Wisconsin Dells offers much to do in the winter, from wineries to state parks

·7 min read
The Wild WaterDome at Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells features a glass roof for year-round sunshine.
The Wild WaterDome at Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells features a glass roof for year-round sunshine.

It’s winter in the Waterpark Capital of the World, and while the area's indoor waterparks offer plenty of summer-like fun year-round, the area offers much more to do both inside and out.

It was the Dells' natural attractions that first drew tourists to the area in the 19th century, spurred by the photographs of H.H. Bennett, and those attractions still offer plenty to do today, from snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in sandstone gorges in Mirror Lake State Park to downhill skiing at Cascade Mountain and Christmas Mountain.

“With the amount of outdoor recreational activities in the immediate area, there are plenty of ways to embrace winter and everything it offers. Plus, they are great social distancing activities,” Leah Hauck-Mills, communications manager for Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, said via email.

For those who are comfortable heading inside, new indoor attractions in the area include a larger location for Wizard Quest, an interactive fantasy game, and Rainbow Rapids, a new indoor waterslide with colorful lights at Chula Vista Resort.

Here are more things to see and do in the Dells this winter.

Things to do outside

Cascade Mountain, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, offers one of the best ski deals in Wisconsin: Kids 12 and under ski free with a paying adult. The ski hill in Portage has 48 trails for skiing and snowboarding on a hill with a 460-foot vertical drop, three terrain parks, and a tubing hill. Advanced online purchase of tickets is required for weekend, holiday and peak day visits and recommended for weekday visits.

Kids ski and snowboard for free with a paying adult at Cascade Mountain in Portage.
Kids ski and snowboard for free with a paying adult at Cascade Mountain in Portage.

About five miles west of downtown, Christmas Mountain has 16 runs for skiing and snowboarding, plus a tubing hill and cross-country ski trails. Guests who stay at Mount Olympus Resort ski (or tube) for free.

Chula Vista Resort offers the best of both worlds in the Dells: a beautiful natural setting along the Wisconsin River, but proximity to downtown — about 3 miles north of Main Street. The resort opened three new cross-country ski trails this winter to go along with the hiking/snowshoeing trails they already had. There’s also a sledding hill and outdoor fire pits to warm up around before heading back inside. There, visitors can find an indoor waterpark with a water roller coaster billed as the country’s fastest, and Rainbow Rapids, a tube waterslide that features colorful lights that is expected to open in March.

Mirror Lake State Park has 18 miles of trails groomed for cross-country skiing, plus a handful of trails for hiking and snowshoeing (hiking and pets are not permitted on groomed ski trails). A favorite for hiking/snowshoeing is Fern Dell Gorge State Natural Area, a narrow gorge where ice formations build up in the winter as water seeps through the porous sandstone. The Pulpit Rock trail runs along the top of the gorge, or you can hike off trail through the middle, accessible via a parking lot off Fern Dell Road west of the park entrance. The park also has a couple new snowshoe trails, the Lake View Ridge Trail and Bluff/Canyon trail, on the northwest side of the lake, accessible off Highway 23 between Lake View Road and Pickerel Slough Road.

Ice builds up on sandstone rock formations at Mirror Lake State Park in the winter, making for beautiful snowshoeing.
Ice builds up on sandstone rock formations at Mirror Lake State Park in the winter, making for beautiful snowshoeing.

Devil's Lake in Baraboo is the area's (and the state's) most popular park, with dramatic quartzite cliffs that rise above its namesake lake. The trails to reach the top of those cliffs can be treacherous when snow-covered, but the park is a lot a quieter than it is in the busy summer months. The park does not have any groomed ski trails, but skiing and snowshoeing are permitted throughout. The Nature Center has snowshoes available to borrow.

Rocky Arbor is the area’s smallest state park, offering a 1-mile hiking and snowshoeing trail along sandstone ledges. The park’s main gate is closed after Labor Day, but you can park at the gate and walk into the park.

Beaches aren’t just for the summer, and you might have the one at the end of the Chapel Gorge trail in the Dells of the Wisconsin River State Natural Area all to yourself if you hike there in the winter. A 2-mile lollipop trail leads to the beach and offers a look at the layered sandstone cliffs that line the Wisconsin River. The trail is an easy hike, but the scramble to the beach is more challenging, especially with snow on the ground. Find parking and trail access on River Road north of downtown.

Bundle up for a winter ziplining adventure at Bigfoot Zipline Tours, which has seven ziplines that total more than 6,000 feet long, or Vertical Illusions, whose Snowshoe Zipline Tour begins with a trek up to Chimney Rock.

More: Wisconsin winter bucket list: 12 things you have to do

Things to do inside

It’s summer year-round in the Dells’ indoor waterparks. The area (and the state’s) largest is at Kalahari Resort, which features plenty of slides and rides for kids (and adults), including an indoor water coaster. Over at Chula Vista, 26 slides provide plenty of fun, with more to come this March when Rainbow Rapids opens. Both the Kalahari and Chula Vista offer day passes to their parks for people who are not staying at the resort; guests have free access to the parks. Wilderness Resort and Mount Olympus Resort also have indoor waterparks, but they are only open to guests.

More: When it's too cold to swim outside, check out one of these indoor waterparks in Wisconsin

More: Mt. Olympus in Wisconsin Dells is building country's first rotating waterslide — a four person raft ride

Wizard Quest, an interactive fantasy game, opened in a new larger location in December. Participants make their way through an elaborate labyrinth to complete quests by solving riddles and finding clues.

The area is home to five wineries, and an easy way to see a few without having to designate a driver is on a Wisconsin Dells trolley tour. The Full Winery Experience tour includes tastings at three wineries and lunch at a local restaurant. The wineries the tour stops at change weekly, but they include Fawn Creek, Baraboo Bluff, Balanced Rock, Broken Bottle and Prairie Hawk. The tour company also offers an express version of the tour that stops at two wineries.

A little farther afield is Wollersheim Winery, about 30 miles south of the Dells in Prairie du Sac. The winery traces its roots — literally — to the 1840s, but is celebrating its 50th anniversary of its current iteration this year. Over those 50 years the winery has added a distillery that now makes a variety of spirits that are offered in tastings and cocktails served onsite, and a bistro that pairs those spirits and Wollersheim wine with local and seasonal fare.

Grape vines at Wollersheim Winery and Distillery sit dormant amid a coating a winter snow.
Grape vines at Wollersheim Winery and Distillery sit dormant amid a coating a winter snow.

The Tommy Bartlett Show was a COVID casualty in 2020, but the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, an interactive science and technology center, lives on. Exhibits include a Russian Space Station MIR core module — the only one on Earth that people can visit — and Bridge of Fire, which demonstrates static electricity via a Van De Graaff Generator.

For grown-ups, relaxation awaits at the adults only Sundara Inn and Spa. The resort has been named among the top 25 destination spas in the U.S. by readers of Conde Naste Traveler magazine for the past three years, and last year also was ranked among the top 10 resorts in the Midwest by Travel + Leisure magazine. The spa offers a variety of treatments, including offerings for couples and new this year, a Be Well Rosewater CBD Facial that uses CBD products. The resort has a variety of lodging options as well, including new suites tucked into the woods, each featuring a private screened-in balcony with a hot tub, heated tile floor and fireplace. The resort offers snowshoeing through those woods and two outdoor pools and hot tubs that are heated year-round for soaking in the views.

Contact Chelsey Lewis at clewis@journalsentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Dells offers much to do in the winter inside and out