If you plan a stay at Devil’s Lake State Park, it’s easy to lose sight of Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area over the tourist driven town of Wisconsin Dells or the small town charm of Baraboo. But Parfrey’s Glen should not be missed. Finding it can be a little misleading as much of the literature on it indicates it is not accessible by vehicle. Don’t let this deter you. There is a parking lot for the area and it’s just a little hike to the waterfall. In the past, there was a boardwalk in place to make the hike a little easier. However in 2008 / 2010 the boardwalk was destroyed by a storm and has yet to be replaced. Not having a real trail is what makes getting to the waterfall part of the magic.
Five years after the State purchased the land in 1947, Parfrey’s Glen became the first Natural Area declared by Wisconsin. In the 1840’s, the area was primarily used for milling. In some areas, foundations to these mills can still be found. From 1846 to 1876, Robert Parfrey owned and operated one of the mills. After Parfrey left the area in 1876, it became a popular area for picnics and hiking. By the late 1800’s the destination was so popular that developers were looking into building hotels – much like it had been attempted at Paradise Springs near Ottowa State Park.
As you first approach the trail, it seems no different that any other trail. The trail points ahead through a small meadow with trees lining either side. Warblers and Goldfinches dart about the branches filling the air with their melodies. At first, there is no sign of any water. You may find yourself wondering if you are on the right path . . . you are!
Continuing onward, a small stream appears to the left. The path flows along the stream. Walking with the stream, you notice it becomes louder. Rocks begin appearing more frequently in the stream. Eventually, the rocks become boulders and the water is swirling over and around the rocks, causing the small stream to meander. At one point the path turns towards the stream. Where there once was a small bridge is now a series of large boulders in the water. The only way across is by hopping from stone to stone. Across the stream, the path becomes less obvious. in focusing on following the flow of what has now become a small river, you might not notice you are entering the gorge.
Before long you are now below the surface of the Earth. Above you, roots of trees break out of the sandstone that line the gorge. Water drips downward along the sandstone to create a mossy underworld. The path seems to come to an end and a sign warns to proceed at your own risk, but not to go beyond the waterfall. Surveying the river, you must choose wisely as to which stone you step on to get to the waterfall. High rains can submerge rocks, splashing water can make them slippery. Perhaps you should have been warned earlier to wear old shoes! You’ll feel like Indiana Jones as you make your way to the waterfall. When you get there, the quest will be well worth it. While Parfrey’s Glen is by no means the biggest waterfall in the state, it has a beauty of it’s own. The glen is home to many plant and bird species that are not typically native to the area, but have thrived due to the unique temperatures and conditions.
Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area – DNR Website