Dells of Eau Claire County Park
All Wisconsinites should see the Dells of Eau Claire. After all, the state deemed them significant enough to be preserved as a state natural area. The park's name might confuse folks trying to locate it. This is not "the Dells" that are so well-known in Wisconsin; those Dells are located on the Wisconsin River and are surrounded by tourist traps. No, the Dells of Eau Claire are located on the Eau Claire River, just east of Wausau in Marathon County, which operates the campground, trails, and swim beach. The name "Eau Claire" can also add to the confusion—there is an Eau Claire County, the city of Eau Claire, and three Eau Claire rivers in Wisconsin. Regardless of the confusion, visiting this park is well worth your time. Visitors will see amazing rock formations surrounded by cascading water and unusual plants. This recreational development has enhanced the work of Mother Nature, making these dells easier for tent campers to enjoy.
I don't want to mislead you the natural landscape is the star of the show here. It was two million years in the making. The campground works, but it is no destination unto itself. It—like the rest of the park—is well kept, neat, and in good shape. Enter the campground, which is laid out in a loop. Pass the telephone, pump well, and vault toilets. The first 16 sites are equipped with electricity and are reservable. These smallish sites may contain pop-ups, but not a whole lot of big rigs will fit in. The first few sites on the inside of the loop are surrounded by forest but are open overhead where a telephone line cuts through the campground. The good sites begin with #8. If you want to reserve a site, go with #8, #9, or #10.
The loop curves around, and the sites become shaded and private. Grass and/or sand covers the campsite floors. Sites from #16-#26 are first come, first served and are as good and generally better than the reservable sites. However, this campground fills on holidays and nice summer weekends. The park manager lives on the premises during the camping season, enhancing campsite security, which can be questionable at some county parks.
Like much of the Wisconsin landscape, the dells themselves are of glacial origin. The frothy waters of the Eau Claire crash, twist, and work their way among broken boulders, outcrops, crags, and step-like platforms, forming waterfalls and cascades. Visitors hopping from rock to rock near the river will also notice "potholes," smooth depressions carved into the rock back when the glaciers were melting. Rock-hopping isn't the only thing you can do on your feet here. A network of interconnected trails has been laid out in this geologically significant valley. The High Bridge downstream from the Dells of Eau Claire enables hikers to make a loop through rich fern woods along both sides of the river. The forest's dark "fairyland" nature contrasts with rocky dells open to the sky overhead. The high ground is covered in pine. Even a short section of the Ice Age Trail passes through the Dells of Eau Claire. The entire trail network can be accessed directly from the campground.
One trail leads from the campground to the picnic area/swim beach on the banks of the Eau Claire River above the dells. A grassy lawn with both sun and shade stands above steps leading down to the beach. Changing rooms are conveniently close. The park urges campers to dip at the swim beach and not take their chances in the swiftly moving waters near the dells.
Another picnic area features a large playground for kids near some rustic-looking open-sided shelters. As you look around, you will agree this park is so well maintained that Marathon County should receive kudos. Remember, the natural scenery here outstrips any shortcomings the campground may have. So put the Dells of Eau Claire on your "must do" list of natural Wisconsin, now that you know where they are.
To get there: From downtown Wausau, take Franklin Street east and stay with it as it becomes County Road Z. Follow Franklin Street/County Road Z for 14.5 miles to County Road Y. Turn left on County Road Y and follow it for 1.7 miles to the park.
Address: Dells of Eau Claire County Park, 500 Forest Street, Wausau, WI 54403; (715) 261-1550
Open: May through October
Individual sites: 26
Fee: $9 per night, $3 electricity
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication