With more waterparks per capita than anywhere else in the world, Wisconsin Dells is easily associated with adventure attractions by tourists and future visitors. However, the city also has its fair share of incredible natural attractions that many people tend to bypass. One of those places is the Witches Gulch, a unique slot canyon formation that’s been shrouded in mystery and subject to fascination. The name of this site alone is enough to entice even the idlest of travelers, and it has also sparked the imagination of many. Why is Witches Gulch called by that name and what eerie occurrence is waiting to be had here? The answer, like always, can be found in history.
History of the Wisconsin Dells
During the 1700s, French explorers of the Great Lakes region began marking reference points in maps. This was when the Wisconsin River area of the Wisconsin Dells was first marked, but it was marked by explorers as “Dalles.” Over time, this name became anglicized as simply the “dells.” Over a hundred years later, the railroad arrived in 1857 and forever changed the landscape of the area. A city was named, Kilbourn City, in honor of the president of the railroad company. A pioneer in promoting Wisconsin railroads, Byron Kilbourn was the principal organizer of the Milwaukee and Waukesha Railroad Company. This was the company that would bring civilization to the dells. Although the city was named after Kilbourn, the locals still referenced to the area colloquially as “the dells.” The city finally made it official in 1931, changing the name of Kilbourn City to Wisconsin Dells.
There are many legends associated with the geographical features of the area. A big part of these includes Native American influences. According to Native American legends, a giant serpent is what formed the bed of the Wisconsin River. This giant serpent supposedly crawled down from the Big Lake, crawled over forests and trees and anything in its path. Because the serpent’s body was so large, it created a groove on the land that allowed water to gush and rush behind him.
The serpent supposedly used his head to push rocks apart, creating large canyons and scaring away smaller serpents in the area. According to this legend, these serpents were the ones that created the smaller crevices of water, one of which includes the Witches Gulch. Of course, science has a different explanation altogether. According to this article, the riverbed along with the cliffs were shaped when a glacial lake formed upon the breaking of a large ice dam in the area. This geography-altering event supposedly took place about 15,000 years ago. However, there is sandstone in the bedrock area that’s been dated to more than 500 million years ago. With exposure to elements of wind and water over time, the landscape has become what it is today. That sandstone is now a deep valley, with slot canyons surrounding.
Witches Gulch is a specific area in the Dells that’s been the subject of mystery. As per geographical definition, a gulch is simply a narrow ravine or V-shaped valley. Looking at the Witches Gulch area on a map, you can easily see that V-shaped description. History tells us that the name Witches Gulch came from famed Dells landscape photographer H.H. Bennett. Known for his innovations in photography, Bennett used the Witches Gulch area for many of his photos.
Analyzing the name he’s given the area, it makes sense that he called it a gulch because that word was part of the lexicon at that time—the late 1880s. If this area were to be named today, we would simply call it a canyon because the word “gulch” is now obsolete. The Witches Gulch became infamous because of one particular shot that Bennett took of his son, Ashley. Bennett captured his son leaping across Stand Rock, what is now the most famous rock formation in the area.
The picture is ridiculous as is the feat, and it attracted many visitors to the area. What people found in Witches Gulch is something that Bennett’s black and white photo never could’ve conveyed. Witches Gulch is eerie. The slot canyons are mystic and oftentimes foggy. The gulch is so secluded that it seems almost otherworldly. Knowing the Native American legends that surround the area and combining that with the physical appeal of the canyons, Bennett must’ve dubbed it the Witches Gulch to convey mystery, magic, and maybe even a little bit of mayhem.
How to get there
While we many never truly know the whole story about why H.H. Bennett decided to call Witches Gulch what it is, it doesn’t stop us from speculating the mystery. For many travelers, the speculation only fuels the fascination. Witches Gulch is one area in the Wisconsin Dells that spells out history and geography in the most incredible way.
The slot canyons of Witches Gulch are a nice break from the modernity of the city and all its amusement parks—definitely worth the effort to visit and experience. Travelers to the area need to know, however, that the Witches Gulch is only accessible by boat. You’ll have to get on a boat tour, some of which could last up to 2 hours on the river. Even that ride is breathtaking, so make sure to allot enough time on your schedule for the ride via the Upper Dells Boat Tours.
Once at Witches Gulch, you can enjoy a 1.5 mile hike that will take you through the slot canyons. Bring layers for the cold and a camera to take some photos. You may no longer be allowed to do the jump just as Ashley Bennett did over 130 years ago, but you can still take a good photo of Stand Rock. Visit Witches Gulch and see for yourself why H.H. Bennett might’ve called this place what he did. You might find your own mystery to unfold.
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Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson