Milwaukee River
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Milwaukee River VI

By on July 20, 2015

Grafton to County Highway T
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Simply an exhilarating ride down the rapids of the Milwaukee River surrounded by beautiful limestone and dolomite dells and multiple islands that braid the main channel, this is a great trip for light whitewater enthusiasts with at least one white-knuckle drop that’s definitely worth the drive.

June 20, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Class II

42′ per mile (Grafton dam to Lime Kiln Park). 8′ per mile (Lime Kiln to takeout).

Cedarburg: ht/ft: 6.1 | cfs: 375

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. It can be paddled at lower flows (i.e., 250 cfs), though scraping will become a nuisance. Skilled whitewater paddlers will want to do this above 400 cfs.

14th Avenue parking lot (behind buildings) in the southeast corner (approximately 700’ downstream from the Grafton dam), Grafton, Wisconsin
County Highway T/Lakefield Road

Time: Put in at 5:45p. Out at 6:50p.
Total Time: 1h 5m
Miles Paddled: 2.75

Wildlife: Great blue herons, fish and a woodchuck.
Time worth driving to: 1-2 hours

Since we were in the area, having paddled an upstream section of the Milwaukee River earlier in the day, we decided to tie another on before driving back to Madison. Not just any other either, but one of the steepest gradients on the Milwaukee River. It’s a short run of under 3 miles but it offers great rapids chased by more relaxed riffles and the ability to have that much coveted celebratory beer after the adrenaline rush.

This short trip has two distinct feels. The first is fast current flanked by rather stunning rock formations on a wide river ranging between 90-130 feet. The second is slower and less rocky but just as pretty because it’s undeveloped (there are several private residences along the tall banks in the first half) and more intimate due to the side channels. Each is great in its own right.

The whitewater section (1.4 miles) is nonstop paddling fun, plus the dolomite dells are quite attractive (it’s a little heady to think that this backbone of geology is the very same that lines Door County, continues under the waters of Lake Michigan, into the U.P., into lower Ontario, and then Niagara Falls itself). The flatter but more primitive section (1.3 miles) is a sweet treat unto itself – though probably of little interest to whitewater paddlers.

This is really a great diversion, or add-on trip, like we did. Or consider it a destination paddle and as they say, “it’s so nice, let’s run it twice.”

What we liked:
This is essentially a whitewater run but you don’t have to be a hardcore whitewater paddler to do it. (We certainly aren’t!) Nothing on this stretch rates higher than Class II and there’s only one ledge that requires caution, scouting and strategy. It’s a super-fun ride. And gorgeous.

There is no exact put-in per se – the dam in Grafton just upstream requires a lengthy portage to an imprecise place via a parking lot off 14th Avenue – but swift water is everywhere, both riffles and easy Class I bumps.

There is indeed a sign that marks the “Portage” route but the put-in isn’t defined so it’s a choose-your-own-path-to-the-water type of adventure and involves some shimmying down a well worn bank that appears to be popular with fishermen. There, riffly rapids await.

For the first mile and change the river is lined here and there with beautiful 20’-tall limestone dells that are part of the mighty Niagara Escarpment, a huge rocky ridge (a cuesta, to be precise) in the shape of an arc connecting southeastern Wisconsin to Niagara Falls.

About ¾ of a mile downstream from the put-in is the only tricky spot on this short trip, a diagonal-shaped ledge across the entire river where a dam was removed in 2000 (there was first a Chair Factory there in 1848, and then a record factory for phonographs in 1916). To run the ledge, you’ll want to go far left or far right, not the middle, where’s there an island. We chose the right because it looked safer (there was a bit of tree debris below the drop on the left that we had no business being near in that velocity of water). And it’s actually three individual ledges, not one single drop, each one pitched at a slightly different angle. The first is straight into a large pool (and if you’re not wearing a skirt like one of us… “hello, boatload of water!”), then you veer right down the second, then pivot left for the third. It’s an intuitive read, but having solid boat control is needed because the current is squirrelly. And you don’t want to run this in a long boat!

We stress that you need to scout this drop before you’re on the water, because both banks are private property; thus, it’s technically trespassing to get out of your boat there (in other words, you must run this drop one way or another – there’s no portaging around it). To scout it, first stop at the Falls Road bridge, immediately downstream from the ledge(s). Also, there are no eddies here to catch and slow down in and the current is strong. If you wish to pause before running this, you’ll need to lodge against the shore and hang on to a rock. It’s really a ton of fun but nerve-racking until you run it.

Swift riffles will guide you down to Lime Kiln Park (a very cool park definitely worth checking out), where sweet rapids are found in the right channel after another removed dam site. This one is straightforward but no less splashy, or fun. After that, the river bends to the right and then makes a long horseshoe-bend to the left where the current slows down, notable because up to this point the river has principally been a fast straightaway. The last of the rock outcrops is found here too. A series of large islands braids the river in several side channels, each enticingly inviting and undeveloped. The current is still riffly and moving but the adrenaline rush has subsided. This denouement is the perfect way in the perfect place to have a beer and relax.

