Sugar River Paddle Guide
Clocking in around 90 miles long, the Sugar River is one of the more prominent streams in southern Wisconsin. Despite its name, the Sugar isn’t always so sweet. Just west of Verona, it starts clear and gurgles with a number of pleasant riffles and has a width more reminiscent of a creek. Down by Albany, however, this has mostly slowed down and muddied up, which characteristics will largely remain from that point forward.
But there are several sections well worth paddling even if the current is slow and the water turbid. That said, there are a couple sections to skip too either because they’re monotonously dull, totally flat, or spoiled by drunken tubers. The final miles of the Sugar are some of its best. The last section on the Wisconsin side of the border flows through the evocative Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area, and once you cross into Illinois the river passes two public forest preserves that are pretty and worth the excursion. Eventually, the Sugar feeds the Pecatonica River – which also begins in Wisconsin – close to Freeport, Illinois, near the Rock River confluence.
The river meanders around significant tracts of agricultural land, which inevitably leads to eroded banks and runoff pollution, contributing to the turbidity. Throw in a few dams at Belleville, Albany and Brodhead, which create large backwashes of silt (amongst other side effects), and the mid-section of the Sugar can feel pretty sluggish and sloppy. The Sugar is almost always pleasant, but rarely remarkable. Its chief characteristic is wooded sections with a natural river feel to it and the occasional glimpse of an iconic farm and barn in the background. This part of Wisconsin was bulldozed by the glaciers of the last Ice Age. As a result, they left a fairly flat landscape. But there are pockets of pretty along the way. Our favorite sections of the river are from Verona to Paoli, the Avon Bottoms and the forest preserves in Illinois.
Bobcat Lane to Valley Road
Skip this, unless you too have a case of the incurable curse of being a river completest. First off, it will be almost always too shallow to run without scraping. To catch it after a hard rain isn’t even advisable for the following reasons: barbed wire, a cattle gate and downed trees, none of which do you want to encounter in pushy water. You really won’t be missing anything by skipping this that you won’t already experience downstream.
This is a pleasant stretch with occasional views of the river valley (hence the road name), lots of attractive gnarled oak trees, good wildlife, and a pleasant clear-water stream with a gravel bottom. There is one easy-to-negotiate strand of barbed wires at the very beginning. Dane County Parks has done a commendable job purchasing tracts of land along the river here and making them accessible to the public. Indeed, there now are two new parking lots with boat access: one at Highway 69 just south of Sunset Drive, the other on Paoli Road just east of Highway 69. And the good folks at the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association do an outstanding (and under-appreciated) job of clearing obstructions (in addition to citizen science monitoring of the stream, outreach and activism, etc). Approaching Paoli there’s a runnable dam with an 18” ledge that’s fun to paddle down or play in the bottom. There’s no designated takeout in Paoli per se, but there’s public access on the upstream side of the County Road PB bridge on river-right, behind the restored mill, which now is The Hop Garden. This is accessible via Canal Street, a nondescript dirt road, off of Range Trail.
One of the lesser paddled stretches of the Sugar, this is a nice trip but it does come with a couple caveats. For one, in the first two miles the river runs parallel to Highway 69. For another, there are numerous obstructions to dodge around, duck under, or ride over, ranging from partially removed cattle gates, strainers, and low-clearance downed trees. If the water isn’t too high, you should be OK being able to negotiate all these without having to portage (but of course, trees to fall down all the time…). This trip offers a pleasant variety of environments, from pastures to enclosed woods, to open plains. Riffles are regular in the first half, but the current will slacken the closer you are to Belleville, where the first of the Sugar River’s several dams creates a flatwater impoundment. That said, the view coming into Belleville is easy on the eye, its gentle hills especially. There is a convenient public boat launch on river-left in the large community park in Belleville, or you can take out on the left immediately above the dam itself.
This relatively long trip can be broken in two segments by using the make-do access at County Road A. From County Road PB to County Road A is 4.25 miles; from County Road A to Belleville it’s 6 miles.
Belleville to County Road X
Miles: 10.25 | 2012 Trip Report
The first “half” of this trip is truly pretty. A picturesque truss bridge that’s part of the Sugar River State Trail , enclosed woods, little development, and even some modest rock outcrops just upstream from the Highway 92 bridge makes this a scenic and enjoyable jaunt. Riffles are found only in the very beginning, coming off the dam. If you don’t have the whole day to paddle, there’s a convenient access at Exeter Park, at County Road D, for a 4.5-mile trip. If you like disc golf, there’s a course right here at the park, too. From here to County Road X are 5.75 perfectly fine but monotonous miles of paddling. You’ll likely encounter a downed tree or two to portage. The landscape ranges from woods to farm and barns, most of it very, very flat.
County Road X to Attica
Miles: 5 | 2013 Trip Report
This stretch is much like the above trip: perfectly fine, but lacking in mentionable or memorable details. Lots of trees, lots of twists and turns and obstructions to maneuver around, under, and over. It is pretty, but it’s also pretty unremarkable. We wouldn’t go out of our way for this trip, but if you’re in the area, it’s a totally decent option and makes for a pleasant day trip. There’s an alternate access at County Road C, in the township of Attica, to shorten this otherwise long stretch. From County Road X to C (ecstasy?) is 5 miles.
Attica to Albany
Miles: 9 | 2015 Trip Report
A friend of ours puts it this way: “it’s remarkably unremarkable.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with this trip – indeed, this was Timothy’s first river paddle, lo these many years ago! It’s just that this section is a little plain. On the plus side, deadfall shouldn’t be a problem here. Approaching and then following County Road EE you’ll enter the Albany Wildlife Area, which actually is pretty and much less developed. But from EE to the next dam, in Albany, are only 2-3 miles of mostly flatwater paddling. But if you’re looking for an early morning-only or after-work paddle, this is a pleasant trip.
