Lower Wisconsin River Paddle Guide
In 1989, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway was created to protect the last free-flowing 92 miles to the confluence of 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. 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 will be the same as water levels change daily.
Water levels really are everything and dictate the time it will take you to paddle (more water = more flow = quicker paddling), the availability of camping (more water = less sandbars) and it definitely affects the fishing (if that’s something you’re considering). At higher water levels, the strength of the currents are often pushy. Even at lower levels, sudden drop-offs and undertow are something to be aware of (always swim upstream of sandbars for added precaution).
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 the same time, camping opportunities are plentiful as there are many more sandbars.
An appealing aspect to the Lower Wisconsin is the freedom to camp practically anywhere. That makes this a very popular canoe and kayak destination for multiple night trips. On the lower 92 miles, no permits are needed to camp 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. Two considerations, one in your control, and the other not so much, is 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 will often make for a more congested river, especially further upstream (closer to Sauk which is also closer to Madison, meaning more population) and less so as it moves down to the Mississippi.
And of course, weather is important to keep an eye on when planning to paddle the lower 92. Storms can suddenly sneak up on you. If you’re camping on a sandbar, keep your kayaks tied down incase the water rises. We once woke to find that our sandbars were gone except for a tiny strip of land where we had placed our fire the previous evening. When looking back at the gauge (in height, feet) the water rose from 1.27 to 1.40 which was a pretty substantial change. It was a learning moment.
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.
92 miles of unimpeded river, all culminating at the confluence to the mighty Mississippi and the beautiful Wyalusing State Park make this a wonderful endeavor. And the solitude you’ll experience and the multiple access points make this an incredible destination for paddlers. That’s the great thing about the lower Wisconsin, river access is plentiful (the put-ins and take-outs, of which there are many along the lower 92, are well-maintained and easily accessible) which makes adjusting the route to suit your plans very easy.
Being such a popular destination for paddlers and since we’ve recently finished paddling the lower 92, we thought we’d combine all the information we have (maps, conditions, outfitters, our paddle reports, etc.) on one page. These sections are how we broke it down but it’s easy to tailor your own experience because there are so many landings.
Due to its proximity to Madison (and therefore, denser population) this uppermost section of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway 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 for quiet water enthusiasts for that same, populated reasoning, but it’s definitely a paddle worth consideration, be it for a day trip or the start of a longer journey. 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 a hidden little park off Water Street/Highway 78 with lots of parking, camping and a view of the dam (as well as an old military helicopter to set the mood).
The train bridge just a mile into the trip is definitely something to be prepared for. The water is channeled into a narrow and very forceful section under the trestle, which results in some strange currents at certain water levels. (Update: The trestle has largely been removed, save for a structure that juts out into the sky. That said, the current remains strange here, although, less of an issue as it once was).
A point of interest midway through on river-right is Ferry Bluff State Natural Area where a beautiful bluff suddenly towers hundreds of feet along a mostly flat stretch.
On the opposite side (river-left) resides Mazomanie Nude Beach. It’s a wide area in the river so you won’t have any problem steering clear if it’s a concern (just keep looking river-right because the bluffs are gorgeous). Also, there is no camping one mile upstream or downstream from the beach. The DNR says the islands are posted. We’ve never located any of the signs but maybe they’re posted in conspicuous places on those surrounding islands. (Update: The State closed the nude beach in 2016). The last stretch, heading towards Arena, you’ll find many sandbars and small islands to navigate.
The take-out in Arena, Wisconsin is a popular place to put-in for canoe rentals. It has a traditional boat landing as well as a designated canoe landing located on a sandy beach. There are facilities too.
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. It’s probably one of the best we’ve encountered on the river so far.
The first 13 miles are what we’ve come to expect from the Wisconsin River. Huge sandbars and swift-moving water. You’ll soon pass under a train trestle which indicates 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, one at Tower Hill and Peck’s Boat landing in Spring Green.
Small islands and low banks 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 nice landing but the parking can be a little challenging. There’s also a posted sign that says “No Overnight Parking” but that doesn’t seem to stop anybody. Watch for snakes that like to sun themselves on the rocks at the landing.
I should note, due to my fear of the reptilian variety, that the area around Gotham seems to be a popular habitat for the Northern Water Snake. They’re harmless but it’s a little frightening to see one swimming alongside your boat or even visit your camp because the size of them can be quite alarming. Once, we had a persistent snake visit us multiple times while camping on an island (we must’ve been on his island). You’ll commonly see them sunning on the rocks at the take-out in Gotham.
This section has less bluffs and geologic scenery as 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 and carp surfacing. In fact, the Wisconsin is one of my favorite place to fish. You never know what you’ll catch.
The put-in at the Lone Rock Public Boat Landing in Gotham is a nice landing. The parking can be a little challenging and there is 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 prairie-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.
The last section before the confluence with the Mississippi River is less-traveled and feels the most secluded since it’s further from Madison and it’s by far the most alluring for those reasons. At times, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. And wildlife surrounds you. If you like bald eagles, you’ll see plenty. If you like to fish, you’ll have plenty of opportunity as well.
The put-in at the Floyd Von Haden Boat Landing in Boscobel is a fantastic start to this section with lots of parking and an easy inlet with ramp access to the water.
Easter Rock bluff is the highlight 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 (once, I literally watched an entire tree move swiftly beneath my kayak heading up river – talk about strange currents).
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. Be cautious of boat traffic as you approach as the resulting waves and wakes will surely keep you on your toes. Make your way river-left until you see signs for the Wyalusing trail (it’s not well-marked). 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. They do of course, require a State Park sticker (or day sticker) to access it.
I should note that this section is far too much paddling for a 2-day trip. This is definitely a 3-day paddle which would allow for a much more leisurely trip (and a lot more sandbar time). Also of note, though we’re a fan of bike-shuttling, there is really only one direct route from put-in to take-out and it’s on some steep terrain so we wouldn’t recommend it.
Weekly Riverway Report:
Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board
Lower Wisconsin Riverway
Lower Wisconsin River Basin
Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board
Wisconsin Trail Guide to the Lower Wisconsin Riverway
Paddling Southern Wisconsin by Mike Svob
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)
Miles Paddled Mileage Maps: