of forecasted wind speed and direction.
River Depth and Navigability:
Sadly the gauge on Dell Creek has been shut down and is no longer in use. My rough estimates are based on the Lemonweir gauge in New Lisbon. Generally speaking…this won’t matter much.
- 0-200 CFS: Low depth but should be navigable.
- 201-800 CFS: Average depth. No problems.
- 801-1500 CFS: Above average depth. No problem, but water quality won’t be good.
- 1501-2000 CFS: A high depth. Manageable but one should be careful around the dams.
- 2000+ CFS: A very high depth. This is likely still practical for paddling though.
The Hidden History of Wisconsin Dells
The Wisconsin Dells represents one of the worst tragedies of public conservation and environmentalism in state history. Very powerful local businessmen (most from out-of-state and Chicago) have monopolized/feudalized the Dells for immense profit, corrupted its local politics, and degraded public access. Few know the complete story, but I’ll try to share some rarely known tidbits.
- Wisconsin Dells Dam: This has been the single greatest tragedy. Yes…the Upper Dells are nice…but they were far, far nicer before the dam. The dam produces a measly 10 megawatts (just 1/100th of the nearby Columbia Plant). Hopefully one day it will be removed, but this is doubtful because the politically powerful “Dells Boat Tours” company relies on the dam to provide sufficient water for their oversized boats to access Coldwater Canyon and Witches Gulch on the Upper Dells. In the mornings and weekends, the dam also does special releases on the Lower Dells to help out the private tour boats (but is not so considerate to downstream sandbar campers). HH Bennett was a major critic of the dam as he complained its 55-foot height would submerge the best parts of the Upper Dells. His photo collection contains some of the few pre-dam pictures taken of the Upper Dells. An example of this can be seen on the header of the “Friends of HH Bennett Studio” Facebook page.
- The Failed State Park: In 1906 there was a serious effort to convert Devil’s Lake and Wisconsin Dells to state parks. Sadly only Devil’s Lake succeeded. Today there is Mirror Lake State Park and Rocky Arbor State Park, but they protect only a pittance of the entire Dells.
- The Failed National Park: In 1934 an effort was made to create “Wisconsin Dells National Park” which would have spanned from the Lemonweir River to the Lower Dells. It would have been fantastic and had the sponsorship of a senator, but sadly failed.
- Who Owns the Upper Dells: Much of it used to be owned by George Crandall. He feared it would be destroyed by development so he worked hard to buy up and protect as much of the land as he could. He would eventually donate much of the Upper Dells to the University of Wisconsin under the naive belief they cared about conservation and public access. Wisconsin (through their for-profit corporation WARF) semi-protected the Upper Dells, but mostly used it to generate immense profit for its tour boat corporation “Dells Boat Company”. Eventually WARF/University of Wisconsin sold much of the Upper Dells to the DNR, but stipulated that its corporation “Dells Boat Company” would continue to receive exclusive access to the main landmarks (Stand Rock, Witches Gulch, Coldwater Canyon, etc…). The DNR sadly agreed. Later WARF sold the “Dells Boat Company” to private investors who now through poorly written leases have exclusive access to the jewels of the Upper Dells despite being publicly owned. Hopefully the DNR will one day wake up, realize the mistake they made, and give much of the Upper Dells to Rocky Arbor State Park to administer for public access.
- Who Owns the Lower Dells: This is similar to what happened to the Upper Dells. Much of the Lower Dells was semi-protected by the University of Wisconsin and maintained to run its tour boats. WARF then sold part of the Lower Dells shoreline to the DNR, but sadly a much smaller percentage than what was done for the Upper Dells. A significant portion of the Lower Dells remained in ownership by the “Dells Boat Company”. This was done in part to allow access to the main tour boat launch and to allow for exclusive access to its duck boat trails. Sadly, the “Dells Boat Company” was then later sold by the University of Wisconsin to private investors. In a sneaky sleight-of-hand using shell companies and secretive transactions, much of the Lower Dells is being transferred from the public to private investors. There will likely be more development, public restrictions, and fees because of this.
