Canoe & Kayak Camping Wisconsin: Black River
With an unparalleled amount of amazing river and creek opportunities, we consider the entire Black River Falls area a paddling playground for canoeing and kayaking. There is literally something to appease every style of paddler. From thrilling whitewater surrounded by rugged granite rock outcrops for expert paddlers, to Class I and II rapids over rowdy boulder gardens alongside tall sand bluffs for the intermediate paddler, to easy stretches of wooded islands, channels and relaxed water where one can explore backwaters or even the box canyons and waterfalls by foot for the beginner, the Black River itself offers paddling styles as diverse as its geography.
The same can be said for the variety of camping because the river abounds with sandbars and islands, perfect for canoe or kayak camping. Whether you’re on the upper or lower Black River, you’ll find small public islands managed by the Bureau of Land Management which span from Longwood, Wisconsin, all the way to Council Bay. The Black River State Forest also manages two campsites on the lower Black, which offer yet another option to the time-honored tradition of rustic camping along a river, though most will opt for sandbar camping.
Any way you slice it (and we’ve sliced it north and south of Lake Arbutus), this is literally one of the most beautiful places in the state and one of our favorites. It’s rugged at times, undulating at others, part north-country, part Driftless, part bottomlands, but altogether pretty amazing.
Paddling Style: Quietwater Paddling + River Paddling + Whitewater Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks + Whitewater Boats
Camping Location: Island + Sandbar
Availability: First-Come, First-Served Designated Sites + Undesignated Public Land Camping
Type: Primitive + Rustic
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: No
Camping Fee: No | Camping Permit: No
Aside from the numerous sandbars found (mostly) on the lower Black, the majority of camping options reside on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (aka BLM). The U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands are public lands, in this case, islands on the Black that the public can use for what is called “dispersed camping”. Which means, they are located away from “developed recreational facilities”, as long as they aren’t in conflict with other authorized uses, or posted, which also includes negatively affecting wildlife species/habitat or natural resources. Dispersed camping is allowed on the Black River’s public land for no longer than three days in most cases, so as to prevent damage to the property.
While these islands are public, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily easy to access, have enough room for your group, or free from the reality of poison ivy, etc. Some may be too rocky or brushy or near bridges or houses, too. According to the BLM site, “Most of the Black River islands are small. A few of the islands in Clark County have bedrock outcroppings, and most of the islands in Jackson County are low and sandy, perfect for a picnic.” There’s no guarantee that these islands will be totally accommodating to your needs (or wants), but we maintain that all public land is welcome and wonderful.
Since the camping is free and available on a first-come, first-served basis, and can be closed for various reasons by the BLM, one should be prepared for a Plan B island or sandbar. We suggest taking a look at the BLM map, because there are some islands that are marked day-use only (we do not include these on our own map). And of course, since they’re as primitive as they get, one must be prepared to deal with their own waste and practice pack-in, pack-out, Leave-No-Trace ethics.
Aside from the BLM islands, there are two rustic campsites on the Lower Black, just south of Hawk Island (also a BLM island). They each have a picnic table, fire ring and portable toilet. The camping is free and they are first-come, first-served but are limited to a one-night stay. Nearby options are excellent as well, including a riverside option on the upper Black River at Greenwood County Park.
Nearby Campground: Greenwood County Park | First Come, First Served
15 Sites. Some electric.
Facilities: Vault toilets.
Paddling the Black River North of Lake Arbutus:
The Black River has multiple identities. From its headwaters in Taylor County just west of Rib Lake, the river begins as little more than a small brook trickling its way through national forest. Not until it crosses county lines into Clark County will it begin to widen, but it remains marshy along farmland and lowland forests and mostly paddleable only to the degree of your willingness to put up with deadfall. Starting around Highway 64, the environment becomes more favorable to paddling. By Longwood, the Black becomes a river to love for real. The water is wide (approximately 100′), the current swift and the landscape is quite easy on the geological eye.
The upper Black River down to Lake Arbutus is a classic pool-rapids-pool stream, so while there are down times between lightwater, they are typically brief. Generally speaking, it’s not until Neillsville that the Black really begins to bark in clear, bold Class II rapids. (But the Class I+ rapids preceding Neillsville are nothing to take for granted or forfeit either!) There are two sets of solid Class II rapids in between Neillsville and Lake Arbutus, each spaced out with several miles of quietwater and well-mannered riffles. The first is called “Lower Neillsville Rapids,” a full mile of Class II continuous action only a couple miles downstream from Neillsville. The second is “Red Granite Rapids.” is a solid half-mile of Class II+ beginning in a mini-gorge below Highway 95.
Colby Factory Road to Willard Road
This first truly paddleable section is only really doable when the Neillsville gauge is above 200 cfs, otherwise it’s too shallow to navigate. At the same time, if it’s too high, this section should only be attempted by experienced paddlers. Mostly flat and forested at the beginning, the river here meanders around islands over a rocky streambed with the occasional riverside bluff. Just past the confluence with the Popple, the stream gets rockier leading to and past Warner Drive/Riplinger Road where it alternates from calm and quietwater to a section with large boulders where you’ll encounter Class I and II rapids. After Greenwood Park, the complexion stays the same with a rocky bottom and a few Class I rapids until a solid Class II that can be avoided by taking the right channel of the island just downstream from County Road G. When the levels are right, this entire section is wonderful, but if it’s too low, it can be frustrating. Along the way are seven BLM islands one could camp on, as well as a convenient and less-primitive riverside option at Greenwood County Park.
Note: Upstream from this section is a 15-mile paddle from County Road A. That would make for one long day paddle and then hope to grab a spot downstream from Colby Factory Road where there are two BLM islands located just past the put-in.
Willard Road to Grand Avenue
Miles: 15.25 | Trip Report
This long outing could easily be divided into two separate day trips. This stretch offers a medley of outstanding features such as large wooded islands, riffles and Class I-II rapids, striking outcrops, boulder gardens and hardly any development. The only caveat is the same as upstream – catching the river with enough water, as its steep gradient drains quickly, and attempting this in low-water would frustrate even the most optimistic paddler.
When the river isn’t dotted with islands, it’s generally about 100′ wide and often flows in straightaways. There are no real cliffs or bluffs, instead the landscape is a never-ending series of steep wooded banks. But the rocks on this trip are spectacular. At their most modest they are like iceberg tips in a boulder garden understating their massive size beneath the surface, and then there are grandiose granite and rhyolite outcrops ranging from seven to thirty feet tall near the midway point and towards the very end.
River Avenue to Riviera Avenue
Miles: 11.5 | Trip Report
A gorgeous and largely undeveloped stretch, this trip features some of the best “lightwater” rapids anywhere on the Black with two separate stretches of mile-long and half-mile long Class II+ rapids together with stunning granite rock outcrops along the way. Except for a stretch or two of longish straightaways in slack current, the river here gallops past boulders, ledges and outcrops, creating wild, wonderful rapids. Paddlers who are intimidated by Red Granite Rapids can end their trip at the makeshift landing at the Hwy 95 bridge (and also shorten the shuttle by avoiding Lake Arbutus altogether).
It can’t be emphasized enough: these upstream trips need to have enough water in them to run and not walk your boat insufferably through shallows and threadbare boulder gardens.
Paddling the Black River South of Lake Arbutus:
The Black River to the Mississippi offers every complexion of paddling. Beginning as a raucous and dramatic whitewater playground amongst granite boulders and bedrock at the dam, the gorge below Lake Arbutus roars like an unbridled lion half a mile in conditions ranging from Class III-V. Then, Class I and II rapids eventually transition as the landscape geology transitions to the Driftless – where the glaciers never scoured the landscape. For miles are lazy sandbars, hidden canyons and tall sand bluffs, cliffs and exposed rock outcrops. By its confluence at the Mississippi River it’s a maze of floodplains.
Hatfield to Black River Falls
Miles: 12.5 | Trip Report
This section has two completely different tales to tell. The first, adrenaline-inducing rapids through rugged granite rock outcrops, the second, calm and relaxed water but no less beautiful – here you get the best of the Black River. From the Hatfield dam at Lake Arbutus to the mouth of Halls Creek the Black River is at its friskiest and has its freak full on. Here, the river plunges down and funnels through braided channels of spectacular igneous and gneiss rock outcrops in a setting that is as rugged and north-country as you will find in the southern half of the state. It’s only half a mile from the dam to Highway K, and water levels fluctuate as wildly as the rapids themselves, resulting either in Class III, IV, or V conditions; but only dedicated, skilled, and properly prepared paddlers should consider this brief but exhilarating section. There are several play spots at the bottom of these drops for those looking to squirt, spin, cartwheel, flip, etc. Or just go take a hike and check out the “gorgeous” geology on show.
