The Wisconsin Dells - Cars, Trains & Ducks

Rarely do I need to look for a reason for a vacation or a "getaway" -- although I could easily find one if I needed... And not unlike a fair number of you, I believe that a plan is necessary.

Wisconsin Dells scenery

After all, a lot of the fun is in the planning of an event -- especially if it involves time away from the everyday grind. Planning heightens the anticipation; planning makes for a smooth and more worry-free event.

But sometimes -- every now and then -- the spontaneity factor can be a whole lot of fun as well. Heidi and I had one of those moments recently. And I wanted to tell you about it, simply because it can also serve as a planned event, as I am aware that for those of you with families, spontaneous isn't always that easy. In that case, planning is definitely a must.

Our discussion started as a simple question: Is there a place fairly close by where we can go fishing for a day? The answer seemed obvious enough; there are a great many places that could fill the bill.

But going is one thing; going to someplace new -- where I am not familiar with the lake -- is quite another... What started as a short fishing trip ended as a totally different, and very fun, affair. We decided to simply go scout out a lake not far from a familiar destination and return again at a later date to fish...

Suddenly Heidi said: "Why don't we go just for fun and spend the night - we can go have dinner at that little place where you once had a blue gill fish fry?" Well, she had said the magic words and suddenly we were packing to leave in the morning. Our destination? Wisconsin Dells!

Mid-Continent Railway Museum

The Dells is another place that I have driven past on numerous occasions (like every time I head north on a fishing trip), but have stopped at only two or three times.  I am aware that the place is the ultimate water park destination, but I found out that there are plenty of other things to do in the immediate area as well. 

Our little getaway was decidedly short, but we had a great time nonetheless.  We left early on a Wednesday morning and headed straight for a town called North Freedom, Wisconsin, home of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. 

North Freedom is just six miles west of Baraboo (about a half-hour from the Dells), just off Highway 136 on County PF, and it appeared as if a blink of the eye might cause one to miss it altogether.  Our plan was to visit the railroad museum there and to take a ride on the 1900-era train cars pulled by a diesel locomotive. 

I felt a bit like I had been transported to the set of the Wild, Wild West TV show.  Perhaps it is left over from my fascination with trains as a kid or perhaps I never grew up, but I have always liked trains and I think that this is one of those places that kids of all ages can enjoy.

Coupling cars at Mid Continent Railway Museum

The ride itself takes only about 50 minutes on an old spur of the Chicago and North Western Railway through rural Sauk County, but there is far more than just the ride to enjoy. There is the feeling of being transported back in time to a simpler life, and there is the history and other information provided by the volunteer conductors and there is the peacefulness of the open space. 

And of course there is the museum itself, where dozens of old rail cars, freight cars, cabooses and steam locomotives are in various stages of restoration - all very cool!  (Keep in mind that all of the work here is done by volunteers; if you are really into trains and can help out, I'm sure that your efforts would be welcomed) There is a nice gift shop and picnic area there, or you could - as we did - enjoy lunch in North Freedom at the Carol's Railroad Inn Cafe.

Great home cooking at really great prices!  There are also special events like the Autumn Color Weekends, the Pumpkin Special, Snow Train and Santa Express.  Or, enjoy an evening of fine dining, a multi-course meal and a three-hour experience in one of the vintage First Class cars built in 1914.  Now there is an evening that I want to try!

Photo Courtesy Mid-Continent Railway Museum

Prices are very reasonable for the experience and for a bit extra, you can ride in the caboose and even on the locomotive.  But don't be late for your trip, 'cause this train leaves promptly at the times scheduled... the good news is that there are three to five trains that depart, depending on the day. Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society is a non-profit organization.  Check with them for details about trips, charters, special events and dining service:

We left New Freedom and headed straight for our hotel.  There are an incredible number of places to stay in and around the Dells; we had decided to request an early check-in at the Hilton Garden Inn.  Almost immediately we headed for the Dells boat tours. 

Photo Coutesy Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau

Looking at the possibilities sent my head spinning.  There are scenic tours, jet-boat tours or tours on the Ducks, Upper Dells, Lower Dells or the "Complete Tour", which is a combination of all three, can be done...  We decided to forgo the package and accompanying savings and just take a ride on the Original Wisconsin Duck.

Now these babies are the originals from WW II:

 "Their finest moment was D-Day, June 6, 1944, when more than 2,000 Ducks were used to transport troops and supplies at Normandy. It was touted as the greatest amphibious operation in history as Ducks allowed the Allies to make a beachhead on the rugged shores of northern France under heavy enemy resistance." (From the Original Wisconsin Ducks website)
Photo Coutesy Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau

I'm sure that a lot of you who read this will have already taken the ride that is truly over the hills and through the woods and into the waters of the Wisconsin River... but for those of you who have not, I strongly urge you to go do this.  It is an 8 1/2 mile, 1-hour trip with plenty of great scenery, breathtaking views, excitement, history and fun (especially the plunges into the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton!).

A view from inside the Duck

We probably had time for more, but we wanted to relax a bit before dinner.  If you really want to pack in the fun, there are water parks galore, Tommy Bartlett's Show, wildlife parks, tours, golf (mini and regular courses are everywhere) fishing, Ripley's Believe it or Not, theater, dinner shows, museums, festivals...

Well, I could name another 50 things to do and still have more, but I think you get the idea.  The neat thing is that, in the Wisconsin Dells Travel and Attraction Guide, there are things for families to do, things for "grown-ups" to do, things for groups to do and things for just about everyone to do - no matter what your taste or desire.  My desire for the moment was to relax in the shade of an umbrella and sip a cocktail before dinner...

After a refreshing shower, we dressed and headed east about 10 miles on Highway 23 (just outside of Briggsville) to one of the best little dinner venues Wisconsin has to offer. A local had let the secret out to me many years ago and I had not been back for about six years, so I was really looking forward to it. It was about 7:00 when we pulled in to the parking lot.

Only one car was there and I was afraid that the place was closed. Apparently the secret is a well-kept one... The Cove Supper Club was open, it just wasn't at all busy. We were seated at a table overlooking Lake Mason and ordered a cocktail while we checked out the menu. I couldn't believe my eyes... there on the menu was Walleye Cheeks - not only as an appetizer but as a dinner entree as well!

Heidi an I split the appetizer version, I ordered my favorite: Blue Gills (all you can eat!) and Heidi chose the Cod. It was a quiet evening - no one else ever came in - and we thoroughly enjoyed our dinners. This is a fabulous little spot and if you are in the area, you just have to stop. I guess the secret is no longer a secret... but just promise not to tell anyone else.

We left The Cove more than full and certainly content; we also slept through the night like children.  On the way back home, we talked about our mini getaway and about how much fun and how relaxing it had been. For a true spur of the moment thing, it felt good.

Sure, we put off some chores and other things that needed our attention. But sometimes you just gotta say, what the heck! The Dells are so close by - perhaps that is one of the reasons that the area is always hoppin'. But another plus is that the gas tank still had a little left when we arrived back home. With today's prices being more travel-friendly, the Dells just might get even busier.

So if you are looking for a great little getaway idea - either as a "spontaneity check" or as a planned event, consider a short car ride, followed by a ride on a train and one on a Duck. It is good fun on less than a tank of gas, and there is more to see than one could ever do in a weekend. I think that I will be going back again soon!

R. Karl

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