Wisconsin River: Lower Wisconsin Riverway—Flat Water Paddling

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Summary

The last 92 miles of the Wisconsin River offer some of the best kayak and canoe camping in Wisconsin.

Written by

Barry Kalpinski

Distance

92.0 miles

With numerous access points, you can easily tailor your mileage.

Destination Distance From Downtown

22.6 miles

Difficulty

2 of 5 diamonds

92 miles captures a variety of paddling scenarios. In general, it’s more like flat water paddling but a river of this magnitude can have cross-currents that one should be aware of and in low-water, it’s important to be able to read the river to avoid running aground on a sandbar.

Time To Complete

0 days

Seasonality

Spring, Summer, and Fall

Dog Friendly

Yes

Fees Permits

No

Land Website

Milespaddled.com

Review

Intro

In 1989, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway was created to protect the last free-flowing 92 miles to the confluence of the Mississippi River for recreational purposes and to help protect natural wildlife habitats. From Prairie Du Sac to just south of the city of Prairie Du Chien, the river is un-dammed with no man-made barriers to disrupt the flow. Of course, the river's water levels are greatly impacted by the slightest rain which can produce some unpredictable height and current. Consequently, almost no paddle will be the same as water levels change daily.

Water levels really are everything and dictate the time it will take you to paddle (more water = more flow = quicker paddling), the availability of camping (more water = less sandbars) and it definitely affects the fishing (if that's something you're considering). At higher water levels, the strength of the currents are often pushy. Even at lower levels, sudden drop-offs and undertow are something to be aware of (always swim upstream of sandbars for added precaution).

If the water level is low, you’ll find yourself zigging and zagging, searching for the deepest channels and putting on extra mileage while traversing the river back and forth. This can make for an exhausting paddle if you're not prepared for it and if you have headwinds to contend with, it can add to the discomfort.

An appealing aspect to the Lower Wisconsin is the freedom to camp practically anywhere. That makes this a very popular canoe and kayak destination for multiple night trips. On the lower 92 miles, no permits are needed to camp as long as you're on a sandbar or island. Technically, the banks are off limits since they are usually privately-owned but sandbars are plentiful when the water is low.

Two considerations, one in your control, and the other not so much, is wind and holiday weekends. Headwinds can make for a much tougher go of it, while holiday weekends, (often the most convenient time to paddle a trip) are usually busy and will often make for a more congested river, especially further upstream (closer to Sauk) and less so as it moves down to the Mississippi.

And of course, weather is important to keep an eye on when planning to paddle the lower 92. Storms can suddenly sneak up on you. If you’re camping on a sandbar, keep your kayaks tied down incase the water rises. We once woke to find that our sandbars were gone except for a tiny strip of land where we had placed our fire the previous evening. When looking back at the gauge (in height, feet) the water rose from 1.27 to 1.40 which was a pretty substantial change. It was a learning moment.

For planning purposes, what’s a good distance for day trip? In normal current, 8-12 miles is a realistic amount of distance to attempt in a day and is our (personal) general rule-of-thumb. That of course, again, depends on water level and wind which will always affect a canoe or kayak trip on a river as wide as this one.

What Makes It Great

92 miles of unimpeded river, all culminating at the confluence to the mighty Mississippi and the beautiful Wyalusing State Park make this a wonderful endeavor. And the solitude you'll experience and the multiple access points make this an incredible destination for paddlers. That's the great thing about the lower Wisconsin, river access is plentiful which makes adjusting the route to suit your plans very easy.

Let’s break it down into randomly chosen (and paddled) but manageable sections:

Prairie Du Sac to Arena (14.25 Miles)

Due to its proximity to Madison (and therefore, denser population) this uppermost section of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway is the most traveled. In fact, a third of the river’s use is within the first 30 miles of the dam. It’s sometimes overlooked for quiet water enthusiasts for that same, populated reasoning, but it’s definitely a paddle worth consideration, be it for a day trip or the start of a longer journey. It’s an incredibly scenic section and there’s lots of wildlife and numerous sandbars to camp on.

The train bridge just a mile into the trip is definitely something to be prepared for. The water is channeled into a narrow and very forceful section under the trestle, which results in some strange currents at certain water levels.

A point of interest midway through on river-right is Ferry Bluff State Natural Area where a beautiful bluff suddenly towers hundreds of feet along a mostly flat stretch. On the opposite side (river-left) resides Mazomanie Nude Beach. It's a wide area in the river so you won't have any problem steering clear if it’s a concern (just keep looking river-right because the bluffs are gorgeous). Also, there is no camping one mile upstream or downstream from the beach. The DNR says the islands are posted. We’ve never located any of the signs but maybe they're posted in conspicuous places on those surrounding islands. The last stretch, heading towards Arena, you'll find many sandbars and small islands to navigate.

Arena to Gotham (25.5 Miles)

Just like the upper stretch, you’ll no doubt, have more company on the water due to the proximity to the Sauk/Baraboo/Madison area. 

The first 13 miles are what we've come to expect from the Wisconsin River. Huge sandbars and swift-moving water. You’ll soon pass under a train trestle which indicates you’re approaching Highway 14 and Spring Green, where you’ll start seeing the bluffs of Tower Hill State Park on river-left. You may also witness bridge jumpers if it’s a holiday weekend. There’s a couple options for take-outs, one at Tower Hill and Peck’s Boat landing in Spring Green.

Small islands and low banks continue. Past Highway 130/133 and around a long island, aptly named “Long Island”, (which also indicates the Lone Rock area) you’ll find a stretch of beautiful rock walls and bluffs, arguably the most scenic on the trip.

I should note, due to my fear of the reptilian variety, that the area around Gotham seems to be a popular habitat for the Northern Water Snake. They’re harmless but it's a little frightening to see one swimming alongside your boat or even visit your camp because the size of them can be quite alarming. Once, we had a persistent snake visit us multiple times while camping on an island (we must've been on his island). You’ll commonly see them sunning on the rocks at the take-out in Gotham.

Gotham to Boscobel (23.5 Miles)

This section has less bluffs and geologic scenery as other sections but it makes up for it with a more remote feel and enough wildlife to keep it interesting. You’ll surely spot some eagles, bass jumping and carp surfacing. In fact, the Wisconsin is one of my favorite place to fish. You never know what you’ll catch.

Just past the put-in, Avoca State Wildlife Area begins. The tall grasses give the banks a very priarie-like feel. About halfway to Muscoda, you’ll pass some limestone outcrops. Past Muscoda, (where there’s another access point) the river is mostly straight and there are many islands leading up to the very large Coumbe Island which indicates the Blue River Boat Landing. 

The rest final leg of this journey is dotted with larger islands which offer many different channels to navigate. You’ll eventually see some bluffs on river-right which indicate you’re closing in on Boscobel.

Boscobel to Wyalusing State Park (31.25 Miles)

The last section before the confluence with the Missisippi River is less-traveled and feels the most secluded since it’s further from Madison and it’s by far the most alluring for those reasons. At times, you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere. And wildlife surrounds you. If you like bald eagles, you'll see plenty. If you like to fish, you'll have plenty of opportunity as well.

Easter Rock bluff is the highlight at the put-in but throughout most of the trip, bluffs are usually kept at a distance. Much like the preceding section, there are numerous larger islands to weave around. The river starts to feel much wider past Bridgeport on your way to the meeting with the mighty Mississippi.

Depending on water levels, the majority of the trip will offer numerous sandbars until a few miles before heading into the Mississippi, where the bottom drops out in sections and it gets very deep (once, I literally watched an entire tree move swiftly beneath my kayak heading up river - talk about strange currents).

On your approach to the confluence, bluffs on river-left indicate the northern point of Wyalusing State Park. Entering the Mississippi River is a unique part of this trip. Be cautious of boat traffic as you approach as the resulting waves and wakes will surely keep you on your toes. Make your way river-left until you see signs for the Wyalusing trail (it’s not well-marked). You’ll weave your way through the Wyalusing backwaters to the take-out.

I should note that this section is far too much paddling for a 2-day trip. This is definitely a 3-day paddle which would allow for a much more leisurely trip (and a lot more sandbar time). Also of note, though we’re a fan of bike-shuttling, there is really only one direct route from put-in to take-out and it’s on some steep terrain so we wouldn't recommend it.

