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. 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 morning.
Once the site of community gatherings and college parties, the Devil’s Punchbowl is now a three-acre scientific study owned by the West Wisconsin Land Trust. You’ll see the parking area on the east side of Paradise Valley Road (410th Street) about two miles south of Highway 29. 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. 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.