Kinnickinnic River II
River Falls to Kinnickinnic State Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Hands down, one of the cleanest, clearest, most beautiful and exhilarating rivers to paddle in all of Wisconsin, the “Kinni” is just incredible, as it swiftly wends its way around one stunning bluff and cliff after another, with peppy rapids all along the way, but hardly any development. Just be sure it’s high enough to avoid scraping too much.
April 29, 2018
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class II
≈10′ per mile to County Road F, then slow and sluggish to the St. Croix River
River Falls: ht/ft: 10.34 | cfs: 125
This is the recommended minimum level. While plenty doable, we scraped a lot. It would be much more fun (and less damaging to your boat) to hit the Kinni at ~175 cfs minimum.
Glen Park, River Falls, Wisconsin
St. Croix River beach at Kinnickinnic State Park
Time: Put in at 10:55a. Out at 1:45p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 10
Wildlife: Bald eagles galore, turkey vultures, hawks, double-crested cormorants, geese, ducks, turtles, pileated woodpeckers, as well as pelicans and loons (on the St Croix River).
We first paddled the Kinnickinnic back in August 2013 and absolutely loved it. It’s pretty much a paddler’s dream come true: a crystal-clear stream with swift current surrounded by stunning cliffs, bluffs, and rock outcrops but virtually no development, for mile after blissful mile. Ever since, we’ve been eager to do it again.
The Kinni is doubly dammed (causing twice as much cursing) in so-called River Falls, Wisconsin. We’ll get to the dams in just a minute. But as a result of them, paddlers typically put in below the second dam. And generally speaking, they take out at County Road F, which is just shy of three miles upstream from the end of the Kinni, where it meets the mighty St. Croix River. Those final miles run through Kinnickinnic State Park, which boasts of a very alluring two-for-one state natural area: a gorge and a large sandy delta at the confluence of the Kinni and St. Croix. Indeed, we’d wanted to paddle all the way down to the mouth back in 2013, but what we hadn’t known at the time is that to get to the sandy delta/beach area you have to walk down a short but steep road. That part’s fine. Rather, it’s the getting back up from the river that’s the issue. You can’t drive down to the water – meaning, once you reach the take-out, you’d have to schlep your boat and gear up a considerably steep road to the main parking area. Seems like just the thing for a kayak caddy/2-wheeled carrier, which we didn’t have with us at the time. (Note to self: why not just keep that in the car?)
So, we skipped that last clip in 2013. But it’s always been on the to-do list… someday… with the caddy.
That day ended up being the end of April, 2018. We were up in the area anyway for the Midwest Mountaineering Expo in downtown Minneapolis, a really cool three-day event that’s like a micro-Canoecopia. No way were we going to drive up to Minneapolis and back – literally passing over any number of premier streams not in our backyards (Robinson Creek, the Black River, the Chippewa, the Red Cedar the Kinni, the St. Croix, the Mississippi, to name more than a few) – without paddling one of them. We opted for the Kinni in order to explore that long last final leg.
But also because it was quite timely, in an unfortunate way.
Earlier in the month, American Rivers rated the Kinnickinnic River in northwestern Wisconsin as one of America’s top ten most endangered rivers, on account of the dams and their deleterious effects on the local ecology. For more about the problematic dams, read here. If you’d like to get involved the mouse click-and-keyboard way, see here. If you’d like to get a little more hands-on involved, see here. If you’d like us just to get on with the paddling part, skip to the overview. One quick shout-out goes to the Friends of the Kinni (aka FOTK) volunteer at the Midwest Mountaineering booth – calling Dr. Page. We chatted for a toothsome bit about where things currently stand in the dam removal process and the River Falls city council. He not only gave us “FREE THE KINNI!” stickers, but also a copy of the gorgeous and endearing The Fishing River, a formerly out of print children’s book written and illustrated by a River Falls native back in 1962, about trout fishing on the Kinni. The book was reprinted thanks to a generous contribution from the Page family, and all the proceeds from sales go towards the restoration and conservation of this incredible river in northwestern Wisconsin.
