Whooping crane at the International Crane Foundation, located in Baraboo near Wisconsin Dells (Alistair Wearmouth)

Raildog hot dog stand in Wisconsin Dells (Alistair Wearmouth)

Boat tour through Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Department of Tourism)

Kalahari water park in Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau)

Lost Rios water park at Chula Vista Resort, Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau)

Lost Canyon Tours, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin (Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau)

Original Wisconsin Ducks tour in Wisconsin Dells (Alistair Wearmouth)


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What to do in Wisconsin Dells

On first impression, Wisconsin Dells is a little like dropping down the rabbit hole into an Alice in Wonderland fantasyland of swooping roller coasters, colorful waterslides, and surreal re-creations of historic landmarks including Rome's Colosseum and the White House…upside down, after some sort of apocalyptic event. Classic Old World architecture and culture it's not, but this popular summer resort very quickly lives up to its fun-filled promise.

With more than 20 of them, Wisconsin Dells bills itself as "The Water Park Capital of the World" and has the largest indoor and outdoor water parks in the country. First piece of advice? Don't feel pressure to hit 'em all. Pick a place with the appropriate mix of slides, pools, and activities for your group's various ages and swimming abilities (not to mention the best rates). Mega-resorts including Chula Vista Resort and Kalahari Resort offer guests complimentary access to their sprawling aquazones, but non-guests can also gain entry with daily or seasonal passes.

In your quest to drench yourself in at least some of the Dells' 16 million gallons of man-made H20-soaked action, don't overlook the natural fun on Lake Delton and at nearby Devil's Lake and Mirror Lake state parks. Each summer, Lake Delton is a hive of waterborne activity, with waterskiing, parasailing, sailing, fishing, canoeing, and just plain ol' relaxing. Devil's Lake and Mirror Lake each offer a more tranquil respite a few miles south of town, places perfect for packing a picnic, hiking, biking, fishing, and swimming. Given the pristine natural location amid glacier-carved bluffs and glades, camping is a great way to enjoy the outdoors here. Choose from 18 campgrounds stocked with nearly 3,200 campsites, including six campgrounds in the two area state parks.

There are dozens of indoor and outdoor attractions in Wisconsin Dells, from adrenaline-fueled jet-boat rides to more quirky things like putt-putt golf and haunted houses. The Wisconsin Ducks are probably the Dells' most ubiquitous attraction (seven-ton WWII-era amphibious landing craft are hard to miss). The Original Wisconsin Ducks offers a fun one-hour tour along the company's proprietary "Duck Trails," during which you also splash in and out of the Wisconsin River and the recently replenished Lake Delton. Wisconsin Dells Army Ducks is another outfitter offering a similar experience. You can also explore the fern-filled gullies between Lake Delton and the snaking Wisconsin River on a horse-drawn carriage tour with Lost Canyon Tours (pack a picnic and enjoy lunch at the company's private beach area afterward).

Our vote for best Wisconsin Dells attraction goes to a place that's actually located a few miles out of town in nearby Baraboo. Here you'll find the headquarters of the International Crane Foundation, the only place in the world where you can see all 15 species of crane, including the endangered whooping crane and the red-crowned crane. Visiting with kids can be a vivid reminder that some of these species might not be around when your children become adults. Plus, it offers a natural counterpoint to some of the tackier artificial entertainment just up the road.

You won't go hungry in Wisconsin Dells, though you might get sick of pizza, burgers, ice cream, and other standard road-trip fare. For a nice break from the ubiquitous fast-food chains, stop by The Cheese Factory Restaurant on the Wisconsin Dells Parkway for home-comfort cooking as well as treats like brimming sundaes and old-school malt shakes. It might be a vegetarian restaurant, but the food here is as filling and wholesome as any carnivorous joint, if not more. The kid's menu keeps things simple yet fun (PB&J, quesadillas, pasta with red sauce), while "grown-up" offerings run the gamut from mouthwatering omelets to a fantastic East Meets West chickpea stew.

Speaking of fast food, however, the Rail Dog in Wisconsin Dells' downtown River District is the place for real hot dogs. Served out of a bright-orange 1950s rail caboose, take your pick from Vienna beef sausages, Polish sausages, or the signature Polish taco. Picnic tables outside make for an easy and refreshing lunch stop.