You could say that the Dells isn't what it used to be. The Wonder Spot is gone. The remains of Fort Dells fade into the woods behind a McDonald's and a Starbucks. And 1960s-style motels are giving way to condo-hotel and townhouse developments. But you could also say that the Dells is reprioritizing.
In many ways, Wisconsin Dells has been lucky. It remains a major tourist attraction, reinventing itself for new generations. Most of the big waterpark development at the Dells has taken place near the Interstate or along Wisconsin Dells Parkway, busy strips that are not very near the Wisconsin River. This has protected the rugged Dells scenery that first drew tourists here in the 19th century. But it's also obscured the beauty of the river, making it less visible to tourists.
That's changing. Projects like the Dells Riverwalk are opening up river views to everyone. And the latest condo and hotel developments are looming ever closer to the banks of the Wisconsin.
Merchants in downtown Wisconsin Dells have teamed up with the city and the DNR to create the Wisconsin Dells Riverwalk, providing easy access to the scenery of the Dells, right downtown. From the entrance to the docks for the Upper Dells Boat Trips on Broadway, visitors can walk along the cliffs high over the river and look across the chasm to the DNR-protected woods and cliffs that were once the site of the Prehistoric Land/Enchanted Forest attraction. There are benches for resting, tables for picnicking, as well as the River Walk Pub, a rustic log cabin restaurant.
The path project, initially set up in three phases, is only partially completed. Feasibility studies are under way to assess extending the Riverwalk all the way north to Chula Vista resort along the mostly still rustic River Road. This would enable the Riverwalk to connect with a DNR hiking trail that leads through pine forest to the river about 1.5 miles north of the current terminus of the walk.
"Putting the trail through that natural area is our number-one task to work out," says Mike Horkan of the Wisconsin Dells Department of Public Works. A grant received through U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin's office has helped to fund the feasibility study, but money for the trail extension is not currently in hand.
River Road is not the byway that it was even a few years back. While cabins have long dotted the road, the recent expansion of Chula Vista has delivered a waterpark and event center. Most spots do retain wooded seclusion, like the Birchcliff Resort, which features cabins in the woods and a hiking path to the river, near DNR land. And the path to the Witches Gulch concession stand, with just the basic Dells components of sandstone, moss and ferns, looks much the same as it did a hundred years ago.
The best way to see the scenery of this part of the Dells is by boat. Bring your own, rent a canoe or kayak, or take a commercial cruise. The Lower Dells boat tour is fine, and the Ducks have their own reckless appeal. But when there's time for just one tour, pick the Upper Dells, if for no other reason than it's the only way these days to see Stand Rock, the towering sandstone formation where, in the Dells' most iconic historic image, a man jumps from the cliff to the table-topped spire. These days, it's a dog that makes the leap.
The other part of the downtown revitalization project has been to spruce up the main shopping area, also known as the Dells River District. New sidewalks, banners and benches brighten the spate of souvenir and fudge shops. Try the 4D Special FX Theater or Wizard Quest, a kind of interactive video game that's part carnival funhouse, part Spenser's The Faerie Queene - definitely a quest.
If you need a little injection of old-school summer tourism, say yes to a box of fudge and head across Broadway to Old River and Totem Pole Mini-Golf. Or reinvent yourself as a culture tourist and hit a bona fide state historic site, the H.H. Bennett Studio and History Center.
The H.H. Bennett Studio tour certainly matches the 19th-century feel of the Riverwalk, getting the tourist mindset back to the river and the actual sandstone formations of the Dells. Bennett, a pioneer photographer, was instrumental in capturing the natural beauty of the Dells 100 years ago and sparking the desire of tourists to vacation here. The tour, in Bennett's actual refurbished studio, encompasses the history of photography - back when it required much specialized knowledge to take a photo. Bennett's landscapes and portraits of the area's native Ho-Chunk are on display. It's an excellent way to understand the intersection of scenery, Native American culture and 19th-century fascination with the picturesque that first made the Dells.
The Dells River District still has its share of motels, most the modest sort where you can park your car right in front of your room. While they lack 37 water slides, many do have pools - the average-size kind that could be more appropriate for families with small children. And room rates remain in the double digits, although sometimes just barely. The Black Hawk motel has indoor and outdoor pools and free Wi-Fi access; the Indian Trail Motel boasts an expansive front lawn with spots for bonfires, cookouts and shuffleboard. Many motels feature discount packages to a waterpark or other Dells attractions.
The downtown is very walkable, unlike the craziness of the mostly sidewalk-free Wisconsin Dells Parkway and Highway 12 near the Interstate. With free shuttles to and from Ho-Chunk Casino and the Ducks, and courtesy pickup by some downtown motels to and from the Amtrak station or the bus depot, you could plan a car-free vacation or keep the car parked after your arrival.
And that's a kind of reprioritizing we could use more of.