WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. – The Wisconsin Dells area never grew much in population. Its namesake city has never had more than 3,000 residents. Still, the Dells has been one of the Midwest’s most popular travel destinations since its founding in 1856.
Boats trips brought tourists in first because they liked the scenery. A wide variety of attractions followed, probably the best known being the Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show, which arrived in 1952 and just closed in 2020. Now the area justifiably bills itself as “The Waterpark Capital of the World” also has — among other things — a casino, fishing, wineries, go-kart tracks, zipline tours and horseback riding.
Oh, yes. There’s golf, too. There are 12 different golf experiences available, and don’t sell them short – literally.
There’s a nationwide trend to make courses more accessible, more appealing and less time-consuming, and the Dells is up front in shifting the focus from “traditional’’ play into a new direction.
The first course in the Dells was a nine-holer, Cold Water Canyon, at the Chula Vista Resort. It opened in 1923 and was later expanded to 18 holes. Despite its longevity Cold Water Canyon has become up to date thanks to shifts in the game. Short courses are the new in thing.
J.C. Wilson, who designed the front nine at Cold Water Canyon, and Dan Fleck, who created the back, put together a course that measures 6,027 yards from the back tees. That would be an extremely short course by any standards today, but the layout has tight driving holes and tricky greens. It’s no pushover.
The newest course isn’t, either, but it much better reflects the sign of the times. Trappers Turn, which already had three nine-holers, just opened 12North – the latest in the national movement towards the unusual. It doesn’t have nine or 18 holes; it has 12, and by next year it won’t even have any tees.
Trappers Turn’s nine-holers were designed by two-time U.S. Open champion and long-time Wisconsin native Andy North and the late Roger Packard. North was brought back to work with Craig Haltom in creating 12North. Haltom, owner of Oliphant Golf, found the site for Sand Valley, another Wisconsin facility that became a big hit after Chicago entrepreneur Mike Keiser became an investor.
A $1 million project, 12North was constructed during the heart of the pandemic.
“We were all going through Covid and had a whole lot of time,’’ said Patrick Steffes, general manager and director of golf at Trappers Turn. “We had a lot of fun with it. It gave us something to do when there wasn’t anything to do at all.’’
Land from one of the holes of the original 18 was used in the construction of 12North. The longest hole is No. 12 – a 114-yard finisher. The shortest is No. 10 at 54 yards. There were seven holes-in-one made in the first six weeks the course was open.
All the tees have mats now, but Steffes says they’ll be gone in the spring. Then the 12North will play like the tee-less H-O-R-S-E Course in Nebraska, where each player decides where to tee off.
“We travel a lot and steal some things,’’ said Steffes. “I don’t know if we copied from there or not, but we want golfers to play where they want. If they want to hit from 120 yards to these crazy greens, so be it.’’
Originally the plan was for a walking course. While some players do walk 12North cart paths have been installed and will remain, as the footing can be tricky on some points of the hilly property.
Trappers Turn, marked by some beautiful landscaping on and near the courses, also will soon open a one-acre lighted putting green and adding lodging is a strong consideration for down the road. Trappers Turn is the most complete golf facility in the Dells and has the longest hole – the 600-yard third on its Lake Course, but the best 18 holes may be at Wild Rock at Wilderness Resort, an early work of architects Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry. They later teamed up to created 2017 U.S. Open site Erin Hills, another Wisconsin gem.
Wild Rock also has a nine-hole short course, The Woods, that features an island green. Overall, the Dells has 142 holes of golf, and short is the byword. Christmas Mountain Village has a challenging par-3 course that measures 2,881 yards to supplement its championship 18-holer.
Fairfield Hills, in Baraboo, is owned by Barrington, Ill., resident Jim Tracy. Its 12-hole course can be played in three, six, nine, 12 or 18 hole loops and its practice range is the largest in the Dells area. Fairfield Hills also offers disc golf on a limited play basis.
“A very playable course,” said Tracy, who bought the place eight years ago. It depends on your interest in golf and the time you have available.”
Pinecrest, located near the downtown area of the Dells, has a par-3 course mixed in with an archery course with multiple shooting stations. Longest hole on the Pinecrest links is only 150 yards. Another nine-holer, Spring Brook, is situated amidst tall pines and can be more challenging.