As we mentioned in our first report, finding the actual river below the second dam takes a little forethought since it’s kind of hidden. First, go to Glen Park in River Falls (355 Park St, 54022). Next, drive down to the tennis courts and park in the lot. Now, head west – or just follow the end of Park Street to a foot path and staircase that descends down the bluff and to the river below. It’s about a 900′ schlep from the parking lot to the water below the dam, fyi, every step worth it. There’s no official place to launch a boat, but the ground is level with the water, so it’s easy. Just be mindful of the discharge from the dam as well as any fishing lines from folks ashore. The Kinni is an extremely popular place for fly-fishing. Indeed, you should expect to come upon an angler or two waders-deep in the water along this trip.
It’s a hell of a thing to think about the eponymous falls that gave the small city its name, hidden behind that concrete wall that is the second dam. Sometimes with dams you have either to use your imagination to see the falls in your mind’s eye or it simply wouldn’t even occur to you to wonder what the river would look like untamed. But here it’s clear as day, as the dam is flanked by rock outcrops on each side. Someday the Kinni will be free…
Neither the nostalgia nor future hope will keep you preoccupied long, as the river’s riffles and light rapids immediately downstream shall snap you from your reverie. Like a good action movie summertime blockbuster, the swift current will not quit til just past the bridge at County Road F – the only bridge on this trip, by the way. In high water (i.e., 200+ cfs) the rapids could be challenging and command attention, but ordinarily the Kinni is easy swiftwater for miles on end. Perhaps on account of the missing human-made features (i.e., bridges – or power lines, houses, buildings, etc.), it’s pretty easy for this trip’s features to blur into a singularity – but one that’s spectacular and virtually continuous. Unless, of course, one finds nonstop bluffs, rock outcrops, mini gorges, crystal clear water, and riffles to be monotonous.
After an approximate mile there’s a sign on the left bank stating that this is the last/only place to get off the river until the County F bridge. It’s part of an intricate trail system parallel the river on the east bank (river-left), primarily for hikers and anglers. You’d never want to take out here – or put in; we simply mention it for the sake of reference. Plus there’s a cool twinge knowing that you’re entering a “wildish” area point of no escape for several miles… It sounds more formidable than it is. The bridge at County F will come all too soon, believe you us. You’ll be disappointed when it appears. In the meantime, sit back (but don’t relax too much – there are obstacles to dodge, shallow spots to avoid, and light rapids to read, etc) and soak up the majesty of the landscape.
That turquoise/jade green color of Driftless trout streams simply shimmers in the sun and nicely contrasts with the equally eye-popping evergreens of pine and the cream-colored rock outcrop bluffs. In shallower spots the color of the river will yield to its sand/gravel bottom, as if a little boy spilled a handful of marbles.
While all of this trip is blessed with geologic splendor, the epic hits from the show come more or less midway, featuring such unforgettable classics like small waterfalls tumbling down slickrock facades, a horizontal shelf-shelter 30′ wide cut into the sandstone bluff a couple hundred feet high, and a wall of weeping seeps dribbled through the gristled beard stubble of green moss – all on river-right. Don’t get us wrong – there’s splendor aplenty on river-left as well! The whole series of sequences is simply spectacular.
The right bank will lower a little, and around a bend you’ll pass a small house – the only one on the river (except for one earlier in the trip atop a bluff). It looks kinda fun and funky, but we’ve yet to see any human inhabitants thereof on either of our trips. An engaging series of light rapids, about 75 yards long, precede a bend that then leads to the bridge at County F. Again, most paddlers call it quits here, for understandable reasons. The take-out access is on the right, downstream side of the bridge, where there’s a parking lot that is technically considered on the grounds of the state park, meaning an admission sticker or daily pass is required ($28 annual or $8 daily for WI license plates).
Below the bridge the action remains for another couple hundred yards with a couple more fun riffles and light rapids. But, then, slows… down… to… a… crawl… And that shall remain all the way down to the St Croix. Fortunately, the landscape is as gorgeous here as upstream. Speaking of, the aforementioned gorge is no more or less prominent here in this part of the river than previously upstream. It’s definitely not a canyon; while there are two bluffs on each side of the river, it feels more like a valley, since they’re widely spaced apart. But it’s still ridiculously pretty.
As you get closer to the St. Croix the banks will taper and then basically disappear into a blend of floodplains. The bluffs in the background are still prominent, however, so at no point does it feel flat or dull. There’s just no current. Should you have the time and inclination, paddling through the roots-submerged trees is a fun novelty unto itself and worth the ad hoc excursion.
Eventually, you’ll see the unmistakable mouth and the mighty St. Croix downstream. Since we did this in late April, after a very peculiar late winter, the trees were still leafless. One can imagine that the effect of the floodplains and the lead-up to the confluence in full summertime bloom would be even more dramatic, a little like light at the end of a tunnel. Once on the St. Croix, take a moment to appreciate the big river, a whopping 1800′ wide – the single largest tributary of the Mississippi River (itself only 8-ish miles downstream) in this upstream location. Bluffs line both shores of the St. Croix. Turn right and paddle a short distance upstream to the beach in a clockwise direction to the Wisconsin side of the shore. For our trip, the sandy delta beach was completely submerged by recent ice-melt and high water on the St. Croix. Again, the effects of the beach should be downright lovely in summertime.
The official take-out is at the end of a concrete drive. Not a true boat ramp per se, since no vehicles are permitted down here anyway, but it looks like one. There’s a restroom and picnic tables here. There’s also a steep-ass hill to now schlep your boat and gear up, back to the main parking lot at the top of the bluff. Good thing you brought your boat caddy/2-wheeled cart!
What we liked:
Everything. Honestly, the Kinni is a paddler’s dream come true.
But to offer something different than our previous report, let it be this: snow and ice! It is practically inexplicable and sublime to be paddling in shorts and a t-shirt on a warm, sunny day in spring, nearly May, past blankets of snow piles in shadowy hollows and rock-clung ice blobs still brazenly facing north. This was totally unexpected and cool as hell! Particularly a wall of ice that directly dipped into the river, which we could take a sneak peak behind in a micro cave-like effect between the ice wall and the rock outcrop.
We recommend paddling the Kinni whenever the water is high enough, period. But catching it in late spring with this wintery postscript was true serendipity. As were the flocks of cormorants – dozens upon dozens of them – pelicans, and bald eagles. The lone loon on the St. Croix was just the cherry on top of this Sunday paddle.
What we didn’t like:
Why quibble? The Kinni is incredible, so anything we might write here will seem so petty. But, again, to offer at least something we’ll say that the water level was much too shallow for practical paddling. It was doable, but at the very bottom margin. We scraped a whole dang lot, and the Uff Da was punished royally.
Also, for the sake of objectivity, the stagnant flatwater after County Road F is indeed a marked contrast to the nonstop action from the put-in to County Road F. If the wind is against you, then these final few miles will be a lot of work. (But on the plus side, if you’re the kind of paddler who wants to soak up great geology but not have to deal with pushy current and obstacles, then this section of the Kinni is right for you!)
Finally, we understand that not every vehicle sports a State Park admission sticker year-round. If your car doesn’t already have this, then this trip will cost money, which strikes us as inherently counterintuitive when paddling. At least in Wisconsin. (Yeah, we’re looking at you, Illinois!) That said, this trip in particular sure is worth the price of admission.
If we did this trip again:
Oh, we will! Ideally as soon after a recent rain as possible, in order to benefit from A) higher water levels and B) more waterfall and weeping seeps action.
There’s a reason why most paddlers take out at County Road F. The final couple miles of the Kinni are as beautiful as anything upstream of County F, but the current disappears altogether only a couple hundred yards downstream from the bridge. We love confluences, but it’s slow-going and sluggish to reach the St. Croix. And then there’s the steep schlep from the beach back to the parking area. It’s awfully tempting just to call it quits at County F.
Either way, we’ll always want to do the Kinni. And likewise, we’ll be among the first in line once those damn dams are down to paddle the falls in their natural form.
Kinnickinnic River I: River Falls to County Road F
Camp: Eau Galle Recreation Area
Camp: Willow River State Park
Good People: Friends of the Kinni
Good People: Kinnickinnic River Land Trust
Outfitter: Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters
Wikipedia: Kinnickinnic River
10.5 miles by bike or car. Note: there’s a steep schlep of 1200′ from the beach on the St Croix River up to the parking area that is foot traffic only. Take your kayak/canoe two-wheeled cart for this, if you take out at the mouth of the Kinni.