East and West Bluffs Loop

Devil's Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Trip Date: Friday, September 1st, 2017
Last Updated: Wednesday, September 6th, 2017
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★★(5/5)
Overall Difficulty Hard
Navigation Difficulty     Medium
Distance 4.6 miles roundtrip
Time 3 hours
Terrain Strenuous climbing
Best Seasons Spring, Summer, Fall
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

Devil's Lake State Park is consistently rated as one of the most beautiful places in Wisconsin and is usually at the top of Wisconsin State Park rankings, and rightfully so. When you finally leave your car and walk to the shore of Devil's Lake, sparkling water surrounded by towering, rocky bluffs will dazzle your eyes. Now think, you are going to climb to the top of both of those bluffs and see this stunning view from above. This worthwhile workout will treat you to some of the most unique scenery in the Midwest.

This trail is not maintained for winter hiking, but hiking is permitted during on this particular route. While dogs are allowed on leash on the trails in this park, they are prohibited on the trails near the beaches. Unfortunately, there are no alternative routes to avoid the beaches and do this exact loop hike; however, you can access both the West Bluff Trail and East Bluff Trail separately (you just have to drive between trailheads). There is also a designated pet beach on the south end of the lake near the start of the West Bluff Trail. I saw plenty of families on both bluff trails, but I wouldn't recommend the average attendee of this park to climb both bluffs in the same day. I would suggest the Tumbled Rocks Trail or climbing to the top of the East Bluff Trail and turning around for more family friendly options. Given the popularity of this park and the promise of scenic views, both bluff trails will have plenty of people. I visited the Friday before Labor Day weekend, and I can only imagine how much more crowded it would have been the following day.

I recommend starting by climbing the East Bluff and doing the loop clockwise -- the other direction requires a more difficult climb up the East Bluff. The trailhead is adjacent to the overflow parking lot; to get to this lot from the main lot, follow the paved trail to the east and cross the railroad tracks, then head north along the road until you see the kiosk at the trailhead. Shortly after starting, the trail splits. Take the trail on the right that heads uphill. I hope you like stairs because there will be plenty of them throughout your journey! The trails to the top of both bluffs are no-nonsense and quite steep, meaning your climb is quick but strenuous. On the bluffs, the trail is roughly paved to make navigation easy. Please remain on the trail throughout the hike; although there are many places where others before have gone off trail, I assure you that the best views are from designated overlooks adjacent to the trail.

After several overlooks, the trail intersects the East Bluff Woods Trail and the Balanced Rock Trail. Although there is a map at this location, so many people have touched the "you are here" over the years that the only useful part of the map has rubbed off. Here, look for arrows pointing the way to the Balanced Rock Trail (with a boulder icon) and head down the rocky steps toward the overlook. After stepping down, turn sharply to the right -- there will be an arrow on a tree straight ahead indicating the trail. Several other hikers and I had trouble finding this trail, so look closely at signs at this intersection and for arrows on the trees. The Balanced Rock Trail is extremely rocky and travels downhill on large boulders. Since you can't follow footsteps on solid rock, there are wooden signs on trees and posts jammed into cracks between rocks to help you find your way. Pay close attention! Part of the way down, you will see the namesake of the trail, Balanced Rock, as pictured below.

Balanced Rock near the top of the East Bluff

Balanced Rock near the top of the East Bluff
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After passing Balanced Rock, the trail descends what looks like a pile of boulders (see picture below). Once you arrive at the bottom, follow the trail heading right, then cross the railroad tracks to the beach area. Here there are signs that clearly state no pets allowed in this area. There are restrooms and a concession stand and boat rentals along the trail by the beach.
Looking up at the boulders on the southern slope of the East Bluff

Looking up at the boulders on the southern slope of the East Bluff
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The trail turns into a boardwalk once the beach ends, and a sign states that pets are allowed on this portion of the trail. When the boardwalk ends, you must walk on a sidewalk that eventually just becomes part of the road. I expected this portion of the hike to be unpleasant, but car traffic is thin and slow moving and the view across the lake is stunning (see picture below). This is also the easiest part of the hike since it is flat and shaded most of the day.
Devil's Lake from the trail on the south end

Devil's Lake from the trail on the south end
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You will pass the designated pet beach on the right, cross a creek and the marsh pictured below, and finally cross a dirt road to begin the ascent of the West Bluff. If you aren't feeling another ascent, you can follow that dirt road to the Tumbled Rocks Trail which follows the shore of Devil's Lake. The West Bluff is a little shorter than the East Bluff, and this climb has a few more gradual sections instead of being entirely stairs. As with the East Bluff, the trail is roughly paved for ease of navigation, so please remain on trail. Just before the trail starts descending, you will be treated to the view pictured at the top of the page. At the bottom of the descent, the trail does a U-turn, then bends to the left before following the lakeshore back towards the parking area.
A nice little marsh just before the West Bluff

A nice little marsh just before the West Bluff
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This hike is the perfect combination of challenging and scenic and is truly a memorable experience. Devil's Lake State Park is a gem that you should not miss in your travels throughout the Midwest. I am certain you will agree that this is one of the best hikes in all of Wisconsin. Be sure to let me know what you think using the comments section below and to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Directions

From Interstate 94/Interstate 90 in Wisconsin Dells, take the exit for U.S. Highway 12 and head south towards Baraboo. There will be brown signs indicating the exit for Devil's Lake State Park on County Road W (South Boulevard); in the first traffic circle, take the third exit to stay on County Road W, then take the first exit in the second traffic circle. The next turns will also be indicated by brown signs for the park. Turn right on U.S. Highway 12 (first major street), then turn left on Wisconsin Highway 159. Turn right to remain on Wisconsin Highway 159, then go diagonally left and follow the road to the park entrance. This main park road is like driving through a tunnel of forest and is an excellent introduction to build your excitement for the park. Pay your fee at the window at the ranger station, then park in the big lot on the right.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

This park is part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve and holders of National Parks passes receive a waiver of vehicle fees. If you have Wisconsin license plates on your vehicle, parking is $8 for the day or $28 for an annual pass valid at all Wisconsin State Parks and Forests. If you are from out of state, parking is $11 for the day or $38 for an annual pass (you recoup your cost after just 4 visits!). See details here. This park is hugely popular and has a gigantic parking lot and overflow lots -- come early if you want a good spot! There are flush toilets, a souvenir shop, a concession stand that serves beer (this is Wisconsin after all), a beach, and many picnic areas near the lot.

External Links

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