Red Cedar River II
Menomonie to Dunnville
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A sweet and easy, serene trip down a wonderful river, this final leg of the Red Cedar rewards the paddler with excellent accesses, an obstruction-free but still engaging stream, tremendous wildlife, a true sense of getting-away, a unique mix of northwoods feel with quintessential Driftless features, rock outcrops, riffles, and one of the funnest, finest state trail bike shuttle options anywhere in Wisconsin. What’s not to love?
September 17, 2018
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Class I
3′ per mile
Menomonie: ht/ft: 6.6 | cfs: 1,100
We strongly recommend this level. This section of the Red Cedar is one of those trips where it’s pretty much inconceivable that it would be ever too low to paddle, considering that it has a pretty skimpy gradient and these are the final 15 of its 85 miles. Unless something screwy is going on with the dam in downtown Menomonie, there always should be enough water to paddle this trip. That said, this trip will be adulterated if the river is high, as the riffles and rapids will all be awash in high water. We last did this trip in May 2015 when there was another whole foot of water. That led to a swift but otherwise underwhelmed impression of this rightfully described “legendary river.” In conclusion, save this trip for a sweet spot somewhere between 6.4′ and 7′ on the gauge to get the best of the current without scraping or swelling.
Riverside Park, off Highway 29, Menomonie, Wisconsin
County Road Y, Dunnville, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 9:00a. Out at 12:30p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 14.75
Bald eagles, blue heron, turtles, ducks, dragonflies, kingfishers, and I swear that I saw this and don’t know what else it could’ve been (even though I’ll be the first to recognize how utterly unlikely it is) – a mountain lion kitten.
13-mile bike shuttle along the vaunted Red Cedar Trail or a 14-mile automobile shuttle along Highway 25.
I first paddled the Menomonie-to-Downsville section of the Red Cedar in August 2010, back in a bygone, embryonic time before I’d ever heard of MilesPaddled.com, much less become a part of it (what I knew of paddling back then could’ve fit into a tiny dry bag with plenty room to spare). At the time of that trip I’d had a baker’s dozen trips under my belt, at best. My frame of reference was next to nothing. (Which could explain why, the day before I’d hardly thought twice about schlepping my 13′-long rec kayak, a black Necky Manitou – still the most bad-ass colored kayak I’ve ever seen! – on the Class II rapids of the St. Croix through the Dalles at Interstate State Park. Or, a few months before that, sea kayaking Lake Superior in the same boat past the nowhere-to-land-in-case-of-bad-weather shoreline of Pictured Rocks in the U.P.. And so the Fanatic was born…)
I don’t have any records of that trip in August of 2010, other than a couple sepia tone photos from an old camera. As such, I have no way of knowing what the water levels were at the time. But, much like Barry’s experience in May 2015, I don’t recall there being many riffles – and no rapids to speak of. I simply remember the undeveloped terrain, rolling hills, the tall eroded sand bank, the totally unremarkable “Accordion Cliffs,” and how the bike shuttle was arguably more scenic than the actual paddling.
It would be mind-numbingly meta to do a review of a review of a review of a river, but of all the trips we’ve documented on the site that have surprised a couple readers for not being more favorable, the Red Cedar probably tops the list. Just this year alone I’ve had two conversations with totally unrelated folks about the Red Cedar – specifically the section below the dam in Menomonie. Between wanting to re-experience it personally and wanting to go past Downsville all the way to Dunnville, it was high time to give the Red Cedar another chance.
The Red Cedar begins its 85-mile journey to the Chippewa River in aptly named Red Cedar Lake in Baron County. Not counting the small dam at Red Cedar Lake itself, the river is impounded thrice more, at Rice Lake, Tainter Lake, and at Lake Menomin in Menomonie. This trip covers the last 14-ish miles of the river before its confluence at the Chippewa River (roughly midway between Eau Claire and the Mississippi River). Incidentally, this is the one trip on the Red Cedar included in guidebook guru Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin; however, in his Paddling Northern Wisconsin book he covers four separate day trips upstream of Menomonie.
I put in at Riverside Park, not at the decrepit concrete boat landing at Highway 29, mostly because I was bike-shuttling and it just made sense to start at Riverside Park, where the Red Cedar Trail pretty much begins. Both accesses are good, and it’s only a third of a mile distance between the two, so take your pick.
Meister Svob in his review of this section correctly states that “mild riffles” are found right away. Indeed, you can hear and even faintly see them from the put-in. Very mild. In the next sentence he waxes that “exhilarating riffles continue for several hundred yards.” I don’t know how many paddlers would use the word “exhilarating” when referring to riffles, but who am I to judge? Fun for sure. In fact, I counted four separate sets of riffles in just the first mile, all brief, all safe. Also, he correctly states that the river is “always at least 100 feet wide”; at times it’ll be one-and-a-half to double that. On both banks you might see and hear a small rivulet apiece of water cascading down rocks into the river, probably natural springs (as it hadn’t rained in weeks). The one on the right may be more conspicuous, as just behind it is a small bridge along the Red Cedar Trail. In theory – although I did not do this because I had not known of it beforehand (otherwise I would have!) – in theory, if you beached your boat, got out, and hiked up this stream/spring it would take you to Devil’s Punchbowl, a water-carved canyon with an amphitheater-like sandstone wall as wide as it is tall: 45′. It’s all on public land too, part of a nature preserve courtesy of the West Wisconsin Land Trust. If nothing else, set some time aside to check this out once you’re off the water.
Simpler but less astonishing is a third of these mini-waterfall exploratories – this one on the left, downstream from the above. At its base is a modest terrace/scalloped effect where a small stream tumbles over bedrock. You can walk up the stream and find a hidden micro-canyon. It’s nowhere near as dramatic or breathtaking as the side streams found in the Black River Falls area, but it’s pretty just the same. Back on the river, the banks are wooded and steep, and in long straightaways you’ll see Driftless hills in the backdrop.
The County Road D bridge in Irvington, three miles downstream from the put-in, is the first significant landmark. There is an access here on the right, but this trip has only just begun. After this, Svob’s good book shows its age a bit. He writes that “downstream from Irvington, beautiful 75-foot sandstone cliffs (known as the Accordion Cliffs) tower over the water on the right.” To be fair, perhaps there was a time when they did, but as Barry corrected the record, “you can only really see a sliver of them and even that sight is blemished by a giant electric pole impaled into its highest point which kind of detracts from the beauty of it.” Immediately downstream from that eyesore of an electric pole is a less blemished stretch of rock outcrops, but it’s a smidge distracted by power lines strung alongside it. Just the same, I do think the 75′ height is overstated, but we’ll let that sleeping dog lie.
The tallest of the small waterfalls lies downstream of the power lines you’ll pass under after Irvington. And by waterfall I mean simply a 3′ drop from maybe a natural spring. Still pretty cool. You’ll then pass a mixed palette of pine tree-topped tall banks, modest rock outcrops, another natural spring, and a totally random 200-yard stretch of trailer homes on the left. Svob states that “the best riffles of the trip” come next. I don’t know what level Mike paddled this trip at, but I can certifiably and unequivocally claim that at this level (6.6 @ 1100 cfs) these were Class I rapids. Still nothing worrisome for beginners, but more than mere riffles. A long but skinny island precedes what may well be the most visually dramatic sight on this trip: a sheer, steep sand bank (actually 75′ tall) on the left beautifully carved by a curve in the river to the right.
A stately iron-and-wine (just kidding; iron-and-wood) truss bridge, aka the Red Cedar Trail, comes into view just after this. A bend to the left takes you to the next road bridge, at Highway 25, in Downsville. A boat launch and parking lot are immediately downstream of the bridge, on the right. Eight miles from Menomonie, this is where Barry took out in 2015 and I in 2010, making for an easy, scenic short float trip. On the opposite bank are bathrooms and cold water, found along the Red Cedar Trail, as well as a convenience store and coffee shop a stone’s throw away.
Below this put-in/take-out there are spirited riffles/light rapids following a right-hand bend and then a straightaway. The river then bends to the left around a metal retaining wall. In Svob’s write-up he states that from here riffles are infrequent, the setting more open and dotted with islands. This is spot-on accurate. (Although I’d say “less frequent” than infrequent; there still are a handful of riffles here and there in the subsequent 6-ish miles. What Svob didn’t mention was the vehicular din coming from Highway 25. It’s not necessarily an annoyance, but it’ll linger for a mile and change. The landscape down from Downsville is definitely different. At least at first, gone are the steep wooded banks; in their place are low grassy areas with wide panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, which is to say tall hills framing the backdrop. And at these levels, there’s one final set of Class I rapids in this otherwise flat, open landscape mixed of scrubby banks and farm fields.
Another notable distinction between Menomonie-to-Downsville and Downsville-to-Dunnville is the latter segment is narrower and meanders quite a bit, sometimes around clusters of deadfall (but nothing requiring any maneuvering around). Indeed, on Svob’s map, near the 13-mile mark, there’s a tight horseshoe-shaped meander dubbed “Snaggy Bend.” This makes me giggle, frankly. Also, it would be my stage name if I ever became a rapper: Snaggy Bend – because my rhymes are so tight they’ll grab you. (Being a rapper also makes me giggle.) Nonetheless, the Google Maps satellite image shows that Snaggy Bend may also be a hallmark to the past, as it seems like it’s an oxbow invariably getting cut off from the main channel. Rest in peace Snaggy Bend, may you at least hold onto your memories…
Anyway, after that last meander the river will once again flow straight and broad, and once again the banks become wooded and steep. This final mile is as pretty as anywhere else on this trip. Atop both banks are exposed rock outcrops, but they’re all cleverly camouflaged by adjacent trees. Soon enough the bridge at County Road Y appears, signaling the end of this trip. As before, there’s a boat launch/parking lot located just downstream from the bridge, on the right. It’s a clean, easy, ridiculously convenient place to get out.
