★ ★ ★ ★

Black River I

Black River Falls to Melrose:
A taste of North Country in west central Wisconsin and only two hours away from either Madison or Wausau, this trip on the Black River offers endless miles of sandbars and islands, perfect for canoe or kayak camping. The highlights however, are the cliffs and box canyons to explore by foot.

Black River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 31-September 2, 2013

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Flatwater (½ mile of riffles/Class I rapids by Hawk Island)

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Not Recorded

Black River Falls: ht/ft: 35.8 | cfs: 250

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. When it comes to the Black River, it really depends on whether you’re north of the interstate/Black River Falls or south. South is more forgiving, as the river is slow and wide and sandy. Look for a minimum of 250 cfs to avoid grounding out too much in sandbars and shallows.

Upstream it’s a different story using a different gauge. Here you want a minimum of 200 cfs just to run the rocky bottom without scraping or dragging. Really though, you want to begin at 250… and above – way above, for some paddlers. The rapids intensify with a higher volume of water, so it really depends on what you’re looking for and comfortable with. 300-700 cfs is great for whitewater-curious novices like myself. 700-1000 cfs is ideal for most whitewater paddlers. Above 1,000 cfs you should be a pretty good paddler to handle the flow. At 1300 and above, you better be an expert and/or have a solid life insurance policy. This is essentially relative the Hatfield Dam to Halls Creek section. Above Lake Arbutus the river still has a good gradient, but not as dramatic. Upstream or downstream of Neillsville, 300 cfs is the bare minimum. Again, higher will be more fun – but challenging.

Bruce Cormican Landing, Third Street, Black River Falls, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.28824, -90.85101
Public boat launch off Highway 71, Melrose, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.1086, -90.99666

Day 1: 8.31.13
Time: Put in at 1:30p. Out at 6:00p.
Total Time: 4h 30m
Miles Paddled: 10

Day 2: 9.1.13
Time: Put in at 12:30p. Out at 6:30p.
Total Time: 6h
Miles Paddled: 13

Day 3: 9.2.13
Time: n/a
Total Time: n/a
Miles Paddled: 1.25

Total Time: Approx. 10h 30m
Miles Paddled: 24.25

Many bald eagles, great blue herons and kingfishers, big flopping fish (none caught) and roughly one gazillion killdeer.


Quite simply, this river is sacred to me. It haunts me, allures me, beckons and wills me with its wiles. Beginning in the heart of National Forest and finishing in the Mississippi River, it’s half-rugged and half-undulating, part north-country and part bottomlands. In one 10-mile stretch alone it flexes rough and tumble Class III rapids with boulders borne of volcanic rock big as a city bus, crashing and smashing until smoothly sighing with a slow flow past sandbar islands and intimate creeks, soft rolling bluffs surrounding everything.

I have done many stretches of the Black (though not nearly as many as I’d like!) but had yet to write about any of them. True to form, this trip was not the more customary solo day-paddle but rather, a two-night river camping jaunt with several friends, two 12-year-olds and a dog. As such, we did only 2/3 of what I had initially proposed, which was to paddle down to North Bend for a total of 34 miles. Part of this was caused by having kids in tow, part by inexperienced paddlers, part by low, slow water, part by canoe rental snafus and part by wonderful on-foot excursions exploring box canyons. Plus, it was Labor Day weekend and a strenuous paddle seemed a bit too, well, laborious for most of us.

The only regret was having to forfeit the Melrose to North Bend segment, which is quite probably the prettiest stretch on the lower Black with the most impressive and colorful cliffs. But I wouldn’t trade that for all the fun we did in fact have.

What we liked:
Much of the Black River is root beer-hued, which together with the sandy bottom makes for unique and impressionable water, you really feel like you’re somewhere special. While the first mile or so is unmemorable, the scenery really picks up by mile two, where for the next 3.5 miles, the Black River State Forest will be river-left.

