Little Platte River
Old Lancaster Road to County Road O
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A return trip to one of our favorite paddles anywhere in southern Wisconsin, this time to make good on unusually high water levels after some significant rain only a few days prior. Constant rapids, stunning bluffs, exposed rock outcrops, excellent wildlife and hardly any development all contribute to make this a memorable occasion and must-do trip for experienced paddlers.
July 23, 2017
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)
≈11.5 feet per mile
Rockville: ht/ft: 5.7 | cfs: 400
We strongly recommend this level! The minimum recommended level for the Little Platte is 4′ at the gauge.
Old Lancaster Road, Platteville, Wisconsin
County Road O, Cornelia, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 2:30a. Out at 6:00p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 11.5
Wildlife: Bald eagles, great blue herons, turkey vultures, swallows, songbirds, one snake (sorry Barry!), muskrats, one groundhog, and two very plump beavers that bellyflopped into the river from a muddy banks.
We first explored the Little Platte River four years ago, back in July 2013. In the years before and since we’ve done a fair share of pioneer paddling – trying our luck on what we believe to be essentially unchartered waters.* Without spending too much time rifling through the exhausted inventory, it’s quite likely that the Little Platte was and still is the single best “discovery” we’ve made. Well, at least the Stumptown Road-to-County Road O segments of the river, in conjunction with the Old Lancaster Road-to-Stumptown Road segment. We make this distinction because we had heard of the Old Lancaster-to-Stumptown trip, courtesy of American Whitewater. But that’s only 5.6 miles, and the drive from Madison just to get to that area is ~ 90 minutes. So why not double the paddling distance by ending the trip on County Road O instead? Why County Road O? Well, for one, we’re fond of county roads since they mitigate any private landowner/trespassing contentions. For another, the bridges below County Road O are few and far between (truly), and a 12-ish-mile trip usually is long enough.
*A quick disclaimer about “pioneer paddling,” brought to you by the Miles Paddled attorneys at law. It is to be taken with a grain of salt, of course. Heck, maybe a whole granary of salt storage. We don’t truly presume that we’re the first to paddle anything or anywhere. But when we launch onto a relatively obscure stream, or relatively obscure section of a known stream, with no prior knowledge of it, no intel or info about what we’re getting ourselves into, either because it’s not mentioned in any books or blogs, videos or word of mouth, typically because it’s something that caught our eye on a map or while driving over some bridge, then we call this “pioneer paddling.” Lots of paddlers are pioneers; we’re by no means the only ones. To wit, we just featured an awesome report from guest contributors on a totally obscure section of an essentially obscure stream, Koshkonong Creek. Not all paddlers wish to blaze new trails, to be sure. One of the reasons why we even have Miles Paddled in the first place is for any and all paddlers to learn from our experiences – good, bad, and indifferent – to avidly duplicate something we’ve done or to avoid it all costs. Familiarity is relative. We always encourage paddlers to explore the obscure, whether such and such is obscure to them uniquely or to the paddling community en masse.
Making the claim that this was and remains the best pioneer paddle is no casual matter, given the places we’ve gone. Added to that is the always-suspicious initial adulation one has for something (OMG! It was the best ever!) and its sometimes faulty nostalgia that need to be measured against a more objective sense of time’s passage and other personal experiences. After all, four years is a long time to remember something impartially that one had only experienced once. But, dear reader, to the best of my ability, I do solemnly swear that it is the truth, the whole truth, so help me whomever, that the Little Platte is our best!
Now’s as good a place as any to state that Barry and I tried to do this trip, or at least the first half, around the same time of the year in 2016. And when I say “tried to do this trip,” I mean everything within our power, well above and far beyond reason or practicality, defying logic or commonsense, hoping against hope. We drove out and rendezvoused at Stumptown Road bridge one Saturday morning after some hard rains the night before. The river was rocking! But it had already started to drizzle, which did not bode well. To make a very long story short, we saw that another huge t-storm cell was coming our way, so we holed up and waited it out first at the coffee shop in town, then a thrift store (I still have that make-do rain jacket, thanks Barry!), and finally Steve’s Pizza Palace. Sheets of torrential rain crashed and poured down the hilly streets. It was cataclysmic! But then it tapered off. And the satellite showed a beckoning window of opportunity between this storm and yet another, even bigger one behind it. So…
So, of course we threw caution to the wind! Sure, the smart grownup thing would’ve been to recognize that the gods were not smiling upon us, and that even though the river was at a rare and rollicking level, paddling it just wasn’t in the cards; that we should’ve cut our losses before venturing further – indeed, “fortunate” that we could just drive back to Madison not in the middle of a colossal cell of red blob satellite downpour, but rather in the calm clarity of merely overcast skies. But being a grownup is so damn boring sometimes. And we were optimistic (which is to say stupid but hopeful). So paddled we did.
