Little Platte River
Old Lancaster Road to County Road O
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Combine the best of the Grant and Platte rivers and this is it – a little river with towering bluffs, cliffs, riffles, rapids, boulders, spectacular wildlife the entire trip and little development or roads nearby – what more can one ask for?
July 6, 2013
n/a (Nearest gauge is the Platte River, which was 4.02’ – no cfs reading)
This is the recommended minimum level. The Little Platte is one of those streams you call in sick when it’s running, since it’s rarely high enough. Catch it in spring after snowmelt and rains or during the summer after a hard thunderstorm. There is no gauge for the Little Platte itself, so we correlate with the main Platte River gauge in nearby Rockville. We paddled the Little Platte only once and the gauge reading on the “big” Platte was 4’ at 160 cfs. For our sake, this is the lowest recommended level (the river can be paddled below this, as low as 3.5’ but you’ll be scraping a lot, which is why we don’t recommend it). Ideally, try to catch this between 4.5-5’. Above 5’ will be a wild ride fit only for seriously experienced whitewater paddlers.
Old Lancaster Road, Platteville, Wisconsin
County Road O, Cornelia, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:30a. Out at 4:40p.
Total Time: 5h 10m
Miles Paddled: 11.5
Wildlife: Many muskrats, river otters, an owl, umpteen great blue herons, a green heron, a bald eagle, dragonflies, lots of deer, cows and bulls.
Time worth driving to: 2.5 hours
The year’s still early but this little river may well be the best discovery of 2013. It’s positively shocking that there isn’t more info available on it. True, it seems like a “thirsty” river, meaning water-dependent but there was enough to paddle it on this trip in early July (no doubt, thanks to all the rain the area received two weeks earlier). I scraped and got stuck on some of the shallower riffles but another couple of inches and it would have been perfect.
The only catch is that you probably don’t want to do this when the water is too high, as it would be a force to reckon with. There are several ninety-degree turns where rapids and rock walls collid and there are at least four barbed wires to duck under (all the more dangerous in higher water).
Otherwise, I absolutely fell in love with this river and can hardly wait to take a friend along and paddle it again. Also worth noting, I did not have to portage once (a rarity this year). There were no obstructions whatsoever (which also makes the secrecy of this river all the more bewildering). Not a river for beginners but also not so technically challenging to intimidate.
What we liked:
There is not one dull spot on this entire twelve-mile stretch. The entire journey down river is flanked by towering hills and small cliffs, rock walls, weeping sedges hanging over a ledge – you name it. Immediately after the put-in, the riffles begin. Shortly following the riffles are rapids, too many in all to count. The rapids were fun and easy, though caution is required on some of those where the river turns sharply. The longest stretch of flat water is at best one hundred yards, otherwise, everything moves along quite nicely.
It’s been awhile since I’ve paddled a river that felt so intimate and away from it all, almost wild. There are rock walls and exposed outcroppings everywhere, huge shoreline boulders seemingly sculpted to sit down on and have a magnificent picnic. Again, the whole environment makes you think of somewhere up north, somewhere away from it all. You paddle under a few bridges but never see any roads. There are at best, a half a dozen houses, all of them pretty, including one that was a dream: a veritable house atop a rock overlooking the river with an actual covered bridge spanning a small creek that is part of the driveway.
This trip can easily be broken into two separate segments. If twelve miles is too much for one day or if you only have time for a half-day paddle. The Stumptown Road bridge acts as a good halfway point. If you have to choose only one tough, I’d say that the prettier section is Stumptown Road to County Road O but really both are exquisite.
The wildlife was simply spectacular. Within the first half-mile I came upon a great blue heron around a bend and I must have spooked him pretty good because as he flapped and squawked away, he shot long jets of poop like silly string. Never saw that before.
There were also several encounters with bulls and cows cooling off in the river (such traffic jams, on top of the 140 pictures I took, help explain why it took me five hours to paddle a swift twelve-mile stretch). The paddling matador rises again – andalé!
I saw two deer drinking from the river, one of which sprinted in great graceful leaps across the river. The other scampered higher up on the hill, snorted a bunch and even made a kind of chucking/coughing sound at me. Also, a first.
And then there was a muskrat (one of several throughout the day) who not only swam underneath my boat just below the surface but purposefully kept a foot ahead of the bow for a good ten seconds (the way dolphins swim alongside ships, until diving down to disappear in the deeper dark). What a treat.
There was also an owl that swept before my eyes in a slicing arc to alight on a tree, craning its head 180 degrees in that creepy Poltergeist way, beaming its two huge yellow eyes right at me before taking flight again. The whole trip was full of these moments.
What we didn’t like:
The accesses are a far cry from sore eye sights. Both at the put-in and take-out, a twenty to thirty-foot drop must be reckoned with. There is no established path so you cut through weeds and large rocks. There was nothing poisonous that I spotted (and I came out of it tick-free) but this could be different for someone else, of course. All this said, both are totally doable (the take-out is easier), just something to keep in mind.
As I said above, the Little Platte is a thirsty river so it won’t be reliably runnable for some of the year, at least this portion (it’s worth noting that there is a second section downstream of the County Road O bridge, about as long as this trip, before the Little Platte meets the regular Platte River by the Highway 35 bridge, about three miles from the Mississippi River.)
Lastly, the several strings of barbed wire are indeed a drag (not literally, I hope) but they are easy to spot and maneuver under.
If we did this trip again:
I can hardly wait! I will definitely take advantage of the “Quarr[y]” Road access (the sign reads “Quarr”), just above the Highway 81 bridge, about a quarter-mile upstream from Old Lancaster Road. And I will have to have at this segment with just a bit more water in it sometime.
9 miles by bicycle or car. I first mapped out a bike shuttle route that went west of the river, which on the map seemed preferable. But once there in real-time, I saw that a huge five-mile chunk of it is on a dirt road which does not make for fun riding on the skinny tires of a road bicycle. Plus, you never know when a farm dog is gonna go a little Cujo on you… (it only takes once to know to bring pepper spray when bike riding in the country!) Bicyclists are not permitted on Highway 151 but a dedicated bike path conveniently coincides with the highway from County Road O to the County Road D/Business 151 exit, which takes you into downtown. Bear in mind though that this is hilly terrain!