Wisconsin River
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wisconsin River V

By on June 28, 2011

Lyndon Station to Wisconsin Dells
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A must-do for any paddler, this trip on the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River is where water and gorgeous rock formations collide on one of the prettiest stretches of water anywhere in the state.

June 1, 2011

Class Difficulty:

Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 7,270

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. Water levels are almost always reliable on the Wisconsin.

Cliff House Road Public Landing, (at the confluence of Lemonweir and Wisconsin), Lyndon Station, Wisconsin
Finnegan Avenue Public Landing, (by power plant before dam) Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 3:20p. Out at 6:50p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 11.5

What we liked:
The scenic grandeur of the upper Dells section of the Wisconsin River is unparalleled, where the geological past is duly ogled by the living present. Sandstone cliffs and turrets, sculpted by wind and wave, predominate mile after mile. Pine trees manage to cling with a toe-hold above these pocked cliffs, above which turkey vultures and bald eagles soar. There are back channels and secret nooks to keep the trip more personal and private, or promises for future explorations. Anthropomorphic figurines seem carved and incarnate in the rocky shelves.

Fabled and phenomenal, this stretch of river is truly legendary, and for good reason. It’s simply spectacular. There are so many features to see and admire, from the first 50 yards to the very end: petroglyphs at the former, the Jaws at the latter (where the narrow caverns open up, like coming out of a tunnel of haunting mystery). And the lovely, alluring Blackhawk Island in between to paddle off the beaten path (water too narrow for large boats to tread through) and find a strand of beachy sand to stop and have a picnic, or stretch out your legs (and back) and hike some on this rather huge spot of dry land.

What we didn’t like:
In a word, tourists. Silent sport enthusiasts and nature lovers are not the only ones who pay homage to this unique landscape. Once the river narrows (more on this below), tour boats are ubiquitous (some the official Ducks, others just commercial knock-offs). Yes, it’s annoying overhearing the microphoned formulaic script narrated by the boat’s captain full of awful clichés and bad jokes to a captive audience of tourists who begin gawking at you. More annoying and potentially dangerous, are the waves caused by these large vessels, especially the knock-off ones which, perhaps making up for lacking the original cachet of the Ducks boats (which operate also as land vehicles that can drive on the road – they were designed for amphibious use in World War II), the knock-offs take careless pride in hotdogging on the river, particularly hydroplaning (and giving those on board a fun splash). The wake created by these stunts is especially formidable.

This section of the river is quite varied. If you looked at it from a satellite (and did so with a little imagination), it might resemble a snake that’s swallowed a liter bottle of pop. Where the Lemonweir empties out into the Wisconsin, the river is modest in its width, maybe about 75 yards wide, and remains so for the first 3 miles. After this the river widens considerably for another two miles until it just flat out resembles a big lake. Personally, I’m not much of a fan of lake paddling; the current is slow to a trickle, and if it’s windy, you’re either gonna get wet or pushed off course (or both). The “lake” section is three miles long and it can be grueling.

For the most part, the surrounding environs are flat and ordinary, with some exceptions – notably Louis Bluff, which jutts out prominently river right after the first mile. There’s really no getting around this section, which is unfortunate. There are a couple alternative put-ins on both sides of the river but they’re private and will charge a fee. I’m a frugal fellow and refuse to enable such extortion. (That said, the first time I ever paddled this upper section I did use the landing at the Holiday Shores Campground and Resort. It was one of those anomalous 70-degree sunny days in late October, and the place was deserted. I figured it was off-season and none was the wiser. It did cut two miles and change off the lake section, but you still had to contend with roughly ¾ of a mile of wide, windy, wet water. But it’s worth it, so very worth it!)

However, one caveat must be obliged. Where the river narrows again (and it does so abruptly) there’s nothing subtle about it. There’s potential for danger, entirely depending on the traffic on the river. I’ve done this stretch now three times, in October, May, and June but I would never paddle this in the zenith of the summer season. It would just be too spoiled by the throngs and I have never encountered any safety issues over high or turbulent water.

The official (and sacrosanct) Paddling Southern Wisconsin, by Mike Svob, cautions about this section in no uncertain terms. Many websites I’ve looked up about this section also warn the reader about the danger. Again, I’ve never experienced it and I’m nothing more than an amateur paddler. I’ve anticipated danger and braced myself for it but have not once encountered it. Common sense dictates not to paddle too close to the sandstone walls when there’s heavy traffic on the river. Otherwise, I don’t know what the worry is.

