Milwaukee River
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Milwaukee River II

By on July 30, 2013

Estabrook Park to Discovery World
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Beginning with an exhilarating three-foot-high ledge, followed by super-fun (and safe) Class I rapids, minnowy riffles and nothing but protected green space surrounding you, to the unique experience of urban paddling through downtown Milwaukee and its iconic “cream city” architecture towering above to finishing with a mile of sea kayaking on Lake Michigan with splashy, billowy waves rollicking you this way and that, for sheer diversity, this trip can’t be beat.

July 20, 2013

Class Difficulty:
Class I + Lake Michigan

Milwaukee: ht/ft: 2.00 | cfs: 200

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level.

Estabrook Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Lake Michigan Harbor at Discovery World

Time: Put in at 3:15p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 2h 15m
Miles Paddled: 7.75

Wildlife: A great blue heron, a green heron, a couple flopping carp and flocks of seagulls.
Time worth driving to: 2-3 hours

What we liked:
This trip has been on my to-do list for a couple years now and the experience was even better than I had been hoping it would be. Really, this trip can be broken down to three parts: rapids and riffles in protected greenway, downtown and Lake Michigan.

To begin with, the ledge at Estabrook Park is a thrill. The water level was low when we did this, which limited running this to one reasonable slot that flowed down the ledge diagonally. Everywhere else it was a right-angle drop, which could probably have been an option if I were in a whitewater or creek boat going at a good clip but I was in a 15’ kayak, so such a precipitous drop would likely have pitilessly pinned me on the falls. Anyway, the one open slot was doable and I did it without much ado despite the unwelcome drama of fishermen and families hanging out watching the crazy guy. It’s easy to portage on river-right a good 20 yards or so upstream of the ledge/falls.

For the next two miles the river runs straight South and along a protected green corridor flanked by tree-canopied high banks. Except for the occasional bridge high above the water, you’d never think you’re in a major metropolitan city. Underneath the Locust Street and then North Avenue bridges you will encounter the only other real rapids of the trip. The first one at Locust consists of a drop, well, two actually. You have a choice between running it river-right, where there it’s a notable 1.5’-high ledge with a slot that is easy to detect, or running it river-left where there are two more modest drops with a couple tight turns to manage. Both are easy and fun but both can easily be portaged, too. The rapids downstream of North Ave are classic Class I. There are no specific slots to pick out, just splashy fun that you don’t even need a spray skirt for.

Immediately downstream of this bridge is the remnant of the last dam on the Milwaukee River, below which the river bulges out considerably. You are now downtown, and the urban sightseeing doesn’t quit! (Note: in high water, this dam remnant, where there is a pedestrian bridge that spans the whole river, gets crazy volatile. Back in April after we had two weeks of nonstop rain, the rapids here were utterly and literally awesome, including a couple of 8’ waves that made you queasy just looking at them!)

Paddling the river through downtown Milwaukee is a unique and captivating experience. Yes, the river here is just about unfathomably deep and you do have to keep your eyes out for (and keep a wide berth from) powerboats (lifejackets are not the worst thing to consider, especially if your swimming skills are in doubt). The wake is only 5 mph, so I didn’t find the current pushy in the least. Plus, there are piers galore, many of them public, (some private) so there’s always a nearby place to pause, take-out or swim to if you get into trouble. And there is no shortage of fun stops along the way, whether it’s a bar or a place to grab a bite to eat. True, the piers are more designed with powerboats in mind but two people in kayaks or canoes should be able to assist one another easily enough without either getting wet. If people-watching is as much your thing as the novelty of paddling below towering skyscrapers and iconic cream city architecture, then you will love this.

Finally, after the I-94/794 bridges and not long after you pass the Milwaukee Ale House on river-left, (a great place for a drink and with a pier right on the river with access to it) the river swells even wider and the powerboats become more of an issue. This section, essentially in the historic Third Ward section of the city, is where the Menomonee River (not to be confused with the far more notorious Menominee up by the U.P.) empties into the Milwaukee River just before the latter ends its journey into Lake Michigan.

Where you see an opening on the left for that great lake out there in distant, there is a boat ramp on the river-right at Bruce Street where you can take-out in order to avoid paddling the Lake. I absolutely loved paddling on the Lake though! The wind was whipping and there were boats all about, which contributed to big billowy waves we bobbed on, over and through as we hugged the seawall.

This isn’t a section for beginner paddlers but if you have a good amount of experience paddling in general, you should be able to handle this part of the Lake pretty easily. In fact, this section is still tucked into the breakwater so, arguably you’re not even into the Lake yet at this point. Nonetheless, open water and rollicking waves are still very present and spectacular! I didn’t feel all that safe with my camera around my neck and I was also concerned about how quickly I could remove it, thrust it into my drybag, roll and seal it all up and get back to paddling, all without a wave capsizing me hence the lack of photos during this segment (hence too the one bad shot I did take with the bead of water on the lens!). Our chosen take-out had us paddling only a mile and change into the Lake.

You could easily lengthen the experience by continuing on to the McKinley Park marina. We took out behind Discovery World, along a manmade walkout pier shored up by some huge limestone boulders. It’s not the easiest takeout, for sure but quite doable. The other benefit to taking out here is the lack of traffic. The definite downside to taking out here is if you shuttle by car, there is no parking nearby and the only distant parking is in a paid lot.

What we didn’t like:
That we did this paddle on a Saturday, when two days later, after a good torrent of rain, the water level shot up a couple inches. Timing really is everything. Otherwise, this was one of the funnest paddles I’ve ever done.

If we did this trip again:
Sure will! But next time I’d likely put in further upstream, say around Kletsch Park. A paddle trip of under eight miles is short for my druthers under most circumstances, especially if it takes more than an hour to drive there.

Related Information:
Milwaukee River I: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River III: Grafton to Thiensville
Milwaukee River IV: Kewaskum to Barton
Milwaukee River V: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River VI: Grafton to County Highway T
Milwaukee River VII: Fredonia to Grafton
Milwaukee River VIII: West Bend to Newburg
Milwaukee River East Branch I: New Prospect to New Fane
Milwaukee River East Branch II: New Fane to Kewaskum
Milwaukee River East Branch III: Dundee to Mauthe Lake
Miles Paddled Video: Newburg to Fredonia
Miles Paddled Video: Grafton to County Highway T
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River


Photo Gallery:


  • JT

    I love the site, been reading it for quite some time. No sure what you are taking pictures with? You should look at one of the "ruggedized" point an shoot cameras. I have a Panasonic TS3 that I love. Waterproof to 40ft, shock and cold proof. Also has Geotagging built in. Great quality, better than camera phones and you don't have to worry about spray, waves or dumping it.

  • Thanks for the tip JT! We both use different things for shooting photos. I personally default to my iphone now that I capture trips on my GoPro too. Great suggestion and glad you like the site!

  • I love THIS site. California dreamer enjoying ALL your great river trips! Kristine

  • Thanks for the Cali love and glad you're enjoying the site Kristy!


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