The takeout is on the downstream side of the County Road T bridge on river-right. It’s not a designated landing, but from the sight of trampled grass and banks it’s clear that paddlers use this regularly. In fact, it was at the landing where we met a guy who had just run this section (including the drop) with his wife and kids… in a canoe. Amazing (and kinda ballsy).

What we didn’t like:
There’s certainly can’t be that much to dislike about a 3-mile paddle, right? Well, other than being too short when it’s this fantastic, right?

The trespassing issues with the land along the banks by the Chair Factory dam rapids is, quite simply, stupid (let it be noted that it is also underscored on the American Whitewater site that this is an issue). Apparently it’s not enough to own ginormous houses along a beautiful stretch of river; you have to own the banks too. (Grafting in Grafton?) Oh, the wealthy suburbs of Milwaukee…

Compounding the problem was that our visit coincided with the Giro d’ Grafton, an extensive bike race in downtown Grafton, resulting in Falls Road being closed off to traffic. So we couldn’t scout the ledge(s) and had to do our best deducing/inferring upstream and hope for the best. Everything worked out and it was a big adrenaline rush, the kind that leaves you with a grin ear-to-ear afterward. But we definitely do not recommend doing it this way!

Also, one quick note about some of the pics below. My definitively not-waterproof SLR camera was unintentionally water-tested, which is why a lot of the shots are blurred or daubed with a bead of water. At one point I noticed that my camera, worn around my neck, nonetheless was resting in a pool of water collected on my spray skirt. Brilliant! The camera promptly stopped working after that point. Go figure.

If we did this trip again:
I will in a heartbeat and indeed, I look forward to it again already. But on the next occasion I’d paddle down to the following bridge at County Road C (aka Pioneer Road) and take-out there, adding another 1.7 miles.

On a parting note: Two years ago I did a portion of this trip alone, starting at Lime Kiln and going down to Thiensville. Doing a late-afternoon, part 2 paddling daytrip with Barry this time around was pitch perfect. I do believe there is a time and place for solo paddling (indeed, the vast majority of the trips we do are by ourselves) but I would argue that whitewater is not one of them. For one, there’s the safety concern; it behooves a paddler to have someone at the ready to rescue in the event of capsizing or getting pinned. But beyond basic prudence, there’s a real sense of camaraderie paddling rapids with another. You experience the thrill of reading drops and riding waves twice. Besides, you can’t give or receive a high-five when you’re by yourself!

Related Information:
Milwaukee River I: Newburg to Fredonia
Milwaukee River II: Estabrook Park to Discovery World
Milwaukee River III: Grafton to Thiensville
Milwaukee River IV: Kewaskum to Barton
Milwaukee River V: Newburg to Fredonia
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
Article: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Overview: Kettle Moraine Canoe Routes
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Milwaukee River


Shuttle Information:

Ordinarily, this would be a simple 3-mile jaunt along Green Bay Road past Lime Kiln Park. Due to the aforementioned bike race we had to take a more indirect route.

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

  • We ran this yesterday with 9 people in tow. Super fun trip! The tips are all spot on. Seven people shot the Chair Factory Falls successfully, one got hung up on the last ledge and took a dunk and the last ended up going to the right, got stuck under an old bike in the water and took a dunk. I headed to the left around the island. Once you get through the first shallows, the current really picks up on the left side. You guys provide great ideas for trips on this site – keep up the good work!

  • Hey Michael. That sounds like a fun crowd! And 7 out of 9 paddlers staying dry at Chair Factory rapids is pretty impressive! Where did y'all take-out?

    Have you paddled the Cedar Creek rapids in nearby downtown Cedarburg or the other Milwaukee River rapids from Estabrook Park to Caesar's Park by the Humboldt Ave bridge? Both are fun trips, although Cedar Creek is trickier due to the dams and portaging.

    The MKE River is just good, clean fun all around and this section is one of our favorites. Thanks for the compliments, and we're really glad that we could provide some tips and that y'all had a great trip! Cheers!

  • My wife and I paddled this yesterday. I was so glad to find this posting on your 2015 top 15. It is just a great section of the Milwaukee and a really fun paddle. We took out down at Pioneer which has a great little public access parking lot and makes this about a 4.25 mile trip. This site is awesome. I tell everyone about the work you folks do. It just rocks!

  • Hey Mark,

    Thanks so much for dropping us a line and letting us know that this trip worked out for y'all! We really do appreciate the feedback, kind words and we can't thank you enough for spreading the love, too! If you need any stickers, just let us know where to send them your way. This section of the Milwaukee River is one of the gems of southern Wisconsin, hands down. That's great (and helpful to know) that you continued down to Pioneer Road and found the access there. Til the next paddling adventure… Cheers!


Miles Paddled documents canoe and kayak trips on rivers and creeks throughout Wisconsin.

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