From Highway K to Powerhouse Road the river has the two most challenging rapids on this particular trip. Starting with an immediate Class II drop with a series of intermittent Class I’s and then riffles in the right channel of a large island. This is followed by placid water before a second and even more fun Class II drop (Class III in high water) at a tight right-hand bend where outcrop islands diverge the river in two channels. From Powerhouse to Halls Creek there are many riffles, some easy Class I rapids and one reputable 18” ledge.
After Halls Creek the current slows down quite a bit, with barely a riffle (unless the water is very low). Here, the landscape changes and the river literally takes on all the characteristics of a Driftless stream – sand bottom, sandstone rock outcrops, and lush ferns lining the banks. The last two miles are flatwater – the impoundment created by the dam in Black River Falls, but the river width does not blow out like a lake as often is the case upstream of dams. There is only one BLM site on this section and it’s right at the beginning below the put-in on one of the large islands, which might be a fine place (and sound) to be lulled to sleep.
Paddling the Black River South of Black River Falls:
While you can find a rogue place to put in below the dam in Black River Falls and take advantage of an attractive boulder garden with some easy Class I rapids, paddlers typically skip this because access isn’t great and it’s often too bony. Besides, there’s an established boat launch and parking area only an 0.8-mile downstream. For all intents and purposes, however, it’s this 0.8-mile that marks the end of the Black River’s bedrock; from here on downstream some 60 miles to the Mississippi River, the Black is a quietwater river. Unsurprisingly, the most popular stretch of the 200 miles of the Black is from Black River Falls to North Bend. It’s all sandbars, wooded bluffs, exposed rock outcrops, and lazy current.
Below North Bend the Black is still an exceptionally pretty stream – and remains so until its mouth at the Mississippi River in between Trempealeau and La Crosse. Astonishingly tall sandbanks and root beer-hued water mix with floodplains and wooded rolling hills in the background. Sandbar islands and a handful of BLM islands continue to treat paddling campers to overnight trip options. It’s not until the beguiling Van Loon Wildlife Area that the landscape truly bottoms out into a cool swampy recluse that’s easy to get lost in. Which channel of the myriad braided side channels will get you quickest to the Mississippi will be a combination of canny reckoning and dumb luck.
Black River Falls to Melrose
Miles: 24.5 | Trip Report
This section offers endless miles of sandbars and islands, perfect for canoe or kayak camping. The highlights however, are the cliffs and various box canyons to explore by foot. Except for the very short segment of riffles and rapids by Hawk Island, the current here and most of the Lower Black River is notoriously slow. So while 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. There are some relatively boring stretches on the Black, notably between the State Forest end and the first cliff, and then again 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.
This long stretch could easily be divided into two 12.5 mile trips, but it also makes for one especially leisurely and accommodating river-camp trip with four BLM islands (one being the large Hawk Island) and two primitive State Forest paddle-in sites located just south of Hawk Island.
Melrose to North Bend
Miles: 9.75 | Trip Report
One of the best sections anywhere on the lower Black River, this trip features miles of sandy beaches, a sense of sheer wilderness and being away from it all, stunningly tall sand bluffs, three exposed rock outcrop walls, one side canyon, and one waterfall for paddlers to explore. Some lengths can be a little monotonous and dull, notwithstanding the stunning punctuations along the way. In general, the lower Black is broad and wide, with lush sandbars, and very few obstacles or tight, twisty meanders. As such, it’s perfect for canoe camping. There’s technically only one BLM island on this stretch, but it’s perfectly accommodating for sandbar camping.
Maps + Guides:
Black River State Forest Map
Bureau of Land Management Wisconsin Public Island Map
Paddling the Lower Black River Brochure + Map
Paddling the Upper Black River Brochure + Map
Wisconsin Trail Guide To The Lower Black River
Lost Falls Campground (Black River Falls to Melrose)