This is the crème de la crème of the Dells. It captures the highlights and is really how you should experience it. Spring or Fall are really the best time to hit this trip as the Wisconsin Dells in summer will be much more congested.
Divided perfectly to highlight the best of the upper and lower dells, these 11.5 miles are full of breathtaking formations, bluffs, overhangs, nooks, crannies, inlets and outlets to discover. But in a canoe or kayak, you'll have the advantage to adventure on your own and the freedom to pilot your way amongst the rock formations on your own terms.
We really recommend doing both the upper and lower but if you’re looking for just a good half-day trip, the upper dells has the edge on the formations and bluffs (and they’re more concentrated).
What Makes It Great
Outlined here are two equidistant sections from the dam in downtown Dells that captures the heart and soul of the Wisconsin Dells without the fluff of long, wide and arguably less-scenic, (in comparison to the dells, that is) river paddling.
Evenly split, with 5.75 miles upstream and down- of the dam, keep in mind that the mileage may be identical but if you’re going to check out all the hidden gems (and you should because that’s the fun of it), you’ll put on a few more traversing the river.
The upper dells starts wide on your approach to the Palisades on river-right which mark the unofficial beginning of the Upper Dells. Just beyond these, is Stand Rock, the rock formation made famous by photographer H. H. Bennett. Modest rock-cut banks flank river-left which gradually lead to larger, eroded rock walls that continue all the way to the entrance of Witches Gulch, the first side channel you should explore.
In higher water levels, you can make your way up to the tourist point of Witches Gulch and paddle through a little slot canyon. Around Witches Gulch is where you’ll encounter boat traffic for the Upper Dells (as well as speedboats and jet skies) and the traffic will increase as you make your way towards downtown.
From Witches Gulch to Rood’s Glen, the river narrows. Steamboat rock, perhaps my favorite little diversion, is a rugged little island with some amazing rock erosions. This island also signals the beginning of an even narrower section which leads to the mouth of Cold Water Canyon on river-left (another boat tour stop and a must-explore side channel) and the northernmost channel of Blackhawk Island on river-right.
These two openings indicate the beginning of "the narrows", which is just that, a much narrower part of the river. Here, not only boat traffic but the natural constriction of the river can make for a splashier go of it. At the end of the narrows is Devil’s Elbow which brings about even more stunning formations and crevices to paddle into. It’s probably the prettiest part of the upper dells. The river then widens again at the southern edge of Blackhawk Island.
After that, shelf-structures line the entire length of the left bank, past Chimney Rock, to the Jaws of the upper dells which are flanked by distinguished formations known as Romance Cliff and High Rock. Just past that is a really enjoyable stretch of intimate overhangs to paddle under.
The river widens again as you head towards downtown, and boat traffic increases as they make there way to and from the docks. Soon you'll pass under a train tressle and the Broadway/Highway 23 bridge. Just past the bridge is the dam. Stay river-left along the shore heading into town, where the access point is clearly marked.
The portage is .3 miles and is best conquered with some help as it’s a bit challenging. Not so much the terrain but the length of it, so pace yourself. You’ll make your way up a ramp, down Finnegan Avenue and then down through a small parking area where a trail leads to the river.
After the interruption of the dam and the portage, you’re again surrounded by the now familiar and rugged landscape of the Dells, with a beautiful beach setting and rock formations at your backside.
Boat traffic resumes and it's a little more congested because in the lower dells, you'll have the added presence of the Wisconsin Ducks (which bring about more wakes to ride). The river’s width continues consistent for most of the run, only getting wider near the take-out. There’s a pretty stretch past Echo Point but soon, resorts become more evident heading past the Lake Delton area. At a very scenic bend is a fittingly-named cliff feature, Hawk’s Bill, a jagged piece of rock that looks like just that, a hawk's beak.
Shortly after are some shallows on river-right. Hugging the shore will eventually lead you to A) an amazing rock feature to paddle through and B) an amazing feature to paddle through under somebody’s property. These are known as Sugar Bowl and Grotto Rock.
After Sugar Bowl, the tour continues towards the last of the notable features. Both sides of the river are flanked with cliffs but river-left has a continuous stretch of formations known as the Inkwells. These continue all the way to Lone Rock, where you may have to wait for a Wisconsin Duck to circumnavigate before you’re able to continue around it yourself.
From there, the river gradually gets wider and there’s a long and uneventful stretch. Soon, you’ll find the access point at Norway Drive, a convenient concrete boat landing with ample parking, on river-left.
Post-Paddle Diversions: Aside from the usual (and unusual) amusement of classic Dells attractions and water parks, there are a seemingly endless amount of natural curiosities to explore in and around the area. Mirror Lake State Park deserves a visit and offers paddling opportunities (if you’re looking to treat yourself, you must visit Ishnala supper club, overlooking Mirror Lake - it’s wonderful). Of course, not too far away is the insanely-popular Devil’s Lake State Park, with an East and West bluff that offer some of the best hiking trails in the area. Down the road from there is the beautiful Parfrey’s Glen (the DNR no longer takes care of it but you can still hike it). And these are just a few ideas.
Who is Going to Love It
Those infatuated, or conversely, curious about the dells from the vantage point of a self-propelled boat will love this. There’s so much to explore and photograph along this historic stretch, amongst some of the most breathtaking scenery in Wisconsin. Take advantage of the changing season and the colors of the turn and plan for peak or near-peak color change for the ultimate experience.
Who won’t love it are those looking for peace and quiet on a leisurely paddle - it won’t be found here. The boats and Ducks and speedboats and jet skis are a reality of this stretch (and the lifeblood for many in the Dells). Make the most of it, enjoy the journey and consider yourself lucky to have the freedom to do it at your own pace and schedule.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Put-In at River Bay Campground, River Bay Road, Lyndon Station, Wisconsin: The put-in is located at River Bay Campground. The large landing is an ideal place to launch due to its proximity to the Palisades. A $5 fee is required to use it but it's worth the convenience (there is a self-registration box located near the dock).
Take-Out at Norway Drive, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: Norway Drive makes for a convenient take-out. It’s a concrete boat landing with ample parking but no facilities, located just off County Road O.
Extended Trips: If you only did the upper, do the lower or vice versa.