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The Wisconsin Dells: Family fun meets great golf in the upper Midwest

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. - For close to 150 years, outdoor enthusiasts have trekked to southwest Wisconsin to the Wisconsin Dells. The area was made famous by a series of photographs of picturesque sandstone rock formations, burbling rivers and hidden lakes. Sightseers, anglers, hunters, campers and birdwatchers from places like Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis-St. Paul escaped the summer heat in The Dells for decades, sort of like the Poconos of the upper Midwest.

Northern Bay Golf Resort - Hole 10
The 10th hole at Northern Bay Golf Resort and Marina in Arkdale, Wis., is the spitting image of the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.
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Northern Bay Golf Resort - Hole 10Dells Duck BoatsWild Rock Golf Club - Hole 15Trappers Turn Lake Course - Hole 9
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Despite being close to some small but popular skiing areas, The Dells remained primarily a quiet summer destination, more natural than sensational. In 1979, Noah's Ark Waterpark opened, and the promise of more tourism dawned on the area.

Today, The Dells is the unofficial "Waterpark Capital of the World," boasting the largest outdoor waterpark in the world (Noah's Ark), the largest indoor waterpark resort (Wilderness Territory) and the largest waterpark and theme park resort (Hotel Rome at Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park), along with what was at one time the largest indoor waterpark under one roof (Kalahari Resort).

In addition to the aquatic attractions, theme parks, haunted houses, go-karts, miniature golf, museums and all manner of touristy diversions have sprung up over the past 15 years or so. Today, The Dells has become sort of like the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area in Tennessee or Niagara Falls in New York, but with cheese curds. And everything's better with cheese.

Golf in The Wisconsin Dells

Curiously, for most of The Dells' long history, pretty much the only golf played in the vicinity was miniature golf, of which there is an abundance. When the Ho-Chunk Casino opened, however, people began to realize that grown-ups can only watch their kids cavort on waterslides so long before growing restless. And golf, the ultimate grown-up summer attraction, began to catch on in The Dells.

The Andy North and Roger Packard-designed, 27-hole Trappers Turn Golf Club opened in 1991, and is now owned by the Kalahari Resort, which built a first-class clubhouse in 2008 and also began the Kalahari Golf Academy. Trappers Turn is tight, with generally narrow fairways winding through glacier-carved valleys and alongside numerous water hazards. All three nines are meticulously groomed, and any combination plays to nearly 7,000 yards from the tips.

The newcomer to The Dells' golf scene is Wild Rock Golf Club at Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort (at Wilderness Territory). The 7,414-yard Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry design was laid out to take advantage of the area's rolling hills, plentiful water and limestone bluffs and outcroppings. Unlike Trappers Turn, fairways are more generous and welcoming to resort players. Several national golf publications ranked Wild Rock as one of the best new courses in the nation in 2008.

Northern Bay Golf Resort is a true hidden gem located some 40 minutes north of The Dells in Arkdale. In just its fourth full year of operation, Northern Bay offers golfers the unique opportunity to play seven holes that are replicas of some of the most famous in American golf, including the fifth at Oakland Hills, the 16th at Firestone, the 13th and 16th at Augusta National, the 18th at Bay Hill, the third at Oakmont and the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. Perhaps best of all, however, is that the course's 11 other holes are so strong and eye-catching, that these superb replicas blend right in without feeling gimmicky.

Off-course attractions

Besides the aforementioned Ho-Chunk Casino, Mt. Olympus Theme Park (12 waterslides and four roller coasters plus other rides), Tommy Bartlett Show, touristy hotspots (bungee-jumping, anyone?) and copious waterparks, Lake Delton and its associated waterways provide a great deal of outdoor fun. You may have heard that the man-made Lake Delton flooded in 2008, bursting its levees and draining in a matter of 20 horrifying minutes. However, by 2009, the lake was refilled and aquatic adventures returned to The Dells.

Most famous among these are "Duck Boats" - land-and-water tours of the area in 1945-vintage amphibious DUKW vehicles. Two companies offer "Wisconsin Ducks" tours, The Original Wisconsin Ducks and the Dells Army Ducks, with the former painted light blue and traveling more on land, and the latter painted olive green and traveling more in the water. Kids of all ages get a rush when one of these monstrous military machines first splashes down into Lake Delton. For a faster tour, check out the jet boat rides on the lake.

Waterparks in The Dells

Wilderness Territory boasts over 600 acres of land and seven water parks (three indoor, three outdoor and one indoor/outdoor) that add up to over 12 football fields of wet and wild entertainment.

Kalahari Resort and Convention Center claimed the largest indoor waterpark in America until the end of 2007. It is still the largest single indoor park in Wisconsin, and also offers an outdoor park and indoor amusement park.

Great Wolf Lodge was opened in 1997 by the brothers who brought Noah's Ark to The Dells and started the waterpark frenzy. It offers one outdoor and three indoor waterparks.

Polynesian Water Park Resort was the area's first indoor waterpark in 1994 and is still going strong, with over 200,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor water attractions.

If indoor relaxation is what you're after, there are over a half-dozen spas in The Dells, including at the Kalahari and Wilderness Territory resorts.

Dining in The Dells

Food runs the gamut, from fun family fare with a Caribbean flair at Marley's to fine dining at The Mystic in the Trappers Turn clubhouse. For authentic Wisconsin cooking, try Brat House Grill or Cheese Factory Restaurant (both next door to the Wilderness Territory Resort), or simply stop into any gas station and pick up a bag of fresh cheese curds.

Behold the power of cheese - and waterparks.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.


 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Dining in Wisconsin Dells post golf

    Fletch wrote on: Aug 20, 2009

    If you are looking for fare more upscale, the Del Bar or Field's at the Wilderness would be my(a life-long local) choices.

    Reply

Wisconsin Dells Golf Packages
Dates: April 1, 2018 - September 27, 2018
Wild Rock / Wilderness Resort golf packages - One Round is Never Enough!
Price range: $99