Parfrey's Glen in Wisconsin: a Creek, a Gorge, and a Waterfall, and Their Unique Fauna and Flora

by DerdriuMarriner

Parfrey's Glen is Wisconsin's first Natural Area. It offers visitors beautiful views of a gorge and its creek, waterfall and wildlife.

Parfrey's Glen: Unstaffed Visits and Unsupervised Visitors

Parfrey's Glen can be accessed from Baraboo, Wisconsin. Visitors follow Highway 113 south until turning left onto DL. The entrance is unobtrusive. Visitors instead notice the more assuming Old Schoolhouse Restaurant.

But visitors regain lost seconds by going back just one-half mile.

The glen is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Like Natural Bridge State Park, it is unstaffed and unsupervised. As with Natural Bridge, Devil's Lake State Park staff manage the glen.

Admission demands valid state park stickers. Visitors may not bring:

They may not stray from the trail. Adults and children unused to field trips may not welcome flood-damaged trails and viewing areas.

Comfort requires:
Insect repellent;
Sturdy walking shoes.

One same-day pass admits visitors to Parfrey's Glen as well as to:
Devil's Lake State Park;
Natural Bridge State Park.

Camping is not allowed in the glen. But it is permitted at Devil's Lake.

sights and sounds in Parfrey's Glen: water music and play of light
Parfrey's Glen
Parfrey's Glen

Parfrey's Glen: the Geological History of a Place

Recreational interest in Parfrey's Glen dates back to the last half of the nineteenth century. Because of popular appeal and scientific interest, the glen holds the honor of Wisconsin's first State Natural Area. Its selection in 1952 reflects the thorough investigations of the Natural Areas Committee from 1945 to 1950 and the weighty influence of committee chairperson Norman Carter Fassett (March 27, 1900-September 14, 1954).

Parfrey's Glen appeals to scientists because of its anomalous micro-climate, distinct geology, and unique fauna and flora. Ecologically speaking, the glen appears to have more in common with northern Wisconsin than with the state's south-central region. The reason lies in predominantly cool, moist shade thanks to moss and seepage.


Parfrey's Glen cuts deeply and spectacularly into the southern flank of the Baraboo Hills.
Baraboo Hills
Baraboo Hills


The glen likewise attracts scientific attention because of its location within the Baraboo Hills. The western half of the hills were not glaciated and fall within the eastern boundary of the Great Driftless Area. That area is distinct within the midwestern United States of America because of its lack of glaciation during the last Ice Age of 25,000 years ago.

The word glen comes from the Scots English of Scotland. It designates a narrow, rocky ravine. Parfrey's Glen indeed has the look of a boulder-strewn, mosscovered, narrow- and steep-sided canyon. The look results from the lack of smothering of 1.6 billion-year old sandstone under icy layers. It also results from the lack of traumatic scarring during the global thawing of 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.


rock "bubbles" in plum pudding stone
closeup of Parfrey's Glen characteristic conglomerates
closeup of Parfrey's Glen characteristic conglomerates


The glen's appearance attests to the erosive forces of gravity, rainfall, and wind on Cambrian-era sandstone. The sandstone actually is embedded with boulders and pebbles of quartzite. The quartzite represents a conglomerate which is called "plum pudding stone."

Exemption from glaciation does not entail immunity from other natural processes. For example, nowadays the glen is vulnerable to floods. Two devastating experiences with flooding may be cited from the twenty-first century.

Severe flooding occurred in 2008 and again in 2010. The branches of trees in the path of rampaging waters were broken off to heights of 8 to 10 feet (2.44 to 3.05 meters). Otherwise, natural structures were more resilient and less damaged than human-made structures when the floods receded.

Specifically, the gorge emerged intact other than the shifting of boulders and creek channels on the glen floor. But access routes and viewing areas were damaged beyond reconstructive strategies approved within the confines of stretched Department of Natural Resources budgets. Additionally, the most telling arguments against repairing access to the viewing area and the walk all the way to the waterfall were the assumptions that similarly destructive flooding will happen again in the near future. Consequently, visitors who seek a spectacular waterfall and scenic views will encounter flood-shifted terrain and slippery steppingstones.

But the experience always is worth the foray, however complete or incomplete.


a fast, cold, hardwater stream with a diverse insect fauna including a rare species of diving beetle (Agabus confusus) and a rare caddisfly (Limnephilus rossi)
Parfrey's Glen Creek
Parfrey's Glen Creek

Parfrey's Glen: the Unique Fauna

The words fauna and flora often appear together. Both words come from the classical Latin of the ancient Romans. They both function as common and proper nouns. Fauna is the animal life of a specific place and time while flora is the general plant life of that place and time. Fauna recalls the goddess sister of Faunus, the goat-eared, -horned and -legged Roman god of flocks and herds. Flora remembers Rome's goddess of flowers and gardens.


Faun, Roman rustic god of forests and enchanted woods, depicted as half-goat and playing pan flute, symbolizes animal life
"Art in the manor", 1896 oil on canvas by Jacek Malczewski (July 15, 1854–October 8, 1929) (National Museum in Warsaw)
"Art in the manor", 1896 oil on canva...
Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) have a parasitic relationship with Acadian flycatchers and Cerulean warblers.
male brown-headed cowbird
male brown-headed cowbird

Regarding fauna, Parfrey's Glen harbors birds and insects generally considered rare finds in Wisconsin. The glen's birds include:

  • Acadian flycatchers (Empidonax virescens);
  • Cerulean warblers (Setophaga cerulea).

Both birds like the glen's cool, moist, wooded environment. Both make cup-shaped nests which tend to be:

  • Located on horizontal branches of tall trees;
  • Parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater).

Both manage to feed by hovering over insect-ridden foliage or by swooping through insect-populated air. Both also will accept berries and seeds.

Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens)
Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens)

The Acadian flycatcher can be distinguished by:

  • Body, with olive upper and white lower parts and white wing bars;
  • Head, with white eye wing and wide bill;
  • Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) type call of "peet";
  • Song of "peet-sa".


cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea
cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea

The cerulean warbler can be recognized by:

  • Body, with white lower parts (yellow in juveniles) and with blue uppers in male, olive green in females and juveniles;
  • Head, with white eyebrow in females;
  • Slurred chip call;
  • Song buzzy, high tzeedl-tzeedltzeedl-tititi-tzeeeeee or zray zray zray zray zeeee;
  • Sound buzzy dzzt/zeet in flight.


Outstanding Resource Water (ORW), Parfrey's 6-mile creek supports Class I brown trout population in upper 1.1 miles ~ Of state's 53,413 streams and rivers, only 254 (0.4755%) are designated as ORW.
brown trout (Salmo trutta) compete with predaceous diving beetles for caddisfly larvae.
brown trout (Salmo trutta) compete with predaceous diving beetles for caddisfly larvae.


Caddisflies and predaceous diving beetles are rare insects. Both favor clean, cool, shaded waters. But both also tolerate minimal nutrient, sediment and toxic pollution.

Northern casemaker caddisflies (Limnephilus rossi) begin life as eggs laid above-water on streamside plants. They live in water as caterpillar-like larvae and creek bottom-attached pupae. They surface as streamside-dwelling adults.

The larval head has almost invisible antennae and hardened, thick skin. The mid-body includes six segmented, thoracic legs. It is covered partially by a hardened top plate.

The soft-skinned abdomen has clawed prolegs. It is encased in a buoyant, portable, protective mineral case. With silk threads, the larva sticks together minerals which it chews into manageable pieces.

The case accounts for the name, which comes from the fifteenth-century word cadaz for “cotton, silk padding.” The meaning evolved into “worsted yarn ribbon.” Peddlars wore sample ribbons on their clothes.

Adults appear moth-like. They have hairy bodies and wings. Their heads include antennae and shorter palps near the mouthparts.

Predaceous diving beetles (Agabus confusus) have crescent-shaped larval bodies with hairy, long tails and six agile, segmented, thoracic legs. Their flat, square heads include large pincers capable of injecting digestive juices into wounds. Larvae leave the water to pupate in streamside mud graves for about a week. Adults live streamside where they and caddisflies are choice foods for birds, large insects, and mammals. Native Americans remember beetles as protein-rich, roasted, salted treats.


Mountain maple (Acer spicatum) and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) trees predominate in Parfrey's Glen, imbuing the site with the look of a more northerly locale.
mountain maple (Acer spicatum)
mountain maple (Acer spicatum)
Flora, Roman goddess of flowers and spring, symbolizes plant life ~ "Flora", 1894 oil on canvas by Evelyn Pickering de Morgan (August 30, 1855–May 2, 1919)(De Morgan Centre, London)
Florentine flowers on Flora's dress
Florentine flowers on Flora's dress

Parfrey's Glen: the Unique Flora

The plants in Parfrey's Glen can be described in two ways. On the one hand, the natural area contains vegetation which is becoming rare in North America. On the other, it gives an impression which is atypical of south-central Wisconsin. Specifically, the glen has the look of a locale in a more northerly location, what with its predominating mountain maple (Acer spicatum) and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) trees.

Mountain maples associate with moist, nutrient-rich, well-drained soils of:

  • Wooded bogs;
  • Cliffs;
  • Ravines.

They assume shrub-like appearances when they mature to heights of 10 feet (3.05 meters). Or they convey more tree-like looks -- with grayish brown, short but thick trunks; lush foliage; and many branches -- when they reach 27 feet (8.23 meters) in height. Either way, mountain maple grows:

  • Coarsely-toothed, oppositely-paired leaves which turn from light green to autumnal gold or red;
  • Pairs of red samara fruit in late summer and early fall.

It is esteemed in Native American culture for:

  • Bark tannins, for tanning leather;
  • Eye washes, from processed twigs;
  • Poultices, from boiled root parts;
  • Sugary sap, for maple syrup.


Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) is named for the smooth straw-colored peeling bark distinctive of its maturity; bark exudes aroma redolent of wintergreen; its leaves and twigs have a similarly pleasant flavor.
mature yellow birch
mature yellow birch

In contrast, yellow birch gives a sturdier impression, with:

Black-marked, flaking, yellow-bronzed bark;

Mature height of 66 to 99 feet (20.12 to 30.17 meters);

Trunk 3 feet (91.44 meters) in diameter.

Yellow birch twigs have a wintergreen scent. Its alternately-paired, finely-toothed leaves keep company with wind-pollinated catkin fruits and winged seeds in fall.

Nowadays, yellow birch wood processes easily into:

  • Cabinets;
  • Floors;
  • Toothpicks.
state and federally threatened plant, native to Iowa, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin
northern blue monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense):
northern blue monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense):


Amongst the northern-style vegetation are found such rare treasures as:

  • Northern blue monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense);
  • Round-stemmed false foxglove (Agalinis gattingeri).

Specifically, wild monkshood is on the list of nationally-threatened plants in the United States of America. Stemmed false foxglove is on the list of state-threatened plants in Wisconsin.

Wild monkshood appears along cool streams and on cliffs in environments characterized by cool air, soil and water. The blue, hooded flowers attract pollinating bumblebees in search of nectar and pollen. The flowers bloom between June and September. They produce the seeds by which wild monkshood reproduces. But wild monkshood also will reproduce by collateral tubers which spread from each parent tuber.


Northern blue monkshood abounds in the understory of junipers, birches, and maples in the glen.
gymnosporangium, a rust disease, on a juniper tree (Juniperus) in Parfrey's Glen
gymnosporangium, a rust disease, on a juniper tree (Juniperus) in Parfrey's Glen


Whereas wild monkshood is in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), round-stemmed false foxglove is in the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae). Round-stemmed false foxglove shares with other family members the production of specialized roots. It uses the roots to parasitize the grass and grass-like plants of cliffs and moist depressions for nutrients.

The leaves of round-stemmed false foxglove are paired oppositely. They exhibit the same light green color as branches and stems. The branches produce long-stemmed, pink, red-spotted tube-like flowers between late August and early October. The flowers require the presence of:

  • Bees for pollination;
  • Skinner's gerardia (Agalinis skinneriana) for self-pollination.

Visitors to Parfrey's Glen may also glimpse sulphur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), a Eurasian native with distribution in central and southern Europe, North Africa's mountainous areas, and central and western Asia. Its introduction into North America is undocumented. Its first known collection on the continent occurred in Toronto before 1900. By 1950 sulphur cinquefoil could be found throughout the northeastern United States and the Great Lakes region. It has been branded as a noxious weed in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, where it competes with other native Potentilla species.

Although fruits and leaves are both edible raw or cooked, a high tannin content of 17 to 22 percent dry weight imparts a noticeable astringency to its greenery. While not viable as forage for cattle, which tend to bypass the plant, sulphur cinquefoil may be targeted by rabbits (family Leporidae) for its leaves or by grouse (order Galliformes) for seeds. Ethnobotanical remedies based on Potentilla recta are featured in the natural medicine of Okanagan and Colville Native Americans, whose traditional territory centered on the border between British Columbia and Washington state. Remedies include a poultice of pounded leaves and stems for open sores and wounds as well as a leaf-based tea for diarrhea, dysentery, nausea, and sore throats.


Sulphur cinquefoil, considered a noxious weed in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, shows a sunny face in birch and maple canopy of Parfrey's Glen.
sulphur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), Parfrey's Glen:
sulphur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), Parfrey's Glen:



Each and every fauna and flora have tales to tell, and the spectacular geology of Parfrey's Glen provides a unique setting for interactions between visitors and this rich environment. Parfrey's Glen does not disappoint:  it enriches one and all. 


walkway at Parfrey's Glen in May
walkway at Parfrey's Glen in May



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


gorgeous gorge inside Parfrey's Glen
gorgeous gorge inside Parfrey's Glen

Sources Consulted

“Edible Botanicals Sulphur Cinquefoil.” YouTube video, 1:42. Posted by “GRCivDef”, April 3, 2012.

"Edible Wild Plants: Yellow Birch (Betula Alleghaniensis)." Emergency Outdoors. September 27, 2012.

  • Available at:

Endress, Bryan A., and Catherine G. Parks. "Element Stewardship Abstract for Potentilla recta L. Sulfur cinquefoil." The Nature Conservancy’s Wildland Invasive Plant Species Summaries. iMapInvasives: Sharing Information for Strategic Management. May 2004.

  • Available at:

"Lake Wisconsin Watershed (LW19)." Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources>Explore Wisconsin's Water>Gateway to Basins, Watersheds>Lower Wisconsin River Basin.

  • Available at: water/ basin/ lowerwis/watersheds/ lw19.pdf

"Outstanding and Exceptional Resource Waters." Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources>Topics>Wisconsin surface waters. Last revised: Tuesday April 24, 2012.

  • Available at: topic/ SurfaceWater/ orwerw.html

"Parfrey's Glen." Devil's Lake State Park: More Natural Areas. Last accessed May 29, 2012.

  • Available at: information-center/other-natural-areas/ parfreys-glen/

"Parfrey's Glen (No. 1)." Wisconsin State Natural Areas Program. Last accessed May 29, 2012.

  • Available at: org/ land/ er/ sna/ index.asp?SNA=1

"Sulphur Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta L)." Cherishlife on Fort Smith Area Plantlife > Edible Weeds. Cherishlife WordPress blog. Updated 4-27-12.

  • Available at:

Voshell, J. Reese, Jr. A Guide to the Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America. With Illustrations by Amy Bartlett Wright. Blacksburg, Virginia: McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, 2002.

Zouhar, Kris. “Potentilla recta.” In: Fire Effects Information System [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, 2003.

  • Available at:
"To see a world in a drop of water", to paraphrase first line, "To see a world in a grain of sand", in "Auguries of Innocence" (written c. 1803, published in 1863) by William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827)
droplet reflection: trees are reflected in drop of water at Parfrey's Glen
droplet reflection: trees are reflected in drop of water at Parfrey's Glen
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


DerdriuMarriner on 10/05/2013

Mira, I'm glad that you noticed the bird information since Parfrey's Glen is a wonderful place for appreciating our fine-feathered friends any time of the year. Thank you for visiting, commenting, and welcoming me back to Wizzley!

Mira on 10/04/2013

Wow! I just quickly skimmed the pictures but will come back to read the article. Love that you included some bird information as well. Welcome back to Wizzley! :)

DerdriuMarriner on 10/01/2013

It's worth the visit because among its most charming features are what I and my siblings always called "fairy waterfalls"! Thank you for visiting and commenting.

jptanabe on 10/01/2013

This place looks amazing! I'd love to visit, if I'm ever in Wisconsin.

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