You can, of course, go to a waterpark. And if you are at all able-bodied, you should. But do it on a weekday. Add a Thursday or a Monday onto your long weekend as a waterpark day. It's not as if you'll find solitude on the lazy river, but the lines might be more manageable.
This particular visit to the Wisconsin Dells presumes a little nostalgia, some state pride and a healthy dose of adventure, coupled with a back-to-basics philosophy.
Approach the Dells the old-fashioned way, on Highway 12. This route isn't longer than taking I-90 and may be faster for those leaving from the west side of Madison. Bonus: Highway 12 goes through the scenic Baraboo Hills, and a brief detour to Baraboo's courthouse square for lunch at the Little Village Cafe is in order. Little Village once was on King Street in Madison, where Natt Spil is now located. Refresh your memory of the Cajun chicken soup or the jerk chicken burrito in this eclectically decorated former soda fountain. Baraboo is also where you'll get your art fix, across the square at the Cornerstone Gallery, which features the work of local artists.
This approach works out perfectly for a mid-afternoon arrival at your motel. Winter is the time to stay at the waterpark hotel that is like a city-state. Summer is the time to scale down and opt for something that has minimal hallways, and maybe even a sandy beach on Lake Delton, like the Sandrift Resort. Baker's Sunset Bay has nightly campfires on its sandy beach.
There's time to squeeze in a visit to the Port Huron Brewery, where a sampler flight in the taproom will introduce their four beers while providing a window into the brewery itself. Full tours on Fridays take place at 4 and 6 p.m. (Saturday tours are also available.)
Then make the short trip back downtown for an early evening Upper Dells Boat Tour. In summer, the last tour heads out at 7 p.m. (tours leave every 30-45 minutes starting at 10 a.m.). There is the option of the sunset dinner cruise (reservations suggested), but that trip makes only one stop, to mossy, ferny Witches Gulch; the regular trip includes a second stop at Stand Rock. I would pick Stand Rock over dinner -- dinner you can have anywhere. When's the next time you can access Stand Rock?
There's a third Upper Dells tour option this summer: "Ghost Boat, Journey into Haunted Canyon," which leaves at 8:15 p.m. and makes only one stop -- but it's at Coldwater Canyon, no longer a regular port of call for Dells Boat trips. Ghost Boat is the only way to see the historic stone pavilion, which is now rented out for events -- the only way, that is, unless you're invited to a wedding there.
Grab a light breakfast before heading out to enjoy some of the new adventure sports that are slowly taking over from the reign of the go-kart. Vertical Illusions offers zip-line courses, rock climbing, paddle boarding and guided kayak tours of the Wisconsin River. The climbing and zip lines take place at Chimney Rock Park, a private natural area owned by Vertical Illusions. A zip-line tour starts with a hike up to the top of Chimney Rock; add on a one-hour rock climb and finish with a paddleboard lesson at the park's beach. Or opt for the two-hour Heart of the Dells kayak cave, cove and canyon tour, on the Wisconsin River, offered only at 8 a.m.
The three-hour kayak tours are at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. All tours are best booked in advance through the Vertical Illusions website.
Depending on your morning schedule, you may finish in time to catch the 2 p.m. Paul Bunyan's Northwoods Lumberjack Show, entertainment new to the Dells at this longtime all-you-can-eat buffet spot. The lumberjack show, which Wisconsin vacationers may have seen before up north in Hayward or Woodruff, demands skill from the participants in events such as standing block chop, Jack and Jill crosscut sawing, speed climbing and log rolling, among others. The show recalls the Dells' history, as logs used to be rafted down the Wisconsin River past, as it was then known, Kilbourn City.
Tidy up for dinner at one of the area's classy vintage supper clubs, the Del-Bar or Ishnala.
There are time-honored activities in the Dells that you do because you always do them, or because you haven't done them since you were a kid. File the Tommy Bartlett Ski Show under this category. There's little better to encourage the midcentury tourism mindset than a Tommy Bartlett waterski show, performing in the Dells since 1952. Bartlett is credited with bringing more widespread popularity to the niche sport of waterskiing, as well as a new style of tourism to the Dells. The show itself, with skiing, juggling and clowning, can seem like Ed Sullivan on water, capped off with the night show's colored dancing water finale.
Everyone has a certain summer tourist activity that is unaccountably near and dear to her heart. Time to squeeze in at least one round of mini-golf. Courses abound in the Dells, but Timber Falls features shade trees -- a crucial fact that's mentioned prominently on its website. Located downtown near the Wisconsin River bridge, it does boast some holes with views of the water.
As you head out of town, stop in to Parson's Indian Trading Post, a longstanding souvenir shop that sells Native American jewelry, beads and artwork along with T-shirts, back scratchers, cedar toothpick holders and maybe even Mexican jumping beans.
Heading back out of Lake Delton to the south, take the brief side tour to Mirror Lake State Park. Hike around the lake, go swimming at the sandy beach, or rent Trek mountain bikes, kayaks, canoes or paddleboats.
And if your timing's right, you can take in a landmark by a great Wisconsin architect. The park's Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Seth Peterson Cottage is open to tours the second Sunday of each month from 1 to 3:30 p.m.
Little Village Cafe
146 4th Ave., Baraboo
101 4th St., Baraboo
1080 E. Hiawatha Dr., Wisconsin Dells
Baker's Sunset Bay Resort
921 Canyon Rd., Wisconsin Dells
Port Huron Brewing Company
805 Business Park Rd., Wisconsin Dells
Tap Room currently open Friday 3-9 pm and Saturday 2-9 pm. Tours are Fridays 4 & 6 pm, Saturdays 2:30 & 4:30 pm.
Wisconsin Dells Boat Tours
107 Broadway, Wisconsin Dells
Paul Bunyan's Northwoods Lumberjack Show
411 State Hwy. 13, Wisconsin Dells
800 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Lake Delton
S2011 Ishnala Rd., Lake Delton
Tommy Bartlett Show
560 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Wisconsin Dells
Stand Rock Road and Broadway at the Wisconsin River Bridge
Parsons Indian Trading Post
370 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., Wisconsin Dells
Mirror Lake State Park
E10320 Fern Dell Rd., Baraboo