Courtesy Wisconsin Dells VCB
It all goes back to water.
Today, Wisconsin Dells is one of the Midwest’s favorite vacation hot spots. Families and groups from Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond take annual trips to the Dells to experience the area’s dynamic tourism opportunities. Theme parks, attractions and shows abound in this city, as do the fudge parlors, souvenir shops and other establishments that accompany popular tourism destinations. But the man-made institutions would amount to little without the beautiful scenery carved by the water of the Wisconsin River.
Wisconsin Dells was first discovered for its beautiful lakes and river canyons, and grew in popularity due to the work of an early nature photographer. And although the destination now attracts many different people for many different reasons, the water and natural beauty of the area remain a central part of the attraction.
For today’s church groups, a visit to Wisconsin Dells brings opportunities to explore scenic waterways as well as plenty of entertaining and educational stops along the way.
Spectacular scenery made Wisconsin Dells into the hot spot that it is today, and sightseeing is still one of the most popular activities for visitors to the area.
“Scenic tours are probably the most popular thing for everyone, youth groups through adult groups,” said Tifani Jones, director of sales for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. “That can be anything from boat tours to duck tours.”
The area gets its name from the dells, or scenic canyons, carved by the Wisconsin River, which flows through the area. A number of companies offer tours via boat or amphibious vehicles that take passengers through the forested area around Lake Delton, as well as excursions into some of the Wisconsin River canyons.
“The river tours go along the glacier-cut gorge of the river,” Jones said. “It’s scenery that you won’t see anywhere else.”
Groups can get an even more intimate look at the area’s rock formations on tours through the canyons. The most popular, the Lost Canyon Tour, has been operating since the 1950s. Visitors ride in horse-drawn carriages along pathways in the rock that were carved by rushing water. The rock formations include sheer rock cliff faces, sandstone walls that have never been touched by sunshine and tight passages that drivers must coax their horses through on each trip.
The newest way for visitors to experience the natural beauty of the Wisconsin Dells is on a zip-line excursion.
“We have a couple of different zip-line tours now,” Jones said. “They go through the woods and also give you views of the water and the community.”
History and Photography
It was the river and canyons that first brought H.H. Bennett to the Wisconsin Dells in the middle of the 19th century. An inventor and photographer, Bennett came to document the beauty of the area as well as the lifestyle of its native people. His work would create some of the best-known images of the Dells.
“Bennett came to the community and started photographing the river and the native people,” Jones said. “He was the only white man allowed into some of these communities. He was taking pictures of the river, and they eventually found their way into postcards and articles written about what he was doing. People wanted to come and see this beautiful landscape because they hadn’t seen this anywhere else. That’s how the tourism in this area started.”
Today, groups can learn more about Bennett and see some of his classic photos at the H.H. Bennett Studio in the city’s downtown district. Bennett designed the studio himself and set up shop inside in 1875. Today, the site is a working photography studio and a museum.
Visitors can view a collection of some of Bennett’s most famous photographs, which show early images of the dells’ unspoiled beauty. The photography museum has numerous pieces of Bennett’s original 19th-century photography equipment, including some tools he invented himself. Exhibits also give insight into the lifestyle and traditions of the Ho-Chunk people, who inhabited the area when Bennett arrived.