Kickapoo River: Ontario to Rockton—Flat Water Paddling

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The Kickapoo river is one of the premier paddling destinations in all of Wisconsin. With easy access, camping opportunities and stunning rock formations, it’s a bucket-list destination.

Written by

Barry Kalpinski


12.5 miles

Destination Distance From Downtown

74.6 miles


2 of 5 diamonds

The Kickapoo has been know for being crooked and twisty but even beginner paddlers should be able to handle the twists and turns this stretch has to offer.

Time To Complete

0 hours


Spring, Summer, and Fall

Dog Friendly


Fees Permits


If you park at the put-in within the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, their is a $4.00 parking fee (unless you're camping, in which case, the parking fee is included with your campsite fee). You'll find a self-registration box at the landing.

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The Kickapoo is an absolutely gorgeous river that flows through one of the most beautiful areas of Wisconsin. By canoe or kayak, you must experience the paddle from Ontario to Rockton. It's as pretty and scenic as a paddle gets in Wisconsin.

What Makes It Great

The Kickapoo is a stunning paddle that'll leave you in awe (and will no doubt, make you a fan) of the driftless region.

To paddle this for the first time is a special experience as rounding every bend brings something new. The river gently meanders back and forth between beautiful sand and limestone cliffs. It's riffly and sometimes the current can get a little pushy but it's generally a leisurely paddle. There is one short little drop about a mile into the trip but there's nothing too significant otherwise. 

The water is quite clear and is often shallow but it does have sudden drop-offs especially where the current meets rock walls and tight turns. It's mostly sandy-bottomed but you’ll encounter some rocky areas as well and you'll find some sand that takes on the personality of mud.

The Kickapoo offers much more than geologic-love. It's also home to many species of flora and fauna unique to the valley. We didn't spot any of the rare turtles (as expected) but we did come across hawks, bald eagles, cranes, muskrat and cows (the cows were polite and moved up the riverbank in a brisk manner). We saw evidence of fish that we assume were trout (restoration efforts have made this a popular trout stream once again) as evidenced by the snapping of insects on the surface of the water. 

We paddled this section on a Friday and didn't come across any other signs of human life but you'll usually have company on the weekends. It felt remote but in reality, we always knew we were just around the bend from another bridge or take-out and you'll hear the sounds of vehicles throughout. That’s because, unique to both sections of the Kickapoo (Ontario to Rockton, Rockton to LaFarge) are twenty bridges which are nearly perfectly spaced. They are almost all clearly marked from the road as well as from the water, which makes map-reading particularly easy.

The beauty of the entire Ontario to LaFarge stretch, which are the most popular section(s), is that they can be conveniently split into 2-day trips or combined as an overnight. The Kickapoo allows first-come, first-served primitive camping (which means inhabiting the campsite with some gear). Many, if not most of the sites are paddle-in only. The paddle-in factor makes the process a little bit luck-of-the-draw but if your spot is taken, or you find another one along the way, simply change the campsite letter on your slip. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve recognizes that you paid for camping and may have to move if your chosen site is occupied. The campsites on the Kickapoo are the definition of primitive, much like Lower Wisconsin River camping. Be prepared to pack-in and pack-out and have a saw handy for downed wood to burn. And bring a shovel.

We camped at the beautiful campsite W, located on a hair-pin turn, up a steep bank, with two gorgeous limestone walls surrounding us. It definitely made my top-five favorite campsites based on sure beauty. At night, we were serenaded by the sounds of coyotes. 

The Kickapoo is more stunning with every stroke that carries you downriver. Of the two sections we paddled, we had the slightest preference for this upper Ontario to Rockton section. They are both incredibly similar but there was just something a little more unique and grand about the first 12.5 miles. 

But you shouldn't have to choose if you're already in the area. We recommend you make it an overnight and continue down through the beautiful Rockton to LaFarge section as well. It's truly a remarkable journey and you’ll no doubt, revisit it again.

Post-Paddle Diversions: Wildcat Mountain State Park is small but it’s proximity to the Kickapoo makes it a convenient camping option pre- or post-paddle. Moving south, a stop at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve is definitely in order. It’s a beautiful facility and if you haven’t stopped to pay for camping or grab a map, you should visit just to soak up some history of the area. Even further south, in LaFarge, you'll also find the home of Organic Valley Co-op.

Who is Going to Love It

If you've ever thought about what an idyllic setting would be for canoeing or kayaking, this is it. Beginners and pros will love it but nature-enthusiasts may not due to the weekend crowds who may bring a less than one-with-nature attitude to the party.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Between bridges #1 and #12 are three convenient landings off Highway 131 (five if you include the landings at #1 and #12) and one off County Highway P. The stretch between bridge #4 and #5 is the longest you'll paddle without seeing a bridge as you make your way through the land of Wildcat Mountain State Park. The park has its own landing simply called "Wildcat". All the landings between bridge #1 and #20 are excellent, offering a pit toilet, registration stations and garbage and recycling cans. Having these numerous access points makes it incredibly easy to tailor your day paddles. 

Put-In at Landing 1: Ontario, Wisconsin: The put-in at Ontario (the proudly-proclaimed "Canoe Capital of the Kickapoo") is just north of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve boundaries so there is no need to pay for parking. Here, you’ll find numerous outfitters too, should you need to rent or grab a shuttle.

Take-Out at Landing 12: Rockton, Wisconsin: The take-out, like all the access points are well-developed and made for easy access with a concrete ramp and facilities at most. The take-out is within the boundaries of the Reserve so a $4.00 parking fee is required unless you're camping, in which case, parking is included.

Extended Trips: If you’ve paddled the Ontario to Rockton section, Rockton to LaFarge is the next must-paddle section to check out. But we highly recommend paddling the entire Ontario to LaFarge stretch while camping in-between.

Related Links: 2012 Trip Report | Video | 2014 Trip Report (Rockton to LaFarge) | Video (Rockton to LaFarge) | 2015 Trip Report (Landing 4 to Landing 14)


Kickapoo River: Ontario to Rockton

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