Canoe & Kayak Camping Wisconsin: Lower Wisconsin Riverway
In 1989, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway was created to protect the last free-flowing 92 miles to the Mississippi River for recreational purposes and to help protect natural wildlife habitats. From Prairie Du Sac to just south of the city of Prairie Du Chien, the river is un-dammed with no man-made barriers to disrupt the flow. This results is miles of unimpeded river, culminating at the confluence of the mighty Miss and the beautiful Wyalusing State Park.
The Riverway is a popular destination for paddlers seeking a camp-anywhere outing and a bit of remote solitude. Of course, the river’s water levels are greatly impacted by the slightest rain which can produce some unpredictable height and current. Consequently, almost no paddle or overnight adventure on a sandbar or island will be the same as water levels change daily.
Paddling Style: Quietwater Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Island + Sandbar
Availability: First-Come, First-Served Undesignated Public Land Camping
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: No
Camping Fee: No | Camping Permit: No
The most appealing aspect to the Lower Wisconsin is the freedom to camp practically anywhere which is what makes it a very popular destination for multiple night trips. No permits are required to camp on the Lower Riverway as long as you’re on a sandbar or island. Technically, the banks are off limits since they are usually privately-owned, but sandbars are plentiful when the water is low. In times of high water, it can be a challenge to find sandbars and if the river is in flux – meaning, if there’s significant weather north, be prepared to keep your site on higher ground or you’ll wake up to a wet or flooded campsite. Camping is restricted to no more than three days on sandbars and State-owned islands, and is restricted to boat-in camping only. And of course, since camping on the lower Wisconsin is as primitive and remote as it gets, one must be sure to bring a shovel for your personal matters, and practice pack-in, pack-out, Leave-No-Trace ethics.
Paddling the Lower Wisconsin Riverway:
When it comes to planning a paddle on the Lower Wisconsin, there are a few major considerations to consider and keep an eye on.
First, water levels really are everything and dictate the time it will take you to paddle (more water = more flow = quicker paddling), so if the water level is low, you’ll find yourself zigging and zagging, searching for the deepest channels and putting on extra mileage while traversing the river back and forth. This can make for an exhausting paddle if you’re not prepared for it and if you have headwinds to contend with, it can add to the discomfort. At higher water levels, the strength of the currents are often pushy, and in recent years the river is often too high to paddle (outfitters usually won’t send paddlers out when the river is over 15,000 cfs). Obviously, this also affects the availability of camping (more water = less sandbars). Even at lower levels, sudden drop-offs and undertow are something to be aware of (always swim upstream of sandbars for added precaution).
Second, weather is important to keep an eye on. Storms can (and do) suddenly and swiftly crop up. If you’re camping on a sandbar, keep your kayaks tied down incase the water rises. From experience, the river can rise a foot in only 12 hours.
Lastly, there are two other considerations that can affect your paddling experience – wind and holiday weekends. Headwinds can make for a much tougher go of it, while holiday weekends, (often the most convenient time to paddle a trip) are usually busy and can make for a more congested river, especially further upstream (closer to Sauk) but less so as you move closer to the Mississippi.
For planning purposes, what’s a good distance for day trip? In normal current, 8-12 miles is a realistic amount of distance to attempt in a day and is our (personal) general rule-of-thumb. That of course, again, depends on water level and wind which will always affect a canoe or kayak trip on a river as wide as this one. Thankfully, river access is plentiful which makes adjusting the route to suit your plans very easy. Here, we break the lower 92 down into randomly chosen (and paddled) but manageable sections:
Prairie Du Sac to Arena
Miles: 14.25 | 2020 Trip Report | 2010 Trip Report
Due to its proximity to Madison (and therefore, denser population) this uppermost section of the Lower Wisconsin is the most traveled. In fact, a third of the river’s use is within the first 30 miles of the dam. It’s sometimes overlooked by quietwater enthusiasts for that same, populated reasoning, but it’s definitely a worthy consideration. It’s an incredibly scenic section and there’s lots of wildlife and numerous sandbars to camp on.
The put-in at Veterans Memorial Park in Prairie Du Sac is off Water Street/Highway 78 with lots of parking, camping and a view of the dam. A point of interest midway through this section is Ferry Bluff State Natural Area where a beautiful bluff suddenly towers hundreds of feet along a mostly flat stretch on river-right. On the last stretch approaching Arena, you’ll find many sandbars and small islands to navigate. The popular take-out in Arena has a traditional boat landing as well as a designated canoe landing located on a sandy beach.
Arena to Gotham
Miles: 25.5 | 2020 Trip Report | 2017 Trip Report | 2010 Trip Report
Just like the upper stretch, you’ll no doubt, have more company on the water due to the proximity to the Sauk/Baraboo/Madison area. The put-in at Arena is a popular place to put-in for canoe rentals. It has a boat landing but also a separate canoe launch which is spacious and easy to access. The first 13 miles are typical Wisconsin River paddling environs. Huge sandbars and swift-moving water. When you pass beneath a train trestle, you’ll know you’re approaching Highway 14 and Spring Green, where you’ll start seeing the bluffs of Tower Hill State Park on river-left. You may also witness bridge jumpers if it’s a holiday weekend. There’s a couple options for take-outs nearby, one at Tower Hill and Peck’s Boat landing in Spring Green.
Small islands and low banks will continue. Past Highway 130/133 and around a long island, aptly named “Long Island”, (which also indicates the Lone Rock area) you’ll find a stretch of beautiful rock walls and bluffs, arguably the most scenic on the trip. The take-out at the Lone Rock Public Boat Landing in Gotham is a accommodating but the parking can be a little challenging.
Gotham to Boscobel
Miles: 23.5 | 2020 Trip Report | 2013 Trip Report | 2009 Trip Report
This section has less bluffs and geologic scenery compared to the other sections but it makes up for it with a more remote feel and enough wildlife to keep it interesting. You’ll surely spot some eagles, bass jumping, carp surfacing and maybe even a northern water snake or two.
The put-in at the Lone Rock Public Boat Landing in Gotham is nice though parking is at a minimum and there’s a sign that says “No Overnight Parking” but that doesn’t seem to stop anybody. Just past the put-in, Avoca State Wildlife Area begins. The tall grasses give the banks a very priarie-like feel. About halfway to Muscoda, you’ll pass some limestone outcrops. Past Muscoda, (where there’s another access point) the river is mostly straight and there are many islands leading up to the very large Coumbe Island which indicates the Blue River Boat Landing. The rest final leg of this journey is dotted with larger islands which offer many different channels to navigate. You’ll eventually see some bluffs on river-right which indicate you’re closing in on Boscobel.
The take-out at the Floyd Von Haden boat landing in Boscobel is a fantastic access point, one of the best on the entire stretch of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway. The parking is plentiful and there’s easy ramp access to the water.
Boscobel to Wyalusing State Park
Miles: 31.25 | 2020 Trip Report | 2008 Trip Report
The last section before the confluence with the Mississippi River is the least-traveled and feels the most secluded since it’s furthest from Madison which mean less paddlers. Those looking for some solitude will find it alluring for just that reason. At times, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, with only wildlife to keep you company. At over thirty miles, this section is best suited for a three-day journey which would allow for a much more leisurely trip (and a lot more sandbar time).
The put-in at the Floyd Von Haden Boat Landing is a fantastic and well-maintained access point to begin the trip. Easter Rock bluff is the highlight right at the put-in but throughout most of the trip, bluffs are usually kept at a distance. Much like the preceding section, there are numerous larger islands to weave around. The river starts to feel much wider past Bridgeport on your way to the meeting with the mighty Mississippi. Depending on water levels, the majority of the trip will offer numerous sandbars until a few miles before heading into the Mississippi, where the bottom drops out in sections and it gets very deep.
On your approach to the confluence, bluffs on river-left indicate the northern point of Wyalusing State Park. Entering the Mississippi River is a unique part of this trip, but be cautious of boat traffic as you approach as the resulting waves and wakes can be strong. Make your way river-left until you see signs for the Wyalusing trail (it’s not well-marked) where you’ll weave your way through the Wyalusing backwaters to the take-out. The take-out at Wyalusing State Park is a traditional boat landing which of course, requires a State Park sticker (or day sticker) to access it. Alternately, you could choose to take out at the town of Wyalusing Landing further down the Mississippi past the State Park.
Blackhawk River Runs (Mazomanie)
Bluff View Canoe Rental (Sauk City)
Carl’s Paddlin (Lone Rock)
River View Hills (Muscoda)
Traders Bar & Grill (Arena)
Wisconsin Canoe Company (Spring Green)
Wisconsin Riverside Resort (Spring Green)
Wisconsin River Outings (Sauk City + Boscobel)