The Prairie Dells, a secret and a fantastic sight in the wilds near Merrill

Many maps of the Prairie River Dells show a dam and a Prairie River Pond. When you get there, you find the dam is gone and therefore so is the pond. But that's okay, because you are in for a real treat when you get to the Dells. It's very rustic and wild, and extraordinarily beautiful. Best of all, the likelihood that anyone else will be there when you visit is low. You get a real nice taste of Mother Nature at her best.

July 26, 2006

We came upon the Prairie River Dells northeast of Merrill, Lincoln County, during a typical "get lost ride."


This map from MapQuest is to help you get your bearings. You see Merrill in the lower left, and traveling up Hwy 17 you see the Dells marked by the red dot.


This map zooms in on the area of the Prairie (River) Dells, also by MapQuest. It is very similar to other maps we had. The bottom arrow on several older maps we had said there was a dam there, forming the Prairie Dell Pond behind it. to the northeast, noted by the top arrow. You can see that even MapQuest shows a pool of water up there. Not knowing any better, we searched high and low for that pond and never found it. It's hard to know how many laws we broke looking for that pond. We have since learned it no longer exists, which forms part of this story. The dam is gone, another part of the story.


Here's an aerial shot of the same area provided by the US Geological Survey through You can see at the bottom arrow there is no dam, though there are two clearings on either side of the river. Since there is no dam, there is no Prairie Dell Pond. We'll talk about the dam and the pond later.

We are now going to focus on what we did find, which is the Prairie River Dells, a stretch of river and land roughly between the two arrows.

Let's take a look at the above aerial photo again, with some added notations, again to help you get your bearings.


You can take Hwy 17 out of Merrill northeast (at this writing they have some detours; the better route is take Hwy 51N to CH C, head east on CH C to 17 and go north; you are just about there.) Keep your eyes peeled because Prairie Dells Road is not the easiest to see. You hang a left on it and it will intersect with Old 17 off to the right. You bear left on Prairie Dells Road, which turns to gravel.

This is a good place to pause and tell you that all of a sudden, having just left Hwy 17 not far from the City of Merrill, by following our directions you are already in some very wild and rustic country, which is what makes this area so marvelous.


There's the gravel road, good ol' Prairie Dells Road, and two bystanders.


We're softies for the beauty of these deer, so here's a closer look.

The road abruptly ends at a small gravel car park, unmarked as such, so we played the whole thing by ear. There were two Jeeps parked there, so we figured we were close to something, and we could see a dirt path extending away from the car park.


Here's the path at the beginning.


It gets a bit more narrow as you proceed out into the open. As an aside, there are paths jutting off to the sides of this main path, taking you to an overlook of the Prairie River, but we chose to take this one until something more thrilling might happen.


The seemingly sudden appearance of this rock was the first indicator we were coming on to something neat. The river is on the other side of this rock, perhaps 40 feet below this rock. The trees you see in the background of the photo are on the other side of the river.

If you walk to the left of this rock, you can easily climb on it and walk over to the the precipice and high point of this area. As you do that, you'll naturally look off to the left and see this.


That's the Prairie River heading downstream making its way to Merrill and the Wisconsin River. As you keep walking on the rock toward the river and cliffs, you next look again to your left and see this.


Then this, right at the edge of the cliff over the river.


You are still looking downstream, but you are now close to the cliff's edge. You now look straight ahead and this is what you see.


Yes, that's the other side. Keep the image of this rock in mind, as we believe it to be a most important piece of rock to the story of this area.

You are now at the edge of the near side of the river. Now, please try to envision this: You walk off the rock you were standing on and go back to the edge of the path that brought you here. You look back.


Hope you're still with us. If not, perhaps we can help. You are now back at the path and this was that bunch of rock you saw suddenly appear when you first came on the scene. But there is a bit of an optical illusion here, you now know. The arrow to the left points to the rock on this side of the river, on which you have already walked to see the river downstream and the other side. The arrow to the right points to the large crop of rock on the other side of the river that we wanted you to keep in mind. We understand, from talking with one resident very familiar with the area, that this is where the dam was. He told us that these rocks were joined somehow to form a dam. He told us it took the corps of engineers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to set off several explosions before they could bring the dam down. We're not exactly sure how the dam was formed, but our sense of it was that it was built of rock from the area.

Now let's go back to standing on the rock on our side and look upstream. This photo does not do the view justice, it's that wonderful.


Please keep in mind there is no one living here, there are no buildings, there is just this beautiful, rustic country in all its splendor. We'll give you another view of this same shot, with a little zoomer in it.


As you sit on top of the rock on your side, all you hear is the flow of the water, birds, and a little wind blowing through the leaves. There is no one else here. Well, almost no one else. There were two quiet fisherman down below, one in the stream, one working on his fly sitting at the side.

FishermanA FishermanB

While the guy on the left has moved his feet a bit and kicked up some silt, you can see from looking at the guy to the right that this water is crystal clear. Remember, we took this shot from on top of the cliff above. The guy on the left is a bit downstream the dam area, while the guy on the right is just about where we believe the dam to have been. That explains the silt on the left and all the rock on the right.


You can see what we mean. There's something else interesting at play here though. This shot was taken of waters flowing between those two large outcrops of rock on either side of the river. Our judgement is that many of those rocks left on the floor of the river are debris from exploding the dam.

After viewing all this, and by the way bringing a small picnic lunch would have been a superb idea, we decided to continue down the trail, which proceeds into the forest. We want to divide our walk through this forest trail section of the area into two parts.

First, we entered the forest and saw that we could climb down the side and get a better view of the enormity of the rock formation on which we had been standing, and which, we believe, had once formed the near side of the dam.


Just before stepping onto the trail, we turned back to look at the formation, and took this shot. You can see the river to the lower left.


This is what we could see of the cliff from inside the forest, before climbing down.


We have walked down the side of the hill toward the river and would guess we are about 0.5 - 0.67 the way down. We stopped at this point, although it would have been fairly easy to make it down more, but your editor is getting a little bit old and was worried about going back up! Nonetheless, this gives you a good sense for the height of the cliff.


Well, now for the climb back up. In search of oxygen, your editor paused for a moment and took a shot of the hill he was climbing. The footing was pretty good. The pine needles were dry, there were lots of stones embedded in the hill to use as "steps," and there were plenty of branches and tree trunks on which to hold.

So that was part one, go down and up the cliff. Now part two, the interior look of the forest area itself, rustic and gorgeous.


This is what the trail looks like once inside the forest. You sort of have to feel your way for where it's going.


The foliage of fern is spectacular, especially given the full sun above fighting its way through.


There are many very large rocks inside the forest here. This one was particularly beautiful, standing there alone, looking something like a church.



Lot's of stuff growing on top of the rock. Ferns and tree seedlings growing from crevasses and cracks in the rock, and mosaics of moss. A better photographer with a better camera could get some terrific close-ups of the life on these rocks. The patterns of moss on the rock were especially interesting and artistic.

Wild mushrooms can also catch your attention back in here.



Eventually, not far, you end up at a gully which looks easy to climb down, after which you can head over to the river downstream the old dam area.

The Prairie River is a tributary of the Wisconsin River and is about 40 miles long. It flows from Horseshoe Lake in northwestern Langlade County and follows a generally southwestward course through southeastern Lincoln County to the city of Merrill, where it joins the Wisconsin River.


You get a nice view of how the Prairie River rises out of Horseshoe Lake in northwestern Langlade County, courtesy of It starts heading to the north, but quickly turns to the west and then southwest through the Dells and to the Wisconsin River at Merrill. The better known Pelican Lake is located not far from here to the northeast.

Let's return to the matter of the dam at Prairie Dells. It turns out that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) removed two dams on the Prairie River in Lincoln County in the 1990s, making the river free-flowing for its entire course. The DNR policy is as follows:

"In recent decades, Wisconsin has seen a large number of its historic dams aging and falling into disrepair ... As dam removals have been accomplished over the last 20 years significant improvements have been noted in water quality, habitat and bio-diversity at many of these sites ... Approximately 100 dams have been removed from Wisconsin streams since 1967."

The dam at Prairie Dells was taken down in 1992. The reason given was to restore the trout river population. There was another dam on the river called the Ward Paper Mill Dam, about two miles upstream from Merrill, taken down in 1999 as an impoundment action. Said differently, it would have cost more than it was worth to repair.

Hope you enjoyed. We recommend you visit.