Parfrey's Glen is cool in every sense of the word.
Part of Devil's Lake State Park, Parfrey's Glen was Wisconsin's first State Natural Area, created in 1952. The glen features a cool (as in temperature), narrow gorge with cool (as in awesome), moss-covered sandstone-and-quartzite cliffs, massive boulders, a meandering creek and a miniature waterfall.
About 500 million years ago, this area was covered by a shallow inland sea. Over time sandstone was deposited along the seafloor, while wind and waves battered the surrounding Baraboo Hills, leading to the quartzite deposits visible in the sandstone. More natural forces — including the glaciers — created the river (now a creek) that cut through the soft sandstone and deposited sandstone and quartzite conglomerate boulders throughout the gorge.
But the forces of nature are not just a slow-moving phenomena in the glen's distant past. As recently as 2008 and 2010, major floods plowed through the area, destroying most of the man-made trails, steps and boardwalks while also partially diverting the path of the creek.
The area was closed for a year while the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tried to repair the trails, but it stopped short of rebuilding the boardwalk that once traversed the length of the gorge.
Route: From the parking lot on the north side of County DL, follow the trail through the woods toward the gorge. As it crosses the creek, look for evidence of the flood in the form of boulders, uprooted trees and the former streambed.
The official trail appears to end where the gorge's true beauty begins. If you want to hike farther in, you'll have to navigate the rocky streambed. It can be a difficult, slippery hike, so wear sturdy shoes and be prepared to get wet.
But if you're willing to risk wet feet, the hike into the gorge of less than a mile is worth it. The canyon walls slowly build to a height of nearly 100 feet and are draped in moss and lichen, and trees create a canopy overhead. Small rocks and large boulders pepper the path and become more prominent in the gorge's heart.
As the sandstone cliffs grow, the temperature falls. The gorge is noticeably cooler than the surrounding area, which partially contributes to the unique wildlife found there — flora and fauna that are more typical of northern Wisconsin. Look for yellow birch, mountain maple and red elder, in addition to threatened species such as the cerulean warbler and Acadian flycatcher.
A small cascade awaits visitors at the end of the gorge.
When to go: Because of the temperature, it is a popular destination in the summer. Avoid the larger crowds and opt for a weekday fall trip, when the changing leaves only add to the beauty.
Things to know: If you decide to hike beyond the official trail, be sure to stay close to the streambed — don't climb the rocks and cliffs along the gorge, as they're home to delicate and unique plant species.
Because the hike is rocky and at times steep and wet, it may be a challenge for small children. You also won't get very far with a stroller.
While pets are permitted in most state natural areas, they are not allowed at Parfrey's Glen.
How much it will set you back: You will need a daily state parks admission pass or yearly sticker. Daily passes are $7 for vehicles with Wisconsin plates; yearly stickers are $25. Bring cash for the self-registration station or buy passes nearby at Devil's Lake State Park.
While you're there: To see more of the geology that makes this region special, head a short distance west to the main part of Devil's Lake State Park. A hike up the steep East Bluff Trail reaps rewarding views of the lake, boulder formations and the 500-foot quartzite bluffs.
Take a ride on Wisconsin's only free ferry at Merrimac. The Colsac III was christened in 2003, but the ferry line has been in operation since 1848, pulling passengers across the Wisconsin River using three underwater cables. Today's crossing takes less than 10 minutes and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until ice forms on the river.
Finish your day with dinner (or begin it with breakfast) at Prairie du Sac's Blue Spoon Café, which is owned by the Culver family of Culver's custard fame. The casual European-style restaurant serves everything from burgers, pizza and quesadillas to soups, salads and sandwiches, plus boasts an extensive wine list and a selection of creamy gelato.
Getting there: Parfrey's Glen is about 110 miles west of Milwaukee via I-94, Highway 78 and County DL. It's on the north side of County DL just west of Bluff Road.
More information: See dnr.wi.gov/topic/Lands/naturalareas/index.asp?SNA=1 or call the Devil's Lake State Park office at (608) 356-8301.
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