LRP - Licenses

LRP - Regulations

LRP - Permits

Recreation - Everyone

Recreation - Trapping

Recreation - Fishing

Recreation - Hunting

Education - Everyone

Education - Kids

Education - Educators

To sign up for updates or to access your subscriber preferences, please enter your contact information below.

Donate today: make a difference
Join the community of caretakers
Help preserve Wisconsin's State Natural Areas for future generations. Give to the Endangered Resources Fund today!
Donate today: make a difference
a natural area by name.
a natural area by county.
Explore outdoors
and find places to go.
Use our interactive map
to find natural areas.
and help care for SNAs.
Contact information
For information on State Natural Areas, contact:
Thomas Meyer
Natural areas conservation biologist

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: Several locations afford access to the upland and river portions of the natural area. On the east side of the Wisconsin River, the Chapel Gorge Trail is a 1.5 mile loop trail leading to a shoreline beach amid rock outcrops along the river. To reach the Chapel Gorge Trail: 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 1.7 miles to a parking area west of the road. The trail starts at the parking lot. Hiking is also permitted on the network of old maintenance lanes starting at the Crandall Pines parking lot. The lot is located on River Road, 2 miles north of the Chapel Gorge parking lot. Note: these lanes do not lead to the river. On a bluff top on the west side of the river, the Cambrian Overlook offers a sweeping vista of the Upper Dells and the high cliffs known as the Palisades. This day-use area has a small observation deck, restrooms, drinking water, and picnic tables. To reach the Cambrian Overlook: From the junction of I-94 and Highway 12 just north of Wisconsin Dells, go east on Highway 12 0.1 mile to 60th Street, then go north (left) on 60th Street 0.9 miles to County Highway N, then go north (left) on Highway N 0.7 miles to 61st Street. This is the road that continues north as Highway N takes a broad turn to the west. Take 61st Street north (right) 0.7 miles to its end at the Cambrian Overlook parking area. Note: 61st Street is labelled on Google Maps as 62nd Street. It goes through a farmstead on a gravel lane, then through a gated entrance before ending at the DNR's paved parking lot. If the entrance gate is locked, you may still enter the area between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. from May 15 - September 15, and from 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. from September 16 - May 14.

The best way to observe the rock formations along the river is by watercraft. Kayaks and canoes may be launched into the Wisconsin River via a carry-in access lane at the Cambrian Overlook (see directions above). The gated access lane is located to the left of the parking lot. The paved access lane is about 225 yards long and a fairly steep descent. Paddle downstream and take out at the Wisconsin Dells municipal boat landing at the junction of River Road and Indiana Avenue in Wisconsin Dells (a 4 mile paddle). Due to high power boat and tour boat traffic on summer weekends, paddlers are advised to visit on weekdays or in the off season. Visitors wishing to view the Dells via power boat may launch them at the municipal boat landing for a fee.


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.


Management objectives and prescriptions

  • Remove invasive exotic species.
  • Develop overlook at site of former Cambrian Lodge.
  • Develop and maintain Chapel Gorge Trail.
  • Manage Crandall pines plantation.
  • Monitor recreation use.
  • 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 (other than legally harvested species), 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

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

Back to Top

Last revised: Tuesday, October 04, 2016