For decades — maybe even a century — Baraboo, Wis., quietly sat in the shadows as millions of tourists blindly passed by. Most were homing in on Wisconsin Dells, that glittering mecca just to the north. Or they quietly ducked into Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin’s most popular state park. Although the park is just outside of Baraboo, once visitors become locked in its rocky embrace, they tend to stay put.
But today, Baraboo is finally getting in on the love. Over the past five years, this city of 13,000, affectionately nicknamed the Boo, has been heralded nationally as one of America’s greatest small burgs as well as one of her top up-and-coming tourist towns. What’s finally turning people’s heads?
Chic new shops and restaurants are sprinkled throughout the city like colorful bits of confetti. Meanwhile, the Boo is trumpeting both its natural, outdoor assets and Rockwellian downtown, which is on both the National Register and State Register of Historic Places. Against this quaint backdrop, al fresco concerts, fairs and parades create a yearning for simpler times.
“What we have right now is something that’s missing in many parts of the nation,” says Mayor Mike Palm. “We aren’t a water-park capital. We aren’t a T-shirt mecca. We’re not Fudge Central. We are real. We are America.”
Intrigued? Then set aside a long weekend to explore Baraboo and its environs. Here are some places you won’t want to miss.
Circus World and more
Baraboo’s top claim to fame is the sawdust in its veins. The Ringling Bros. circus wintered here from 1884 to 1918, and its winter quarters are now the site of Circus World (1-866-693-1500; circusworldbaraboo.com), a state historic site and National Historic Landmark. Circus World is home to some 260 intricately decorated, original circus wagons, the largest such collection in the world.
A museum details the history of the Ringling Bros., while special performances showcase Bengal tigers, circus music and more. Most popular is the one-hour Big Top Circus, where talented acrobats, clowns and animal handlers perform a wide variety of top-tier acts.
“With the demise of the traveling Ringling shows [in 2017], we’re seeing a definite increase in visitors who are trying to reacquaint themselves with the circus,” says Palm.
And there’s plenty more “circus” in town. About a mile northwest of Circus World is an impressive red stone house, the Al. Ringling Mansion, once home to Al. Ringling and his wife, Lou. Tours are available (1-608-448-7455; alringlingmansion.com). True circus aficionados should mark their calendars for July 21, the date of this year’s Big Top Parade & Circus Celebration. The blowout city event features concerts, kids’ activities, live performances and a 75-unit circus parade. Last year, 30,000 folks took part (bigtopparade.com).
Lavender, wine and whiskey
A fragrant sea of purple is beginning to encircle Baraboo with the recent founding of three lavender farms. Devil’s Lake Lavender Farm, which sits at the north entrance of Devil’s Lake State Park, is home to more than 15,000 plants of nearly three dozen varieties. Visitors are welcome to wander among the fragrant plants (blooming season is June through August), then pop into the gift shop for lavender oil, lotions and other aromatic gifts. The owners also operate Devil’s Lake Bistro in Baraboo; some of the bistro’s dishes incorporate lavender. On the docket for 2019: a lavender-themed day spa, bed-and-breakfast inn and cafe at the farmstead (1-414-690-5060; devilslakelavender.com).
The brand-new New Life Lavender and Cherry Farm offers tours and teas, and its farm store sells homemade lavender cherry pie and bath-and-body products. Rowley Creek is known for its raw lavender honey and special events, such as classes on cooking with lavender (1-608-477-4023; newlifelavender.com).
Baraboo Bluff Winery perches atop one of the area’s legendary hills. Another recent addition to the scene, the winery sells about a dozen types of wine. Sampling options include flights of three, five or 11. Best of all is the fact that you can drink in the undulating landscape while enjoying your favorite varietal (1-608-237-1379; baraboobluffwinery.com).
You can take in more picturesque views at Driftless Glen Distillery, tucked alongside the Baraboo River. The facility crafts bourbon and rye using local grain and water, affording its products a distinct craft flavor. The distillery is also home to Baraboo Restaurant, where you’ll find dishes such as elk sliders, bourbon pulled pork nachos and brandy glazed salmon (1-608-356-4536; driftlessglen.com).
Nearly two decades ago, the city removed the last of four dams blocking the natural flow of the Baraboo River. That act meant Baraboo suddenly straddled the longest stretch of reclaimed river in the nation. Entrepreneurs such as Baraboo River Canoe & Kayak Rentals (1-608-737-1100; barabooriverrentals.com) scrambled to open equipment rental and shuttle services, and today scores of visitors enjoy paddling the scenic waterway.
Trips invariably include geese, duck and heron sightings. If you’re lucky, you may spot a bald eagle catching a thermal, or float past Circus World while its pachyderms are bathing. While the river is mostly slow and shallow, rapids can form, especially as it flows through Baraboo and West Baraboo.
“The river drops 45 feet in 3.5 miles,” Palm says. “That’s a very good drop. It’s not suicidal, but fun. It gets your blood going.”
Over at the International Crane Foundation — the only spot on the planet where you can see all 15 of the world’s crane species — a $10 million expansion is underway. The project, slated for completion in spring 2020, will include a new visitor center and an enlargement of the crane exhibits. Until then, you can still enjoy seeing the cranes via a half-mile paved trail. Several miles of interpretive nature trails also wind through 100 acres of restored prairie, wetlands and oak savanna (1-608-356-9462; savingcranes.com).
Surprised by what’s packed into this unassuming town? The city’s cheerleaders aren’t.
“Baraboo isn’t a one-trick pony,” says Bobbie Boettcher, executive director of the Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a complex community that has so much to offer, whether you’re a millennial, an academic or a group of friends that wants to hike. There is a lot going on here.”