Finally, there’s the kitsch and gaudy over-the-top madcap splurge of Wisconsin Dells, epicenter of summer tourism in Wisconsin. It’s loud and garish and all but impossible to drive anywhere, with so many people walking in the streets downtown. (It can literally take 10 minutes to drive half a mile, between all the traffic lights and crosswalks, carnival barkers and cotton candy dandies.) Depending on where you’re coming from, as well as where you take out, you can circumvent most of the morass. (See Shuttle info below.)

If we did this trip again:
I will! The first time I did so was late October in 2009 and I have done it twice since. Tourism and kitsch aside, this is one of my all-time favorite places to paddle.

Related Information:
Wisconsin River VI: Dekorra to Whalen Bay
Wisconsin River VII: Downtown Dells to Norway Drive
Wisconsin River IX: Lyndon Station to Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin River XI: Portage to Dekorra
Wisconsin River XIII: Pine Island to Portage
Wisconsin River XIV: River Bay Road to Norway Drive
Article: Kilbourn Dam: Madison.com
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Photos: Vintage Dells Photos: Wisconsin Historical Society
Photos: Rock Formations: Vintage Wisconsin Dells
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River


Shuttle Information:

Because there are no bridges across the river in between Highway 82 and 13/23 by the dam, you’ll have to decide whether to stay east of the river or west. I always take my bicycle along and make the expedition a pedal-and-paddle. Whether east or west, the trip is easy and safe.

If West via Bicycle: Take the bridge over the river, then turn Right onto Stand Rock Road. At dead end, turn Right on County N. For the next few miles this same road is alternately called County N and 28th Ave S. It’s confusing but just keep on it and don’t turn off until directed. Past 60th St (on left) and then 61st St (right), you’ll want to bear Left onto 28th Avenue/County N (if you go straight, the road is technically 61st St (again!) but become a dead end). Soon you’ll see signs for Stand Rock on the right and it’s well worth exploring! Continue heading north on 28/N. Eventually the road will swing to the left. Soon after this turn the road will split again; bear right this time onto County N (if you veer left, it’s 64th St.) A little after 28th Street and County N will split; stay north on 28th Street. The road will then kink to the left again and you’ll cross a small stream. Once more you’ll come to a dead end; turn Left onto 60th Street. (60th? I know, it’s confusing!) Turn immediately Right onto 28th Street. Continue north on 28th past 58th St. After 56th Street, you’re almost there! Turn Right onto Cliff House Road immediately after 56th St. Take the third Left (it’s unnamed but after “Wisconsin Trail”) and go down the hill leading to the landing.

If West via Car: The easiest thing to do is take 13 westward, back to the interstate. Hop back on 90/94 West. At exit 79, County HH, turn right at the off-ramp. Take County HH north until it intersects with 56th St; turn Right. Take 56th to 28th Street. Turn Left onto 28th Sttrry and then a quick Right onto Cliff House Road. Take the third Left (it’s unnamed but after “Wisconsin Trail”) and go down the hill leading to the landing.

If East via Bicycle: You wouldn’t be doing this if you put-in at the Two Rivers public landing; only if you chose one of the alternate landings. That said, if you take out at the dam, take Broadway (aka Highway 13/16/23, aka the main road through downtown Wisconsin Dells) east and turn Left onto River Road (incidentally, the H.H. Bennett studio is just after the River Road intersection and worth stopping by). If, however, you took out at the Crandall’s Bay boat landing, then you’re already on River Road, so continue north (away from downtown) for just a stretch and then turn left onto… River Road (yes, not a typo). When bicycling, River Road offers a nice, safe alternative to Highway 13, which is the only other option. River Road actually runs through Chula Vista, so just pedal on by but prepared to be stared at by hotel guests in their SUVs! Shortly thereafter, River Road and Highway 13 will be running cheek by jowl. If you are returning to the Holiday Shores Campground & Resort, then you’ll want to turn Left at the large sign that directs you to do so. If you initially put-in at the Town of Dell Prairie, however, you will discover that River Road gives up its good fight and merges into Highway 13. Don’t worry! Highway 13 isn’t all that busy up in this area to begin with and besides, you’ll be on it for no more than 2 miles. Turn Left onto County K/Gem Court. Continue until, well, you see where to put-in. The one time I tried to do this was May 2010 and it was all flooded over, so I didn’t/couldn’t use the landing.

If East via Car: All you do is take Highway 13 to whichever of the two put-in spots you chose.

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