Baraboo Hills, Bluffs or Mountains?

Baraboo Hills, Bluffs or Mountains?

Baraboo Bluffs, Baraboo Hills or Baraboo Range?  It all depends where you are and who you ask!

Around here, folks use the various terms interchangeably. Personally I use Baraboo Hills but I also hear the hills around Devil’s Lake called mountains, bluffs and more generically, the “Baraboo Range” all the time.  Is there a correct answer?  Well, here’s what I could find.

The Argument For Baraboo “Mountains”

The difference between a mountain and a hill is pretty subjective. According to the USGS, there is no “official” definition. That hasn’t stopped a lot of “experts” from giving a lot of answers over the years. Historically, geologists in the UK considered any hill over 1000 feet above sea level to be a “mountain”. By that measure the Baraboo Hills stand tall, at various points standing over 1,100 feet. That said, this definition of a mountain was abandoned sometime in the 1920s…

Another win for Baraboo “mountains” would be a measure of “topographic prominence”.  This is the measurement from the landscape bottom of the mountain to the top. Some definitions require a hill to have 152 meters or 500 feet of topographic prominence to be defined as a mountain. Within Devil’s Lake State Park, the East & West bluffs stand at about 500 feet above the lake and even higher than the surrounding landscape.

I’ve always assumed that folks who say “Baraboo Range” advocate for the more mountainous definition. Although I could be wrong!

Baraboo Hills Surrounding Devil's Lake

The Argument Against

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names stated in the past that the difference between a hill and a mountain in the U.S. was 1,000 feet of local relief (topographic prominence). There goes the Baraboo “mountains”.  On the other hand, they gave up that definition in the 70s, essentially giving up on an exact definition.  Meanwhile in the UK, the same folks who gave us the 1000 foot standard, have more recently raised the bar to about 600 meters or over 2000 feet above sea level.  Under this modern yardstick, the Baraboo “range” becomes the Baraboo “Hills”.

But What About “Bluffs”

Bluffs are not just hills “bluffing” or pretending to be mountains. A bluff is actually a particular landform. A bluff is a broad, rounded cliff that borders a river, beach or shoreline. Bluffs are generally created by erosion. They are also very common in our part of the world along the Wisconsin & Mississippi rivers. The Baraboo Hills surround Devil’s Lake and cradle the Baraboo river, so it’s no surprise that the Baraboo Hills are called bluffs. But keep in mind that they were here much longer than the water they surround and they were created by uplift. If bluffs by definition are created by the water that flows around them, the Baraboo Hills are not “bluffs”.

Lake Wisconsin Bluffs, seen from Baraboo Hills

Bluffs in the distance along the Wisconsin River & Lake Wisconsin, seen from the Baraboo Hills

In the End

So what are they? Well, in my research it seems clear that if you say “hills” you’re safe. Mountains? Well, maybe. The title “Baraboo Range” is certainly a popular label. Bluffs? Despite commonly being called the “Baraboo Bluffs” since forever, this is probably the weakest definition of the lot!

Read More

Did Glaciers Make The Lake –

Ref: USGS Geographic Names Information System FAQs, National Geographic Encyclopedia,, Wikipedia,,,, DNR, Devil’s Lake Geology

Have Something To Add? Comment Below!



, , ,


  1. Mark

    The Baraboo range is referring to the ancient mountain range that were suspected to be taller than the Rockies. What we see today is just the very tops of a buried range of mountains. This is why the term “range” is an accurate description.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *