Wisconsin River XIV
Castle Rock Dam to Lyndon Station
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A peaceful trip that is light on individual details, but luxurious on general overall feel. There’s very little development along the banks, and several humongous islands that divide the mainstream into beguiling side channels. Numerous sandbars provide great picnicking, sauntering, sunning, swimming and play. Two great accesses enhance the ease of this trip, although there is a $3 fee to use the boat launch at the put-in below the Castle Rock Dam. Except for the very end, there’s not much in the way of geology one would ordinarily expect for the Wisconsin River so close to the Dells, but boy are the bluff formations at the take-out breathtaking!
July 11, 2017
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
1.5′ per mile
We recommend these levels.
Castle Rock Dam Boat Launch, off Edgewood Drive, town of Quincy
Two Rivers Boat Landing, (at the confluence of Lemonweir and Wisconsin off Cliff House Road), Lyndon Station, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:50p. Out at 5:00p.
Total Time: 3h 10m (including a 45-minute sandbar break)
Miles Paddled: 9.5
Wildlife: Blue herons, bald eagles, softshell and painted turtles and lots of fish.
At some point, we’ll have paddled every single segment of the mighty Wisconsin River. It’ll take awhile, but we’ll get there. One of those missing segments – notably close to home and essentially linked to the spectacular Dells trips on the river – is between the dam that creates Castle Rock Lake and the next public access at the mouth of the Lemonweir River at Two Rivers Boat Launch. For point of reference, it’s also the first trip on the Wisconsin River detailed by Mike Svob in his classic Paddling Southern Wisconsin. So, why hadn’t we paddled this segment until now? Good question.
There’s no intentional reason why, nothing deliberate. If anything, it just hadn’t inspired that much get-up-and-go. Svob’s trip description as well as the topo map of the area conjures a rather lackluster meh (or at least “meh” compared to the Dells downstream or the Lower 92 miles of the river, both of which are just beautiful). Granted, not everything should be compared to the Dells or the lush bluffs of the Lower 92. But given the proximity of this trip to the Dells – except that it requires even more driving, since it’s upstream – and given the proximity of the Lower 92 to where we live in Madison, well, this trip had been bumped to the back burner for several years.
But still we’d always been curious about it; plus its omission from all the sections of the Lower Wisconsin River we have paddled felt wrong. Personal circumstances coincidentally conspired for me (Timothy) to do this trip without going out of our way, so the time was ripe.
At the Castle Rock dam there are two locations to launch a boat: one mainly for motorboats or whatever’s powered by gas engines, the other for canoes and kayaks. We opted for the latter, which has you put in at a side stream/ditch about 25 yards before it enters the Wisconsin River. It’s a charming little section, however brief. (Incidentally, the ditch runs parallel to the dike along Castle Rock Lake’s east shore and is a designated trout stream. It’s pretty much straight as an arrow, but has current, a sandy bottom, and is essentially protected by tall sand banks – in other words, it could make for an interesting one-hour paddle on its own… You’d have to take out before the Castle Rock Dam boat launch, however, as it flows over a 6’ tall concrete spillway into a jumble of rocks below.)
While we’d contend with Svob’s description of this trip as being “wild” – maybe it was circa 2001, when his book came out – but the shoreline is mostly undeveloped. You’ll see an occasional house, cabin, trailer, or hunting stand, a resort and rental, a random silo and equally random “blurb” of a housing settlement about two miles down from the dam, but they pass fast and are few and far between. If there’s any one chief characteristic about this trip it’s the mostly wooded banks and sandy islands. Some of the islands are gigantic, other small spits. Depending on the water levels, charting your own course through side channels makes this trip more intimate and fun. (But running aground in shallow sand, less fun.)
There’s only one bridge over the river on this trip (Highway 82), but not until roughly the ¾ mark. On the upstream side of it, on the left, you’ll see a boat/tube rental outfitter. This is one of two such businesses, the first comes about four miles downstream from the put-in, on the right, at a resort and campground. Between Highway 82 and the take-out, the river is very pretty and undeveloped.
Finally, after a network of islands, you’ll first see a classic floodplain forest on your right marking the Lemonweir Bottomland Hardwood Forest SNA, then right after it, straight ahead before your eyes, a notably tall sandstone cliff. The forest marks the mouth of the Lemonweir River, which braids out into several dozen side channels as it reaches the Wisconsin River. Right where the two converge, on the right, is the take-out (hence Two Rivers Boat Launch). But before pulling in you’d do well to paddle up to the sandstone and appreciate its gorgeousness. It’s one of the prettier outcrops anywhere in the Dells area – craggy and fissured with layered lines of cream, copper, gray and green, topped off with pine trees – and the only one that has a petrograph (a painting or drawing on stone). Whether this is authentic or forged has been the subject of debate for years now. It used to be fenced off, but that barrier has been long gone. Regardless, it’s still pretty cool – the whole cliff is quite stunning. Definitely worth the minor hassle of paddling back up against the current to the boat launch (a distance of some 600′ only).
What we liked:
While we’d just as soon remove dams if we could, there’s something literally awesome about putting-in next to one as ginormously looming as the Castle Rock Dam. It’s not a terribly attractive looking structure the way that the Kilbourn Dam in downtown Wisconsin Dells or the Prairie du Sac dam are, nothing neoclassical or Bauhaus about it. In fact, the Castle Rock Dam has as much aesthetic charm as a county highway building from the 1960s. There’s just something about knowing how much water lies behind those concrete walls…
Except for at the very end, this trip is bereft of the sandstone bluffs famously featured in the Dells. But it has a quiet beauty all its own. And frankly, there’s something pretty cool about imagining what it would’ve been like for the first explorers and pilots on lumber rafts in the 19th Century coming down this part of the Wisconsin River, thinking it more or less pleasant enough – sandy, wooded – only to come upon the dazzling majesty of the Dells a few miles further downstream. That must have been utterly amazing! That’s at least partly what makes this trip fun and unique: the appetizer tease of the geology feast ahead. It’s a prelude, a damn good opening band to the headliner.
On a very personal note that may not apply or even sound appealing to some, this was my dog’s first time on a real river trip. Canine and canoe, baby! Together at last! He and I have tooled around lakes before for an hour, but this was our first Point A to Point B afternoon journey. I mention this only because this trip is a great stretch for such an occasion. The river is wide and straight, there were hardly any other paddlers at the time (at least near us, at whom my dog would protectively growl), it’s under 10 miles and took 3 hours, and there are islands galore to get out on, run on dry land, tinkle, play, splash, swim – breaking up the subtle anxiety of being in a boat for so long.
What we didn’t like:
Some might find the landscape to be monotonous. Us, for example. The surrounding scenery is pretty – just repetitive. But for the briefest “winks” of exposed sandstone on the right in the first mile and then another on the upstream side left at the Highway 82 bridge, there’s nothing in the way of geology until the take-out. By and by, this section of the Wisconsin River is flat. Being so close to the grandiose Dells, yet so far away in the feel of the Dells, this trip felt a little lackluster.
If you’re looking for solitude – which, frankly, shouldn’t even be a consideration on the table when you’re anywhere near the Dells in summertime – especially since this trip is away from all the bread and circus downstream, then you might be disappointed in that respect, too. We paddled this on a muggy Tuesday afternoon with rather unfavorable skies overhead (in fact, it rained on us briefly towards the end of our paddle), and yet we passed two-dozen kayakers, a flotilla of floaters in tubes, and one jet-skier. On a weekend, surely the traffic would be even busier. To be clear, we didn’t dislike seeing others on the water – far from it! Rather, we weren’t expecting such company on a random Tuesday underneath leaden skies (it’s worth noting that there are two rental outfitters on this section of the river, which would explain most of the boaters on the water).
Also, there is a $3 fee to use the boat launch at Castle Rock Dam – and it applies to paddlers as much as it does motorboats and the like. We’re not gonna quibble over three bucks, but the principle still sticks in our craw. Since paddlers do not require concrete ramps to launch a boat, such a fee basically means charging you to park a vehicle, which is at least symbolically stupid, considering that Wisconsin River Power Company leases the land from the state of Wisconsin – i.e., us the people – to operate the hydroelectric dam, yet it’s we the people who then pay to launch a boat at this site. Again, it’s a measly three bucks – we pay twice that, easily, for a beer in Madison; but it still feels wrong.
