The Wisconsin River flows over 400 miles from its origin at Lac Vieux Desert in the North Woods to its confluence with the Mississippi River just downstream of the small city of Prairie du Chien. Most of the Wisconsin River is dammed, but the final 90 miles offers excellent canoeing and kayaking as it flows unimpeded through the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.
The Lower Wisconsin River is worth a visit
On the way to the mighty Mississippi, the Lower Wisconsin flows past scenic bluffs and through stands of flooded timber. Its shifting sand bars provide ample opportunity for summer sun bathing and overnight camping. Over 95,000 acres of protected lands bordering the river provide habitat for abundant wildlife including deer, heron, eagles and a host of migratory waterfowl.
The Lower Wisconsin is within a half-hour drive of Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin. This makes it an easily accessible option for day paddling for anyone in South Central Wisconsin and worth a carefully planned weekend for paddlers in Chicago or Minneapolis.
The Lower Wisconsin is one of the best spots for multi-day canoe adventures in the state. Permits are not required and island campsites are undeveloped and operate on a friendly Midwest system of first-come first-serve availability. Summer weekends can be busy on the most popular sections between Sauk City and Spring Green, but you can avoid the crowds by choosing river sections farther downstream or planning your trip for mid-week or in the spring and fall. Early fall is prime time for overnight trips, with warm water, cool nights and bug-free campsites.
Plan your canoeing or kayaking trip to the Wisconsin River
Summer thunderstorms roll in quickly and the wind blows hard on the Wisconsin River. Check the forecast before you go, pack accordingly and plan extra time.
Several liveries rent canoes and kayaks along the Lower Wisconsin. Run your own shuttle or line one up with Wisconsin River Outings in Sauk City or Blackhawk River Runs in Mazomanie.
Fresh cheddar cheese curds from Carr Valley Cheese in Sauk City and Mazomanie. These curds are so fresh they squeak when you eat them.
Wisconsin is home to architect, interior designer, writer, and educator Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Taliesin.
The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway is administered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
If you have a half day
For a taste of the Lower Wisconsin put in at the DNR canoe landing near Arena and run your shuttle to the boat landing next to the Highway 14 bridge near the former town site of Helena. This seven-mile section offers lazy canoeing and kayaking and wide-open views of the Wisconsin River valley.
If you have a full day
The 15-mile stretch of river from Tower Hill State Park off County Highway C to the town of Gotham takes you past miles of wildlife refuge on a lightly travelled section of the river.
Before you launch, take a quick side trip to tour the nineteenth-century shot tower carved through solid rock in the 1830s. The tower used the region’s abundant lead supplies to produce shot for settlers.
If you have a weekend
If you are interested in more solitude the sections downstream of the town of Spring Green can’t be beat. Put in at the Spring Green canoe landing near the Highway 23 bridge and float down to Riverside Park in the town of Muscoda for an overnight trip with one night of primitive camping on the river.
For a long weekend you can camp at Riverside Park ($10 per night, reservations required) and continue down the river to the Blue River takeout seven miles downstream off County Highway T.
If you have a week
Canoeing or kayaking the entire Lower Wisconsin State Riverway will give you the full experience. Put in at Sauk City and float 90 miles of river to the Mississippi. End your trip at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi just upstream of Wyalusing State Park.
For a navigation challenge, pick your way through the backwater sloughs to take out at the boat landing inside Wyalusing State Park. Otherwise, take out at the landing downstream of the Highway 18 bridge on the Wisconsin River.
This article was first published in Issue 51 of Paddling Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.
Brian, nice write up! You are correct, for more seclusion, put in at Spring Green and the further downriver you go, the fewer people you’ll see. The BEST part about this river, overnight camping on the sandbars in the middle of the river for upto 7 days. Looking for transport help? Give WI River Outings a call, 608.375.5300.