Go, See, Explore: Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area

You can explore Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area without getting your feet wet.

But if you’re determined to stay completely dry, you might just miss the best part.


1377 County Rd DL – Merrimac, WI

1.6 Mile Hike with a Waterfall

Parfrey’s Glen is Wisconsin’s first State Natural Area. It is located about 4 miles east of Devil’s Lake State Park and is an ideal day trip for families wanting to relax: A flat trail borders a stream through a narrow, sandstone ravine (the “glen”), culminating with a waterfall. Roundtrip, it’s a 1.6-mile hike — relatively easy for older kids to walk on their own or for parents weighted down with a baby or toddler.

You’ll struggle to reach the waterfall, though, without stepping in the water.

“Catastrophic floods” destroyed a boardwalk and bridges that once gave easy access to the heart of the glen and the waterfall. Since then, hikers must traverse a shallow stream and climb over some large rocks to reach it.

My friend and I easily crossed the stream with our five kids, age 5 to 12. But southern Wisconsin is in the midst of a drought. In wetter seasons, the water may be deeper and run faster.

The waterfall may be more spectacular, too.

It’s not exactly Niagara Falls. But no one cared.

The cool, shady and damp ravine fascinates with plants and insects, including several rare species of each. My daughter called it a “butterfly heaven”.

We spent three hours exploring Parfrey’s Glen, and the only time our kids complained was when we told them it was time to go.

Open 6am – 8pm Daily

For most Madisonians, Parfrey’s Glen is a bit over an hour’s drive away. It’s open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Pets NOT Allowed

Pets, food and drinks aren’t allowed, and you’ll need a state park sticker to use the parking lot.

Important note for summer 2021: Highway 78 between Prairie du Sac and Merrimac is being rebuilt and won’t be done until the end of September. However, you can easily avoid the construction by crossing the Wisconsin River at Sauk City and staying on Highway 12. Or, if you’re driving up the east side of the river, cross over on the Merrimac Ferry and take Highway 113.

Whichever route you choose, you can cap off your day with ice cream: Either at the Culver’s just west of the Sauk City bridge or at the ice cream shps at the ferry terminals.

Promising ice cream is the one thing that convinced our kids to leave Parfrey’s Glen.


Kirsten is a native Wisconsinite who married a Brit, moved to England and happily ended up in Madison in 2010. She and her husband, Adrian, are parents to Sophie, Charlie and Susannah, who fascinate and exhaust their parents pretty much every day. A former newspaper reporter, Kirsten now supports mompreneurs through her website, motherbility.com. She's also a mini-expert on traveling with kids. (Always answer "Should we go to ... " with "yes." Bring toys, snacks and an excess of patience.) She and her family camp every summer, usually in state parks, because they love outdoor living. And s'mores.


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