Or started to…
Around the 3-mile mark we heard thunder. What we wanted to hear was just some truck going over a bridge that uncannily sounded like thunder. But there was no bridge. Or truck. And yet the rumbling sound of a truck over a bridge kept occurring. Eventually, we just looked at each other, knowing that the jig was up, knowing that we could no longer pretend, knowing that we had to face the music, knowing that we had to high-tail it off the water pronto. But where? We were in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, within half a mile we came upon the bridge at County Road B and there did a very clumsy, arduous commando take-out that had us dragging our boats up a very steep incline from the river to the road through waist-high grass and god-knows-what weeds for 250′. Fine, but then what? We still had to get to the car at Stumptown Road. And so we walked. Uphill. In the pouring rain. While it still thundered, and now flashed with lightning, as we traipsed upon a fairly exposed plateau. For three miles. Not a single car that passed us – a dozen minimum – so much as slowed down, (including one guy with kayak racks!) nevermind stopped and asked if we were OK or needed a lift. No, thanks – we’re all good! Just two guys who drove from Madison to walk along country roads 90 minutes away in a thunderstorm. (In retrospect, it would’ve taken far less time to just stay on the river and paddle down to Stumptown Road than to walk it. But that seemed like a really irresponsible risk to take.)
We were already wet and bedraggled by the time we got to the car. Fifteen minutes later, putting the boats back on the car at County Road B, you could’ve wrung us out like a towel, so utterly saturated were we. The kind of pelting, freezing rain that hurts your skin.
And during that 90-minute drive back home to Madison, the rain came down in sheets again, making for a white-knuckled experience along Highway 151. The whole ordeal, from leaving Madison that morning to returning to it that evening took about 10 hours – all for a 3-mile paddle. The pizza was tasty, but otherwise the whole day was a total debacle!
And so it was with great fanfare that we returned to the fickle Little Platte one year later, on a hot, sun-saturated afternoon, the river still receding from several inches of rain earlier in the week. And it was awesome!
That’s a lot of background. So as to avoid regurgitating what we wrote about in 2013, I’d rather point out some new observations from this trip. Also, this trip is in the “60 Miles Madison” guidebook.
You’ll want to put-in at Old Lancaster Road, on the downstream side of the bridge, river-right. About 25 yards downstream from the bridge is a feint walking path that leads to the water at a flat place on the bank to make for an easy launch. There’s a fence you can open for ease of entry; just be sure to fasten it closed behind you (let’s not lose access to this wonderful put-in).
Riffles and light rapids begin right away as you descend into a gentle valley. Rock outcrops appear modestly at first, but as you paddle downstream they will be more prominent and unabashed. In addition to the rock outcrops, bluffs, and cliffs – a mix of limestone and sandstone – big boulders will dot the streambed. And there are more ledges than you can imagine. There are a handful of abrupt 90-degree bends in strong current, often when the river veers to the right, bouncing off a rock wall. Needless to say, you don’t want to be swept into a rock wall! Simply anticipate this by hedging the rightward bend on the inside curve, where it’s shallowest.
The so-called whitewater section of the Little Platte is from Old Lancaster to Stumptown Road, although there’s only one brief stretch of Class II standing waves (at least at the levels we’ve paddled the Little Platte at); everything else is good, clean Class I stuff. (Trust us on this: County Road B, which is between Old Lancaster and Stumptown, does not make a good access!) Also between the two is a charming stream called “Rountree Branch.” This enters the Little Platte on the left, literally underneath a private covered bridge in what is utterly one of the most attractive natural-developed settings I’ve ever seen. Seriously, whoever lives there – well done, people!
Below Stumptown Road the rapids are fewer, but they don’t just disappear altogether. The river is quick and lively all the way to the take-out. Other than farms, you’ll see only two houses on this entire trip. Indeed, below Stumptown the river is positively gorgeous and even more wild-feeling.
There’s a new(ish) bridge at Maple Ridge Road, and a word of caution heeds it: there’s a tricky drop on the left side of the bridge, while on the right is a wire above shallow riffles. Below this bridge lies another mile and change of exquisite tranquility before the take-out at County Road O. It’s a rugged access point – downstream side of the bridge, on river-left. It’s muddy, rocky, and weedy, and the incline from the river to the road is a little steep, but it is a shorter schlep than at the put-in. Besides, given how great a trip this is, it could be the worst take-out in the world and still be worth it.
