Black River IV
River Avenue to Riviera Avenue
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A gorgeous and largely undeveloped stretch of the beloved Black River, this trip features some of the best “lightwater” rapids anywhere on the Black with two separate stretches of mile-long and half-mile long Class II+ rapids together with gorgeous granite rock outcrops along the way.
July 5, 2019
Skill Level: Experienced
Class Difficulty: Class II+ rapids in two sections, Class I virtually everywhere else except in quietwater stretches.
≈ 9′ per mile for most of the trip, except for much higher at the two notable rapids sections
Black River (Neillsville): ht/ft: 5.7 | cfs: 1600
Gauge note: Additionally, there’s a painted gauge on a pylon at the Highway 95 bridge, downstream-left, that read 4′ (there’s also a NOAA gauge here at Highway 95, but we prefer the USGS gauge in Neillsville).
We strongly recommend this level. Bear in mind that this was well above average height – especially for summer. In 2015, we paddled the Red Granite Rapids section at 3.3′ | 172 cfs, which was very low and scrapey but still doable. Based on these two experiences, we’d recommend a minimum of 300 cfs. Conversely, we scouted Red Granite Rapids in 2014 at 6.6′ | 2140 cfs, which was extraordinarily high and yet were bemused to watch two young teenage boys paddling inflatable kayaks(!) bounce up and down the big, big waves having the time of their lives. So… yeah. Hope you got a grain of salt.
River Avenue/North River Road, Neilsville, Wisconsin
Riviera Resorts & Campgrounds dock off Riviera Avenue
Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 7:00p.
Total Time: 4h 30m
Miles Paddled: 11.5
Wildlife: Hawks, bald eagles, leatherback turtles, bass and great blue herons.
This trip has been on the hunny-do list for longer than we can recall – longer than most streams, as a matter of fact. Hands down, the Black is one of my (Timothy’s) single-favorite rivers anywhere in Wisconsin. I love everything about this river, but perhaps especially its dichotomous nature of being a whitewater/northcountry river as well as a quietwater/Driftless Area stream, dissected perfectly at Interstate Highway 94, at Black River Falls. We’ve paddled the entirety of the Driftless sections, from Black River Falls down to the Mississippi River (only half of which we’ve documented on the site), but we’ve barely made a ripple in the big river upstream of Black River Falls. This has everything to do with logistics and timing, not preference. The farther upstream the section, the farther away it is from where we live down in Madison. And, being defined by whitewater, catching the river up there with enough volume takes a lot of patience… and humility.
For those who are nowhere near as nerdy about rivers as we are, the Black River can be broken down into various segments to analyze, but we’ll save those weed-diving specifics for a future “Guide to the Black River” feature. We’ll just embrace our inner Paul Stanley and Keep It Simple, Stupid, by dividing the 200ish miles of the Black River into three big segments:
1) Its source at Black Lake in the forests of Taylor County to the Clark County line.
2) The Clark County line to the City of Black River Falls in Jackson County.
3) Black River Falls to the Mississippi River between Trempealeau and La Crosse.
The first segment comprises marsh, farmland and lowland forests, most of which aren’t paddleable, frankly. By and by, this first third of the Black is like a good but not great karaoke performer. The second segment is the bad-ass rock star (pun totally intended). It’s here where the river begins to cut dramatically through granite bedrock in a rough-and-tumble swagger. Not to put too fine a point on it, but nowhere else in the southern half of the state offers the whitewater conditions as the Black River does – particularly in the gorge below Lake Arbutus, in Hatfield, where it roars like an unbridled lion below the dam for half a magnificent mile in conditions ranging from Class III-V. And then last but by no means least there’s the Driftless finale, which is the unplugged acoustic set of your favorite folksinger, where it’s all lazy sandbars, wooded hills, hidden canyons, and a maze of floodplains.
This trip lies squarely in the second segment and is one of the river’s whitewater highlights. While there are light rapids up the wazoo (not be confused with Wazee) north of Neillsville, the really good stuff begins at Neillsville. Between there and Lake Arbutus are state Highways 10 and 95, a distance of six miles as the crow flies, as well as two sets of Class II rapids (pushing on Class III conditions in high water), called the Lower Neillsville Rapids and Red Granite Rapids, respectively. “Lower” is a full mile of Class II continuous action, and “Red Granite” is a solid half-mile of Class II+. To be sure, there are “breather” sections on this trip where the current is totally slack and you can relax, but generally speaking there are riffles and rapids all along this section of the Black River.
Do note that we paddled in a group of five kayakers and stopped A) for lunch and B) several times to dump/sponge water out from our boats we took in at the various rapids. We also portaged one paddler around the “woolliest” portion of Red Granite Rapids. This is all to say why it took us 4.5 hours to paddle 11.5 miles in very fast current.
We happened upon an improvised put-in location for this trip via River Road, a thousand feet north of the County B (aka W. 5th St) intersection. Noticing on the atlas that the river ran right next to River Road, we reasoned that maybe there’d be a makeshift access somewhere that would shave off a hair of distance, and time, since we were a group of five kayakers about to hit 11-12 miles of fairly fulsome water conditions. (In the end, it hardly made a difference, but at the time it was a good hedge. You know how it is sometimes – you stop off here to check out a bridge, and then so do two or three or even four other vehicles behind you. Everyone gets out, weighs in her and his opinion about this or that, then all y’all drive to another bridge, get out, do the same council consensus thing, etc. After so many times, everybody just wants to be on the water and stop overthinking options. And meanwhile, the sun keeps going west, the hours in the day dwindling…)
Anyway, either River Road or, just upstream from it, Hill Road, offers dirt-path access to the river. River Road’s access is harder to discern than Hill Road, but shaves off about three-quarters of a mile, for what that’s worth. See If We Did This Trip Again for more on this.
The current is brisk, and riffles/light rapids (depending on water levels) begin immediately around a right-hand bend leading to the bridge at County Road B (W. 5th St). The river here is rather wide, at 150′. More riffles/rapids await between that bridge and the next, at Highway 10. You might see an access on the upstream-left side of the bridge, but it’s really a fishing spot via the Listeman Arboretum, which abuts the river on the east bank. We looked at this back in 2014, but it’s a long schlep from the parking area for the arboretum down to the water and too impractical to use as an access. Below the tall bridge at Highway 10 rapids keep coming one after another. At our levels, all of these were just cushy, bouncy waves. At lower levels you’ll see more boulders (which essentially create the waves at higher levels), which of course is more aesthetically pleasing, but will require more maneuvering.
An attractive outcrop of uplifted granite lies on the left followed by a hilly pasture also on the left with a smattering of massive boulders. The rapids are amplified here to solid Class II and soon enough you’ll find yourself in a mile-long succession called the Lower Neillsville Rapids. At the risk of sounding condescending, let us repeat that: there’s a run of Class II rapids here that’s a mile long! Where else do conditions like those exist in southern Wisconsin? The river narrows by half its width through this gorgeous dells section full of huge boulders and big ledges, as full laps of water come over the bow and into the cockpit. To be sure, by whitewater standards these rapids are tame little-league stuff. But they’re not an iota less fun or will leave your grin an inch shy of ear to ear. It would be prudent to wear a spray-skirt, however, as you will get wet punching through these standing waves. At the tail-end of the Lower Neillsville Rapids, once things quiet down, you’ll see the mouth of Cunningham Creek on the left. If you’re curious and have the time, it’s worth taking a look-see upstream, as it’s very beguiling…
All in all, you’re at the 3-mile mark by Cunningham Creek – and oh, what a way to begin a trip!
After Cunningham Creek things slow down and relax, and the big river widens again. There are minor rapids and riffles here and there, not to mention some small islands within the next two miles to a muddy landing on river-right at Opelt Avenue. (A wonky word here about Opelt. For starters, it’s technically the same road as River Road, just by a different name. Secondly, it’s the same Opelt Avenue that, a few miles south of here, dead-ends at the confluence of Wedges Creek at the Black River, an additional access, for the record.) We don’t recommend this “first” Opelt Avenue as an access, because it’s very muddy and hard to find from the road, and, well, why wouldn’t you want to continue on this awesome trip?
We mention it only for the sake of orientation; it’s essentially at the 5-mile mark. It’s about another mile-and-a-half to the next bridge, at Bryan Avenue (where there really is no access). As before, there will be riffles and a blip of rapids here and there, but generally speaking the river is broad and easy-going. A third of a mile below the Bryan Avenue bridge a huge wooded island splits the river in two side channels. Both are open and feature little riffles. For what will feel like the first time in a while, after the island the river will meander right and then left, around which hook is the other Opelt Avenue access at the mouth of beloved Wedges Creek. (Incidentally, this makes for an outstanding take-out for paddling Wedges Creek.)
Coincidentally, it’s another mile-and-a-half to the next bridge, at Highway 95. You’ll pass by the Easter Island-esque remains of a huge dam that was destroyed by a flood in 1911. There’s something about these colossal structures that just fascinate me. If nothing else, they’re vestiges from a bygone time, token relics and testaments of man’s humility at the hands of mother nature. I love that this concrete hulk is still present; it’s a little like a shipwreck.
Just down from the dam remnants are two large clumps of low-lying grassy islands. The second of these splits the river in two sets of Class I rapids that precede the tall Highway 95 bridge. At low-water levels this stretch will be unforgivingly rocky. At the bridge, there’s a convenient access on the downstream side, river-left. Here, you’ll see one of two gauges: an official NOAA gauge and a painted one on a bridge pylon. If, for some reason, you wanted/had to skip the Red Granite Rapids, this is where you’d want to do it. Red Granite Rapids rate a solid Class II at moderate-to-low levels. At high levels, the conditions bump up to Class III.