Post-Paddle Diversions: There’s a lot to explore in the towns and cities surrounding this stretch, from the natural curiosities and great hiking at Ferry Bluff State Natural Area and Wyalusing State Park, to the farm markets, the classic Wisconsin Supper Clubs, the eclectic music scene of Spring Green, the historic home of Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesen and of course House on the Rock, to even the home of Colby Jack cheese. And that’s the just tip of the iceberg because of course, there’s also plenty more paddling opportunities in the area.

Who is Going to Love It

Paddlers of all skill levels, especially flat water paddlers and those who want to experience multiple-night trips will love the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. If you love to canoe, kayak and camp, any section on the lower Wisconsin River is well worth it. It's a must-paddle destination and we are lucky to have this gem.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

In general, the put-ins and take-outs, of which there are many along the lower 92, are well-maintained and easily accessible.

Prairie Du Sac to Arena (14.25 Miles)

Put-In at VFW Veterans Memorial Park, Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin: The put-in at Veterans Memorial Park is a hidden little park off Water Street/Highway 78 with lots of parking, camping and a view of the dam (as well as an old military helicopter to set the mood).

Take-Out at Arena Boat Landing, Arena, Wisconsin: The take-out in Arena is a popular place to put-in for canoe rentals. It has a traditional boat landing as well as a designated canoe landing located on a sandy beach. There are facilities too.

Arena to Gotham (25.5 Miles)

Put-In at Arena Boat Landing, Arena, Wisconsin: The put-in in Arena is a popular place to put-in for canoe rentals. It has a boat landing but also a separate canoe launch which is spacious and easy to access. It's probably one of the best we've encountered on the river so far. 

Take-Out at Lone Rock Public Boat Landing, Gotham, Wisconsin: The take-out at Gotham is a nice landing but the parking can be a little challenging. There's also a posted sign that says "No Overnight Parking" but that doesn't seem to stop anybody. Watch for snakes that like to sun themselves on the rocks at the landing.

Gotham to Boscobel (23.5 Miles)

Put-In at Lone Rock Public Boat Landing, Gotham, Wisconsin: The put-in at Gotham is a nice landing. The parking can be a little challenging and there is a sign that says "No Overnight Parking" but that doesn't seem to stop anybody.

Take-Out at Floyd Von Haden Boat Landing, Boscobel, Wisconsin: The take-out at the Floyd Von Haden boat landing in Boscobel is a fantastic access point, one of the best on the entire stretch of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. The parking is plentiful and there's easy ramp access to the water.

Boscobel to Wyalusing State Park (31.25 Miles)

Put-In at Floyd Von Haden Boat Landing, Boscobel, Wisconsin: The put-in at the Floyd Von Haden boat landing in Boscobel is a fantastic start to this section with lots of parking and an easy inlet with ramp access to the water.

Take-Out at Wyalusing State Park: The take-out at Wyalusing State Park is a traditional boat landing. They do of course, require a State Park sticker (or day sticker) to access it.

Extended Trips: The great part of the Lower Wisconsin is its accessibility which makes tailoring your trip easy. It's easy for daytrips and easy for overnights. The closer you put-in to Prairie Du Sac, the more crowds you’ll find along the way. Holiday weekends can make finding the perfect campsite challenging so keep an open mind. 

It's hard to choose our favorite section of the Lower Wisconsin. Every trip was a different experience. The Boscobel to Wyalusing section felt the most remote but we tried to paddle too far in too short of time. Gotham to Boscobel was the busiest but we still had fun. We found our favorite camping area on our Arena to Gotham paddle and we probably enjoyed our best weather on our last journey from Prairie Du Sac to Arena. We highly recommend starting in Prairie and working your way down, a section at a time.

Related Links: Overview | Trip Report: Prairie Du Sac to Arena | Trip Report: Arena to Gotham | Trip Report: Gotham to Boscobel | Trip Report: Boscobel to Wyalusing State Park

Location

Wisconsin River: Lower Wisconsin Riverway

43.29785, -89.72676

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