20 Best Paddles of 2020

20 Best Paddles of 2020In keeping with Miles Paddled tradition, we’re pleased to bring you our annual year-end list of favorite paddles from the past season. While 2020 was challenging for a number of reasons, perhaps the easiest part was choosing twenty of our favorites which spanned from the Driftless region of the southwest to Wisconsin’s geographic border in the northeast. So before we officially (and thankfully) say goodbye to 2020, here’s the best places we paddled this year (in no particular order). Cheers to a healthier, happier and much better 2021 to all of you!

1: Eau Claire River (Marathon County)

Club House Road to Ross Avenue
Ringle, Wisconsin
April 18, 2020

A wonderful section of a terrific river that embodies the best of “finding adventure in your backyard,” this stretch of the Eau Claire River courses through a mix of residential development, remote stretches of floodplains, and several boulder gardens with super-fun Class I rapids.

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Eau Claire River. . . . .

2: Wolf River

Langlade to Markton
Langlade, Wisconsin
September 27, 2020

An exhilarating trip where the former “teen” Wolf becomes a millennial and starts its sprint. More rambunctious than the segment upstream, but not as volatile as the next segment downriver, this trip is pretty much pitch-perfect for “lightwater” paddlers looking to push the envelope of developed skills and comfort levels with half a dozen solid Class II rapids, one Class II-III, and finally one Class III right at the take-out. Combined with the same public land corridors lining the banks that you’ve come to expect at this point along the Wolf River, as well as glorious boulder gardens galore, this trip simply sizzles with excitement and awe-inspiring beauty.

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Wolf River

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3: Pine River (Florence County)

Chipmunk Rapids Campground to Goodman Grade Road
Long Lake, Wisconsin
July 5, 2020

The next sequence on the spectacular Pine, here the winding river takes on its Wild and Scenic attributes in true colors, featuring two difficult pitches of whitewater ranging in Class II-III rapids while surrounded by a wondrously wooded setting that is as remote and unspoiled as anywhere in Wisconsin.

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Pine River (Florence County). . . . .

4: Rattlesnake Creek

North Andover to Highway 81
North Andover, Wisconsin
September 13, 2020

A sea kayaking experience that’s truly a must-do for just about any paddler, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is an exquisite area of rugged beauty with sheer sandstone cliffs 200′ high streaked with colorful mineral deposits for miles on end, some with huge arches, quaint coves, nook-and-cranny caves and massive slabs of rock as big as a house beneath the cool jewel of translucent water.

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Rattlesnake Creek

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5: Red River

Lower Red Lake Dam to County Road A
Gresham, Wisconsin
September 28, 2020

A revisit to the Red River and redux paddle several years after our initial experience, but this time with better water levels, warmer weather, companionship and a successful run of hair-raising and humbling whitewater. This return trip was simply nothing short of outstanding.

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Red River

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6: Wisconsin River

Prairie Du Sac to Wyalusing Landing
Prairie Du Sac, Wisconsin
June 10-14, 2020

The Lower Wisconsin Riverway is beloved for its canoe and kayak camping opportunities on the islands and sandbars that dot the protected 92 miles from the Prairie Du Sac dam to the Mississippi River. We’ve done it in parts and pieces, but never have we done the whole thing in one trip. Until now. Trevor altered his original bachelor celebrations due to the pandemic, and committed to paddle the entire lower riverway for one special outing. Yes, all 92 miles. And he proved once again, that water levels are everything as the increase in water throughout the trip affected the paddling, as well as the camping. And yes, there’s a bit of coincidental irony that our 19th Wisconsin River trip report was a byproduct of Covid-19.

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Lower Wisconsin Riverway

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7: Prairie River

County Road J to County Road C
Bloomville, Wisconsin
June 19, 2020

A dynamic trip on a magnificent little river that packs a lot of punch, this section of the Prairie River is indisputably its best, featuring a richly restored marsh which contrasts a wild mile of Class II+ rapids through a gorgeous dells area with towering rock outcrops, followed by peaceful meandering with occasional riffles past pines and cedars.

