Platte River V
County Road A to Platte Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A glorious trip with nonstop riffles and rapids, spectacular cliffs, bluffs, rock outcrops, lush pastures and no obstructions, this hitherto unknown section of the Platte is worth the minor inconvenience of the put-in and take-out. Just be sure the river is high enough before you trek out this way.
March 27, 2016
8′ per mile
Rockville: ht/ft: 4.05 | cfs: 178
We recommend this level, although it would have been better even an inch higher. We strongly discourage paddling this trip if the gauge is below 3.75.
County Road A, north of Ellenboro, Grant County, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:35p. Out at 3:35p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 10.25
Wildlife: Cows and bulls (including Scottish Highland), hawks, turkey vultures, wood ducks and songbirds.
Time worth driving to: 2 hours.
The Platte is one of our favorite rivers. Paddlers often cast their eyes (and fishing lines) on the nearby Grant River, literally passing over the Platte to do so. Why that is, we’re not sure, as the Platte is exceptionally beautiful and has swifter water. Regardless, it’s a relatively small river (~40 miles), only half of which is mentioned in paddling books and blogs, from Ellenboro down to the Mississippi River. This has caught our curiosity, to wit what about the other 20 miles of river upstream of Ellenboro? It’s taken a couple years to scratch this curious itch simply because, from Madison, it’s about a 90-min drive to the river itself. Plus the Platte drains quickly, due to its steep gradient, so catching it with enough water can be tricky.
I mapped out 10-12 miles of potentially paddleable water upstream of Ellenboro. That’s a long time on a river for which there is no known information. It could be too narrow or too shallow. It could have tons of obstructions on it, whether downed trees, cattle gates, barbed or electric wires. Plus the water was very cold still, and even the air was only in the lower 50s. So I decided to be sensible (a rarity for someone whose nickname is “the Fanatic”) and explore 6 mystery miles and then tack on the first 4 from Airport Road to Platte Road (which was my first ever trip on the Platte). This way, if the first section ended up being a total bust, I’d still at least have something to look forward to.
I’m happy to say that this trip was one of the best, ever. I felt like I had picked up a winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk and had to cash it in. This trip was a total gamble and it turned out to be glorious!
What we liked:
The main aspect that makes this trip uniquely thrilling actually is twofold: it’s the combination of scenery and swift current. At no point does the surrounding environment fail to capture your rapt attention. When there are no exposed rocks, the hills still undulate for miles on end, often at bucolic pastures. But mainly there are rocks. Constantly. Most of them exposed outcrops, mainly directly lining the river itself. Add to that small cliffs, a gazillion fissures, bluffs, boulders and ginormous shelves of rock lying below in the water, looking like tiny shipwrecks. I’m not exaggerating – and yet I can’t emphasize this enough: the geology on this trip is simply breathtaking. Your cheeks might even hurt after smiling so much. Really, it’s that pretty.
And then there’s the current. Consider this: for 10+ miles the river is constantly moving, almost always with riffles, often with light rapids. Indeed, the only breaks from this are 100-150 yards long. For 10 miles! It’s nonstop fun (and also explains how I paddled this trip in 3 hours, despite the delays when waiting for cattle to get out of the river or scraping in shallows). The water is mostly clear, though because you’re in farm country, there will be spots of either ag runoff or bank erosion. But there are also deep pools of jade green water too. I don’t fish but I have to believe that such alluring water is home to elusive trout.
The only obstruction found on this trip is located within the first hundred yards, where there’s a downed tree. But you don’t need to portage around it and it wasn’t dodgy or unsafe. After that, there was nothing. For 10 miles! I was amazed to not have even encountered a single strand of wire. We’re also happy to report that there are no longer barbed wires from Airport Road bridge to Platte Road. When we’ve paddled this section in the past, there had been at least three sets of wires but now there are none. I don’t know if it’s early in the season yet and eventually wires will be strung (?), but this was a very welcome surprise.
What we didn’t like:
The put-in is a far cry from ideal. Due to the hills and the paved shoulder of the road, the only safe place to leave a vehicle is about 100 yards from the water itself. Not a big deal but different than normal. It’s also pretty steep, especially once you’re on the riprap/rock rubble. Hoisting a 60-pound boat with gear on your shoulder while clambering down steep loose-footing won’t be for everyone. And then, once you’re on the banks at the bottom, you have to hop over or thread through a barbed wire fence. I don’t believe this is technically legal of the property owner, as the road, as well as the land adjoining the road and the river are considered public right of way. But to whom are you going to argue that in the middle of the country? Once you’re on the other side of the fence it’s all gravy. I even found a convenient cleft in the bank that made for a safe and mostly mud-free launch.
The take-out is better but still not ideal. It’s a shorter schlep and there are no loose rocks or barbed wire fences, but the banks are a bit high and muddy, making for some inconvenience. In our opinion, if the put-in and take-out accesses are the price of admission for this incredible trip, then this is a hell of a bargain.
That said, only consider a bike-shuttle if A) you’re in really good shape, B) have no other option, or C) don’t mind walking your bike occasionally. These hills are seriously steep and it’s a 10-mile shuttle. On the plus side, the roads are all paved, so a road bike would be fine out here (as long as it has lots of gears). But it’s also easy to take a wrong road like I did (something I discovered miles after the fact and I had no other option than to bike aimlessly instead of turning back around and retracing my steps). And these hills are unforgiving. I ended up pedaling 18 miles in my disorientation, uphill and against the wind. It took me 2 hours just to do this shuttle, which is preposterous.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that you’ll encounter cattle at some point when paddling the Platte. It’s wise to let them get exit the water before paddling past them so as not to spook them. Think of this as the country equivalent of a traffic jam.
Lastly, it needs to be reiterated that this is a river you need to catch with enough water to paddle, otherwise you’ll be scraping or having to walk your boat a whole lot. Even though I did this at a high level relative to other trips on the Platte, I still scraped quite a bit (which, given my broken boat, meant a lot of water I needed to keep sponging out).
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again! It would be even better with another inch of water and/or to see in the fall foliage. But having now done this and discovering how truly doable it is, we’re very curious about what it’s like even upstream of County Road A. Stay tuned…
Platte River Overview: Platte River Paddle Guide
Platte River I: Ellenboro to County Road B
Platte River II: Ellenboro to Platte Road
Platte River III: Platte Road to Big Platte Road
Platte River IV: Big Platte Road to Indian Creek Road
Miles Paddled Video: Ellenboro to County Road B
Good People: Friends of the Platte River
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Platte River
10 miles. With several steep hills this makes for a difficult bike shuttle. It’s pretty and rural, however.