Baraboo River
★ ★ ★

Baraboo River III

By on August 29, 2011

Union Center to Wonewoc
☆ ☆ ☆

A brief jaunt that is frankly somewhat dull and monotonous until the very end of the trip, where a spectacular rock outcrop 150′ high towers above the river. Combine this with a bike shuttle along the 400 Trail for a fun day of paddling and pedaling.

August 11, 2011

Class Difficulty:

West Branch: n/a

Recommended Levels:
Water levels are almost always reliable.

Highway 33, Union Center, Wisconsin
Wonewoc Municipal Canoe Landing, County FF, Wonewoc, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 6.25

Roughly 120 miles in length and flowing eastward, the Baraboo begins near Kendall and ends at its confluence with the Wisconsin River just south of Portage. It is an old river, too – I’m talking eons. On the western side the river lumbers through the holy unglaciated area of the state, whereas east of the city of Baraboo, towards Portage, the terrain begins petering out. Thus, this area of Wisconsin is rich in geological history and beautiful abundance. I’ve been long enamored by the Paleozoic this and Precambrian that of the Baraboo Range itself, up to and including the Upper and Lower Narrows, Devil’s Lake State Park, and the seemingly innumerable state natural areas like Ableman’s Gorge, Baxter’s Hollow, and Pewits Nest (to name but a few). So during the summer of 2010 I gave myself the lackadaisical goal of paddling the entire river, in order to take it all in, in order to see it by boat instead of boot, in order to appreciate what this now underrated river helped do to this sublime landscape.

As usual, I followed the lead of Mike Svob and his write-up in Paddling Southern Wisconsin. There’s a reason why he starts at Union Center: upstream there are simply too many obstructions. I would be only too happy to be told differently, but I would skip anything upstream of Union Center. And sadly I would say the same for the section between Wonewoc and La Valle. Last year, I continued paddling 2.5 miles downstream of Wonewoc to Wayside Park, and it was a very frustrating mistake. In just one section of no more than 75 yards I had to portage not once or even twice, but three times. You have two options: sink knee-deep into the mud along the banks (I’m not exaggerating) or climb out of your boat, straddle a fallen tree, pull it over the tree, and try to get back in without falling into the water. Not fun, even once, let alone again and again. It just ain’t worth it.

Let this cautionary caveat speak for the gorgeous sections before and after Rock Springs, too. Which is a damn shame, because the landscape is really quite awesome. But it becomes quite easy to start begrudging (and cursing at) the surrounding environment – the very thing you sought in the first place – when you have to keep portaging, which is an irony best avoided. During a separate trip last year I put in at a bridge on Hwy 136 (just west of Chapel Road), north of Rock Springs, and paddled all the way down to North Freedom (roughly 10 miles) on one of those shockingly warm and sunny days in early November. You pass through the Upper Narrows section, which is wonderful, rounding the Van Hise Rock and Ableman’s Gorge, all while going underneath umpteen romantic 19th Century railroad bridges. But, bam, right in Rock Springs already you run into a logjam – the first of many. While not quite as annoying as the section below Wonewoc, you have to be OK with getting in and out of your boat a bit if you’re going to do this.

The stretch between La Valle and Reedsburg (14 miles) is open and pretty, running essentially parallel with the bike trail the whole time. North Freedom to Baraboo (10.2 miles) is fairly unobstructed, though slow – until you get into Baraboo itself and take on the fun class 1 rapids. From Baraboo to the Wisconsin River confluence (26 miles, which can – and should – be broken into separate trips) and is unobstructed.

For more specific information on the Baraboo and individual day trips, read here.

What we liked:
Lovely rolling hills country with the sheer thrill of paddling alongside and then underneath the towering Third Castle, a 150’-high sandstone cliff at the end of the short trip. Excellent take-out landing at the Wonewoc Municipal Canoe Landing, though the parking area is about 50 yards away. Beautiful rock formations seen especially on the drive to Union Center (some can’t be seen from the river). Fun and shortest bike shuttle of any paddling trip I’ve yet done.

What we didn’t like:
The only place to park your car in Union Center is the official parking area for the 400 Trail, which is a good ¼ mile from the Highway 33 bridge, which means either schlepping your boat or dropping it off and walking back to it. Not a big deal, of course, but a mild inconvenience. Like most of the Baraboo River, there’s a lot of mud and the current is quite slack. You’re never too far away from Highway 33, so roadside din is pretty constant. At least from Madison, driving to Union Center is a long stretch for what is only a 5.5 mile paddle. To make it really worth it, take a bicycle along and ride! There are multiple state trails for bicycling all in this area (see below).

If we did this trip again:
Actually, this is my second time doing this stretch. Basically, the only reason to do this is to see Third Castle. While paddling I’d begun to wonder whether repeating this trip was worth it, as opposed to exploring an area unfamiliar to me. But then I respectfully sidled up to the towering giant, and all my doubts were at once allayed; it’s absolutely worth it! Especially doing it in conjunction with a long bike ride or combining it with a separate stretch of the river further downstream. Or find a protected state natural area and have at a hike (here’s a good place).

Related Information:
Baraboo River Overview: Baraboo River Paddle Guide
Baraboo River I: Village Park to Highway 113
Baraboo River II: Haskins Park to Highway 113
Baraboo River IV: Haskins Park to Highway 113
Baraboo River V: Haskins Park to Highway 33
Baraboo River VI: La Valle to Reedsburg
Miles Paddled Video: Baraboo River IV: Haskins Park to Highway 113
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Video: Wisconsin Paddles: The Baraboo
Wikipedia: Baraboo River


Shuttle Information:

No more than 3 miles, all along the 400 State Trail! Besides not worrying about cars, you’re offered glimpses of swales and swamps that cannot be seen on the river or even when driving on the road.

Additional Bicycling Information: No travel description of this area of Wisconsin would be complete without mentioning the excellent state bike trails near it all. As mentioned, the “400” trail runs alongside the river at Union Center-Wonewoc and La Valle-Reedsburg. In fact, the 400 trail starts (or begins – depending on your direction) in Reedsburg and goes to Elroy. There, you can connect with the famed Elroy-Sparta Trail, or access the short Hillsboro State Trail, or still yet the Omaha County Trail (to Camp Douglas/ Mill Bluff State Park).

And for whatever it’s worth, from the cute knitting town of Reedsburg one can pedal all the way to the Mississippi River all without contending with cars or trucks or highways! (A la “the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone,” the 400 trail connects to the Elroy-Sparta trail, which then connects to the LaCrosse River State Trail, which goes to the city of LaCrosse, at which point you can then connect to the Great River Trail, which runs north to Trempealeau, about a mile outside of the wonderful Perrot State Park!)

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