Canoe & Kayak Camping Wisconsin: Peshtigo River State Forest
The Peshtigo River offers nearly every kind of paddling and camping option one would want. From flatwater to extreme Class IV whitewater and remote shoreline sites to modern campgrounds, you’re sure to find something to suit your preferred style. The majority of the Peshtigo River State Forest specifically, however, will appeal to flatwater and quietwater paddlers looking for a leisurely escape to an island or remote riverside site.
Recently renamed Governor Earl Peshtigo River State Forest in honor of former Governor, DNR Secretary and committed conservationist, Tony Earl, the forest encompasses 12,000+ acres of forest and reservoirs created by damming the Peshtigo. Taking advantage of the river’s tall rocky banks, four dams were built to generate not only electricity for Northeast Wisconsin but also revenue from tourism and recreation. The construction of Caldron Falls, High Falls, Johnson Falls and the Potato Rapids dams may have stymied the wild river from running wild, but it did result in some accessible paddle-camping opportunities.
With neatly-labeled numerical landings, access to Caldron Falls, High Falls and Johnson Falls is easy and convenient for flatwater seekers looking to “rough-it”, albeit in designated areas. This isn’t typical quietwater paddling however, as these flowages are heavily trafficked by motorboats, especially in mid-summer. But the shallow bays are often less-traveled by powerboats and the meandering flowages have many islands and channels to escape to. Fishing is also a huge draw here, specifically muskie fishing on Caldron Falls, High Falls and Johnson Falls Flowage. There you’ll also find pike, bass, walleye and a variety of panfish. Fly fishing is popular below Johnson Falls where conditions are great for trout fishing.
The boundaries of the Governor Earl Peshtigo River State Forest also include two of the best whitewater paddles in Wisconsin, that being Roaring Rapids located at the northwestern most boundary and a section downstream of Johnson Falls. We divided the Peshtigo into two reports because for the most part, they offer dramatically different styles of paddling and camping opportunities. The upper Peshtigo River, including Roaring Rapids located above landing 12, are covered here.
Paddling Style: Flatwater Paddling + Quietwater Paddling + River Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Lakeside + Riverside + Island
Availability: First Come, First Served + Reservable Designated Sites
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: Yes
Camping Fee: Yes + No | Camping Permit: Yes (Free)
There are a total of 17 designated boat-in and remote campsites throughout the Governor Earl Peshtigo River State Forest.
Boat-in are just that, only accessible by water. There are three boat-in sites on Caldron Falls Reservoir, and four on High Falls. These require fees and are reservable through the basic state park reservation system, as they are part of the Governor Thompson State Park located within the Forest. There is no permit needed like the remote boat-in/hike-in sites, but you do need to check in at Governor Thompson State Park prior to setting up on the boat-in sites. Each site has a canoe rack/tie up station, picnic table, fire ring and pit toilet, but no water.
Remote sites can be accessed by water or hiking-in. There are three remote boat-in/hike-in sites on the short four-mile section of Johnson Falls Flowage, and seven more located once the Peshtigo narrows again between Johnson Falls Dam and Spring Rapids. These remote sites are free but require a permit (also free) which can be picked up at Governor Thompson State Park (or printed from the link above or below). Each site is outfitted with up to three tent pads, picnic tables, a fire ring and a pit toilet. Stays are limited to one night. Since these are remote, one must be prepared to practice pack-in, pack-out, Leave-No-Trace ethics. Yellow signs should be visible from the water to indicate the camp’s location.
Other camping options in the area include the aforementioned Governor Thompson State Park located between Caldron Falls and High Falls Reservoirs (which also has three boat-in sites of its own on Caldron Falls), or the Old Veteran’s Lake Campground which is a smaller 16-unit campground on a small lake.
Campground: Governor Earl Peshtigo River State Forest | Reserve a Site
17 Sites (7 reservable boat-in, 10 remote boat-in/hike-in).
Boat-in Sites: | Reserve a Site
Remote Sites: | Permit
Facilities: Vault toilets and picnic tables.
Paddling the Peshtigo River State Forest:
There’s a lot for flatwater enthusiasts to explore in this system of repeating river/flowage/reservoir/dam environment. Those looking to find respite from boat traffic often head to the northwestern part of south bay of Cauldron Falls Reservoir between Landing 11 and 12 or to the southern bay near Landing 13. High Falls Reservoir has many islands offering respite for picnics, exploring and noise. Johnson Falls Flowage is a much smaller, narrower and shorter flowage that preceeds the Johnson Falls whitewater section with fewer boaters and is surrounded by forested cover, making wildlife sightings common. The three sites maintained by the State Forest are located midstream, and since it’s less heavily-boated, this is a great fishing paddle/camp option.
Though most of the State Forest is quietwater along flowages, it’s bookended by two whitewater stretches when the river is well, more riverlike. The two are technically within the boundaries of the Forest, though the paddling is far different than flowage paddling and requires the proper skill to paddle them. Upstream within the forest, the western boundary starts at Farm Dam Landing. The whitewater here is some of the most intense in Wisconsin, famously known as the “Roaring Rapids” section which includes six complex Class II-IV drops, narrow chutes, long boulder gardens and large waves. It’s best suited for skilled whitewater paddlers, or by using one of the local rafting guide services (this section will be covered in our forthcoming report on the Peshtigo River proper).
Downstream from the Johnson Falls Dam lies a section of whitewater only recommend for intermediate paddlers who have good boat control and can read the numerous Class I-II rapids required of this stretch. Johnson Falls to Spring Rapids or Shaffer Road is a narrower section and feels more wild and natural with less development. This section can fluctuate in difficulty based on upstream dam releases. There’s also a couple miles of quietwater paddling near the end if you choose to paddle through Kirby Lake Hardwoods State Natural area.
Portages around all dams are clearly marked.