Wisconsin is actually chock full of small little canyons if you know where to look. Sure, we’re not talking giant chasms, but with the glacier that moved through the area and centuries of rivers running through sand- and limestone, there’s plenty of interesting spots to find. And while they’re undoubtedly beautiful and interesting to look at, they’re even more interesting to learn about. Earth that has been worn away by water is laid bare to show a record of it’s history. Every slab and layer tells us what happened in that area and how it came to be formed the way we see it now. Wisconsin’s canyons are totally worth getting out to explore …
During these uncertain times, please keep safety in mind and consider adding destinations to your bucket list to visit at a later date.
1. Apple River Canyon - Somerset
This spot has been designated a state natural area since 1978. Apple River Canyon is a deep, narrow gorge along the Apple River about two miles upstream from its confluence with the St. Croix River. Here the Apple River is just a shallow stream with high cliffs on both sides. It's just south of a glacial lake and was likely formed by the drainage of that lake. Per the nDNR, looking closely at the layers of the canyon walls shows thin layers of glacial outwash and Oneota dolomite (Ordovician), a massive layer of Jordan sandstone (Cambrian), Lodi shale (Cambrian), Nicollet Creek dolomite (Cambrian), and Franconia sandstone (Cambrian).
2. Echo Canyon - St. Croix Falls
Located in Interstate Park, Echo Canyon is an extinct riverbed carved by glacial melting. The cliff walls here are so steep that they trip and cool area, causing this part of the park to be a totally different temperature.
3. Lost Canyon - Wisconsin Dells
This is the longest and deepest land canyon in Wisconsin. The canyon can be rather narrow in places and the walls seem to sheer off up towards the sky. It's said the deepest parts of the canyon haven't been touched by the sun in thousands of years.
4. Dalles of the St. Croix River - St. Croix
Interstate State Park is full of canyons cut by glaicial meltwater. This is one of the most geologically interesting areas of the state because melting glacial waters were met with volcanic basalt and that caved out the Dalles, an L-shaped shot along the St. Croix. The rock is pre-Cambrian, meaning it's at least 500 million years old.
Cliffs are up to 80-feet here and Summit Rock is the highest point.
5. Copper Falls State Park - Mellen
Though we rarely call this a canyon, choosing to focus on the waterfall, there's definitely sheered walls of rock that have been cut away by millions of year of flowing water. There are ancient lava flows to be seen as well as deep gorges cut away by the Bad River. Eons ago, this area was greenstone and granite mountains. That was covered by lava and eventually water that brought sediment that became sandstone. Most recently, glacier deposited silt and mud from Canada, as well as red clay. There's a full history to be told through the different layers of rock that lay along the river in this park.
6. Apostle Islands - Bayfield
We don't tend to think of the caves as canyons, but they follow the same principles, just sort of in reverse. Here the sandstone has been carved into arches and caves by the beating waters of Lake Superior from below. The cliffs here were formed by sediment that came in small, braided rivers from Minnesota.
7. Parfrey's Glen - Merrimac
This unique and stunning spot was Wisconsin's first State Natural Area. It's a spectacular and deep gorge on the south flank of the Baraboo Hills. Most of the walls are made of sandstone dating back around 500 million years. According to the DNR, these ancient hills are formed of quartzite rock, which consists of grains of sand tightly cemented together. The small creek that runs through here used to be a much larger river. Ancient seas deposited silt here and the glaciers helped compress it into quartzite.
8. Dells of the Eau Claire - Aniwa
Other parts of the Eau Claire River run smoothly through the state, but here, the Dells protect a scenic, narrow rocky gorge and waterfalls. Over the course of time, the bedrock here tilted, creating nearly vertical rock walls that split and cleave along straight planes, creating a bumpy, but beautiful part of the state. According to the DNR, the rock here is rhyolite schist, a very hard rock that formed through metamorphosis and later tilted here to a nearly vertical position.
9. Pewit's Nest - Baraboo
Formed by glacial retreat, the gorge here is 30-40 feet deep. According to the DNR, when Glacial Lake Baraboo drained, Skillet Creek cut a narrow canyon through the Cambrian sandstone, forming a series of potholes and low waterfalls. The layers of Cambrian sandstone show that a finer-grained sediment was laid down by the Cambrian seas "inside" the syncline, a process different from that at Parfrey's Glen where coarser Cambrian conglomerates and sandstones are found in layers.
10. Witch's Gulch - Wisconsin Dells
Best described as a slot canyon (a gulch is actually a deep V-shaped valley formed by erosion), Witch's Gulch is amazing because of how narrow it is. At times, your eyes will think there is no room for you to get through and you'll be able to touch both sides with your arms outstretched. Formed by a tributary of the Wisconsin River, the rocks are worn away in the twisting, winding pattern of the water as it heads to the Wisconsin River. Accessible only by boat tour, Witch's Gulch also has one of the best natural beaches in the state.
11. The Dells of the Wisconsin - Wisconsin Dells
Few folks think about why this summer fun mecca has the name it does. Dells comes from the French word "Dalles" which means narrows. There is a 5-mile gorge along this part of the Wisconsin River that gave the area it's name. With cliff faces up to 100 feet tall and tons of tributary streams and canyons, there's nothing but nooks and crannies and layers of Cambrian sandstone to be seen.
Are there other Wisconsin canyons you love to visit? Let us know about them in the comments?