BARABOO — Wisconsin doesn’t have a national park.
The closest we come is the Apostle Islands National Lake Shore, 21 islands in Lake Superior and 12 miles of mainland near Bayfield.
We also have the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and the St. Croix National Scenic River.
But one of the state’s oldest state parks would have no problem fitting in with the likes of Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
Devil’s Lake State Park is the largest and busiest park in the state and one of the most attended in the country. It’s also celebrating its 100th birthday.
“There are not a lot of places like this,” said Steve Schmelzer, the park’s superintendent since 2007. He has worked at the park since 1992. “But we have capacity issues. We want to protect the park and have it available for future generations.”
If the 10,000 acres were a national park, its 1.8 million annual visitors would be ranked 12th in attendance between Glacier National Park (2.2 million) in Montana and Joshua Tree National Park (1.4 million) in California, according to National Park Service data.
Simply put, Devil’s Lake is a state park of national quality but one we call our own.
It’s the state’s third oldest state park behind Interstate (1900) near St. Croix Falls and Peninsula (1909) in Door County. Wyalusing, near Prairie du Chien, is the fourth oldest, founded in 1917.
Devil’s Lake reminds me of a shrunken version of Yosemite National Park in northern California.
The towering bluffs at Devil’s Lake draw climbers from around the Midwest. Scuba divers, snorkelers and swimmers relish the clear water, while anglers are drawn to the bass, northern pike and brown trout that inhabit the 374-acre spring-fed lake. There are 407 campsites, nine group sites and 22 miles of hiking trails.
On weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it’s not uncommon for the 1,300 day-use parking spots and 1,300 picnic tables to be claimed by early afternoon by day-trippers from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago.
International visitors are not uncommon.
Sounds a lot like Yosemite to me, only, unlike at Yosemite, bear bins aren’t required to store your food.
Schmelzer, a Madison native and West High School graduate, is trying to encourage more people to use the park outside of the peak hours, typically Saturdays and Sundays between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Angela Collins has been following that advice for the last five years.
The mother of three boys who lives in Hatley, east of Wausau, didn’t get around to reserving a campsite this year, so when it came time for the first one of her family’s twice-a-year treks to the park, Collins drove the 110 miles from her home in Marathon County, hoping for the best. Of course, she and her boys, ages 14, 12 and 10, her boyfriend and her mother, also increased their odds by arriving on Sunday afternoon when many campers were packing up for home. That allowed them to nab one of the first-come, non-reservable sites.
“I can’t believe we got one,” Collins, 36, said Wednesday while waiting out the rain under a tarp on site 121 in the Northern Lights Campground. “We always come down during the week. The weekends are too busy.”
There is talk of adding 25 more campsites and 2,000 acres of land along the west and north boundaries. That land was recently purchased by the state.
Another 4,000 acres could someday be added to the south on what is now the decommissioned Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Schmelzer points out that Gov. Dodge State Park north of Dodgeville covers 5,300 acres.
“The state’s probably never going to have the opportunity again to have 4,000 acres available in southern Wisconsin,” Schmelzer said.
But the pressure on the park isn’t just from outdoor lovers.
Budgets have been reduced along with employees. Volunteers are relied upon to help clean fire rings and wack weeds.
The Friends of Devil’s Lake State Park makes regular donations from its $400,000 endowment, and members have restored several buildings in the park, helped with invasive species and sponsored programs.
The Devil’s Lake Concession Corp,, which has run the concession stand in the Chateau building on the North Shore since 1949, also is a contributor. Last year, for example, it donated $10,000 for gypsy moth spraying.
“We’re pretty much at the point now that we can’t take any further (budget) reductions,” Schmelzer said.
Before there were budgets for trails, shelters and campsites, there were private accommodations.
The first hotel was built in 1866. Others, all on the South Shore, followed, like the Kirkland Resort, Minniwauken House, Lake View Hotel and the Messenger Hotel and Resort. There was a vineyard, barber shop, grocery store and bowling alley.
Side-wheel, wood-burning steamers sailed the lake, and a rail line brought tourists who would stay at the resorts, according to park history.
The resorts began to fade in the early 1900s with the arrival of the automobile and, in 1911, the state made Devil’s Lake the third state park.
In 1924, annual attendance at Devil’s Lake had increased to 200,000. It went over 1 million in 1952.
Other items of note include a golf course from 1922 to 1961 on land that now is the Quartzite Campground. A Civilian Conservation Corps work camp based in the park built many of the structures from 1934 to 1941, including Schmelzer’s headquarters. Motorboats were banned from the lake in 1976.
For Collins, the mother of three who endured rain and a blown alternator in her camper, a trip to the park is always memorable. Her campsite was filled last week with inflatable tubes for swimming, a small boat with an electric trolling motor and a tangle of fishing poles. They also hiked and took in the attractions of Wisconsin Dells, finishing each night with a campfire. “It’s 100 percent amazing,” Collins said. “I can’t find a complaint.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.