Wisconsin River
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wisconsin River IX

By on November 1, 2013

Lyndon Station to Wisconsin Dells
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Gorgeous sandstone bluffs, huge rock walls, labyrinthine islands, slot canyons, nooks, crannies, caves and tourist kitsch; this paddle just about has it all.

October 13, 2013

Class Difficulty:

Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 4,800

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 11:15a. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 5h 15m (with lots of down time and diversions)
Miles Paddled: 11.5

Wildlife: A bald eagle, turkey vultures, lots of gulls and a bright red fox.
Time worth driving to: 3 hours

This was my sixth trip on the Upper Dells section of the Wisconsin River but it was as exhilarating as ever. For this trip I gathered together nine other paddlers for the first (of many, I am sure) Fall Foliage Flotilla. While the leaves were still about a week or so shy of their full peak, there was a lot of splashy palette to appreciate, particularly beneath an almost electric blue cloudless sky. Add to that homemade donuts, spiked apple cider and coffee and thermos-warm bacon at the put-in, we had the makings of an epic day!

A quick word about the put-in options. There are many places to begin your trip but this is the only one I know of that’s free. The others are mostly two to three miles further downstream, in the “lake” section of the river. For those who don’t like lake paddling, one of these put-in options might be preferable.

I myself don’t very much care for lake paddling but it’s not just because I’m frugal that my druthers are the Two Rivers Boat Launch: 1) there you begin at the confluence of the Lemonweir River (hence the name Two Rivers), 2) with a huge and beautifully multicolored/layered rock outcrop only about 50 yards from the landing, this just might be the coolest put-in I’ve ever used, around which bend is what appears to be native art rock paintings (petroglyphs?), 3) the labyrinth of islands is fun and helps diminish the otherwise wide and boring lake effect and 4) there’s something awfully freaky and fun about paddling a body of water that tapers from 1,000’ wide to about 50’ in half a mile!

What we liked:
I’ve written about this trip already but it’s so wonderful I’m happy to pen a couple more words about it. I don’t want to reiterate myself here, so instead I will add that the Witch’s Gulch canyon is one you really should press on and explore. Go down to the very end but by end I do not mean to boardwalk. Paddle underneath the boardwalk, through the rock fissure (even in my 15’ kayak I could squeeze through), to the other side. There’s no pot of gold or tiki bar or really anything on the other side but it’s a rare opportunity to paddle through a slot canyon and one that should not be forfeited! In fact, if you have the time (and you really should make the time, because it’s all oh so worth it!) you should paddle down every diversion, check out each canyon and side crevice.

Cold Water Canyon is pretty and worth checking out; Rood’s Glen is a gorgeous sanctuary of everything green. Circumnavigate Blackhawk Island (the water is too shallow for the commercial boats) where sandy beaches beckon picnics or sunbathing or swimming and more rock formations are found, one of which still bears the inscription of the first commercial riverboat captain, Leroy Gates. There’s much off the beaten path to explore.

What we didn’t like:
There’s no getting around this: the commercial boats. Whether it’s the annoying megaphone monologue full of the worst bad puns you can imagine (to wit, “Am I going overboard with bad puns?”) or the “get ready, get steady” bracing for the waves these boats create, they’re an undeniable pain in the ass. One of the companies deliberately soaks the passengers by gunning the engine and then killing it, with the effect of the bow diving into the water and then back out. Most of the captains of these boats are college kids, so I can’t say that due diligence, discretion or consideration is much given to folks in kayaks.

Most of the time this isn’t a big deal; you just need to let them pass while positioning your boat to meet the oncoming waves head-on – not sideways, lest you want to be swamped or worse. But you do need to be paying attention because the parts of the river these boats tour tend to be the narrowest, 50’ or so wide*, with nothing but rock walls off of which the original waves ricochet in the opposite direction. For this reason I do not recommend paddling the Dells in an open canoe. Even in mid-October, even during a Packers game, there were at least four of these boats out there. Unless you’re paddling at the break of dawn, I do not recommend this trip in summer during the height of tourism.

*Indeed, the section of the river here called “The Narrows” can get a little dicey. To that end, unless you are an ass-kicking whitewater paddler, you do not want to be on this river in high water. Check out the how dramatically the character of the river changes in low water and then in high water, especially in the narrower channels (Note the inscription of “Leroy Gates, Dells River Pilot 1849 to 1858” on the rock both as a cultural artifact but also as a gauge).

If we did this trip again:
I will, at least once a year in autumn.

Related Information:
Wisconsin River V: Lyndon Station to Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin River VI: Dekorra to Whalen Bay
Wisconsin River VII: Downtown Dells to Norway Drive
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


Miles Paddled Video:

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  • Anonymous

    Are there sandbars north of the Dells that you can camp on?

  • Well there certainly are islands but whether they are private is another question. I'm only aware of the regulations of the lower 92 miles below Prairie Du Sac which allows camping on islands or sandbars but not the banks. Timothy may weigh in if he has more info…

  • While there are some sandbars, the rules are regulations are different above Prairie du Sac. Generally, I wouldn't advise it unless you are super-stealthy and discreet. Like ninja camping. Another question is how far "north of the Dells" do you mean? In between Castle Rock Lake and downtown Wisco Dells? It's probably worth trying, though you might want to check in first with the DNR. Above Castle Rock the river is big-ass lake impoundments, although Buckhorn State Park — a peninsular jutting out into Castle Rock Lake — is gorgeous and offers primitive campsites accessible only by canoe or kayak. North of that is Pettenwell, which I'd keep away from. North of that are Nekoosa, Rapids, Plover, and Point, all of which are more urbanized and dammed.

    Hope this helps!


  • If you guys do this trip again this year, please contact me, I would like to join you as I just picked up my first kayak and recently moved to the area, I've notifications turned on for this post so if you reply here, I will know to respond with my contact info…..

  • Hey Joe,

    We'll definitely let you know. I've got your Facebook info but if you want to email us at hello(at)milespaddled.com, I'll let you know via email. Hope you're enjoying your new boat! Congrats!

  • Hey Joe – we've got a flotilla in the works coming up on the Wisconsin. I messaged you on FB but thought I'd try here too. Email us so we can get you the details. hello(at)milespaddled.com

  • Thanks guys. Did this today and probably not the best day to do this due to the wind, hard work especially on the broad. Still, nice start and end. Not too busy but we def prefer the more remote locations. I did it rocking my new Miles Paddled T-shirt!

    • Sorry to hear about the wind – wind is not a paddler’s best friend. Definitely not one of our friends at least. You bought a shirt?! Thank you! Send us a picture sometime! That’s so awesome!


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