It’s sort of hard to imagine but try to picture the canoe shaped Baraboo hills and the valley in between as a giant taco. The hills are folded up like a shell around the tasty inner valley where the city of Baraboo lies. If you were able to slice through the valley and look at a cross section, you could see this image quite clearly. What we see today as the rocky purple cliffs and outcrops of the Baraboo Bluffs were once laid down flat as sediment, then through a series of geologic upheavals, they were bent up producing a bowl of sorts. Cool eh? Now over time this hard Baraboo Quartzite shell was covered by more sediment. This sediment also turned to stone over the millennia but was much softer and eventually wore away once again revealing the more erosion resistant purple stone below.
The basics of this story can be easily seen at Ableman’s Gorge State Natural Area just 15 minutes west of Baraboo in the village of Rock Springs. Here in a little spot called Dott’s Detour at the beginning of a short hiking trail, you can see a rippled vertical wall that used to be the bottom of a shallow sea. In spots you can see the older layers with their more vertical lines rising up to meet the younger and still horizontal layers near the top of the cliffs.
Here you can also see the geologically renowned “Van Hise Rock” which is named after professor Charles R. Van Hise who used this area to demonstrate what he saw as fundamental principles of structural geology at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Van Hise Rock” is still a stop for dozens of colleges who use the Baraboo hills as part of their course instruction.
Should you go? Certainly. The drive from Baraboo to Rock Springs takes you through a perfect slice of rural Wisconsin while keeping you on track since you can follow one road the whole way. It’s a pretty hike and as I mentioned above there is probably not a more obvious display of basic Baraboo Hills geology than at Ableman’s Gorge.
When you arrive you will find there are two small pull-over type parking areas, both along the Baraboo River side of the gorge. From either one you can walk directly across the road to meet the closest trail head. (The trail basically goes from one parking area to the other.) The more southern of the two parking areas also has a locally famous artesian well on site where water is readily available. The paved gravel trail is less than 1 mile long and traces the foot of the cliffs through an old quarry. It’s an easy stroll with no sharp grades. There are a few benches placed in scenic locations. Along the way you’ll see many diverse rock formations, lush forest, and some interesting remnants of the old quarry. Keep an eye out for an amazingly large, old cottonwood tree as well. While it would be tempting, rock climbing it is prohibited.
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Photos of Ableman’s Gorge
Click to enlarge photos.