The Run Down
We're hitting the road for a weekend trip to Wisconsin. It starts with a 2.5 hour drive to Madison, Wisconsin which will be our home base for the weekend. After getting settled, the next part of the trip takes us less than an hour away for some serious hiking up a 500 foot bluff. After a day climbing boulders and hiking through woods, we reward ourselves with cheese and a bottle of wine on the hillside of a nearby vineyard.
1. Madison, WI
We’re using Madison as our home base for this weekend trip. For those of you who haven’t been, here is a super basic primer to help you figure out where you want to stay and hang out in the city.
Below is a map with 3 landmarks to get your bearings.
At the center is the Wisconsin Capital Building which is the tallest building in the city and useful marker to look to if you get turned around. The main commercial center is along State Street. For a quieter neighborhood, but still reasonably close to the action, head over to Williamson Street (aka Willy Street). A bit more about State and Willy Street below.
This is the most commercial district Madison. At one end of the street is the Capitol Building and at the other end is the University of Wisconsin campus. In between is a half-mile stretch that, while gobbled up by a fair amount of big box stores, is still filled with plenty of local coffee shops, boutiques, bookstores, bars, and restaurants. If you want to be at the center of all the action, find a hotel or vacation rental near here.
Williamson Street, otherwise known as Willy Street among locals, has a history of being known as a funky, hippy neighborhood. “Keep Willy Street Weird” is common catchphrase used by some locals if that gives you any indication of the vibe. This area is about a good 2 miles from State Street. It’s a mix of residential homes with an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants sprinkled in.
We opted to stay in this area because it was a bit cheaper, close enough to State Street if we wanted to go down there, but most importantly, it kept us within walking distance to Old Sugar Distillery.
This is a whiskey distillery and taproom just off of Willy Street. It’s housed in a commercial warehouse with their taproom and distilling operations all in the same room. Vats and whiskey barrels line the walls with a bar in the center.
They’ve got 5 different mainstay spirits on the menu and a customized cocktail menu highlighting each one. Here’s a drink to welcome yourself to Madison. It’s called the Honey Cap and it’s honey mixed with lime juice, muddled lime, their Honey Liqueur, and some soda water and ice to top it off.
2. Devil’s Lake State Park
We’re onto the main event for this guide. About an hour north of Madison is Devil’s Lake State Park. It covers over 9,200 acres and has 29 miles of trails for you to explore. We’re only covering a small portion of that, but what we are covering will take you straight up a 500 foot bluff with some serious views of the lake and the valley below. Here are some logistics notes.
– We’re starting at Balanced Rock Trail and the trailhead is located at the southern end of the park.
– There is a parking lot close to the trailhead. Non-residents need to pay a $16 fee to park.
– Cellphone service is very spotty. While you can randomly pick up a signal, it’s best not to expect service.
From the parking lot, you’re a quick walk to the trailhead. If you hit these train tracks, you’re going in right direction. Cross over them and follow the path to get to the start of the Balance Rock Trail. By the way, these train tracks double as a walking trail that follow along the eastern edge of the lake.
This is the starting point of the Balance Rock Trail. It’s rated as the most difficult trail to hike, because it’s steep and you’re climbing up giant stone steps which can sometimes be uneven. The total length is around 1/2 mile, but it will take you a good 20-30 minutes to go up.
Here’s a screenshot of a map to give you a sense of where we are and the route we’re taking. Once you get to the top of the Balanced Rock Trail, it connects to a network of different trails. We’re going to follow the yellow highlighted path which hugs the edge of the bluffs overlooking the valley below. At the end of the yellow highlighted path is the CCC trail. It’s our way down off the bluff and back to our car. Similar to the Balanced Rock Trail, it’s a steep and rocky climb down to the bottom.
If you’re looking for an alternative starting point, but want to get to the same views, you’ll need to start at the northern end of the lake at East Bluff trailhead and work you’re way south. You’re hiking a longer distance, but path is more flat and you won’t need to scale many giant boulders. This is a shot of different groups scaling up Balanced Rock Trail. On warm weather days the trail can get a bit crowded with people coming up and down through the same narrow passages.
Once you get to the top of the bluff, the trail levels out and all your hard work is rewarded with sweeping views of the valley. From the top of the bluff, head east and follow the trail along the edge of the cliffs. This particular area is a prime spot for climbers. These climbers carried up crash pads and found a corner spot along the trail to do some bouldering.Along the way, we also ran into groups of climbers that were scaling down the side of the bluffs. If you want to make your trip an XXTREME trip, there are top-rope climbing guides that will take you out here and get you set up to rappel down the side. If you want to keep going, we’ve only covered about 2 miles of the 29 miles of hiking inside this park. There are whole series of interconnected trails that branch off from here. There’s also the west side of the lake that has its own network of hiking paths.
3. Wollersheim Winery & Distillery
After a long day of hiking, we’re rewarding ourselves by sitting on the hillside of a vineyard and drinking wine and eating cheese.
About a 20 minute drive from Devil’s Lake, and on the way back to Madison, is a winery hidden off the side of a small two lane highway. We didn’t have this as part of our original plan. We decided to take a scenic route back to Madison and just happened to catch the sign for this place as we drove by, and I’m glad we did.
From the highway, you’re just passing through farmland after farmland and you wouldn’t expect much of anything around here. But when you pull onto the grounds of Wollersheim Winery, it opens up to a beautifully manicured estate with both a distillery and winery for you to check out. A walking path takes you up to the winery that was initially constructed in 1840 by Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman who discovered this sloped land that was well-suited for growing grapes. It was eventually bought by the Wollersheim family in 1972 and it remains in the family today.
Pictured above is the winery on the left and a small bistro on the right. The winery is their retail space where you can pick up bottles of their wines and a selection of cheese, crackers and other other snacks to accompany your haul.
The bistro is a casual, order at the counter kitchen with French and locally inspired fare on the menu like flatbread, baguettes, and quiches. You can also order wine by the glass here too. Take your wine and back outside to their courtyard that they’ve built into the side of the sloped hill where they plant their grape vines. Tables are first come, first served and you seat yourself. Here’s the best seat in the house. As the sun sets signaling an to end our day, it also signals an end to this guide.