What we liked:
I’ve always carried a flame for this river. Coming from Madison, the Red Cedar begins the finale of beautiful rivers one passes along I-94 until reaching Hudson, Wisconsin, on the scenic St. Croix River only a dozen or so miles upstream from the mighty Mississippi. Between Madison and the natural border of Minnesota one crosses over the Baraboo, Wisconsin, Lemonweir, Black, and Chippewa, before the Red Cedar. Past Mauston and New Lisbon, beginning approximately around Mill Bluff State Park with all those cool sea stack rock outcrops, and coming upon the northcountry-feel of the Black River State Forest, this part of Wisconsin – so-called Indianhead– has long been one of my favorite getaways. And whether your destination has you headed to Hudson or traversing the Twin Cities, I’ve always felt something between kismet and kinship driving over these rivers.
Leaving my own bias aside, I loved this level of the river. Being only our third trip in a decade of paddling, we’re obviously amateurs when it comes to the Red Cedar (well, that, and a whole lot else…). I happened to catch the river at just slightly above what its historical average is for mid-September. More often than not, we happen to paddle rivers new to us when they’re a wee bit below comfort level (meaning we’re scraping), all the while wishing there were just another inch or two of water. This level was pretty much pitch-perfect. I’ve since talked to a friend who used to live in Menomonie and is quite familiar with the river, and he was surprised to hear me tell how riffly it was. So, sometimes less is more.
All in all, this redo paddle, together with adding the Downsville-to-Dunnville segment, was even better than I’d remembered it from eight years ago. In a couple senses it can be compared to the Eau Claire River (the one in the actual city of Eau Claire) and the Black River, although its geological features are more subdued than those two. All three have those classic sheer-cut, steep sand bank, although this trip on the Red Cedar had but one. Its occasional rock outcrops also are more modest. But it’s still a great river. Plus something it’s got that the others don’t is a parallel state trail that offers the best kind of bike shuttle and paddle-and-pedal complement one could hope for. Barry described it beautifully when he likened it to a mezzanine-level view of the landscape, as compared to the orchestra section of the water itself.
So, steep woodsy banks, occasional micro waterfalls, a place or two to get out and exploratory hike, riffles galore, an attractive truss bridge that’s part of an awesome state trail, convenient accesses, no obstructions, great wildlife (possibly home to mountain lions…), occasional rock outcrops, and panoramic views of Driftless hills – these are the final miles of the Red Cedar River, a trip well worth adding to your list.
What we didn’t like:
It’s all minor quibbles. The long, broad straightaways could be a bit boring after awhile; the lackluster Accordion Cliffs could have been more A) visible and B) cliff-like; and the road noise below Downsville spoiled some of the away-from-it-all feel that’s otherwise palpable on this trip. But these are utterly petty protests. There’s a lot to like about this trip.
If we did this trip again:
Honestly, the only thing I’d do differently is paddle this later in the year, whether in the peak of autumn foliage or in early November, after the leaves have fallen, the rock outcrops more exposed (and when water levels aren’t an issue). Otherwise, this trip is great. If you don’t have the time or inclination to paddle 14.6 miles in an outing but still want to do some portion of this trip, then you probably should stick with the Menomonie-to-Downsville segment, as it’s more varied, easier, and arguably prettier.
Also, it wasn’t until after I finished paddling and was bike-shuttling back to the car that I wondered “what does the river look like in between Riverside Park and the dam?” Driving in, it hadn’t even occurred to me to put-in anywhere else than Riverside Park (I didn’t have Svob’s book with me). That’s where I went back in 2010 and it’s right at the trailhead, so it was the most logistical thing to do (which I’m admittedly a little OCD about). Curiously, Svob makes no mention of the ¾-mile segment of river between the dam and Riverside Park. So let me tell you about it.
In a word, rapids. Rowdy rapids, Class II – and those were at a relatively low/average level. While brief, and more the pool-riffle-pool sort, not a wild, continuous run, it sure looked like a lot of fun. But I had a three-hour drive back to Madison to do and a dog to come home to. But next time I’ll be sure to give that a go. (I scouted it. There’s parking available on the downstream side of the dam, on what would technically be the north bank of the river. From there it’s a very short walk to a stairwell that takes you to the water where there’s a convenient flat rock shelf from which to launch.
Alternatively, at some point I will put-in at the boat launch in Dunnville at County Road Y, paddle that last skimpy mile to the Chippewa River, turn right, and continue downstream to Durand – which happens to be Mike Svob’s “Chippewa River 4” in Paddling Southern Wisconsin, by the by.
Miles Paddled Video: