Approximating 120 miles in length, the Baraboo River is recognized as the longest free-flowing river in the country that has been restored after the removal of its many damns. That alone is a pretty cool fact. But “free-flowing” should be taken with a grain or two of salt, as there are some notorious sections of nasty logjams that will require portaging – sometimes in thick mud. The big Baraboo is prone to flooding; you’ll see evidence of high water often in tree branches. Be smart and safe and stay off it during these times.
When the Baraboo is good, it’s great. The surrounding landscape can be extremely pretty, characteristically lined with awesome rock formations, whether sandstone or quartz. But there are many sections of the river that are frankly quite dull and monotonous as well. Either way, the Baraboo is an old river that has cut through an even older part of the planet (no kidding – the Baraboo Range, aka the Baraboo Hills, is estimated to be about 1.5 billion (yes, with a ‘B’) years old). Here’s another fun fact: the river drops only about 150 feet its whole length. That’s a paltry 1.25’ per mile. However, one-third of its drop falls only within a 4-mile section, the so-called Baraboo Rapids, where the river drops about 10 feet per mile through downtown Baraboo.
There’s a whole lot of river upstream of Union Center, but we haven’t heard of a single trip that has been attempted up there. The Baraboo begins in the Kendall-Elroy area, near the La Crosse River, but it’s likely too shallow and narrow to paddle. But from Union Center all the way to the Wisconsin River the Baraboo can be paddled – but it would be prudent to skip some of those sections on account of boredom and logjams.
Union Center (Highway 33) to Wonewoc Municipal Park
Miles: 6.25 | 2011 Trip Report
This is a nice short trip, but probably only worth the effort if you live nearby. The highlight (and really the only notable feature on this leg of the river) is a magnificent 100’-tall rock outcrop called Third Castle. Otherwise this trip is somewhat uneventful, as the water is muddy and slow and none of the other attractive rock outcrops nearby can be seen from the river. Plus you’re never far from the road, so the din of passing vehicles is regular. That said, this makes an excellent paddle-and-pedal trip for those wanting to bike shuttle in a fun and safe manner since The 400 State Trail connects both the take-out and put-in. This trail essentially parallels the river all the way from Union Center down to Reedsburg, making all of these segments very bike-friendly.
Wonewoc Municipal Park to Highway 33 (Wayside Park)
This is comparable to the upstream trip (minus Third Castle) except that portaging around deadfall can be a real muddy nuisance. Most paddlers will just as soon skip this clip, as there’s little incentive in only 3 miles. The 400 Trail connects both accesses.
Highway 33 (Wayside Park) to Dutch Hollow Road
This is a gorgeous trip but not without some caveats. There are several beautiful rock outcrops and bluffs to take in, and the sense of isolation is palpable. But expect to encounter numerous obstructions, many of which can be negotiated by ducking under, dodging around, or riding over. Some, alas, will need to be portaged. Just upstream of Dutch Hollow Road you’ll encounter 3 colossal logjams for sure. And the portaging here means entering the thick mud that is the Baraboo and pulling your boat up steep banks. In our opinion it’s definitely worth it – heck, the size of the logjams alone are pretty impressive! But for those who don’t like getting dirty or aren’t able to schlep their gear up steep banks, this trip might not be for you. There’s no definite access at Dutch Hollow Road. We recommend simply continuing another 3.5 miles to the designated boat launch in the town of La Valle. Again, the 400 Trail makes for an excellent bike shuttle experience.
Dutch Hollow Road to La Valle
While there’s really no ideal access at Dutch Hollow Road, this short trip is so pretty that it’s worth the small inconvenience. Just downstream from The 400 Trail bridge you’ll paddle alongside an exposed rock outcrop bluff on your left. Crowned with pine trees at its top, it will extend directly into the water as you swing around it eastward. After that you’ll enter a mini-canyon that is positively haunting. Numerous rock outcrops and giant boulders line the tall right bank as well as the left. After that the surroundings become less dramatic but no less pretty. Open pastures framed by rolling hills, the river lined now with sandy banks, the environment is quite a distinction as you head into La Valle. There’s a convenient boat launch on the left upon entering town. You can end this trip at the launch here or continue another hundred yards to the removed dam in La Valle, where there is a fun Class II ledge. Run the rapid and take-out below on the right.
Additionally, while not part of the Baraboo River (but awfully close), it’s worth checking out Hemlock Park, a mile or so northwest of La Valle. It’s an eerily beautiful small slough that calls to mind a northern cypress swamp. It’s only 22 acres large, but at dawn or dusk – especially on a foggy autumn day – it’s quite lovely.
Once again, the 400 Trail makes for an excellent bike shuttle experience – especially if you combine this section with the previous. In our opinion, this is the single prettiest stretch of the entire 400 Trail.
La Valle to Douglas Road (Wayside at Big Creek)
Miles: 3.25 | 2015 Trip Report
This is a fun and pretty trip in its own right, but can be combined with the previous trip or extended with a sneaky exploratory of Lake Redstone to make for a full day of paddling. In fewer than 4 miles this trip presents a fun drop down a short but robust rapid at a partially removed dam, a historic railroad bridge and several pretty exposed rock outcrops. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could poke around Lake Redstone County Park, since it’s so close and geologically attractive. But there is a day use fee, a lot of the shoreline has houses and motorboats, and jet skis can dampen the day (in every sense of the term). You can either paddle upstream Big Creek (a very ironic name) then schlep your boat and gear up and then down the tall levee that prevents the valley from being flooded by the lake, or you can simply take out at the wayside and drive to the park and pay a fee. The southern section of the lake is a no-wake zone, which makes it friendlier to paddlers. The rock formations are quite pretty – it’s not called “Redstone” for nothing.
Douglas Road (Wayside at Big Creek) to Reedsburg
Frankly, this is a pretty boring section of the Baraboo. It slowly flows in long straightaways through a floodplain forest with no rock formations. It’s mostly monotonous and the din from Highway 33 is never far away. There is, however, one of the absolute best liquor stores in all of Wisconsin in Reedsburg, Viking Liquor, at the intersection of Main Street and County Road H. Plus Reedsburg itself is a pretty cool little town. Once more – but here for the last time – the bike shuttle lines up for easy pedaling along The 400 Trail. But unless you live nearby, we don’t recommend this section of the Baraboo.
Reedsburg to Rock Springs
This is a long trip geographically, made all the longer by the amount of portages around horrendous logjams and the meandering nature of the river. It’s a shame because this section of the Baraboo combines some spooky-cool swamp barrens, more historic railroad bridges, minimal development, exposed rock outcrops and the incredible Ableman’s Gorge as well as the Upper Narrows section of the Baraboo Range. Interestingly, while most of the mileage between La Valle and Reedsburg comprises long straightaways,from Reedsburg to Rock Springs the Baraboo meanders to the point of being kinky. Accesses are few to none between these two towns, which makes for dividing this long trip difficult at best. Most paddlers (re: sensible people) will just avoid this section due to the hassles and hang-ups. But romantic fools will appreciate the adventure.
Rock Springs to North Freedom
This is a splendid trip that offers a ton of diversity and diversions. There’s decent enough access to the river off a wayside at Highway 136, at the base of Ableman’s Gorge, an exhumed mountain over a billion years old that rises some 200’ high and is three-quarters of a mile long. The first mile of this trip is simply exquisite and unlike anywhere in southern Wisconsin. You’ll be in the heart of the Upper Narrows of the Baraboo Range. There’s an otherworldly feel where hemlock, birch and conifers are juxtaposed with a loose jumble of quartzite boulders embedded in the cliffs. There’s an impassable logjam just downstream from the main bridge in town but it’s a relatively simple portage on the left. Long straightaways follow past some lovely meadows together with a few more modest rock outcrops and hillsides here and there. There will be some obstructions to negotiate on your way towards North Freedom. Soon you’ll see old railroad cars along the right bank, part of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum (where you can actually take a 7-mile, 1-hr ride around the Baraboo hills in a preserved railroad car). There’s an excellent access on the left at North Freedom Park just after the museum grounds.
