Newcomers to Sauk County, Wisconsin, may know it mainly as the water park capital of the world — which is certainly one of its many attractions. But there’s actually a whole lot more to this historically rich region.
The county, located in south central Wisconsin and named for the Sauk people, was largely settled by New Englanders and New Yorkers in the 1840s. With a current population of about 66,000, the largest city (and county seat) is Baraboo.
While there’s plenty to see and do in the county’s 849 square miles, we’ve put together a list of 10 hidden gems that are well-worth a visit — even if they don’t require a swimsuit.
The late Tom Every built his fantastical, futuristic Forevertron in the 1980s, and at 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide, it’s said to be the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture. While the largest sculpture at the 5-acre art park, it’s only one of scores of weird and wild creations, metal bugs, dragons, and birds that double as musical instruments, art cars, and more. Think of it as … roadside eccentricity at its finest. Donations accepted, but admission is free.
Lovers of real birds will want to, well, flock to Baxter’s Hollow, especially in the spring, when scores of migratory songbirds take advantage of this deep forest nestled in the Baraboo Hills. Owned by the Nature Conservancy, Baxter’s Hollow is Wisconsin’s largest nature preserve, so if it’s been a while since you’ve spotted a worm-eating warbler, head for the Hollow. And if there are any fans of the mothlike caddis fly out there, close to 80 species hover around the area’s Otter Creek.
This outdoor living museum features more than 40 antique locomotives and cars. Yes, the century-old equipment is here for the viewing, but visitors also get to enjoy an hour’s ride over 7 miles of track among restored railway buildings, all seemingly on a trip back in time to the golden age of railroading. Open May to mid-October, with some Santa Express events in December.
Sometimes more properly known as The Sh*tty Barn, this popular music venue has been attracting crowds since 2010 in a barn that comes by its name fairly enough. (Ironically, it’s not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s decidedly not sh*tty Taliesin). But there’s no denying the up close and personal interaction with the musicians who wail away from May through October. Make reservations, grab some camp chairs, and put on some dancing shoes.
Wright’s Taliesin is in nearby Iowa County, but the Seth Peterson Cottage is in the woods of Sauk County’s Mirror Lake State Park. And while there are occasional tours of the property, the real opportunity is spending two nights in this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, with all the outdoor amenities of the park right at hand.
From mid-April to the end of November, it’s worth taking a ride on the historic Merrimac Ferry, in operation since 1848. Named the Colsac, the 15-car boat connects Columbia and Sauk counties over the Wisconsin River, 24 hours a day, and for free at that, the only such ferry in the state. This is the third iteration of the Colsac. There were no takers when Colsac II was put up for sale online, so it was sold for scrap. No word on whether Dr. Evermor got his hands on any.
The history of the small white building known as Painted Forest is as compelling as the artwork inside — an all-encompassing (walls and ceiling) set of murals created by an itinerant artist named Ernst Hüpeden in the late 1890s. Hüpeden arrived in New York from Germany in 1878 and began walking and painting his way west. By the time he arrived in Valton, he was asked by the Modern Woodmen of America, who owned the building, to paint a scene on the stage curtain. That led to the larger work, an effort that took two years.
Baraboo was once known as “Circus City,” since it was the headquarters of the Ringling brothers from 1884 to 1917. One of the five brothers, known as AL., built an imposing red brick home in Baraboo in 1905, and today it’s on the national registry of historic places and open for tours. A sumptuous theater in town also bears AL.’s name, and the icing on the cake (or foam on the glass) is the AL. Ringling Brewing Company, which opened September of 2020.
When he’s not on one of his epic bike rides or training service dogs, Rob Nelson is the genial face at the vital community book store in Baraboo. Founded in 1998 as a used book shop, The Village Booksmith now stocks current works along with second-hand and rare titles. It also hosts frequent readings and music events.
The American Players Theatre, founded in 1980, is nestled on 110 acres of woods and meadows near Spring Green. It actually houses two theaters — Hill, an outdoor amphitheater, and Touchstone, an intimate indoor theater. APT keeps a series of nine plays, classic and modern, in its rotating repertory from June through November.