Dripping in sweat, I stepped as close as I dared to the edge of the 500-foot bluff and took a deep breath.
It's hard to tell which had my heart pounding more: the strenuous, 45-minute hike up the East Bluff at Devil's Lake State Park or the 500-foot drop once we reached the top.
The steep trails up and down the south face of the East Bluff are some of the most popular trails at Wisconsin's most popular park — on average, more than 1.3 million people visit every year.
"It's a unique place in the state. You drive out of the Baraboo Hills and you see this very distinctly different environment," said Derrick Mayoleth, who owns Skillet Creek Media and runs devilslakewisconsin.com, a tourism website dedicated to the park. "Coming to Devil's Lake, it just stands out to everyone."
For those who have never been to Devil's Lake, the trails up the East and West bluffs are good places to start to see great views and rock formations, said Mayoleth, who worked at the park in the '90s and started the website in 1996.
The park, the state's third when it was formed in 1911, has always been popular thanks to its beautiful red-gray quartzite cliffs and expansive lake. Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln's wife visited. The Ringling brothers had a cabin here. By 1952, park attendance hit one million visitors.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps came to the park and constructed many of the most rugged trails, which are still in use today.
When I hiked up along the Balanced Rock Trail on a warm summer day last year, my group of four had to wait more than a couple of times for groups on their way down to pass. But at the top, it was easy to see why it's so popular.
The 360-acre Devil's Lake gleamed below, sunbathers lounged along the south shore beach while tiny yellow and red dots — kayakers — skimmed along the lake's surface. A blanket of green dotted by talus fields covered the bluffs surrounding the lake, with the rolling Baraboo Hills stretching out to the horizon beyond. To the west, other hikers clamored for photo-ops under Devil's Doorway, a giant arch-like rock formation. Even the plethora of people scattered along the blufftop couldn't ruin the moment.
Route: From the south shore beach area, the .4-mile Balanced Rock Trail doesn't waste any time gaining altitude. Comprised of mostly blocky rock stairs, the trail is a difficult hike up through a talus field on the East Bluff.
About two-thirds of the way up is the trail's namesake: a triangle-shaped rock balancing on its flattened tip. Just a bit more and the trail turns to the east to meet with the East Bluff Trail, a route that is part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. A short trail spur leads to Devil's Doorway and some of the park's best views.
Back on the East Bluff Trail, there are a few options for getting back down the bluff. The .3-mile Potholes is the most challenging, descending the bluff along another rocky staircase dotted with interesting rock formations.
Near the top, the trail passes through a narrow split in the rock. Look for depressions in the rocks, or potholes, caused by erosion from swirling water.
Or continue along the East Bluff to the .3-mile CCC trail, which descends the bluff along a more wooded, but still steep, trail. Both trails connect with the .7-mile Grottos Trail at the base of the bluff, which leads back through the woods to the south shore.
All told, the loop up and down the bluff is less than 3 miles, but can take two hours or more to complete.
Trail tips: The hike is strenuous and can be dangerous, with steep drop-offs in many spots.
While kids can certainly hike the trail, parents should be sure they can physically handle the hike and keep an eye on them at all times.
The quartzite rocks along the bluff trails are very smooth and make for a slick surface, especially when wet. Wear sturdy shoes, ideally with some grip, and avoid hiking during or after a rainstorm.
Devil's Lake is busy all summer, but weekdays and early morning (before 11 a.m.) or later in the day (after 3 p.m.) offer the best chances for avoiding large crowds.
While you're there: There's plenty more to do at Devil's Lake in addition to hiking nearly 30 miles of trails. Two beaches provide space for sunbathing and swimming, and kayak and canoe rentals are available from the park's concession areas. Mountain bikers can take on 5 miles of off-road trails. And while not officially condoned by the park, rock climbing is also a popular activity. Connect with a guide service like Devils Lake Climbing Guides to take on the cliffs.
Other than the bluff trails, Mayoleth said the Upland Loop Trail is his favorite. The 3.8-mile loop is part of the Ice Age Trail and you're likely to have it to yourself.
"That trail goes up over the bluff. It offers a couple of places where you get really nice views of the valley," he said.
And while Devil's Lake may be the centerpiece in this part of Wisconsin, the surrounding area is packed with natural beauty.
"There's so much to do, especially if you're into the outdoors," Mayoleth said. "Most people I don't think even grasp how much outdoor area there is in Sauk County. It's just insane. Devil's Lake is a nice base. You can start there and you're close to Baraboo, the Wisconsin Dells."
Mayoleth recommends the Merrimac Preserve, southeast of the park, as a spot not a lot of people know about.
"They have miles of trails that go through prairie and wetlands, so there are sandhill cranes and a lot of wildlife in there," he said. "It's just beautiful and green right now. It's a great time to see it."
Getting there: Devil's Lake State Park is at S5975 Park Road in Baraboo, about two hours west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highway 78.
More information: For more on the park, call (608) 356-8301 or see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/devilslake.
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