Devil’s Lake State Park is the largest and most visited state park in Wisconsin. It is located about 3 miles south of Baraboo in Sauk County. The centerpiece of the park is 360-acre Devil’s Lake, which is surrounded by 500-foot high rocky bluffs. I visited the park with my brother on a warm but pleasant July day.
Our visit to the park included two hikes: this one, on the east side of the lake, and a shorter hike on the west side. The hike on the east side began at lake level and climbed up the East Bluff for a pleasant walk through woodland along the east shore of the lake. After a short exploration off-trail we abandoned the second part of a planned loop and simply retraced our path to a trail junction where we could pick up a second loop extending to the east and away from the lake. The orange dot shows the starting point for the hike, which was 4.6 miles long.
The elevation profile shows the climb up the East Bluff. The top of the bluff slopes slightly downward to the north. The second loop, to the east, started high and finished at a lower level. There was about 1000 feet of elevation gain and loss during the hike.
The parking area where we had decided to start our hike is near the lower end of the Balanced Rock Trail, which climbs right up the bluff. The density of contour lines is evident on the map containing the GPS track. The trail climbs at a stiff 20% grade. Amazingly, the intended trail route is actually defined by a strip of blacktop pavement as it winds around large boulders makes its way higher in elevation.
There is even a rock a bit over half way up that gives the trail its name. It almost looks like it was chiseled and placed there, overlooking the lakeside meadow! In a sense it was indeed chiseled and placed there – by one of Mother Nature’s glaciers, during the most recent ice age. In fact, a segment of the Ice Age Trail goes through the park.
There are sections of the bluff’s face that are quite steep; we encountered a few rock climbers practicing their skills. There are intermittent views of Devil’s Lake, some views almost panoramic (see above) and others more filtered through the trees.
Once hikers climb to the top of the East Bluff, the East Bluff Trail generally follows the lake shore northward for about a mile. The top of the bluff is covered in woodland, with pretty trees, roots, wildflowers, and a few rock formations.
One of the wildflowers we found early in the hike and again later was common St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum).
In especially shaded areas we found some Solomon’s seal and this pretty pink flower that appears to be in the pea family. In fact, we would see this small flower, which has large basal leaves, on several of the hikes we did during my visit. Unfortunately we haven’t managed an identification yet.
About 1.2 miles from the start of the hike we came to a rock structure called Elephant Cave. Basically it looks like a grotto formed from huge boulders. It looks big enough to shelter an elephant, but otherwise I do not know the origin of the name.
As we continued north we came to kind of a vista point overlooking the lake, with a beautiful view looking southwest.
Near the vista point we apparently lost the main trail. According to a description of the hike, the trail would transition to single track in this area. However, the single-track “trail” we found turned out to be a social trail and not the intended continuation away from the lake to the East Bluff Woods Trail. When we realized that we had circled around and were again approaching the lake side of the bluff, we decided to simply follow the East Bluff Trail back the way we had come. There was a prominent trail junction we’d passed at the top of the Balanced Rock Trail that surely would take us to the eastward loop we also hoped to hike. When we got back to the trail junction we stopped for a short break before starting on the eastbound loop, still following the East Bluff Trail.
Not far from the trail junction we found some Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). If you look closely at the picture you will see four butterflies busy feeding on the nectar of the blossoms.
There was also a bit of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) nearby, though the flower heads looked like they were near the end of their blooming period.
Just a couple of tenths of a mile past the junction there is a small spur trail that leads to another interesting rock formation called the Devil’s doorway. There is an opening in the jumble of rocks that looks remarkably like a doorway, or possibly a window, to the sky. It is amazing to contemplate that this formation was created by glacial and possibly other geological forces.
As the trail continued along the bluff-top we found several more types of wildflower. One was lead plant (Amorpha canescens), which has very distinctive leaves and spikes of purple blossoms. The leaves can be seen in the background of the photo. It was a bit late in the blooming season for this flower; this was the best example we found on this hike.
The woodland areas also hosted some woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus), which seems to like to grow in small clearings or other places where there is sufficient sun in the forest.
The East Bluff Trail became the CCC Trail, named for the Civilian Conservation Corps which built the trail. The CCC Trail descends the bluff to near lake level. At the top of the bluff there is a beautiful view to the southeast across farmland and woodland, with Lake Wisconsin in the background about 6 miles away. The viewpoint for this picture was at the top of another sheer, vertical rock face where there were several climbing ropes being used for rock climbing.
At the bottom of the bluff the trail turns to the west and becomes Grottos Trail. Along the remaining gentle descent through woodland, the trail passes several rock grottoes, smaller than Elephant Cave and located at the bottom rather than at the top of the bluff.
As the trail approaches the parking area it emerges from woodland to meadow, and there were a few more wildflowers to discover. In addition to purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) we found an impressively large cluster of hoary vervain (Verbena stricta). The vervain has skinny flower spikes that bloom from the bottom toward the top.
Although this was a modest length hike, less than 5 miles, it visited a variety of terrain. The bluff ascent and descent were rather steep, but also fairly short. It was a great way to spend a pleasant summer day. Next we headed toward the west side of Devil’s Lake to explore some more.