Wisconsin Life: Devil’s Lake Climbing


This summer, I traveled across the North American west, hitting  some of the top rock climbing destinations in the country. Moab, Utah, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and Joshua Tree … plus a quick hike through the Grand Canyon.   I trained at mountaineering in the Chugach Range of Alaska and made it safely to the summit of Mount Baker in the Washington Cascades.  Next year I’ve got an even more ambitious project — to reach the top of Mount Denali, the highest point on the continent.    But there’s more to climbing than elevation, and some of the most challenging terrain I know is right here in Wisconsin. Devil’s Lake State Park, just 40 minutes north of Madison, is home to incredible high cliffs and stone walls that are perfect for rock climbing.

“People don’t realize that the southwest corner of Wisconsin had no glaciers. It’s called the driftless region,” Anne Hughes a friend avid local climber. “And so these valleys hills and cliffs have not been leveled out by glaciers and this particular rock that we’re climbing on is the center of an old mountain range.”


Anne is among the many climbing enthusiasts from Madison who regularly defy the misconception that Wisconsin is flat and featureless.

“These cliffs rise 500 feet off the surface of the lake,” she said. “That’s the center piece of the park called Devil’s Lake. So people who think of the Midwest as looking like central Illinois or or I-90 going across Ohio, you know haven’t been to a non-glaciated region.”

People have asked me if Devil’s Lake can offer much of a challenge to someone who’s climbed snow covered mountains in Colorado or vertical walls of granite 3,000 feet high.  Actually, it’s one of the most challenging terrains I know.  The rock here is relatively smooth with very little texture – which means there’s not a lot to hang onto.  It takes incredibly strong fingers and toes, and a whole lot of balance and dexterity.  It’s like the difference between ballet and football.  You need strength and stamina to play football.  You need a whole other level of skill if you want to dance on your toes for an hour.  That’s why people who learn to climb in Wisconsin climb well and go on to climb all over the world.

“I climb because I love being outside. I really enjoy the fact that it’s a three dimensional sport that every move is different, every climb is different,” Anne said. “Climbing the same climb is different every time. So I get strong all over my body. I like the partner relationship that is almost always involved, going out with a friend or more friends. You’re literally holding their lives in your hands, which is a sobering thought. It’s fun, but you’re really committed to each other. You’re watching each other’s back, making sure that she doesn’t do anything unsafe that she forgot about or just was preoccupied. And look at this environment! you’re outside everyday in this beautiful place doing something that makes your strong and healthy and fun.”


For Wisconsin Life, this is James Mills
Joy Trip Project contributions to National Public Radio programs like Wisconsin Life made possible in part with the support sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.