So You Want To Explore The South Bluff, Eh?

So You Want To Explore The South Bluff, Eh?

Usually about once a year I’ll post a photo from the top of Devil’s Lake State Park’s South Bluff which leads to a lot of questions like, “How do I get up there?”,”Is there a trail?”, and of course, “Is it safe?”  So let’s talk about the mysterious south bluff today…

South Bluff across the lake from the north shore.

South Bluff across the lake from the north shore.

For most park visitors, the South Bluff (On the south end of the lake) is little more than a woody backdrop to their Devil’s Lake vacation. The south bluff seems quite small compared to the taller East and West Bluffs that complete the framing of the lake. There are no official trails on the south bluff and for the most part, the talus fields and heavy woods are not all that inviting.

The only people who do go up there these days are mostly deer hunters and rock climbers. (Rock climbing is prohibited on the South Bluff, but rarely enforced.) There is a clear footpath to a popular “bouldering” location and hunters often flag their routes across the bluff as well. While you will find some trash, beer cans, broken chairs, etc., most of the bluff, thankfully, remains pristine and wild.

Devil’s Lake’s South Bluff is designated a Wisconsin State Natural Area, known as the South Bluff/Devil’s Nose State Natural Area including over 3,400 acres of wild land. The bluff provides habitat to a number of rare plants and animals. In addition, there are three interesting gorges, all with beautiful water features (Including Black Bear Falls pictured in the video above & located in Pine Hollow south-west of Burma Rd.). There is a very distinct glacial moraine on the top of the south-eastern face of the bluff that marks where the Wisconsin Glacier tried to climb up over the bluff but ran out of energy. You’ll find forests, bogs, swamps, ponds, old logging roads, abandoned farmsteads and rocks. Lots of, lots of rocks!

South Bluff Vista

One View From The Top of the South Bluff

For those of us who like to find a bit of adventure in our own back yards, the south bluff is inviting, but it’s also risky. You have to accept right off that you’ll probably have no cell reception. If you get in trouble, you will be on your own.  How do you get in trouble? Well, let’s see;

First, you can get lost if you don’t know how to navigate in the wilderness. While you’d think you could just use the lake as a reference, you often can’t. The rough terrain often forces you deeper into the forest than you’d like. You can’t always keep your eyes on the lake. What’s more, there are really only a few select routes up and down the bluff that make sense. There are cliffs, wetlands and talus fields can easily block your way or make things treacherous enough to have to backtrack.

Be aware of people. Pay attention to all hunting seasons. Hunters may be up there as well and it’s fair to say that they probably won’t be expecting hikers. Some hunters have invested a lot of time building tree stands and blinds that they leave up all year. Um?? Anyway, It’s also worth knowing that various illegal activities have caused issues on the south bluff as well.  The point is, any time you’re out in the woods, you need to be aware of your surroundings.

Another concern on the south bluff, and probably your biggest risk, is the scree or loose rock that covers most of the northern face and continues up and over a good section of the south bluff. Hikers looking for good views are going to have to navigate the scree fields. Navigating talus/scree is risking disaster with each step. On the south bluff much of the loose rock near the top is covered in moss and leaves which will hide holes and deep fissures. Even being cautious, I once went through a hole and dropped through to my knees before finding footing.  The hole was covered with leaves and branches and seemed solid until I put my full weight on the step.  Luckily I was able to lift myself back out and escape with only a dark bruise!

Rattlesnakes are another concern when exploring the south bluff. Without people regularly in the area, the rattlers have the place to themselves. Usually they are hanging out in the exact same places you want to be. On the rock faces, overlooking the lake.

I should also mention the bog. As you move east on the bluff you will end up in a boggy area as the water gathers before dropping through a gorge and on down to Manley creek. Again, the bog is often camouflaged by ground cover. Most areas are only inches deep, but there are spots that could suck you in and potentially leave you stuck, wet and without a way to call for help.

So, those are the main concerns. Well, beyond tripping, falling off a log or boulder, getting a stick in the eye, bee stings, bear encounters, weather, the sudden arrival of darkness, hypothermia and all that other stuff that can happen in a wild area. (You can also expect ticks and mosquitos in large numbers in season as well.  Ticks are thick on the bluff as long as the ground isn’t frozen.)

That said, everything that makes the south bluff “wild” is also what makes it an enjoyable area to explore for people comfortable with the risks. There are great vistas, interesting glacial landforms and geology to explore. There are also some wonderful water features to be found. As climbers know, there are some challenging spots as well (Details on Exploring the bluff just comes with some added risk and requires you to know how to take care of yourself in wild places.

As far as how to get up there, I’m happy to talk to folks privately about access. How to go really depends on your goals and your abilities. There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer. I generally go in the spring and fall, when it’s easier navigate the forests and the mosquitos are at a minimum.

I would not recommend exploring the south bluff to anyone without backcountry experience. Better yet, go with someone who knows the area already. (If you’re wondering what shoes to wear, well, then you probably shouldn’t be going.) And really, navigation experience and wilderness first aid experience wouldn’t be bad prerequisites either. I know some of you will think I’m overstating the risks, but these days most of us are not as nature-aware as we once were. We need to do a bit of honest self-evaluation before taking off into the woods.

If you do go, tell someone. If you have no one to tell, leave a note in your car. Make sure to note the time you leave, your planned route, and when you expect to be back.

Be safe out there!

Gallery (Click to Enlarge!)


***Obligatory Disclaimer: This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (Which is sometimes too bad if you ask me!).



  1. mary

    My hubby and I have been eye that bluff,,thinking how beautiful I bet it is in there….Do u think the rattlers are asleep yet?????maybe come the end of November???I really don’t want to get bit,,,seeing as though a walk out to the car would be quit a ways,,,,,just thinken a head,,,thank u for the info,,,mary

  2. Author

    Late October, November should be fine when it comes to rattlesnakes.. Mostly. 🙂 But of course, then you’re getting into hunting season. You’re right, walking back out isn’t quick. Usually my “day” hike to the top and back average around 6 miles round-trip.

    1. mary

      thank u,,we drive by it all the time coming home on Rte 12,, Come October,,we’;ll see like 1 car parked at that pull off,,,which is where we thought we’d enter from,,,I guess they can bow hunt then in Devils Lake??and also gun hunt come Thanks Given too???Its just sooooo gorgeous,,,We have done a lot of hiking in the Hollows,,of baxter,Hemlock,,and we’ll be gone all day.Had 2 eagles come off a bluff at Baxter RIGHT IN FRONT OF US,, it was awesome,,.Even got soo turned around in Baxters,,a 2 hour hike turned into 4 hours,,,Next time we brought our gps and marked the car,,,But bow and gun are happening in Devils Lake then??mary

  3. Deanna

    I’d love to chat about that bluff sometime. I’ve done plenty of meandering in the gentler area off of Burma Rd, but haven’t tackled the actual bluff yet.

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