For this same stretch of the Black River in his good book, Paddling Southern Wisconsin, Meister Mike Svob advises “Before running the river, you can easily scout Red Granite Rapids from the old abutments accessed from Resewood Avenue or Riviera Avenue.” Maybe so, back in 2001, when his guidebook was published, but things have changed some today. At Resewood Avenue there’s a clearing and a quaint bench overlooking the river at the abutment, but also a No Trespassing sign. (Did we still scout the river there? Well, duh – of course we did. But we did not bother doing so via Riviera Avenue, on account of time management and the dicey appearance of the unnamed dirt road that spurs off of Riviera that presumably leads to the bridge abutment on the other side of the river… or to an axe murderer’s trailer.) It’s a good 1,000′ walk (one-way) to the Resewood-side abutment from the Highway 95 access, so you might instead prefer to scout the rapids on the downstream side of the bridge on river-right, along the rocky bank. It won’t be the easiest eddy to peel into, especially if the current is strong and pushy, so we suggest being cautious and conservative here and keeping closer to the right side of the river when paddling under the bridge. We did portage one kayak around the biggest waves, but it wasn’t easy, as the rocky banks are irregular and slippery.
Red Granite Rapids is an impressive site. The river here gets squeezed through a beautiful mini-gorge that’s only 65′ wide – from a width of 200′ at the bridge. That’s a tremendous surge of water volume and velocity pummeling through rocky ledges, boulders and walls. Hence the Class II+ nature of the rapids. For us, at our water level, we ran the rapids pretty much straight-on in the middle. Running it to the right allows for a fun ledge to drop, but it’s very narrow and unforgiving. Going down the middle was just a bucking bronco ride of 3′-high standing waves that was more fun than we had any right to have.
Even after the big waves simmer down, there’s still a whole lot more Class I+ rapids and gorgeous boulders/ledges to paddle through, together with stunning granite rock walls and tall pine-lined banks, as the river bends to the right, widens again and slows down. It’s not until the very end of this fabulous trip that you’ll see a house or two on the left, as well as some private docks. And then the next thing you know, there’s the boat launch on river-right at the take-out.
What we liked:
This trip was even more fun than I’d imagined. Except for a stretch or two with longish straightaways in slack current, the river here just gallops past boulders, ledges, and granite outcrops, creating wild, wonderful rapids. At 1600 cfs, these rapids were nothing to sneeze at, notably at Lower Neillsville Rapids and especially at Red Granite Rapids. At lower levels the experience would be profoundly different, with a pro and con (the boulders and ledges would be more exposed, which would make for a prettier, more aesthetic experience, but conditions would be shallower and less forgiving).
There’s very little development along the banks of this longish trip, which adds to its appeal. This section of the Black still retains a look and feel of wild, which we loved.
What we didn’t like:
The only criticism we can think of is the imperfect access choices for beginning this trip. Svob’s map has the “dot” indicating the access at the Grand Avenue bridge, downstream-right, but as is the case with most of the bridges crossing the Black River in these parts, this is a non-starter (or -ender). By and by, the banks are too wooded, weedy and steep at these bridges (Hello Tick Town!) To be fair, Svob does state that the access is 0.3 mile west of the Grand Avenue bridge, along Hill Road via a dirt path to the river from the road. Our put-in choice, along River Road, was much the same, in that there’s a 50′-long path from the road to the river (again, check for ticks). Starting here, along River Road, shaved off about three-quarters of a mile from Svob’s trip. Ultimately, both accesses are fine, just not great – that’s all.
Ed. note, October 2019: there’s perfectly adequate access at the Grand Avenue bridge on the downstream side, river-right. The banks are none too steep or weedy, and roadside parking along Hill Road is totally normal and fine. Unless paddlers want to begin their trips in Neillsville like covert operations through camouflaged woods, then we recommend taking advantage of the traditional approach by launching from the bridge.
If we did this trip again:
We would and we will. The only thing we’d do different next time is add another mile to the trip by putting-in upstream of where we did on this occasion. Otherwise, we’d do everything exactly the same. We loved this trip.
Black River I: Black River Falls to Melrose
Black River II: Hatfield to Black River Falls
Black River III: Melrose to North Bend
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Map: Black River Country
Map: Wisconsin DNR
Outfitter: North Bend Canoe Rental
Wikipedia: Black River
12.6 miles – a long one, mostly along Highway 95. Doable but not really suitable for bicyclists since the highway is busy and fast. Safer, though less direct, would be dog-legging the back roads west of the Black River, near Wedges Creek.
If you do take Highway 95, it’s not a bad idea to scout Red Granite Rapids before heading to the put-in. They really aren’t technically demanding rapids, but it’s prudent to see how lively they are before paddling. After you do that, back on the shuttle, do yourself a favor and take a look at Cunningham Creek as you pass over it on the bridge, just north of where Highway 73 merges. Cunningham Creek looks wild and rambunctious. Very unrealistic as a viable paddling prospect, but it’s fun to fantasize…
Friends of Miles Paddled Video: