Mirror Lake State Park and Beyond

Hi everyone,

Welcome back to Traveling with Tom, I appreciate your loyalty and comments. As I mentioned in last week’s post, my Traveling Partner and I spent a few days camping at Mirror Lake State Park about fifty miles north of Madison near the Wisconsin Dells. In case you missed it, here’s a link to the article I posted about Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area.

During our stay at Mirror Lake, we hiked a few miles of the 28 miles of trails within the park. One windy, cool morning, we made the quarter mile walk from our campsite in the Sandstone Ridge Campground to the Echo Rock Trailhead. I should mention here that part of this 0.6 mile trail is accessible for those with mobility concerns. 

It was midweek after schools opened their doors so we only saw a few other hikers during our trek. As we walked through the pine and oak forest, we noted the undulating landscape with sandstone rocks scattered around. 

It short order, we reached the overlook to the park’s namesake, Mirror Lake. This long, narrow 137 acre lake is surrounded by steep sandstone bluffs. Because it’s set so low in the surrounding landscape, it’s barely affected by the wind that creates the “mirror” like surface. This lake is popular with kayakers, paddle boarders, and canoeing. Rentals are available at the boat landing.

Even from the overlook, it’s hard to see Mirror Lake through the trees. 

Down the hill from the overlook is Echo Rock. A large hump-like sandstone formation with it’s many layers exposed and trees clinging to the rock. Hikers can walk the path around the rock. The more limber and adventurous can climb to the top and explore even further. It’s a pleasant place to rest and commune with the natural world. The only distraction is the road noise from 1-94 about a mile away.

From Echo Rock we could see the famous and fabulous Ishnala Supper Club. It clings to a cliff overlooking Mirror Lake and was voted Wisconsin’s number 1 supper club by Travel Wisconsin. There is a hiking trail in Mirror Lake State Park that takes visitors to Ishnala. In the before times (before Covid that is), we would make the approximately one mile walk from the campground to the supper club for its wonderful dining experience. The hard part was the walk back to the campground after the meal and a few beverages. I recommended the Bloody Mary with a beer chaser, it’s like a meal in itself. The Brandy Alexander is pretty good too. We didn’t partake this trip, maybe when things get back to a more normal situation. Check it out the next time you are in the area, Ishnala.

Along the trail, I made a few stops for some photo ops that caught my eye.

The Echo Rock Trail intersected with the Cliffwood Coulee Trail that eventually took us back to our campsite. On our journey, we came across a couple who were celebrating the placement of a commemorative brick at the foot of the Ishnala Bridge. We had a delightful conversation about camping and Wisconsin State Parks. The second photo below is the coulee referred to in the name of the trail.

One of the other Mirror Lake trails we hiked was the Pulpit Rock Trail. It’s a one-mile, relatively level and easy trail. Legend has it that Fighting Bob LaFollotte made his Progressive Party speech at what became to be known as Pulpit Rock. The one distinguishing feature of this trail are the many markers describing the folks that built summer cottages in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s along the cliffs overlooking Mirror Lake. The cabins are all gone now except one, the Seth Peterson Cottage, described on Marker 3. The two-room cottage was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in the late 1950’s. Mirror Lake State Park was established in 1962 and gradually bought up the nearby properties including the Peterson Cottage. Over time it fell into disrepair until a local resident learned of it’s origin and helped to raise the funds to restore the Cottage. Now visitors can rent the Seth Peterson Cottage, click here to check it out. 

One day we drove over to nearby Devil’s Lake State Park. It’s the largest state park in Wisconsin and also one of the most popular. We decided to walk the one-mile Tumbled Rocks Trail that runs along the west side of Devil’s Lake. It was warm and sunny enough in early September for some to venture into the water. 

The trail zigs and zags around the huge rocks that have tumbled down the hillside.

We were about half-way when we looked back and saw what looked like a storm moving in and decided to turn back. It probably rained somewhere but not on us. Then the skies cleared, by then we were on to our next stop.

When we arrived at Devil’s Lake, we parked on the north side of the lake. To drive to the south side of the lake, visitors have to leave the park and take a county road back into the park. On the way, we saw the sign for the nearby Ski-Hi Apple Orchard. We made the turn, parked and donned our masks to enter into apple paradise. For years, we’d stop there with the kids to have a piece of apple pie made by one of the owners. Everyone called her Grandma. She supervised the pie baking operation in her apron and sensible shoes. The pie was warm, delicious and popular especially on fall weekends. Grandma is gone now but the baking continues. By the time we arrived, the pie was gone for the day but we did snag a couple of apple turnovers as a consolation prize. That plus a couple of bags of apples provided our snacks for the afternoon.

We made our way the few miles over to Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area. Within the boundaries of Devil’s Lake State Park, it’s a deep, tree-lined gorge cut by a stream through the sandstone. On summer weekends, this place is very popular and the small parking lot fills up fast. The first part of the 1.6 mile hiking trail is wide and smooth, with very few obstructions. The trail becomes a bit more treacherous with tree roots and rocks just waiting to trip you up. At the end of the official trail, the gorge and stream reveal their beauty. The trail does continue on to a waterfall at the end. There are warnings about proceeding at your own risk. My Traveling Partner shook her head, she wasn’t going any further. Knowing that I’m known to have had a few accidents in my life, I decided against going further on the rough trail. Regardless, it was a fun and very pleasant hike up to the gorge and back.

Here’s a short video on the sights and sounds of the babbling brook that created Parfey’s Glen.

 

As we were setting out for our hike. A woman with two small boys were returning to the parking lot. The woman and the smallest boy, about 5 or 6, were carrying hiking staffs that they propped up against the Ice Age Trail sign. Then the boy said to us, “If you need a walking stick these are for your use.” We thanked him letting us know but passed on using them. As he walked away, we heard him tell his mother, “I’m trying to be kind.” She reassured him that he was being kind. It was precious and heartening.

After our visit to Parfey’s Glen, about a mile down the road, we saw another sign for the Ice Age Trail and a nice sized parking lot. We decided to walk a mile or two on the trail through the open prairie into the forest.

Along the way, we stopped to smell the flowers and so did the busy bees!

Unfortunately, the next day we had to head home vowing to return next year for a longer stay at Mirror Lake. And just maybe, if the pandemic fades, a visit to the Ishanala Supper Club!

Until next week, happy travels!

Tom

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