Car Free Journey

Car Free Journey: Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Wisconsin River. Used with permission of WDVCB
Written by Steve Atlas

When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, one of my few regrets was that I never was able to visit Wisconsin Dells to explore the Wisconsin River with its famed Dells, and walk around the town. Since I didn’t have a car, and Amtrak didn’t stop in Madison, this was a desire that I could never satisfy.

Fortunately, you don’t need to have the same problem today. Both Amtrak’s Empire Builder and the Greyhound bus stop in downtown Wisconsin Dells. Even if you fly into Dane County Airport in Madison, Dane County Transit has a bus (Route 20) with a connection to downtown Madison. From there, it is just a one-hour bus ride on Greyhound to Wisconsin Dells, and the cost is less than $20 each way. (You can also take Greyhound or Amtrak from either Chicago or Milwaukee.)

Today, you can enjoy not only a boat ride on the Wisconsin River. You can hike in several nearby state parks, or the Scenic River Walk. And don’t forget to take time to visit one or more of the town’s waterparks. After all, Wisconsin Dells prides itself as being “The Waterparks Capital of the World. ®”

Let’s begin this month’s Car Free Journey to Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.

Today’s column includes suggestions from the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau (WDVCB).  We will also include many tips and recommendations from local photographer Joseph Leute. Joe is a freelance photographer who makes his home base a cottage perched above Mirror Lake in central Wisconsin. He grew up at his family’s resort on the Wisconsin River. As a child he took off for the woods and the bluffs whenever he could. That wanderlust never left, as he travels the Midwest, the U.S. and the world to capture images for clients in the travel and tourism industries. Little adventures still rule his life. Joe’s comments and suggestions will be in italics.

Whats Special about Wisconsin Dells?
Wisconsin Dells is well known as “The Waterpark Capital of the World!” But there is much more to experience during your visit here. Joe Leute tells us, I believe we have the greatest landscape east of the Rocky Mountains. In fact back in the day of predominantly train travel, this is what lured people to our area.  The river is a stone’s throw from the Amtrak stop. You can hop on a Dells Tour boat within minutes and see the sandstone cliffs of the river.

Wisconsin River. Used with permission of WDVCB

Wisconsin Dells has no public transportation. However, the town is very walkable, and both the Amtrak train and Greyhound bus stop in or near downtown.

Joe Leute thinks his community is a great vacation choice for walkers. The train stops in the heart of our downtown. You can enjoy great restaurants like High Rock Cafe or grab a Wisconsin famous burger from Monk’s Bar and Grille.  I travel for work and I have yet to eat a better burger. The streets are lined with candy shops and other nostalgic souvenirs.

“While you are here, I strongly recommend that you visit the HH Bennett museum. Bennett is considered a founding father of photography and has the first stop action picture ever taken (a man leaping Stand Rock).  H.H. made the Dells his home because of his fascination with the river and dedicated most of his work to photographing it. The work is stunning even when held up against today’s best landscape photographers.  In fact, it was H.H. Bennett who used his river images to captivate train travelers from Chicago.  

“If you don’t have time for a Dells Boat Tour (the historic building is literally one of the first things you see when you exit the train), you can still wander down the river walk that winds along the edge of the river.”

If you are considering a visit here, Joe suggests coming anytime between late spring and fall. If you come during fall, it is still comfortable enough outside to walk. The boat tours are still operating, and the trees might have color.

According to the CVB, Wisconsin Dells is a good choice for families and adults without children. Families should take time to enjoy at least one of the many waterparks here. Adults without kids can enjoy local nightlife, gaming, spas, hiking, and golf while visiting.

Joe adds, “We are considered a family destination because of the expansive waterparks and other attractions that are especially fun for youngsters. Couples and single adults without children can find quiet time at Sundara Spa, and enjoy a meal out at one of our authentic Wisconsin supper clubs. All can enjoy our natural beauty by getting out on a hiking trail along the Wisconsin River or Mirror Lake.”

Getting Here
Train and bus travelers are fortunate. Both Amtrak and Greyhound stop downtown. Amtrak’s Empire builder train stops here westbound (from Chicago and Milwaukee) every day at 5:49 p.m., while the eastbound train (from Spokane, Fargo, and Minneapolis/St. Paul) stops at 12:08 p.m. daily.

Greyhound buses come here from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison (WI). (You can connect from any city that Greyhound serves. Go do for details and specific schedules and fares.