The Little Sugar River comes in from the west in a wide floodplains area that’s fun to poke around. If you find the right channel (not easy to do!) and paddle upstream the Little Sugar half a mile or so you’ll be treated to a rarity in this part of the state: a pretty if brief sandstone rock outcrop, including a now dilapidated cave that once was the home of a colorful hermit named Reuben who hunted wolves (that is, back when there were wolves in this part of the state). Coming into Albany, the terrain rises modestly, but in contrast to the relative flatness of the previous 15 miles of the river, this stands out almost dramatically. There’s an excellent boat launch on river-left a hundred yards or so upstream of the dam in Albany.
Albany to Brodhead
Miles: 7.25 | 2014 Trip Report
Because we are (or at least aspire to be) a family-friendly website, we can’t tell you what this section of the river should do to itself, or where, opposite of heaven, it should go. Caught between two dams, and populated by float-trip folks in tubes plodding along like carbon bubbles at the rim of a glass, often coalescing, loudly cackling, and swearing up a drunken blue streak, all along a predominantly flat and monotonous landscape, there’s just nothing about this trip to inspire a paddler. The only charitable remarks we can make about this section are A) there’s a network of braided islands that changes things up somewhat as you come into Brodhead, B) there’s a modest bluff on the right (west bank) overlooking the dam, and C) if you take the millrace channel (to the left of the humongous dam; technically east), you can then turn into Norwegian Creek, past Head Gates Park, to check out a charming covered bridge over the creek that is part of the Sugar River State Trail. Otherwise, skip this section.
Brodhead to Avon Bottoms
Miles: 14.5 | 2014 Trip Report
If the Sugar River could be personified, it would be that go-getter on his second wind who says, “I’m good, I’m good! Put me back in, coach!” From here to the Pecatonica the Sugar becomes pretty and interesting again. To begin the trip you have two options: meh or cool but tricky. Meh is the millrace section of the river through town (unless of course millraces are your thing). Cool but tricky is starting below the dam via Decatur Park. It’s cool because the dam, despite being that most loathsome of engineering projects relative a paddler, is pretty impressive in its own right, plus there’s a rugged landscape here at the base of an attractive bluff. Tricky because there’s a short schlep from the parking lot to the trail leading down the bluff, and the bluff has a couple steep switchbacks. It’s nothing seriously strenuous, but it can be a bit awkward with a boat and gear. The advantage here is its quite pretty at the bottom, and for the first few miles the river feels wild and abandoned.
There’s some development here and there, but usually just in brief clusters. There’s an awesome rock outcrop – you’ll have to look behind you to fully appreciate it – on the upstream side of Highway 11. On the downstream side of the Highway 11 bridge is Clarence Bridge Park, where there is a park and boat launch on the right. From the dam to here is 6.5 miles; from here to Avon Bottoms is 8 miles. This trip definitely can be done in a day, but it may be more practical to break it up in two sections.
Just past the bridge is the Sugar River Raceway (on the right); you might hear some engines… But after that you won’t see any development for miles. The landscape is simply natural and pretty. Wildlife is excellent as well, predictably. There are some obstructions to dodge, but the river is wide enough that you shouldn’t have to portage. There’s an excellent access on the left just downstream from the W. Beloit-Newark Road bridge.
Avon Bottoms to Colored Sands Forest Preserve
Miles: 11 | Featured in: Canoe & Kayak South Central Wisconsin
You’ve really hit bottom now! This trip feels like an adventure. The current is slack, but the surroundings are thrilling. With only brief exceptions when you can see a field or farm, all of this trip otherwise is enclosed within public land. Two-thirds of this fall on the Wisconsin side of the border, where you will be surrounded by swamps, swales, and backwaters. On an early morning, or better still, dusk, this trip can be downright spooky (and you might also be marauded by mosquitoes in summer around dawn or dusk). The Avon Bottoms is perhaps the best example of this ecosystem more or less intact in southern Wisconsin. There will be a fallen tree or two you’ll encounter, as well as a couple maze-like side channels to determine the main stream, but it should be easy-going. You could skip the first 4 miles by using the alternate access at Nelson Road bridge. You’re still in the Bottoms here, but farm fields will begin to butt against the right bank now and again. Soon you’ll be in Illinois, and eventually the river-bottom will once again revert to sand. One of the most scenic stretches anywhere on the Sugar, you’ll pass a couple 20-30’ tall sand banks within the Colored Sands Forest Preserve. The convenient take out is on the upstream side of Yale Bridge Road on river-left.
Colored Sands Forest Preserve to North Meridian Road
Miles: 10 | 2013 Trip Report
This final leg of the Sugar is not as scenic as the one before it, and thus is not really recommended unless you already live nearby or are visiting. But thanks to much of its length falling along public land that has not been developed, it still has an escape-feel to it like a green corridor. The quality of the water color remains to be pretty fantastic, too, and there are more sandbars for picnicking than you can shake a stick at (that is, if you were so inclined to shake sticks at sandbars). At the confluence with the Pecatonica there is a picturesque scene: you’ll happen upon a truss bridge after an ‘s’ cure, on the other side of which is the Pecatonica River. At this point you have two options: continue downstream 1.5 miles to the landing just before the Meridean Road bridge on the left, or paddle half a mile upstream the Pecatonica to a boat landing on the right. The Pecatonica River here is slow and very wide.