And for what it’s worth, there’s no practical place to put-in on the other side of the dam, i.e., the west bank of the river. We drove out that way after the trip to scout it out. If you were to launch a boat on the upstream side of the dam, into Castle Rock Lake, there’s a makeshift spot for that. But there’s zero access to the river on the downstream side of the dam. You’d have to schlep your boat and gear about 100 yards down a steep incline through brush and weeds and launch off rocks after going through some woods – all the while wishing you’d just paid $3 to launch from the other side.
There are no other public accesses below Castle Rock Dam until the take-out at Two Rivers Boat Landing. The next option downstream – at least allegedly – is at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Town of Dell Prairie Boat Landing in the humble hamlet of Plainville, off of Gem Court, itself off of Highway 13. I say allegedly because I looked for this years ago, following the good word of Mike Svob, who, remarkably, recommends this place as an access to conclude a trip from Castle Rock Dam and/or to begin a different trip going downtown. I never found it, but this also was in my early years of paddling, still wet behind the ears for such subtleties. Or maybe it no longer exists… Even on the satellite map, I can’t make out anything that looks like a boat launch off Gem Court.
Finally, the shuttle. It’s not uncommon for trips down the Wisconsin River to have longer shuttle routes than miles on the water, and this trip is no exception. Part of that reason is big rivers don’t meander as much as smaller streams, and part of that is lack of development along the banks. On this trip in particular, you start on the east bank of the river and finish at the west bank, meaning that at some point along the shuttle you have to cross a bridge. Well, there’s only one here to cross. In fact, it’s the only bridge over the river from Castle Rock Dam to downtown Wisconsin Dells, a distance of some 22 miles. Again, this isn’t something we “disliked” per se, but rather something we feel obliged to mention. Factor in some extra driving time, if you do this trip. And factor in getting lost or at least missing a turn when trying to find the Two Rivers Boat Launch! We know it only because we’ve been there half a dozen times in as many years. But finding it is still a doozy! If you have the technology, just search the GPS coordinates.
Oh and lastly worth mentioning… the mosquitoes were ungodly and unmercifully horrific at the take-out – the worst I’ve likely ever encountered anywhere, certainly at this access. It’s densely wooded, it was late afternoon in July, and it had been raining so often recently. It was probably just bad timing, but it’s worth mentioning. Recommendation: pack pants and long sleeves in the car so you don’t get marauded while putting your boat(s) back onto the car(s)! In fact, that’s not a bad idea in general…
If we did this trip again:
If we did this trip again, we’d do our darnest to find the elusive put-in/take-out in Plainville that Svob recommends. This would add another four miles to the trip, making for a total of 14.5 miles, which is a bit on the long side, but A) the river is wide and there are no obstructions, so one can reasonably expect to go 4 mph, and B) there are plenty more sandstone rock outcrops in those final four miles, so the payoff would be practically palpable.
All in all, we really only recommend this trip if you’ve already paddled the Dells up- and downstream of the dam in Wisconsin Dells. Those sections of the river are the paddling equivalent of going to Disneyworld. If you’re looking to paddle something else, something new, then this is a fine trip. But do the Dells stuff first!
Wisconsin River V: Lyndon Station to Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin River VI: Dekorra to Whalen Bay
Wisconsin River VII: Downtown Dells to Norway Drive
Wisconsin River X: Portage to Dekorra
Wisconsin River XII: Pine Island to Portage
Wisconsin River XIII: River Bay Road to Norway Drive
Wisconsin River XVII: Blue Heron Island
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River
12.2 miles. Not great for bicycles due to narrow, winding roads and fast-moving traffic, but totally doable. Finding the Two Rivers Boat Launch is almost as challenging as finding the Bat Cave! Here are the GPS coordinates: 43.76156, -89.8526.