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Prairie River. . . . .

8: Eau Claire River (Eau Claire County)

Big Falls County Park to County Road QQ
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
October 25, 2020

A nearly wild setting with wooded hills, steep banks, and solitude surrounds the Eau Claire River here in one of its quieter, often over-looked segments. Quieter, that is, after you leave the raucous wonder of Big Falls, at the base of which this trip begins, a place of spectacular grandeur and iconic geological wonder. The only downsides are it will cost $5 to launch a boat at the county park put-in and perhaps $150 to pay for a tow truck to bail you out of the stranded ruts to get to the undeveloped take-out.

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Eau Claire River

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9: Little Turtle Creek

S. County Line Road to S. O’Riley Road
Allens Grove, Wisconsin
May 3, 2020

A diamond in the rough of Rock County, Little Turtle Creek dazzles with crystal-clear water, steady current, lots of riffles, and a thrilling mix of prairies, pastures and forest. Good accesses and excellent wildlife only add to the whole experience. A couple down trees to portage can be expected, and water levels will be typically too low without a visit to scrape city; but the former are simple affairs and the latter is worth the wait after a recent reputable rain.

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Little Turtle Creek

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10: Platte River

Indian Creek Road to The Mississippi River
Potosi, Wisconsin
May 15, 2020

A relaxing “lake paddle” on the Platte River to the Mississippi is a great way to spend an evening enjoying nature’s creatures, the sounds of the wonderful outdoors, or enjoying a cold beverage while watching the trains at sunset. This paddle offers different experiences at any water level and is prime for those looking to just get into a boat without all the fuss.

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Platte River

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11: Brule River

Highway 139 to National Forest Road 2150
Argonne, Wisconsin
May 23-24, 2020

Arguably the best a northwoods paddle can offer in terms of beginner paddler-friendly and with reliable water levels, while still offering a bounty of rambunctious beauty, outstanding wildlife, sheer lack of development, and occasional riffles and light, easy rapids, the Brule River – part of the natural boundary between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (aka “northern Wisconsin” or the “W.P.”) – is a true gem of a stream you can count on for a wonderful experience on the water.

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Brule River

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12: Scuppernong Creek

Sunset Drive to Gramling Lane
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin
April 26, 2020

Where the natural wild meets the wiles of exurban development, Scuppernong Creek quietly meanders past back yards and across small lakes, around natural springs, soggy bogs, cattail corridors, hemlocks and tamaracks, with stunningly crystal clear water. The wildlife is incredible, but paddlers can anticipate a half dozen or so portages. Alternate accesses allow for shorter trips, but the one laid out here lends itself to a fabulous bike shuttle.

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Scuppernong Creek

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13: Red Cedar River

County Road W to Colfax Park
Sand Creek, Wisconsin
October 24, 2020

One of the prettiest stretches of the leggy Red Cedar River featuring picture-perfect sequences of stunning hills and hollows with exposed rock outcrops, this longish trip is great for newbie paddlers as well as those with plenty of miles under their belts who are just looking for a relaxing day on the river to soak up the scenery and see some extraordinary wildlife.

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Red Cedar River

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14: Pine River (Florence County)

Highway 139 to Chipmunk Rapids Campground
Long Lake, Wisconsin
July 3, 2020

One of several Pine Rivers in Wisconsin, this Pine River in Florence County is notable as it’s one of the five Wild and Scenic Rivers in the state, and for paddlers, it does not disappoint. This is a short but fun 7.5-mile section of the 80-mile-long river flowing through the beautiful Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The route offers solitude surrounded by white, red and jack pines as well as spruce, aspen, balsam and white birch, with only a few private homes along the way. Access is easy and there’s ample parking at both the put-in and take-out. The Pine offers a bit of everything from steep banks with rocky riffles to fun Class I-II rapids, and there are several shifts between swift water with visible gradient changes to quietwater that winds through lowland forests.

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15: Castle Rock Creek/Fennimore Fork

County Road Q to Witek Road
Castle Rock, Wisconsin
March 21, 2020

A surprisingly viable paddling prospect when water levels are higher than normal, this Driftless Area trout stream tumbles and meanders past exposed rock outcrops, bluffs, pine relicts, and swaths of prairie. Accesses are OK but not great, and there are a few tricky portages around deadfall. But otherwise this is a delightful trip right after a spike of rain.

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Castle Rock Creek. . . . .

16: Wolf River

Hollister to Langlade
Hollister, Wisconsin
September 26, 2020

A spectacular stretch of a spectacular river, it’s here where the former Wolf pup enters its teen years, transitioning in earnest from its quiet flatwater and wild rice beds upstream to its tumultuous spill down riotous whitewater down-. More frisky than Lily yet less frothy than Langlade, this interval section in Hollister is perfect for “lightwater” enthusiasts thirsty for Class II rapids but apprehensive of anything higher than that. Surrounded by public land with virtually no development together with excellent accesses, and studded with what seems like a billion boulders, this trip is a must-do experience for paddlers with the right skills, gear and gumption.

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Wolf River. . . . .

17: Grant River

Chaffie Hollow Road to Potosi Point Recreational Area
Potosi, Wisconsin
May 11, 2020

The final miles of the Grant River to its confluence-kiss at the Mississippi River, this trip has fewer rock outcrops and slower water than the two more popular trips upstream, but it’s abundant in rolling wooded bluffs, clear water, a couple riffles in the beginning, outstanding wildlife, and the wild and reckless merging onto the Big Muddy. Admittedly a long day trip, this won’t appeal to most paddlers. But for intrepid souls and those who’ve already paddled the spectacular upstream sections of the Grant, this trip offers plenty of rewards in its own right.

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Grant River. . . . .

18: Popple River

Newald Tower Road/Forest Road 2159 to Highway 101
Armstrong Creek, Wisconsin
July 4, 2020

One of the first three rivers to be classified as Wild & Scenic in Wisconsin, the Popple River throbs through the heart of national forest and offers paddlers a splendid mix of calm tranquility surrounded by an undeveloped, natural landscape plus a few adrenaline-spiked rides down Class I-III rapids. Not to mention some of the oldest bedrock in North America, clocking in at 2 billion years old. This trip features the best of the quintessential mid-section of the Popple, downstream from the lowland alder thickets and beaver dams but upstream still from its confluence at the Pine River.

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Popple River. . . . .

19: North Fork of the Eau Claire River (Eau Claire County)

Hamilton Falls Canoe Landing to Canoe Landing Forest Road
Greenwood, Wisconsin
October 23, 2020

A relatively obscure jewel of a trip set in a truly beautiful landscape that is as rugged as it is rewarding, the North Fork cuts through a borderland of northern glaciated and southern Driftless, past spectacular outcrops of granite and sandstone alike. Along the way are wonderful low-hazard rapids and pleasant hills while surrounded by a wild environment thick in county forest free from any development. The downsides? Accesses are a little tricky and good water levels are frequently inadequate. But putting up with inconvenience and having patience for rain will pay off in paddling dividends.

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Eau Claire River North Fork

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20: Blue River

Kelly Road to West Pine Hill Road
Centerville, Wisconsin
June 14, 2020

A meandering Driftless trout stream that offers a scenic and exciting daytrip for the intermediate paddler. With a little patience and some cooperation by Mother Nature to provide several days of moderate rain (or snow melt), padders are rewarded with a unique and intimate experience on a swift and splashy river dotted with massive boulders, rock outcrops and steep valleys.

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Blue River

Related Reading:
Milespaddled.com’s 13 Best Paddles of 2013
Milespaddled.com’s 14 Best Paddles of 2014
Milespaddled.com’s 15 Best Paddles of 2015
Milespaddled.com’s 16 Best Paddles of 2016
Milespaddled.com’s 17 Best Paddles of 2017
Milespaddled.com’s 10 Best Paddles of 2018
Milespaddled.com’s 19 Best Paddles of 2019

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