The Real Ice Bowl
the Devil’s Punchbowl is a winter paradise
Say “Ice Bowl” to Wisconsinites, and you’ll inevitably conjure images of the legendary 1967 Packers-Cowboys football game. But there’s another Ice Bowl, this one in the Chippewa Valley, and each winter it’s far more tangible than the grainy NFL footage of yore. It’s called the Devil’s Punchbowl, an unusual – and unusually beautiful – geological formation just outside Menomonie, a short, 25-mile drive from Eau Claire.
In the summer, the Punchbowl is a scenic water-carved canyon near the banks of the Red Cedar River – a leafy, cool refuge ringed by stratified rock faces and marked by a small waterfall. Just a short detour from the Red Cedar State Trail, the Punchbowl is an ideal place to enjoy nature with a romantic stroll or a family outing.
In the winter, the water that trickles slowly over (and out of) the Punchbowl’s rocky rim is transformed into a curtain of ice. The tableau of massive, overlapping icicles calls to mind the glaciers that shaped so much of Wisconsin’s landscape. (In fact, the Punchbowl was formed by post-glacial flooding more than 10,000 years ago.) If you’re drawn to more fantastical imagery, it resembles Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude or perhaps the impenetrable, icy wall from Game of Thrones.
The tableau of massive, overlapping icicles calls to mind the glaciers that shaped so much of Wisconsin’s landscape. (In fact, the Punchbowl was formed by post-glacial flooding more than 10,000 years ago.) If you’re drawn to more fantastical imagery, it resembles Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude or perhaps the impenetrable, icy wall from Game of Thrones.
However, descriptions – or even photographs – hardly do the place justice. I was truly awestruck when I entered the ice-bound Punchbowl for the first time on a recent frigid but sunny Saturday morning. So was my 4-year-old son, who accompanied me on this midwinter adventure. We both thoroughly enjoyed scurrying around inside the Punchbowl, our boots crackling on the ice beneath, our eyes marveling at the ice above.
Once the site of community gatherings and college parties, a century ago the Devil’s Punchbowl was known as Black’s Ravine after its owner, Samuel Black. The origins of its current name are unclear. Elsewhere, unusual geological features are often named after Old Nick, such as the Devil’s Tower, the Devil’s Kitchen, or even the Devil’s Punch Bowl in England, so maybe the folks in Dunn County were just following a trend. (Or maybe they were tapped into something more sinister: To this day, stories about ghost and gnome sightings haunt the place.) There’s a chance it got its name from UW-Stout’s mascot, the Blue Devils. The university once owned the property, which also passed through the hands of the Town of Menomonie and Dunn County. Today, it’s a 2.9-acre scientific study owned by the West Wisconsin Land Trust.
The Punchbowl is just southwest of the city of Menomonie, near the west bank of the Red Cedar River. Take Highway 29 west from downtown Menomonie, then turn south onto Paradise Valley Road (410th Street). After about two miles, you’ll see a sign and a parking area on the east side of the road. It’s an easy spot to find – unless, like me, you leave your directions at home. (Fortunately, the bucolic scenery along what’s been officially designated by the state as a Rustic Road more than compensates for the temporary irritation of getting lost in the woods.)
As a plaque in the parking lot states, the Punchbowl is a fragile place, so please treat the plants, animals, and the landscape itself with respect. If you’re feeling adventurous, directly to the right of the parking area a small path leads down perilous concrete steps to an overlook where you can gaze down into the Punchbowl. (It’s here where you’ll also find a graffitied tunnel that allows water to flow under the road.) The route into the Punchbowl itself is less risky, but you’ll still want to keep you hands on the railings that flank the 90 wooden steps, especially when they’re coated with snow and ice. You’ll find the staircase at the end of a short trail east of the parking lot.
Once down the stairs, you’re enveloped in an icy swath of nature. Trees cling to the rocky walls, giving the Punchbowl both a wooden canopy in addition to its icy walls. Enjoy the interesting acoustics afforded by the rock walls which (nearly) surround you, or listen carefully for the gentle gurgle of the water that emerges from those walls and trickles beneath the ice under your feet. Despite the Devil’s Punchbowl’s fiendish name, you’ll likely find its beauty and solitude heavenly.