Swimming at Devil's Lake is fantastic. After hiking around the lake and seeing views like the one above, make sure you save time to enjoy the cool refreshment of one of the Midwest's most scenic natural swimming locales.
The lake is fairly shallow, so it warms up fairly quickly and generally has a nice, soft bottom - sometimes sandy, sometimes silty. There are a few weeds here and there, but nothing too off-putting. The Park forbids gasoline engines on the Lake, so boats either have slow, electric trolling motors or are powered by wind or human muscle. In other words, you can swim across the lake without worrying you'll be fun over. You might hear stories or see signs about swimmer's itch, but don't let that scare you off. Just make sure to scrub hard in the shower after you get out, and you'll probably be okay. I've never had a problem (but maybe I'm not sensitive?).
The beaches can get REALLY crowded on summer and holiday weekends, but it can be fun hanging out with the throngs. And if you want to find some solitude, it's never too far off. You have three main options for swimming at Devil's Lake:
North Shore Beach
Why You Should Go
Excellent Sand Quality and Quantity - The North Shore has the best sand, it being a finer sand that feels better on the feet and builds better sand castles than the South Beach sand. There is also a lot more of it, with probably 400 - 600 feet of sandy lake frontage.
The Chateau - North Shore Beach is home to The Chateau, a reminder of the sprawling resort and entertainment complex that existed here 100 years ago. The Chateau offers a cafe with a grill, deli, ice cream and beer/wine offerings, as well as small shop with camping supplies, t-shirts, and naturalist books on offer. The Chateau hosts a fish fry on Friday nights throughout summer, and two Saturdays each month the Hal Edwards Orchestra commands the huge dance floor with a great selection of big band music. The Chateau is classic Devil's Lake, don't miss it.
Close to Camp - If you are camping, you can walk or bike to the beach in 10-30 minutes, depending on your campsite location. Take a break from the car and enjoy the stroll!
South Shore Beach
Why You Should Go
Water Depth - If you look at the Devil's Lake depth map (below) you can see the North Shore beach deepens very slowly. South Shore Beach has a more normal gradient, so you can be over your head 50 yards from shore.
Good Evening Sun - Sitting on the southeast corner of Devil's Lake, South Shore beach stays sunny and warm late in the day, right up until the sun dips down over the southwest hills.
Close to the Best Climbing - South Shore Beach sits just below Balanced Rock climbing area, and the Doorway Massif and East Rampart are just a little further east. Spend the day climbing, then stop by the beach to cool off before cruising back home.
More Parking - On crowded weekends, you'll find a lot more parking at the South Shore Picnic Area than anywhere else in the Park.
Shelters - The South Shore area has seven great shelters you can reserve for your gathering at very reasonable prices ($45 - 100 per day). Ranging from open-air pavilions to fully enclosed and heated buildings, the shelters are great for picnics, family reunions, and even weddings.
West and East Talus Beaches
If you know how to read the depth map (below right), you can see Devil's Lake is much deeper on its western and eastern margins than the north and south sides. This is because the talus (boulder) fields dive right into the lake, creating a steep slope on either side. Not every place along these shores is a good one, but with some research you may be able to find a great spot for more adventurous swimming and sunbathing. Access is easier and more ample on the western shore, via the Tumbled Rocks trail. There is also a really nice swimming spot across the railroad tracks and just north of Railroad Amphitheater.
Why You Should Go
Good Jumping & Diving - Hucking into the water off the boulders on Devil's Lake's western and eastern shores is not safe. If you dive off and hit a rock, you can be paralyzed or die. When managed carefully, however, it can be super fun. Please check the depth thoroughly before doing any boulder jumping to make sure the landing area is clear. If you have any doubt, skip it.
Solitude - It can be impossible to find a quiet beach spot on a crowded weekend, but the lakeside boulders offer lots of nooks and crannies for a little peace of mind.
Rock Scrambling - Just scrambling along the shore along the Tumbled Rocks trail is a joy unto itself. Bring good shoes for scrambling, as flip-flops won't cut it and bare feet are asking for a mangling.
Other Places to Swim Near Devil's Lake
Southern Wisconsin's soft sandstone generally makes for poor swimming holes, but nearby Pewit's Nest is an gorgeous exception. Other good swimming locales include Mirror Lake State Park (about 20 minutes by car) or any particularly deep bend in the Baraboo River. One of my favorite places to swim near Baraboo is the Wisconsin River, where a day or weekend canoe trip provides ample opportunity to drift along in warm water with a nice, sandy bottom.