- Lower Dells Tour Boat Landing: When WARF/University of Wisconsin owned this, they allowed the public to launch their kayaks here. This used to be the main launch point for Lower Dells trips. Sadly this landing is now owned by private investors who have started to charge kayakers $5 to use the landing.
- Blackhawk Island: This is a fantastic island with scenic outcrops that is publicly owned…but…not open to the public. Instead the state (through the university system) has given exclusive access to the nearby 4H club (Upham Woods) which itself is a strange public/private hybrid institution. Rocky Arbor State Park is next door and could easily administer the island and balance the challenges of public demand. The other tragedy is there used to be a key canoe landing by Blackhawk Island…which the 4H club shut down because of “safety” reasons. There was an outrage in the community but nothing came of it.
- Steamboat Island: One of the most iconic landmarks of the Upper Dells is Steamboat Island which is super scenic. Tragically a large resort (Chula Vista) was built on top of the cliffs which is an eyesore. Today Chula Vista is one of the owners of “Dells Boat Tours” and its Lower Dells land holdings (which used to be publicly owned by WARF).
- Tour Boats: Many of these boats use loud speakers and the noise pollution they emit can be heard for miles. The wake created by the big white tour boats is quite obnoxious…but the wake from the jet boats can capsize you if you’re not paying attention. Many of these waves are also destructive to the natural sandstone walls and spook local wildlife.
- Logging: Mirror Lake State Park (yes, a State Park) has been repeatedly logged in recent years. They actually closed one of my favorite ski trails there because it was logged so badly. And recently an adjacent state natural area (“Mirror Lake Pine Oak Forest SNA”) was devastated by logging. The DNR doesn’t care…
- Dell Creek: Both the Mirror Lake and Lake Delton dams are tragedies that bury a lot of unique sandstone formations under their artificial flowages. As neat as Mirror Lake is now…it would be way cooler if it came down to its original depth.
- Spring Brook: This creek contains some of the best canyons in the Dells. The upper stretch is dammed (“Lake Blass”) which is tragic in and of itself. But access below the dam to the main creek and its gorge is controlled by a huge religious camp run by wealthy Chicagoans. They strictly restrict access to the canyons.
- Lost Canyon: This is a spectacular canyon that connects to Lake Delton. Unfortunately it is controlled by a private company which gives horse-drawn wagon tours through it. The bottom of the canyon is filled with horse manure.
- Lake Delton Dyed Blue: In 2012 the local city dumped 500 gallons of artificial dye into Dell Creek to make Lake Delton look more blue. This was likely done to benefit local businesses on the lake…many of whom have significant influence with the local government.
Other Dell Creek Trips:
For additional landing information see my overview map here.
- Upstream of South Ave: Likely too small and congested to run.
- South Ave to Briar Bluff Road: 1.9 miles. Nice stretch, but there are probably too many logjams.
- Briar Bluff Road to Coon Bluff Road: 1.6 miles. A popular section with trout fishermen and attractive, but likely too congested for paddling.
- Coon Bluff Road to Mirror Lake Boat Ramp (main one): 3.9 miles.
- Coon Bluff Road to Hwy 23: 1.9 miles. A pleasant creek section with an attractive marsh. No logjams, but some limb dodging and alder ducking required.
- Hwy 23 to Mirror Lake Boat Ramp (main one): 2.0 miles. The western lobe of Mirror Lake. Starts with a nice marsh filled with wild rice. Then the lake narrows as it enters a scenic gorge (Upper Narrows). Great segment.
- Mirror Lake Boat Ramp (main) to Newport Park/Wisconsin River: 5.0 miles.
- Mirror Lake Ramp to Mirror Lake Dam: 1.5 miles. Fantastic stretch through the canyons of the Lower Narrows.
- Mirror Lake Dam to East Adams Street Ramp: 0.7 miles. A great stretch with more sandstone outcrops.
- East Adams Street Ramp to Newport Park: 2.8 miles. This is Lake Delton which is very developed and overrun with motorboats. It’s not a great paddle but it can be novel to see some iconic Dells businesses from the water. The highlight is Dell Creek below the Lake Delton dam, which is scenic.