Castle Rock Creek/Fennimore Fork
County Road Q to Witek Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A surprisingly viable paddling prospect when water levels are higher than normal, this Driftless Area trout stream tumbles and meanders past exposed rock outcrops, bluffs, pine relicts, and swaths of prairie. Accesses are OK but not great, and there are a few tricky portages around deadfall. But otherwise this is a delightful trip right after a spike of rain.
March 21, 2020
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈ 4-5′ per mile on average. The creek drops quite a lot in it the first half of the trip, whereas the latter half is flatter.
Gauge note: Both of these are correlation gauges and are offered only as approximate metrics, since there is no gauge for the creek.
We recommend these levels. That said, it should be noted that these are high levels for both gauges, and paddling the creek at levels not much lower than these will result in a lot of scraping.
County Road Q*, Castle Rock, Wisconsin
Put-In note: the creek flows under County Road Q no fewer than 8 times. The bridge we put in at is the third to last one under which the creek flows, or in between Breezy Hill Road and Cedar Rock Road. Better still, it’s the bridge closest to a designated public parking area due west of the bridge.
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 4:20p.
Total Time: 3h 35m
Miles Paddled: 8.5
Wood ducks, geese, fish, hawks, signs of beaver, a mink and the single largest otter I’ve ever seen.
6.2 miles, a challenging climb up the ridge on a bicycle from the take-out and then, of course, a wild ride back down a different ridge to the put-in. Both on narrow, winding roads. Better in a car than on a bike.
In river adventures, as in other recreational pursuits, trips typically come in one of two categories: new or renewed. But every once in a while a trip can be both new and renewed – adding something or somewhere that’s novel or unique to a precedent already established. Such is the case for Castle Rock Creek (referred to as Fennimore Fork on most maps, including Google), a beguiling gem of a stream quietly tucked in the Driftless hills of southwestern Wisconsin, overshadowed by its better known (but still mostly obscure) sibling to the east, the Blue River.
Indeed, back in 2014 I (Timothy) came out to the area as part of my paddling recon while working on the guidebook I was putting together. I don’t remember how or why, but I ended up in the Castle Rock Creek basin, even though my intention was the Blue River. Rookie mistake? Maybe. But in my defense I’ll state that it’s real easy to get disoriented in this part of the state, where roads are laid out like ribbons in the wind, not rigid lines on a grid, and go up and down as much as they wend left and right. Half of them, I swear, are named “Something Hollow Road” and most don’t have road signs whatever their names wherever you’re driving. Or the same county letter highway goes northeast by way of southwest. (Did you turn left at County Y? Or was it County Z? And was that after or before turning right on County YZ? You know, where the two split by the big oak tree and crick?) Furthermore, both the Blue River and Castle Rock Creek/Fennimore Fork lie along designated but disconnected segments of the Snow Bottom State Natural Area. Now, add to that ambiguity the fact that there are streams everywhere in the area! Which is a tributary of which is damn near impossible to decipher. And like the roads, there are no signs letting you know this is the main stream or a branch or a fork or a little spittle of a natural spring.
As I like to say, I wasn’t lost; the map was broken. (Stolen from a Greg Brown song.) And that’s not entirely untrue, as the atlas gazetteer does get the names of places wrong, out in the country especially. (All those different streams can’t all be the Pecatonica River)
Anyway, wherever I was at the time, it was shallow. Real shallow. Like, I can’t-believe-I-drove-out-all-this-way-for-this kind of shallow (80 minutes from Madison and no gauge to know how high or low it was). But the surrounding landscape was as bountiful as it was beautiful, so no way was I not gonna at least try to paddle. The only predicament, past the belly-scratch water itself, was a logistical matter of space and time. (Aren’t all predicaments a matter of space and time?) To wit, the layout of bridges across the creek. As the crow flies, there are five crossings over the creek in a 2-mile stretch – all of them on County Road Q. But in between the last Q crossing and the next bridge downstream are 5.75 river miles of wholly unknown, possibly impassable paddling.
At the time, I didn’t have the time to take that gamble. Instead, I hedged my bet and paddled a skimpy 2-mile stretch of the creek, taking out at the last County Q bridge, saving that unknown beyond for another day. Well, that day ended up being six years later, a quintessentially mixed weather blessing of a day in March with a blustery south wind and partially sunny day topping out at 50 degrees. So, rather than paddling upwind, we chose a rare north-flowing stream. From Madison to the Mississippi River, Highway 18 lies along a ridge that sheds water north or south, either into the Wisconsin River or directly into the Mississippi River.
Finally, bear in mind that Castle Rock Creek is a destination less for paddling than trout-fishing. It’s meandering and narrow, and water levels are typically too shallow to paddle. I generally feel self-conscious to the point of wondering if it’s selfish to be out kayaking such streams if-and-when I see dudes (and ladies) in waders out casting their cursive lines to the heavens in hope for a rainbow. But my basic resolve is this: the only time a creek like this will be paddleable is when conditions for trout-fishing are plain lousy – right after a rain, when the banks are full and the water brown.
It’s worth noting that in addition to trout-fishing considerations, the surrounding landscape is composed of pastures and dairy operations. Indeed, the very beginning of the trip detailed here corresponds to an infamous manure spill back in 2016 that caused a tragic fish-kill. Like so much of the Driftless Area, it’s a strange combination where the ancient wild is pressed against a fence by industrialized development. Cattle and trout are peculiar bedfellows indeed.
As mentioned above, there are several spots where County Road Q crosses over Castle Rock Creek. None has anything remotely resembling a designated access. Rather, take a look at all four corners of the bridge to assess where it will be least muddy or steep from the banks to the water.
This trip begins like a bronco out of the gate (well, a “cartoon bronco” perhaps – we’re not talking big rapids here). For the first half-mile you’re all in; rarely is there a moment to relax or saunter. Between the first two bridges the gradient is over 10′ per mile, resulting in luscious riffles and Class I splashes one after another after another. It’s terrific fun, but it does merit consideration, even caution, since it’s still a very narrow stream and tree obstructions require continual maneuvering. Not to mention boulders that are hard to see til it’s too late. There are some short straightaways, however, the first of which is an unusual situation where the creek and country road run parallel to one another, but the road is a good 20’ above you, audible but not very visible. Tall bluffs envelop you on each side. But for the pesky road, the feeling otherwise would be paddling in the heart of rugged country. Regardless, you’re still at the bottom of a steep ravine, with very pretty, very tall bluffs enveloping you.
On the downstream side of the first bridge (again, County Q) you’ll hear what sounds like a rapid but is in fact little more than the shallow shoals of a farm ford. Whatever the water level of the creek is, this spot is always scrape city. The main concern here is cattle; before you get ground to a halt or clumsily grate against the rocky grain (thinking to yourself, that’s gonna leave a mark), be sure to yield generously to the bovine lords and ladies of Castle Rock Creek, my liege. Speaking of, the geological highlight of this trip, indeed the whole valley, is the eponymous Castle Rock outcrop towering some 200′ above the creek, prominently in view now shortly downstream to the east. To quote the purple prose from The Fennimore Times (the August 14, 1901 edition), “An explosion of pleasure and delight escapes from your lips as you behold the noble crag standing out in bold relief before your gaze…” (This comes from a triptych placard at a parking area due west of the bridge we launched from.)
Another straightaway finds the creek ensconced at the base of a tall ridge on the right before it caroms to the left (northward). Huge boulders that have calved off from the rocky outcrops above lie in the creek and along banks. Rare pine relicts, holdovers from the last Ice Age, are found scruffily here and there. After another set of fun riffles, let yourself drift here, as the scenery is downright magical.
The next (and last) bridge at County Q comes next – or, as our pal Scotty put it, “the point of no return.” From here to the next bridge are 6.75 miles without any practical access. Cue Mr. Scotty again: “Well, I don’t have anything else to do the rest of the afternoon.” Thank God for such good friends!
A straightaway after the bridge leads to a fun Class I rapid, in turn followed by a conveyer belt-feel of swift riffles. Eroded mud banks on the right, 6-7′ height, contrast with the low-lying banks on the left. It’s worth taking a moment to look upstream; a picturesque view of a barn with Castle Rock towering above it can be seen. The creek itself swerves left to a medium-sized but totally undeveloped ridge also on the left. Some modest rock outcrops are discernible if you look for them; in summer, the foliage might make these more inconspicuous. Easy to spot at any time of the year are occasional big boulders to watch out for in the middle of the stream. While on this subject, there was a set of wires here spanning the width of the creek, but for our trip we could easily ride over them. Moreover, we didn’t come across a matching set downstream. It was early in the year, so it’s possible that these might pose more of an issue in warmer weather.
Generally speaking, while the creek is still enclosed by bluffs, there’s a scruffy feeling here – especially in March, before the foliage reveals itself. Some notable landmarks here, given how few there are otherwise, include a tall deer stand on the right followed by a gravel outwash (or “gully gusher,” itself followed by a fun little run of Class I rapids). (It was here, out of nowhere, that we encountered the one and only other person on this trip, a man on the banks fishing. It could’ve been the calendar or thermometer, but I think it was more likely what we stated earlier – when such streams are bad for trout, they’re good for paddling.) And then things slow down momentarily where you can relax a spell in a pretty straightaway, with a gracefully arced ridge on the left embellished by a hinting wink or two of exposed boulders and outcrops. And then the creek drops yet again, resulting in more fun riffles to splash (or scrape) through. Castle Rock Creek is not the classic pool-riffle-pool layout of a lot of Driftless streams per se; but when the water is high enough, the steep gradient will keep you smiling like a summertime kid just the same.
The creek takes a peculiar orientation here. After bending northeast around a bluff on the left, it starts to squiggle abruptly to the west, meandering in every which way, before heading back to the northeast. Seen from a satellite, it’s a precipitous change of direction. But before ricocheting west, look to the east (right bank) to take in a positively lovely sight: rolling hills like Scottish moors with scant trees and no signs of civilization. Or perhaps a better analogy is the chalk streams of northern England – with a Midwest Driftless twist. Regardless, the landscape here is enchanting. Heading westward now, more modest outcrops lie embedded in a small bluff set back away from the water, along with continuous stretches of swift riffles. Beware of barely submerged boulders!
Eventually, both banks will get crowded and wooded, the creek itself narrowing. All sorts of obstacles will be found here, some of which can be negotiated, others which shall require portaging. This will continue for the next mile or two; all of the previous openness of the landscape starts to enclose as if in some Brothers Grimm kind of fairytale. Not quite a floodplains, but a bottomlands nonetheless. It’s the one area of the trip where portaging was required, thus the one area where we had to be cautious and wear our thinking caps – because the current of the creek remains pretty reputable.
A cool-looking cantilevered rock outcrop will jut out from the left bank with a fun overhang to tuck under. Set back a bit is a Nature Conservancy sign denoting the Snow Bottoms State Natural Area, one of a few disconnected parcels of the property. Two more gravel outwashes follow, both also on the left. Incidentally, such strewn heaps make for good fossil finds. While none was upturned on this particular scavenging, we did come upon some awesome rocks all the same, along with a shed deer antler. Bonus points!
And then the scraggly stuff comes en masse. We have no idea how fixed these deadfall pileups are or how they’ll change in the future, given high-water events. As such, it seems presumptuous and silly to describe each of these. What we’ll say instead is: Expect to Portage. How and where will be determined on the spot and left to your own druthers. For us, there were two basic choices:
1) Getting out on top of a tree cluster and then hoisting your boat over it, hoping to be able to slip back in on the downstream side without A) losing gear or B) falling in the water; or
2) Getting out on the banks and schlepping your boat around the tree cluster, hoping to be able to re-launch on the other side.
Both tactics have their own advantages and detractions. The tree-scaling option is the most direct and, if done without incident, cleanest; but it’s definitely an inherent hazard that seems appealing only to the most bullheaded of matador-like paddlers. The classic portaging-around is generally easier and safer, but often full of mud and offers no guarantee that there will be a good, flat place to get back onto the water on the other side. It’s a personal preference in the end. But we do recommend to assess the situation beforehand, as not all clusters require portaging. Sometimes a way through will reveal itself if you just look things over long enough. The golden rule is do what feels safe and is smartest for you.
For our trip, we portaged three times total (which includes a number of sneak-throughs, ducking, and dodging). There ain’t no shame in portaging; the only ignominy is ignoring common sense.
Regardless, the trees will begin to recede, the landscape opening up. In quick order you’ll see one of the following: a farm on the right bank and a low-clearance farm bridge with riffles leading up to it and then a reputable set of rocky Class I rapids on the downstream side. Shortly after this will be one last set wink of riffles. What remains are two miles of moving current through what will feel like a million meanders. The river environs open up as you make your way to the take-out, but there will be several strainers to look out for and carefully thread your way through – or just portage around/over. (During our trip, there were two additional portages during this section – of the three total. At that third one I happened to see the single-largest otter I’ve ever seen in my life. Really, I’d swear it’s the largest otter anyone has ever seen! My own dog is smaller than this thing was. It swam right up to the huge logjam I was standing on… and then disappeared, never to reappear.) Witek Road runs to the right of the creek, at times close. In fact, during the shuttle you’ll probably see a couple of these deadfall piles.
A high-clearance farm bridge comes next, signaling the beginning of the end. The final 1.5 mile feels like a luxury after the hairy and harrying spots up to this point. No more strainers, no more portages. Just a lot of left and right bends in an endless meandering deep in the heart of a beautiful valley. The banks here are steep, though a fraction of the tall bluffs west and east. It’s a great way to end a trip that has truly felt like a journey. No matter the wind direction or sun, you’ll be paddling in pretty much every direction here, given the wayward meandering.
The bridge at Witek Road comes into view. While there is no designated landing, we found it easiest and least muddy to get out on the upstream side of the bridge, on river-left. The bank is steep at first, but then flattens out, plus it’s a short schlep from there to the road. On the downstream side of the bridge, river-left, we found a convenient pull-off to leave a vehicle.
What we liked:
Nothing beats the new. Well, except perhaps a rekindling of the old combined with a christening of the new all in the very same trip. The first 2ish miles of this trip were as fun and beautiful as I remembered them from the first time I came out this way several years ago. Indeed, more so, since the water was higher this time around and the landscape more open since the foliage had yet to unfurl and fringe. The “lightwater” rapids right out of the gate are engaging and really enjoyable. And the sense of being at the bottom of this steep, ancient, and enchanting valley is honestly exquisite! While the namesake rock outcrop appears before you’ve been on the water for even an hour, it’s hardly the highlight (although it is a highlight – it’s not everyday in the Midwest that something looms above you 200+ feet, especially when on the water).
But in other senses the real highlight of this trip was the “point of no return” section between County Road Q and Witek Road, a nearly 7-mile-long stretch that truly feels wild and abandoned in the best way. The steep ridges and rolling bluffs are lovely, of course, and the boulders and rock outcrops too are eye-candy. The easy rapids and frisky riffles add to the allure of this section as well. From a kind of pleasantly claustrophobic feeling in the beginning – narrow creek flanked by steep bluffs – to that wide open heathery breadth (the “Scottish moors” area), the confined bottomlands to the meandering zigzags at the end, this trip offers a tremendous variety of landscape moods, adding to the cumulative experience of it being an adventure.
What we didn’t like:
The put-in and take-out – what they lack in luster for accessibility, they make up for in mud! Ultimately, they’re both fine and totally doable, but they’re crumby.
The essential criticism of this trip is the logjams/ downed trees that will require portaging. For us, there were three such occasions, all in the last third of the trip, two of which we’d anticipated since we saw them from the road during the drive/shuttle (which are pretty much back-to-back). Needless to say, we don’t like having to portage if we can avoid it, but portaging is basic par for course when paddling – especially obscure streams where few if any venture a kayak or canoe.
The other factor to consider for this stream is timing and water levels. The creek was high when we paddled it. When it’s high enough to paddle, it’s definitely worth doing. If it looks low, it is too low; don’t even bother.
If we did this trip again:
On account of the few bridge accesses, the only way to do this trip differently, realistically, is by A) starting a bit further upstream at any of the other County Rd Q bridges or B) taking out at the next bridge downstream from Witek, which Neff Road. Either option would of course make for an even longer outing. In light of that, we feel that this trip is the best stretch of an already temperamental stream, so if we did it again, we’d do it exactly the same.
It’s none too surprising that this section can be compared with the Bowers-to-Shemak section of the Blue River; the two streams (and the two sections of said streams) are nearly identical twins of one another, separated by a ridge between them. Both streams are more or less obscure, but of the two, the Blue has a bit more cachet. And if it be true that the Blue is a smidge prettier, it’s not by much. Both streams are stupendous – when they’re high enough to paddle. For paddlers who have had their kind of Blue and wish to fork over for a different experience, Castle Rock Creek is a great choice.
Miles Paddled Video: