Upper Dells Boat Tour

Upper Dells Boat Tour

I have had a love/hate relationship with the Wisconsin Dells for quite some time. As a kid, my folks always had a cabin (built by my carpenter father) on a lake or river and we were fortunate to travel quite a lot to visit family across the U.S. I don’t recall ever going to the Dells until adulthood – once we moved to Wisconsin, but I know of several people whose only vacations brought them to this neck of the woods – every year. One woman never wants to go back, and I can see her point, especially since it looks exactly the same as it did in the 60s. But a recent trip made me rethink my opinion of the place and the Upper Dells Boat Tour boosted its standings quite a lot.

We have been to the Dells many times over the last 20 years – because of its close proximity to home. We have a timeshare there and it’s a good way to use up leftover points after our vacations to other parts of the country. Our timeshare was so-so (or worse) for a while and it was never a top choice. Since then, great improvements have been made to Christmas Mountain Village and its a lot more appealing these days. Our daughters have enjoyed coming as young adults with their kiddos. They have fun with the old-time photos from each visit and always enjoy Paul Bunyan’s bountiful breakfasts (and donuts)!

Shopping in the Dells is very touristy – not my cup of tea – unless it’s to one of several outlet malls. If hubby can keep me out of the Coach Factory Outlet, then we’re good to go – in HIS opinion. The fudge is pretty good and several restaurants are excellent, and of course Noah’s Ark and Mt. Olympus are great fun.

Since we have always been outdoorsy and we love to hike, take tours, snap pictures of the natural beauty of the area, the Upper Dells Boat Tour was a fun and easy way to see the bluffs and beautiful scenery along the river, with a couple of stops along the way for a quick exploration. Click for a link to some of the history of the Upper Dells.

Our journey began just north of the dam that separates the Upper and Lower Dells – shown in the top photos. We enjoyed towering sandstone cliffs on the most scenic section of the Wisconsin River during this two-hour ride aboard the Yellow Thunder. We sat on the back end to make it easier for pictures, although my husband would have preferred to be on the top deck – which was full by the time we boarded. Either way, if you’re outside bring your sunscreen because it gets a little scorching out there. There was an intercom system that would have worked better had we been in the interior seating section, but we strained to hear what the tour guide was saying and we purchased the brochure that they passed around at the end of the tour so we could read about what we kind-of heard. This brochure will be very helpful as I recall the highlights of our trip.

Our first stop was Witches Gulch – a beautiful self-guided tour via a boardwalk to keep you dry while traversing the waters that flow below.

“As provocative as its views, are the eerie tales that help define Witches Gulch. Hugged by steep bluffs on either side, explorers are lured into the depths of the cavern passing by Witches Falls as it empties into Witches Bathtub, elements of a fast-moving trout stream continually transforming the gorge. Passage through Spooky Lane conjures up thoughts of venturing into the gulch at night. Look into Witches Window to see if the hag will light your way.” – from the Official Guidebook of Dells Boat Tours

“According to Native American legend it was a great serpent, wriggling down from the north and his home near the Big Lake, that formed the bed of the Wisconsin River. Crawling over the forests and the fields, his huge body wore an immense groove in the land and the water rushed in behind him. When he came to the sandstone ridge where the Dells begins he thrust his great head into a crevice between the rocks and pushed them aside to form a narrow, winding passage. At his approach, lesser serpents fled forming the canyons which lead off from the main channel. It was these timid, lesser serpents that formed Coldwater Canyon and Witches’ Gulch, so the legend goes.

The true story is just as exciting. When the great glacial lake of Wisconsin started to break free from its large ice dam the waters rushed free in a catostrophic flood and carved out the great rock formations we see today. It is hypothesized that the noise of the rushing water would have been heard up to six states away.” – READ more about the history of the Wisconsin Dells

Any time I can get out of the hustle and bustle of “reality” and step into the beauty of nature, it’s a good day in my book. Now, back to the boat.

Next stop is Stand Rock. HH Bennett, a photographer famous for his pictures of the Wisconsin Dells area between 1865 and 1908, captured his son making this 5-ft leap in 1886 to prove that his new invention of an advanced shutter technology worked. After that photograph went viral, he would snap pics of brave tourists making the jump! That practice continued until insurance companies put a stop to that in the 1940s and specially trained dogs took over the task. There is a net below, but not sure that was there years ago.

The popularity of Bennett’s photographs helped turn the city of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin into a major tourist destination, and he created many other innovations that changed photography forever.

“No history of Wisconsin Dells would be complete if it did not include H.H. Bennett’s stop-action photo of his son Ashley leaping to Stand Rock in 1886. The studio that H.H. Bennett founded in 1865 has been continuously owned and operated by successive generations of his family. It is the oldest family owned photographic studio in the United States.

In 1999 the State Historical Society of Wisconsin acquired the studio with its priceless collection of photo prints, negatives and antique equipment. The studio has been restored, and its doors are open to the public.” – READ more about the history of the Wisconsin Dells

The walk from the boat into Stand Rock was pretty easy, even though they talk like it’s not. I suppose they want to discourage people with difficulty walking to take the trip, because once you leave the boat it moves downstream a bit to pick us up at the end of this one-way trail, so there’s no turning back. It was my favorite part of the trip, with stunning views and cool alcoves to catch a break from the heat of the day.

The natural beauty, along with some more history about a state I’ve come to love, made this a beautiful day. I don’t remember being as impressed by the Original Wisconsin Ducks Tour, but maybe I’ll have to give that another try. I’m sure you’ll be the first to know when that happens!

Happy trails,

Barbara Olson

Barbara Olson

Cave Point County Park

Cave Point County Park


  • Laurie

    We’ve never taken a boat tour at the Dells but I’ve always wanted to. After reading this it will be a must on our next trip there!

    July 1, 2016 at 12:34 pm
    • Barbara Olson
      Barbara Olson

      You would be impressed by the improvements at Christmas Mountain too! Anytime you are ready!

      July 1, 2016 at 2:40 pm

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