North of Interstate 90/94 near Wisconsin Dells, man-made waterparks are the main attraction.
But south of the interstate, nature's waterpark takes center stage at state parks like Mirror Lake and Devil's Lake and countless natural, wildlife and recreation areas. And while they all boast a particular slice of beauty, the small, nine-acre Pewits Nest is an especially gorgeous spot slightly off the beaten path.
The state natural area features a series of small waterfalls formed by Skillet Creek as it runs through a dramatic sandstone gorge, dominated by 30- to 40-foot moss-covered cliffs.
A short, less than half-mile dirt trail leads from a small gravel parking lot through the woods to a sandy beach and clear, deep pool perfect for swimming on a hot summer day.
Tucked between two steep rock faces at the base of the pool is a small cascade, whose flow can range from a steady trickle to a powerful cascade depending on rainfall. Towering, layered cliffs surround the natural swimming hole, and a downed tree in the middle provides the perfect spot to perch and take it all in.
Back on the small beach, another rough trail leads up a steep hill to a bluff-top trail that parallels the creek and provides glimpses of the gorge from above. At the top, look down on another small waterfall and a second deep pool, just upstream from the first.
The short trail continues upstream and eventually levels off, providing access to the shallow creek. If the water is low enough, it's possible to wade down along the stream bed and over a handful of small waterfalls and bedrock ledges back to the first pool.
Red cedar, white pine, hemlock and yellow birch line the steep sandstone cliffs, formed by Skillet Creek cutting through the soft stone when Lake Baraboo drained during the last glacial retreat in Wisconsin. The creek gets its name from a skillet-shaped rock downstream near another set of falls.
The area as a whole got its name in the mid-1800s when an eccentric mechanic built his workshop into the cliffs, using the creek to power a water wheel. Only accessible via a trapdoor in the ceiling or the floor — which was only accessible via the creek — the workshop resembled the nest of a phoebe, a small songbird with a sharp "peep" call that was earlier known as a peewit. Locals began calling the place Peewit's Nest, and the state officially designated the natural area as Pewits Nest in 1985.
When to go: The gorge is gorgeous in the summer, especially this year thanks to a wet spring that adorned the natural area in green. The cool creek is also a welcome relief from summer heat.
At one time the spot was a local secret, but the word seems to be out now. Visit early on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
Things to know: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources prohibits climbing on or jumping from the cliffs at Pewits Nest. Also note that the trails are steep and run close to sudden drop-offs along the gorge. Wear sturdy shoes and hike with caution.
The small gravel parking lot can only accommodate about eight cars, and parking is not permitted on the shoulder of the road around the natural area. We found out the hard way that tickets are issued on a regular basis, so be prepared to wait for a spot to open or be willing to pay a $10 fine.
The natural area is open year-round from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and is free to visit. It's open to pets, but they must be leashed at all times.
While you're there: There's so much to do in the Wisconsin Dells and Baraboo area that you definitely need more than a day to take it all in.
Twelve miles west of Pewits Nest on County DL is Parfrey's Glen, another state natural area comprising a deep sandstone gorge. The cliffs here are even larger than those at Pewits, but the stream is more shallow and there are no spots for swimming. A rough trail travels along the stream bed at the bottom of the gorge instead of above it. See dnr.wi.gov/topic/Lands/naturalareas/index.asp?SNA=1.
Head north to the Wisconsin River to visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation, E13701 Levee Road, the location of the summer shack of Aldo Leopold, author of "A Sand County Almanac" and one of the greatest conservationists of the 21st century. The sandy land along the river here served as a living experiment for Leopold and inspired his book. Guided tours of the shack are offered on Saturdays in the summer and early fall; visitors can also take self-guided tours as long as there isn't snow on the ground. See aldoleopold.org.
Top off a visit to the Baraboo Hills with a stop at Wollersheim Winery, an award-winning winery and national historic site set along the Wisconsin River on Highway 188 in Sauk City. Relax on one of the two wine gardens with a bottle of Prairie Fumé, a semi-dry white wine that is the winery's most popular. See wollersheim.com.
Getting there: Pewits Nest is on County W just west of Highway 12 in Baraboo, about 2 hours from Milwaukee via I-94 and Highway 33.
More information: For more on Pewits Nest and rules about visiting state natural areas, see dnr.wi.gov/topic/lands/naturalareas/index.asp?sna=200.
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