Sunday, July 17, 2016

Trail heads to quiet beach at Wisconsin Dells

Birchcliff Beach, courtesy Amy Bayer, Flickr.
Topo map of Chapel Gorge Trail.

Chapel Gorge Trail
loops to river
near Upper Dells

Day hikers can head to a quiet beach in the gorge that makes up the Wisconsin Dells.

The Chapel Gorge Trail runs 2 miles through what may be Wisconsin’s most visited state natural area. Neighboring Wisconsin Dells is a major tourist destination, and the popular boat rides into the Dells of the Wisconsin River State Natural Area always generate pictures of the river gorge and its fantastical slot canyons, particularly Witches Gulch. The 1300-acre area is an oasis of Mother Nature in a region that is more akin to Disneyland meets P.T. Barnum.

The natural area’s cliffs are closed to rock climbing and the side canyons closed to hikers. The best way to see them is via one of the commercial boat tours. Still, one official trail does cut through the natural area, offering access to portions of the dells that most visitors don’t know even exist.

Ice Age flashfloods
To reach the hiking loop, from Wis. Hwys. 13/16/23 in downtown Wisconsin Dells, go north on River Road. After passing the Birchcliff Resort entrance road, turn left/west into a parking lot. The trail leaves from the lot’s west side.

The loop’s stem first crosses a hardwood forest then goes under a power line and back into a woods. After veering south then west, the trail splits. Go left/southwest, following a former service road.

Eventually the shaded path descends steeply down the cliff side and reaches the south side of small secluded Birchcliff Beach on the Wisconsin River. The beach marks a sandbar on a river bend.

From the beach, you can can see the sandstone cliffs to the north where the river enters The Narrows. The beautiful rock formations were formed when glacial meltwater at the end of the last ice age roared through the sandstone, which originally was sediment at the bottom of a shallow 500-million-year-old sea that hardened into rock over the eons.

Rare plants
Thanks to the range of exposure to sunlight and moisture availability, the gorge provides for a number of unique micro-ecosystems. Indeed, the cliff cudweed – a tiny aster – is found only in two places on Earth, and one of them is the gorge. Among the other rare plants are the fragrant fern, Lapland azalea, maidenhair spleenwort, round-stemmed false foxglove.

The sandy uplands above the gorge ecologically are a bit more like the rest of Wisconsin in the plant species it supports, but even here a range of forests can be found. Among them are dry oak/pine forests, an oak savanna, and a northern mesic woods that boasts hemlock, red oak and white pine.

After taking in the views, walk to the beach’s northern side and head northeast back into the woods. The trail climbs to the cliff top and at the Upper Dells swerves east.

Upon reaching the junction with the stem trail, go left/east onto it toward back to the parking lot.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.