Yahara River Paddle Guide
Clocking in at 62 miles long, the Yahara River has three identities: the upper, the chain of lakes and the lower. Most paddlers will only want to spend time on the lower, from the Dunkirk dam to the Rock River confluence. The Deforest-area section of the upper Yahara is a real gem but catching it with adequate volume is difficult. Below Windsor Road, the river meanders through a golf course, underneath the interstate, blows up into Cherokee Marsh, then feeds and connects Lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa, from Madison’s north side to Stoughton.
After the dams in Stoughton and then again in Dunkirk, the Yahara reawakens, takes up its slack, and dances with pizzazz as a wonderful and at times wild-feeling river that the Ojibwa named for catfish. We in the Madison area surrounded by lakes are very lucky to have it so close to our home.
This is a delightful section of the Yahara River that looks and feels more like a creek than the 100’-wide river downstream. It’s a super-fun and surprisingly scenic trip with a natural feel and superb wildlife despite being surrounded by sub-developments. The only catch is it needs enough water to paddle – and it usually doesn’t. You can paddle below 2’ at the gauge but you’ll scrape a lot and at times, take your boat for a walk. It’s best at 2’ and above but this is a rarity, for even after a hard rain this section drains quickly.
Windsor Road to Cherokee Marsh
Miles: 9 | 2016 Trip Report
We strongly discourage paddling this section of the Yahara River (aka “Yahorror Show”). Immediately downstream from Windsor Rd the Yahara snakes through a golf course. There’s at least one low bridge that will require portaging around – the first of several dozen portages between Windsor Road and Cherokee Marsh. Then of course there’s the rather undesirable possibility of being struck upside the head by a golf ball. The golf course section actually does feature beautiful crystal clear water, riffles and is home to countless trout (at least in spring), but there’s just no compelling reason to paddle this, especially in light of the horrendous amount of down trees and impenetrable logjams between the interstate, Highway 19 and the opening of Cherokee Marsh.
There are moments where it’s pretty but the bad vastly outweighs the good. The only reason to consider this trip is if, like us, you are a little OCD about completely paddling rivers. But trust us, this section is just way too frustrating to waste your day on.
Cherokee Marsh to Tenney Locks
This is all lake paddling – and a long trek at that. Along the shore of Governor’s Island (which is a peninsula, not an island) is a brief but pretty exposed rock outcrop of sandstone, one of two such geological features around the lake (the other being at Maple Bluff). Otherwise, the northeast shore of Lake Mendota offers a few scenic passes, especially if you like McMansions. Lake Mendota can be fun on a windy day, as there will be choppy waves. In our opinion, that’s the best that can be said about paddling one of Madison’s lakes. Otherwise, there’s development along most/all the shoreline, and motor boats are ubiquitous.
Tenney Locks to Lottes Lane on Upper Mud Lake
This is 99% more lake paddling. For roughly one mile the Yahara is basically a canal between lakes Mendota and Monona. It’s no-wake and you’ll pass under a number of bridges and a backyard or two through the boulevards of Madison’s near-east side. Take a break and stop at Mickey’s at the “Willy Street” bridge (great food, decent beer, awesome ambiance). The opening to Lake Monona is pretty. If you turn left (southeast), the shoreline is less developed and has a modest incline. If you turn right (southwest), you head towards downtown. You may simply wish to make a beeline towards the opposite shore, where an outlet leads you through an attractive neighborhood, a small bay, (very close to Rutabaga, incidentally) under the beltline and finally into a bay leading to Upper Mud Lake.
Upper Mud Lake to Mud Lake (Babcock County Park)
As the name suggests, you’re in lake country here. Upper Mud Lake is a pretty wetlands complex. Expect to encounter partiers on a sunny weekend (I’ve even seen a restaurant/bar barge out just south of the belt line). You can escape all that, if the water is high enough, by turning right (west) into the channelized stream called Nine Springs Creek. The paddling itself is uneventful but the surrounding scenery is gorgeous. Lake Waubesa comes after you paddle past the railroad bridge (soon to be a new bike trail – and the longest bike trail bridge in Wisconsin). Virtually all of Waubesa on the east shore is developed, up to and including Babcock County Park, where there is another lock to portage around or go through, if you’re patient. The western shore of the lake is a little less developed. In the far southwest corner is a pretty state natural area called Swan Creek that’s protected and navigable to a point. The Green Lantern on the northeastern shore at the end of Sigglekow Road is a popular supper club, while Christy’s Landing on the western shore above Goodland County Park is a solid bar/restaurant too (and less busy).
Mud Lake (Babcock County Park) to Lake Kegonsa (Lafollette County Park)
Miles: 6.5 | 2015 Trip Report
Consider this 90% lake paddling. There’s a brief mile or so where the Yahara flows like a river between Lower Mud Lake and Lake Kegonsa. There’s even a riffle or two, a short boulder garden, the remains of a Native American fish weir and an attractive old truss bridge at Dyreson Road. But it slows down fast (so to speak) as it enters the next but last big lake of Dane County’s chain. Stick to the northern shore, as it’s less developed and eventually becomes public land at Kegonsa State Park. Springer’s restaurant on the north shore just west of the state park offers a fine fish fry and an attractive patio to stop off and enjoy a beverage or snack. There’s a boat landing at the park itself (where you’ll need a State Parks pass) on the left or carefully thread through the pylons of a small railroad bridge (the current can be surprisingly brisk at this outlet of the lake), after which there’s a nondescript access point on the right.
Lake Kegonsa (Lafollette County Park) to Stoughton (Riverside Park)
Miles: 5.25 | 2014 Trip Report
While the Yahara at this point begins to resemble a river again, it’s wide and slow – more like a marsh. It’s pretty in sections, but residential development tends to distract the view though. The width alternates kind of like a bellows in that it’s either wide or lake-like wide, back and forth a couple times just in this section. Coming into downtown Stoughton is pleasant, if brief.
Stoughton (Riverside Park) to Dunkirk Dam
Miles: 3 | 2014 Trip Report
This short section offers little interest to paddlers, as it’s all a flatwater impoundment from the dam in Dunkirk. Shoreline development is constant. It’s best just to skip this section. The best than can be said about this is a possibility of running some whitewater ledges underneath the bridge at 4th Street. What causes these standing waves is anyone’s guess – and it might be an unwelcome surprise in the event of dumping! The bridge itself is divided into four slots, so if one tries to run this one needs to choose carefully and avoid scraping into the pylons.
Dunkirk Dam to Stebbinsville Road
Below the dam the Yahara has a born-again awakening and becomes a river once more. This section has a few houses and farms, but riffles, clear water and a couple tall banks with attractive oak trees helps lend a wild feel to this fun section.
This is the “classic” Yahara River trip about which we (and others) have written much already. The riffles continue together with the clear water mile after mile. There’s only one boring stretch, just below Highway 59, where everything is flat and you’re always against the wind no matter what. Otherwise, this is just a great trip with everything a wonderful river has to offer.