Air travelers can also get here, although it is a little more difficult. American, Delta, Frontier, and United fly into Dane County Regional Airport, near Madison. For schedules and other information visit

From the Airport, take Metro Transit’s Route 20 bus (one way fare is $2, $1 for seniors 65 and older and persons with disabilities, and $1.25 for students in high school and anyone age 17 or younger) to the North Transfer Stop and transfer (free) to Routes 2 or 4 to downtown Madison. From the stop at State and Lake Streets, it’s a one-block walk to the Greyhound station. For schedule and fare information for Metro Transit, visit or call (608) 266-4466.  When we checked online, we found that buses from Madison to Wisconsin Dells leave at 10:30 a.m. and 8:15 p.m. Returning, buses leave Wisconsin Dells at 5:05 p.m. The one-way trip takes about an hour, and the one-way fare is less than $20. (Before you go, verify schedules and fare information for Greyhound bus at

Where to Stay
The following hotels that are right downtown are friendly mom-and-pop style motels.

The following resort is not downtown, but it has a shuttle that picks up guests from either Amtrak or Greyhound in downtown Wisconsin Dells:

  • Kalahari Resorts & Conventions The resort’s shuttle bus will pick up guests at Amtrak or Greyhound for free. The Kalahari shuttle will also drive you around Lake Delton, Wisconsin Dells and other nearby areas for a fee (ranging from $4 – $22 one way depending on the destination). To book the shuttle for either a pick up or drop off, call 608-254-5466 ext. 0 or 877-525-2427 ext. 0

     This resort has a sidewalk path for guests to walk to the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton. The distance is about a three-mile walk. The resort also has several restaurants, an AMC movie theatre, waterparks, a theme park, and a spa on its property.

Getting Around
Walking and local taxis are the only way to see Wisconsin Dells without a car. Fortunately, there are many hotels, restaurants, and attractions within walking distance of downtown where both Amtrak and Greyhound stop. According to the CVB, taxi fares to get around Wisconsin Dells range from $10-$20. To get to Baraboo, home of Devil’s Lake State Park and Circus World Museum, taxi fares range from $20-$30. Contact the following two taxi companies for details and specific rates:

  • A1 Wisconsin Dells Kangaroo Taxi – 608-432-4627.    Sun-Thurs: 8 a.m. – 2:30 a.m.; Fri & Sat: 8 a.m. – 3:30 a..m.
  • Wisconsin Dells Taxi – 608-253-7433.  Daily: 7am – 3am

What to Do
Since Wisconsin Dells is “The Waterpark Capital of the World,®” try to visit at least one waterpark. Some resorts limit their waterparks to resort guests. Fortunately, three waterparks offer day passes: Noah’s Ark Waterpark, Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park and Kalahari Resort Waterparks. These are not downtown, but Noah’s Ark Waterpark and Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park are walkable from the Amtrak station, maybe 10 minutes from downtown. 

Wilderness used with permission of WDVCB

While you are here, take advantage of the natural beauty. The scenic sandstone cliffs along the Wisconsin River are what first made the area famous 150 years ago, when visitors arrived in droves for rowboat and steamboat tours.

Now, Wisconsin Dells has double-decker tour boats, DUCK amphibious vehicles and even high-speed jet boats to see the scenery. Both Dells Boat Tours® ( or call 608-254-8555) and Jet Boat Adventures ( or call 608-254-8555) have downtown ticket offices and docks, and offer boat tours of the Upper and Lower Dells. If you enjoy natural beauty and want to see something truly special, make time to take at least one of these boat tours

Dells Boat Tour, used with permission of WDVCB

The Original Wisconsin Ducks® and Dells Army Ducks both have shuttles that you can jump on right downtown and take to their locations (which are probably a 10 minute walk from downtown).

Mini-golfing is a classic Wisconsin Dells activity. Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf  is just across the bridge from downtown (a 3-5 minute walk from the Amtrak station).

If you are spending a second day here, the CVB suggests checking out some of the animal attractions, such as Wisconsin Deer Park or Timbavati Wildlife Park.  Both are within walking distance of downtown.

Tommy Bartlett Show is a classic ski, sky and stage show. Though that is a bit farther of a walk (maybe 25+ minutes), it is usually on the lists of “must-dos” in Wisconsin Dells.

Explore Downtown Wisconsin Dells
The Scenic River Walk downtown is a great option. There are several overlooks along the ½ mile route with great spots to take some pictures. Take a few minutes to stop and visit the more quiet Bowman Park that is also located on Broadway.

H.H. Bennett Studio ( or call 608-wre-3523) is a Wisconsin Historic Site located downtown at 215 Broadway that showcases the equipment of famous landscape photographer Henry Hamilton Bennett. You can view many of his amazing photographs showcasing the rock formations along the river as well as the Ho-Chunk Indian culture.

High Rock Café ( or call 608-254-5677) is a great dining destination downtown. The owners, who are the head chefs, take great pride in creative cuisine. The restaurant features a second floor with atrium windows for some great people-watching while you eat.

