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Wisconsin State Natural Areas Program Dells Of The Wisconsin River (No. 283)

Dells Of The Wisconsin River

Photo by Thomas A. Meyer



Adams, Columbia, Juneau & Sauk Counties. T13N-R6E, Sections 3, 4, 10, 15, 16. T14N-R6E, Sections 20, 21, 28, 29, 33, 34. 1,300 acres.



The Dells of the Wisconsin River encompasses over 5 miles of Wisconsin River corridor with a spectacular gorge, cliffs, tributary canyons, and rock formations carved into Cambrian sandstone. Formed between 510-520 million years ago, some cliffs rise over one hundred feet above the water and have been shaped by the erosive processes of water and wind. With a variety of exposures and moisture regimes, the cliffs afford many different niches for plants, some of which are very rare in Wisconsin. Cliff cudweed (Gnaphalium obtusifolium var saxicola), known from only 2 places on Earth - here and in the Kickapoo Valley, grows on protected rock ledges. Other rarities include Lapland azalea (Rhododendron lapponicum), round-stemmed false foxglove (Agalinis gattingeri), maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), and fragrant fern (Dryopteris fragrans). This area contains a mosaic of plant communities including northern and southern oak/pine forests, oak savanna, and moist and dry cliffs. Rare animals include six dragonfly species including the Royal river cruiser (Macromia taeniolata), six rare mussels and numerous birds. While set aside to protect the rare plants and animals, the Dells also has an important cultural history that spans several thousand years. Various Native Americans, ranging from early Paleo-Indian people to the more recent Ho-Chunk, Sac, and Menominee, were attracted to the scenic waterway, and left behind archeological evidence such as effigy and burial mounds, camps and village sites, garden beds and rock art. Dells of the Wisconsin is owned by the DNR and was designated a State Natural Area in 1994.


Driving directions

Access: From the intersection of Highways 12 and 13/23 in Wisconsin Dells, go east on 13 0.6 mile (across the river), then north on River Road (1st stoplight) 1.7 miles to a parking area west of the road. A hiking trail leads to the river. Another parking area is located 1.9 miles further north along River Road. The rock formations are best seen by water. A boat landing is located on River Road 0.5 mile north of 13.

Visitation Guidelines: The cliffs and side canyons are closed to the public to protect sensitive features. Glass containers, fires, and charcoal grills are prohibited. Except as otherwise posted or for special events: From May 15-September 15, the natural area is open from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. From September 16-May 14, the natural area is open from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. This includes sandbars.


Dells Of The Wisconsin River is owned by:

  • WDNR


The DNR's state natural areas program is comprised of lands owned by the state, private conservation organizations, municipalities, other governmental agencies, educational institutions and private individuals. While the majority of SNAs are open to the public, access may vary according to individual ownership policies. Public use restrictions may apply due to public safety, or to protect endangered or threatened species or unique natural features. Lands may be temporarily closed due to specific management activities. Users are encouraged to contact the landowner for more specific details.

The data shown on these maps have been obtained from various sources, and are of varying age, reliability, and resolution. The data may contain errors or omissions and should not be interpreted as a legal representation of legal ownership boundaries.


Site objectives

Manage the site as a reserve for northern dry forest, hemlock relict, and cliff communities, as an oak savanna and sand prairie restoration site, as a rare plant protection site, as a significant geological and archaeological site, and as an ecological reference area. Natural processes will primarily determine the structure of the forest and cliff communities. Provide opportunities for research and education on the highest quality native northern dry forests.

Management approach

In the reserved area and rare plant protection locations, the native dominant tree species (primarily hemlock, pine and oak) are managed passively, and will convert over time to a more mesic forest condition. Passive canopy management will determine the ecological characteristics of the site. In the savanna and sand prairie restoration areas, the native dominant savanna tree species (primarily oaks) are managed passively. However, some thinning of the canopy, understory manipulation and shrub control via harvest, brushing or fire may be needed to mimic natural disturbance patterns. Augmentation of the ground layer in the savanna and prairie restorations will only add species that historically would have been found on the site, using seeds or plugs from local genetic material species; this usually occurs in the early stages of restoration. Other allowable activities include control of invasive plants and animals, maintenance of existing facilities, and access to suppress wildfires. Salvage of trees after a major wind event can occur if the volume of woody material inhibits fire prescriptions.

Site-specific considerations

  • Although removal of hazardous trees from over and near state-approved snowmobile trails and field roads is an allowed activity, manipulation/removal of vegetation and soil disturbance must be minimized, and must have no impact on the rare species found at the site.
  • Roadside easement area may be managed sporadically by county.
  • Sand and oak barrens species will be allowed to invade the old fields.
  • The (Crandall) pine plantation will be thinned and harvested and will eventually develop into an old pine forest with a more natural appearing structure.

Master planning

Management objectives

  1. Remove invasive exotic species.
  2. Develop overlook at site of former Cambrian Lodge.
  3. Develop and maintain Chapel Gorge Trail.
  4. Manage Crandall pines plantation.
  5. Monitor recreation use.
  6. Continue to acquire land in the project boundary.


Very few State Natural Areas have public facilities, but nearly all are open for a variety of recreational activities as indicated below. Generally, there are no picnic areas, restrooms, or other developments. Parking lots or designated parking areas are noted on individual SNA pages and maps. Trails, if present, are typically undesignated footpaths. If a developed trail is present, it will normally be noted on the SNA map and/or under the "Access" tab. A compass and topographic map or a GPS unit are useful tools for exploring larger, isolated SNAs.

Allowable activities

In general, the activities listed below are allowed on all DNR-owned SNA lands. Exceptions to this list of public uses, such as SNAs closed to hunting, are noted under the "Access" tab above and posted with signs on site.

  • Hiking
  • Fishing
  • Cross country skiing
  • Hunting
  • Trapping

Prohibited activities

  • Horseback riding
  • Rock climbing
  • Vehicles, including bicycles, ATVs, aircraft, and snowmobiles except on trails and roadways designated for their use
  • Collecting of animals, non-edible fungi, rocks, minerals, fossils, archaeological artifacts, soil, downed wood, or any other natural material, alive or dead. Collecting for scientific research requires a permit issued by the DNR
  • Collecting of plants including seeds, roots or other non-edible parts of herbaceous plants such as wildflowers or grasses
  • Camping and campfires
  • Geocaching

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For rules governing state-owned SNAs and other state lands, please consult Chapter NR 45 Wis. Admin. Code [exit DNR]

Last revised: Friday, January 29, 2016