What we liked:
Our first time to Old Lancaster Road, in 2013, was none too embracing. The slope from road to river is steep and lined with loose rocks and tall weeds. On account of this, and seeing a Quarr Road that leads to the river less than a mile upstream from Old Lancaster and does so on flat ground, I made a mental note to begin future trips there (at Quarr Road). But when we returned last year for our doomed debacle trip, we saw an electric wire across the river only 30 yards from the bridge. So we went back to Old Lancaster. But we saw a fence that could be opened on the downstream side of the bridge, on river-right, to allow for much easier access to the water. It’s a short schlep and definitely better than clambering down the steep rocks. Just be sure to close the fence again! So, in conclusion, skip Quarr Road, as it adds nothing to the trip anyway and can be dangerous on account of the wire.
Also, while we’re at it, the take-out at County Road O isn’t as bad as I remembered it from 2013. It’s still a steepish incline from the river to the road, but it’s a much shorter distance than either Old Lancaster or County Road B and it’s really not that bad. It’s possible that it was made easier due to the crazy high-water levels of late that stomped down all the grass and weeds on the bank…
All in all, we encountered only two wires this time, one barbed the other not (but maybe electric…?). The barbed one was low enough to the water level that we just paddled over it. The river was high, so this wouldn’t be an option normally. The other wire was easy to duck under. There is a third wire at the Maple Ridge Rd bridge (see below for more on that). Also, we encountered no cattle in the river taking their sweet old time during this trip. This may be on account of the late hour at which we paddled the river, but we were glad not to get in their way (or them, ours).
In our first trip we advised caution about the 90-degree turns and needing good boat control. While that’s always true, especially at higher water levels, there really was nothing dangerous about the river even at a high level of 5.7’ I didn’t know how the rapids would behave at this level, and was a little apprehensive, but it really was nothing to worry about in the end. Far from it, the rapids were just awesome! There’s only one brief stretch of Class II conditions – a roller coaster of standing waves, no obstacles or ledges – that’s located in between County Road B and Stumptown Road. Everything else is just clean splashy fun Class I. We didn’t scrape once during this trip, instead just flying along almost 12 miles in 3.5 hours with many breaks along the way (compared to 5 hours back in 2013 when the gauge reading was 4′). That said, we got lucky that there was really no downfall or obstructions we had to negotiate (by contrast, last year when Barry and I debacled, the river had several dangerous obstructions to be mindful of). Point is, don’t take the Little Platte for granted, but don’t feel totally intimidated by it either. Just be smart about what conditions you’ll be paddling it under.
Like four years ago, the gurgling natural springs and weeping rock wall seeps were positively enchanting! Since you’d always need recent rain to run the Little Platte in the first place, it’s safe to expect that these features will be frequent as well.
Lastly, and why I failed to mention this in the first report is beyond me, what is quite possibly the most beautiful piece of property my sore eyes have ever laid upon lies between County Road B and Stumptown Road. You’ll see a gorgeous and quaint-as-hell covered bridge spanning a stream that’s equally as gorgeous and quaint, named Rountree Branch (incidentally, this stream might be paddleable after a very heavy rain. But even at 5.7’ on the Platte River gauge this stream was still too shallow in its riffles. But perhaps at 6′ it could be done…) This is followed by an exposed rock outcrop mini-cliff on the left about 25′ tall, on top of which is a beautiful house. At the base of the outcrop is a set of rapids, the sound of which must be constant from above, inside the private home. It’s a helluva slice of heaven!
What we didn’t like:
While better than dealing with an electric fence wire below Quarr Road and better too than clambering down loose rocks, the tall grass and weeds at Old Lancaster Road were formidable – much more so than in 2016 when Barry and I were there. This could be on account of hot, wet summer we’ve had in 2017 (Lord knows I’ve been mowing the lawn this year far more than in years past).
The only true mentionable “dislike” of the trip is more a word of caution. Directly beneath the Maple Ridge Road bridge, the paddler has a hazardous dilemma: on the left is a fun ledge with a weird eddy that can easily flip a boat – and almost did mine; I did take in a bit of water… – while on the right is a partially submerged barbed wire that’s hard to see until the last second.
If we did this trip again:
The next time we’d do this (and there definitely will be a next time!) we’d try to catch it a reputable level ideally in autumn or spring to better take in the bluffs before the trees camouflage the landscape with leaves. But really, you go to the Little Platte whenever she’s running anytime of the year!
8.9 miles by car. 8.7 miles by bicycle. Note: the shuttle route by bike is virtually identical to that for cars, except that parallel to the north/east-bound lanes of Highway 151 is a dedicated bike path. Also, while not utterly punishing, there are a couple good-sized hills here that a bicyclist will need to reconcile.
Previous Trip Report:
July 6, 2013
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Combine the best of the Grant and Platte rivers and this is it – a little river with towering bluffs, cliffs, riffles, rapids, boulders, spectacular wildlife the entire trip and little development or roads nearby – what more can one ask for?