For a list of local businesses and attractions that are located downtown or within walking distance of downtown, go to

Consider a Guided Tour around Downtown Wisconsin Dells
Dells Trolley Tours ( or call toll-free (608) 393-6008) is a new service that offers a variety of tours in the area – Historic City Tour, Winery Tour, Bloody Mary & Mimosa Tour, and Beer, Distillery & Food Pairing Tour.

Two Attractions that are Worth the Cost of a Taxi Ride
Both the VCB and Joe Leute highly recommend visiting Mirror Lake State Park (about $15 each way) ( or call 608-254-2333) Joe says, “This park has miles of rolling hiking trails. Trails will take you deep into the woods and also to the shores of the lake.  Kayak and stand up paddleboards are available for rent.   The famous Ishnala Supper Club ( or call 608-253-1771) is perched on the cliff over the water and can be accessed from the hiking trails.

While visiting the nearby town of Baraboo costs $20-$30 each way by taxi, two major attractions make the trip worthwhile:

  • Devils Lake State Park ( or call 608-356-8301): Joe Leute says, Devils Lake is spectacular. It is a 15mile drive from the Dells and worth the taxi ride fare to spend the day hiking.
  • Baraboo and Circus World Museum ( or call 608-356-8341): A 15-minute taxi ride will take you to Baraboo. This community to the south is famous for Circus World museum and was the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus. Circus World still has an active big top show in addition to the museum aspect. Baraboo’s downtown is quite charming.

Joe Leutes Tips for Visitors Who Dont Want to Drive
Here are Joe’s suggestions for visitors who don’t want to drive: Start by walking directly across the street from the train depot to Showboat Salon and grab a craft beer.  Then, have a burger for lunch at Monks. After lunch, do some window shopping along Broadway. One of my favorite stores is Winnebago Gift Shop.  Then walk across Broadway to the HH Bennett Museum to check out the photographs. If you feel up for some thrills, walk across the bridge at the end of Broadway and jump on the roller coaster or Flume ride at Timber Falls. While you are there, enjoy a game of miniature golfits right on the site. Finish the day off with a Sunset Dinner Cruise. You can enjoy this entire day on footno car is needed.  Dont forget a night cap back at either Showboat or The Keg while you take in the live music.

One of my favorite shops is the Winnebago Gift Shop. It’s been family run since 1949 and is known for its quality finds and Minnetonka Moccasins.

If you are seeking some thrills, walk or take a taxi to Noahs Ark Waterpark.”

Lets Eat
Here are some good places to eat in downtown Wisconsin Dells:

  • High Rock Café – Variety of modern American food.
  • Cheesecake Heaven Deli Restaurant – great desserts as well as sandwiches.
  • Carvellis Pizza & Pasta House – Italian restaurant with open sidewalk feel.
  • MACS Macaroni and Cheese Shop – an American favorite in several styles.
  • Monks Bar and Grill – Delicious burgers in a sports bar atmosphere.

Joe Leute’s favorite eating places downtown include: High Rock Cafe, Monks Bar and Grille, and Macs.
All three of these restaurants are staples of the downtown that are loved by locals and reasonably priced.

For More Information
For information about places to stay, places to eat, attractions, and what to do in Wisconsin Dells:
Contact the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau at or Call toll-free (1/800) 223-3557.

For information about Joseph Leute’s photographs of Wisconsin Dells:
Go to or call (608) 393-6008.

For information about taxicab service in Wisconsin Dells:

  • A1 Wisconsin Dells Kangaroo Taxi – 608-432-4627.    Sun-Thurs: 8 a.m. – 2:30 a.m.; Fri & Sat: 8 a.m. – 3:30 a..m.
  • Wisconsin Dells Taxi – 608-253-7433.  Daily: 7am – 3am

Do you have a favorite vacation spot that can be enjoyed without a car? E-mail your ideas to Please include your contact information so Steve can get back to you with any questions.





About the author

Steve Atlas

Steve Atlas, author of two published books about parenting, has written newspaper columns and magazine articles about travel, career change, home-based business, parenting, and sales skills. Steve's column, “Single Parent Hotline,” was a weekly feature of Gannett News Service for several years. He has also been a contributing editor to Selling Power magazine. Currently Steve’s primary interest is reducing dependency on private automobiles. In addition to being a public transit advocate and author (since 2008) of Car Free Journey, Steve’s e-book: "Car Free at the Beach", and several reports he has written about Car Free Living can be viewed at

1 Comment

  • Have been visiting the Dells since very little with my family, it’s always so much fun specially water park Mount Olympus summers are so wonderful at the Dells