Parfrey’s Glen (Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area, WI)

Parfrey’s Glen, Devil’s Lake State Park, July 2022

Given the significant focus on Utah and the American West, narrow canyons and slots feature heavily on Live and Let Hike. But these beautiful features can be found in surprising places, such as the limestone gorges of Starved Rock State Park in northern Illinois and southwest Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest. Another such surprise is Parfrey’s Glen in central Wisconsin—a dark and mysterious gorge under a canopy of deciduous trees, culminating in a nice narrows section and a modest waterfall. This 1.8-mile out-and-back is a nice complement to the nearby Devil’s Lake Loop and a relatively easier hike.

The hike

Situated within Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area, a subset of the broader Devil’s Lake State Park, the Parfrey’s Glen Trail begins and ends at a parking area about seven miles east of the popular north shore of the lake. The parking lot, situated just off DL Road, is moderately-sized, fitting around 20 vehicles.

The trail begins just beyond, starting as a paved track that quickly splits, with a detour to the restroom on the right and the main route bearing left, along the edge of the woods. Stay straight as the Ice Age National Scenic Trail cuts left into the dense thicket, remaining on the wide path, passing eventually over Parfrey’s Glen Creek. The route gets more interesting as it bears north and turns to gravel, following the perennial stream on the left.

The easygoing path continues past a plaque on the left, commemorating the establishment of Parfrey’s Glen as Wisconsin’s first state natural area. The stream valley narrows as the trail continues northward, thinning to a dirt track alongside the creek. At ½ mile, the route splits; stay right, following the wider and more apparent trail, then cross two bridges over thin tributaries.

Ascending path near the official trail’s end

At 6/10 mile, hikers will have to rock-hop over the main creek, coming back to the western bank. The Parfrey’s Glen Trail then ascends a stony staircase, skirting 10-foot cliffs on the left. Soon the trail descends again to the creek, and the official maintained path ends, with slightly more rugged scrambling and rock-hopping ahead.

End of official trail and entry to narrows
Entering the gorge at Parfrey’s Glen

Now in the creek itself, follow the drainage upstream through an initial set of narrows. (Note: It is usually possible to avoid getting your feet wet, but it requires some maneuvering.) Stay in the glen as the canyon rounds a left-hand corner and the conglomerate sandstone walls rise to more than 40 feet, an impressive and beautiful sight, especially for Wisconsin.

Narrowest part of the canyon

Continue to a boulder choke, where—with a careful eye—one can spot and climb the remains of an old stone staircase, which offers passage up and over the jam. Views back down the mossy canyon are some of the best of the hike.

Through the passage
Small waterfall at Parfrey’s Glen
Waterfall view

From here it is a short walk to the terminus of the walk: a small, glistening waterfall and a modest pool, a nice and worthy culmination of an easygoing hike. Enjoy the scenery in this splendid glen before heading back the way you came, descending the boulder choke and exiting the gorge back onto the wide, paved track. End back at the parking area, having completed a satisfying 1.8-mile hike.

View back down-canyon
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