Gauge: Rockville: ht/ft: 4.02 | cfs: n/a
Time: Put in at 11:30a. Out at 4:40p.
Total Time: 5h 10m
Wildlife: Many muskrats, river otters, an owl, umpteen great blue herons, a green heron, a bald eagle, dragonflies, lots of deer, cows and bulls.
The year’s still early but this little river may well be the best discovery of 2013. It’s positively shocking that there isn’t more info available on it. True, it seems like a “thirsty” river, meaning water-dependent but there was enough to paddle it on this trip in early July (no doubt, thanks to all the rain the area received two weeks earlier). I scraped and got stuck on some of the shallower riffles but another couple of inches and it would have been perfect.
The only catch is that you probably don’t want to do this when the water is too high, as it would be a force to reckon with. There are several ninety-degree turns where rapids and rock walls collid and there are at least four barbed wires to duck under (all the more dangerous in higher water).
Otherwise, I absolutely fell in love with this river and can hardly wait to take a friend along and paddle it again. Also worth noting, I did not have to portage once (a rarity this year). There were no obstructions whatsoever (which also makes the secrecy of this river all the more bewildering). Not a river for beginners but also not so technically challenging to intimidate.
What we liked:
There is not one dull spot on this entire twelve-mile stretch. The entire journey down river is flanked by towering hills and small cliffs, rock walls, weeping sedges hanging over a ledge – you name it. Immediately after the put-in, the riffles begin. Shortly following the riffles are rapids, too many in all to count. The rapids were fun and easy, though caution is required on some of those where the river turns sharply. The longest stretch of flat water is at best one hundred yards, otherwise, everything moves along quite nicely.
It’s been awhile since I’ve paddled a river that felt so intimate and away from it all, almost wild. There are rock walls and exposed outcroppings everywhere, huge shoreline boulders seemingly sculpted to sit down on and have a magnificent picnic. Again, the whole environment makes you think of somewhere up north, somewhere away from it all. You paddle under a few bridges but never see any roads. There are at best, a half a dozen houses, all of them pretty, including one that was a dream: a veritable house atop a rock overlooking the river with an actual covered bridge spanning a small creek that is part of the driveway.
This trip can easily be broken into two separate segments. If twelve miles is too much for one day or if you only have time for a half-day paddle. The Stumptown Road bridge acts as a good halfway point. If you have to choose only one tough, I’d say that the prettier section is Stumptown Road to County Road O but really both are exquisite.
The wildlife was simply spectacular. Within the first half-mile I came upon a great blue heron around a bend and I must have spooked him pretty good because as he flapped and squawked away, he shot long jets of poop like silly string. Never saw that before.
There were also several encounters with bulls and cows cooling off in the river (such traffic jams, on top of the 140 pictures I took, help explain why it took me five hours to paddle a swift twelve-mile stretch). The paddling matador rises again – andalé!
I saw two deer drinking from the river, one of which sprinted in great graceful leaps across the river. The other scampered higher up on the hill, snorted a bunch and even made a kind of chucking/coughing sound at me. Also, a first.
And then there was a muskrat (one of several throughout the day) who not only swam underneath my boat just below the surface but purposefully kept a foot ahead of the bow for a good ten seconds (the way dolphins swim alongside ships, until diving down to disappear in the deeper dark). What a treat.
There was also an owl that swept before my eyes in a slicing arc to alight on a tree, craning its head 180 degrees in that creepy Poltergeist way, beaming its two huge yellow eyes right at me before taking flight again. The whole trip was full of these moments.
What we didn’t like:
The accesses are a far cry from sore eye sights. Both at the put-in and take-out, a twenty to thirty-foot drop must be reckoned with. There is no established path so you cut through weeds and large rocks. There was nothing poisonous that I spotted (and I came out of it tick-free) but this could be different for someone else, of course. All this said, both are totally doable (the take-out is easier), just something to keep in mind.
As I said above, the Little Platte is a thirsty river so it won’t be reliably runnable for some of the year, at least this portion (it’s worth noting that there is a second section downstream of the County Road O bridge, about as long as this trip, before the Little Platte meets the regular Platte River by the Highway 35 bridge, about three miles from the Mississippi River.)
Lastly, the several strings of barbed wire are indeed a drag (not literally, I hope) but they are easy to spot and maneuver under.
If we did this trip again:
I can hardly wait! I will definitely take advantage of the “Quarr[y]” Road access (the sign reads “Quarr”), just above the Highway 81 bridge, about a quarter-mile upstream from Old Lancaster Road. And I will have to have at this segment with just a bit more water in it sometime.