North Freedom to Haskins Park
Miles: 6.25 | 2008 Trip Report
This is a pretty trip, though the sluggish current and occasional monotony do detract somewhat. Here you’ll paddle past a couple pretty bluffs with exposed sandstone lining the water, some hilly pastures, another attractive railroad bridge (alas, the last of the half-dozen in between here and Reedsburg), and a very cool railroad tunnel through a small creek that you can explore if the water is up. A mile downstream from the put-in you’ll see Seeley Creek enter on the right. This can be explored if the creek isn’t too shallow. It’s a pretty landscape – much more intimate than the broad, straight Baraboo – and there are a couple attractive sandstone rock outcrops. About a mile upstream of the takeout the current starts to pick up as you come into Baraboo. In the long straightaway approaching Highway 12 you’ll see a huge attractive rock wall on the right and the beginning of boulders in the stream itself. Immediately upstream of Highway 12, on the right, will be the first (and one of the two best) rapids through downtown.
The water at Haskins Park belies the riffles and easy rapids only a couple hundred yards downstream. Most of this trip is entirely urban, except for the last mile or so. The current will begin to pick up as you approach Attridge Park and it really doesn’t taper off until the Manchester Street bridge a couple hundreds yards downstream from the Circus World Museum on river-right (from there to Highway 113 the river flattens out and deepens again – and will stay this way for the rest of its journey to the Wisconsin River). Be on the lookout for boulders, especially at medium-low levels.
This is the only section of all the Baraboo where you’ll have to worry about river volume. We don’t recommend running this trip below 350 cfs on the USGS gauge, as you will very likely scrape and ground out quite a bit. 400-600 cfs is a more comfortable ride. We’ve never run it higher than 650 cfs, though for point of reference the American Whitewater site recommends the river around 1000-1300 cfs. It’s rarely that high, however, and when it is, it drains quickly. Above 1300 cfs, everything’s awash. This is a very fun section of the Baraboo River – and not just because you may well encounter clowns and calliope music, maybe even an elephant!
Highway 113 (Glenville Landing) to Highway 33/County Road U
The best thing one can say about this stretch is its final mile, where the river meanders through the Lower Narrows of the Baraboo Range. Less dramatic than the Upper Narrows, and A) camouflaged by trees and B) compromised by noise from the highway, this trip will disappoint those hoping to paddle through a geological wonderland. I hate to say it but the effect of the Lower Narrows is better appreciated while driving on the road than paddling down the river. For romantics who still want to experience what there is of the Lower Narrows, this trip can be shortened by putting-in at County Road W at a designated access called Luebke Landing. This trip is fairly boring otherwise and is interrupted once by a large ugly logjam that will require portaging.
Note: The parking area for this is a hundred yards south of the bridge, at the historical marker for the Lower Narrows.
Highway 33/County Road U to Highway 33 (Wayside near the Interstate)
If there’s one section of the Baraboo you should definitely skip altogether without thinking twice about, it’s this one. It’s just slow, long, straight (actually channelized in some sections), brown, boring and it passes through virtually nothing but farms. There are no rock outcrops and even hills are a thing of the past. Access at the wayside is muddy and steep.
Highway 33 (Wayside near the Interstate) to Thunderbird Drive (Wisconsin River)
In its final miles to its confluence, the Baraboo takes on a completely different look and feel. As it passes underneath not one but two separate interstate highway system bridges in the shadow of (so-called) Cascade Mountain, you’ll be in the heart of a vast wetlands complex. Unfortunately, it takes awhile for the last audible din of the interstates to diminish. The floodplain forest at the end of the river is actually pretty cool and almost feels like a cypress swamp. When the water is high, you can navigate just about anywhere. But do not attempt during mosquito season! Seriously, it’s horrendous. If you want to lose blood like that, just donate to the Red Cross instead.
When you get to the Wisconsin River, turn right and you’ll find a totally adequate landing half a mile or so downstream, on river-right, at the end of Thunderbird Road. Paddlers can put-in at the County Road U bridge instead, cutting this trip roughly in half. This way you avoid all the interstate noise and simply paddle the attractive floodplains. Although it bears almost no resemblance to its upstream character, this is actually a pleasant trip in its own right.