This is where you’ll find two highlights. The first, the mouth of Perry Creek at the 2.5 mile mark, where you can get out and explore the small gorge by foot. The second, the head of (huge) Hawk Island at the 3 mile mark, where the right channel will reward you with ½ a mile or so of fun riffles and very modest Class I rapids (though maybe more notable in higher water). Following this is a Lower Wisconsin River-like environment of sandbars, islands and soft bluffs in the distance.

The next highlight is an out-of-nowhere cliff at the 10-mile mark on river-right. If you are camping, there is a great island just before the cliff. You can set up camp at the tip of the island with the huge cliff looming right in front of you. Paddle up to it and get out. Put your shoes on and explore. For a moment you might easily forget you are in Wisconsin. A well-marked trail goes on a ¼ mile or so. Here’s another great tip, ready? Directly across from this cliff on river-left is an awesome rope swing that makes for totally fantastic cool-down splash fun. I really think the 30- and 40-somethings had more fun with this than the 12-year-olds!

Next is another point of interest, about 2.5 miles from the Irving boat landing and just after the Lost Falls campground. It’s the mouth of Roaring Creek, another entrance into another spectacular box canyon. Maybe even more gorgeous than the first one, this has an added highlight of cascading waterfalls. Many islands follow, some extraordinarily humongous about five miles from Roaring Creek. The final show-stopper for this trip is a short series of ginormously tall multicolored cliffs at the 11.5-mile mark (from Irving).

Alas, just after the cliffs is the take-out bridge. The accesses on this trip were excellent, all of them offering ample parking.

A note about camping on the Black: Here and there you might come across language about camping on the river that says something to the following effect, “the law has changed – sandbars in the river where it flows through private property are private property.” I wouldn’t worry about this. I can say that because I did worry (ordinarily, I wouldn’t have but I was the go-to person for a group of seven, two of whom were 12-year-old kids whose parents probably wouldn’t have taken too kindly if their daughters got fined for trespassing).

So I called both the state DNR, the state forest office, and the Black River Falls Chamber of Commerce. No one could tell me anything definitively but the unequivocal consensus was not to fret about camping on the river. For one, how is a paddler supposed to know what is private property on the banks of the river if no signs are evident? Two, how many landowners have property on both sides of the river (and thus arguably whatever sandbars/islands in between)? Three, if there are no signs about private property or trespassing, then I assume it’s public or that the landowner feels only happy to provide 1/1000th of her property to respectful folks just passing through and experiencing the time-honored tradition of primitive camping along a river.

What we didn’t like:
But for the very short segment of riffles and rapids by Hawk Island, the current on the Lower Black River is notoriously slow. So while in many regards it offers some similarity to the Lower Wisconsin River, bear in mind that it is definitely slower, especially if calculating distance times and multi-day camping trips.

So that I don’t come off as a total moon-eyed romantic, there are some undeniably boring stretches on the Black, notably in-between the state forest end and the first cliff and then again in-between Roaring Creek and the beginning of the huge islands towards Melrose. If your paddling party is quick to feel unimpressed, these segments might come off as a slog. They’re worth it (the rewards are more than a payoff) but you might have to endure some grumbling (and lackluster paddle strokes).

If we did this trip again:
I would in a heartbeat! In fact, I’ll be up there again in a couple weeks for the Oktoberfest at the Sand Creek Brewery and will probably paddle the beautiful Melrose to North Bend segment.

Related Information:
Black River II: Hatfield to Black River Falls
Black River III: Melrose to North Bend
Black River IV: River Avenue to Riviera Avenue
Black River V: Willard Road to Grand Avenue
Black River VI: Highway 73 to Willard Road
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Map: Black River Country
Map: Wisconsin DNR
Wikipedia: Black River

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    March 18, 2016 at 2:31 am

    Interesting to note that the cliff referenced in the first photo has since sheared off and dropped into the river.

  • Reply
    Miles Paddled
    March 23, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    Whoa! Really? When did this happen? Do you have any photos of it now?

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