Ten years of documenting rivers and creeks throughout Wisconsin and our neighboring states has given us a whole lot of trips to reminisce on. When we’re asked to name favorites, there are some that instantly come to mind. But to actually limit ourselves to ten was a tough, albeit self-induced, challenge. Truth be told, it was nearly impossible. Whereas, our Ten Favorite Creek Trips list was difficult, rivers were much, much harder.
Again, to be clear, there is no technical difference between a river and a creek. Meaning, there is no governing body or law that determines whether a stream is called or “creek” or a “river” based on width or flow or whatever. Yet, most people think rivers are larger and/or wider than creeks, and in some cases that’s true, but not always. Just like the creeks list, we are distinguishing them by their given-name, providing you with ten river segments we love in particular (but in no particular order) from the last ten years.
01: Bois Brule River – Copper Range Landing to Highway 13
This was not only our favorite segment of the Brule, or even of 2016, but it might possibly be our favorite paddle of all time. Copper Range Landing to Highway 13 is a non-stop ride on a bed of incessent riffles, Class I and II rapids with about a dozen ledges and drops. Set in northern Wisconsin wilderness on the pristine waters of the Bois Brule, this is a bucket-list paddle.
02: Wisconsin River – Boscobel to Wyalusing State Park
The last section before the confluence with the Missisippi 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.
03: Kinnickinnic River – River Falls to County Road F
River Falls, Wisconsin
A true wilderness river experience with zero development, crystal clear, riffly water, occasional easy rapids, spectacular cliffs, lush greenery and a gorge section toward the end, the “Kinni” is the real deal. The only problem? Lots of paddlers. And, as of 2018, it’s on the top ten list as one of the country’s most endangered rivers due to two damn dams.
04: Grant River – County Road U to Chaffie Hollow Road
2016 | 2012
The water is nearly crystal clear, the current lively and the geology is just stunning. That’s the Grant River. The first half-mile will unhinge your jaw, as riffles whisk you past a knockout rock wall and other outcrops on your left. Then you’ll enter the “ag order” section, which features a series of meandering loops past crops and pastures. Bluffs predominate the backdrop, and riffles will command your attention so as not to get bored.
05: Little Wolf River – Wolf River Road to Big Falls
Big Falls, Wisconsin
A relatively short stretch (7.5 miles) that is riffly the whole way through and twice punctuated with exciting class I-II rapids, drops, boulder gardens and a gorgeous dells section toward the end.
06: Crystal River – Marl Lake to Shadow Lake Road
The best of the Crystal River gives paddlers a little bit of everything. From pleasant lake paddling over marl-hued waters, to the riffly and engaging headwaters of the Crystal, to a popular stretch that winds through the charming town of Rural, followed by a splashy class one drop, to a stretch of the river finding itself once again since the removal of a mill dam, and then finally punctuated with an adorable covered bridge – the Crystal is great for beginner paddlers and lovers of small Central Wisconsin streams.
07: Black River – Hatfield to Black River Falls
Combining two trip types into one full day of paddling – the first a couple fists of adrenaline-inducing rapids through rugged granite rock outcrops, the second a calm palm of relaxed water but no less beautiful – here you get the best of the Black River’s boast.
08: Waupaca River – County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park
2015 | 2012 | 2011
Riffly, woodsy and wonderful, this section of the Waupaca is popular due to its proximity to the city but also because water levels are usually favorable to paddle it all season. With a few boulder gardens, some riffles, a covered bridge and a Class I rapids finishing off an incredibly fulfilling paddle, the Waupaca is as fun and as reliable of a day trip as you’ll find.
09: Upper Iowa River – Chimney Rock Road to Bluffton Road
Add one part swift water to umpteen parts spectacular limestone cliffs, rock walls, undulating bluffs and a generous heaping of pretty wrought iron bridges, mixed with a couple cups of springs and you have the making of a glorious paddling trip.
10: Kickapoo River – Ontario to La Farge
2015 | 2012 | 2012
The beloved Kickapoo is an absolutely gorgeous river that flows through one of the most beautiful areas of Wisconsin – the driftless. By canoe or kayak, you must experience the paddle from Ontario to La Farge. It’s as pretty and scenic as a paddle gets in Wisconsin with wonderfully stunning sand and limestone cliffs and scenery unrivaled and unique to this area of Wisconsin.
With as many rivers we’ve paddled there were sure to be some faves we had to leave off our top-ten list. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a place in our hearts for the fussy, but fantastic Little Platte, or this historically fun section of the Bois Brule, or this gristly run for the grifters of Grafton, or this yella trip for Iowans, or even this Mill-town trip for downtowners, no, all it means is that they still have a solid shot at making our 20th anniversary list.