Canoe & Kayak Camping Wisconsin: Chippewa River
The historic and hardworking Chippewa River begins as two forks before joining at Lake Chippewa, part of the Chippewa Flowage (also a great flatwater paddle-camping destination). At the southern end of the lake is where the singular Chippewa River forms and where many say it really begins. Despite being dammed many times before its meeting with the Mississippi river, there are wonderful stretches offering a variety of paddling options. This wide and mostly calm river does have some rapids on the section north of Eau Claire, but becomes wider and flatter below the city. Along either stretch, the river is rich with small public islands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and as long as river levels allow, many sandbars too – making it perfect for rogue and remote multi-night trips.
Paddling Style: Quietwater Paddling + River Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Island + Sandbar
Availability: First-Come, First-Served Undesignated Public Land Camping
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: No
Camping Fee: No | Camping Permit: No
When the water levels are right, there are numerous sandbars found all along the Chippewa, but 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 that the public can use for what’s called “dispersed camping”. That means they are located away from “developed recreational facilities” and 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 Chippewa’s public land for no longer than three days, 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 poison ivy, etc. Some may be rocky, brushy or near bridges, houses and development too. Though there’s no guarantee that these islands will be totally accommodating to your needs (or wants), public land access is a welcomed and wonderful thing in our opinion.
Camping is free and available on a first-come, first-served basis, but because the islands can be closed for various reasons by the BLM, so you 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 this kind of camping is as primitive it gets, one must be prepared to deal with their own waste and practice pack-in, pack-out Leave-No-Trace ethics.
Paddling the Chippewa River
We divided the upper and lower Chippewa from north and south of Eau Claire. Between Flater’s Resort and Eau Claire, there are fewer BLM islands, but there are other opportunities outlined below.
Paddling the Chippewa River North of Eau Claire:
For both beginner and seasoned paddlers, the Upper Chippewa has a lot to offer paddle campers. Public land starts below the Radisson dam and there are many options all the way to the confluence with the Flambeau River at Flater’s Resort. These sections alternate in characteristics. You’ll find plenty of quietwater but also riffles, mild rapids, boulder gardens, islands, and sandbars surrounded by low grassy and wooded banks. It’s very pretty scenery. There are a couple Class Is throughout and there’s a section below the Radisson dam that can and should be avoided by inexperienced paddlers (those who are should opt for the put-in on the other side of the river). Of course, medium and high water conditions can change the Class Is throughout so it’s best to always be cautious and when in doubt, scout.
With dependable water levels and awesome fishing, the Upper Chippewa is a great option if you’re looking for primitive paddle-camping with numerous access points to tailor your trips. The fishing is fantastic too, with walleye, northern, muskie, bass and of course, panfish all inhabiting the river.
After Flater’s Resort Landing, a series of dams creates lakes/flowages, making it a bit more difficult to continuously paddle-camp, but there’s a BLM island below Holcombe, past Brunet Island (yet another recommended paddle-camp option) on the Cornell Flowage. Below that flowage, another couple exist before a long and flat stretch to Jim Falls where there’s one more island located at the base, right before the long and flat Lake Wissota.
Nearby Campground: Ojibwa Park | First Come, First Served
13 Sites. 10 with electric.
Facilities: Pit toilets, showers and water.
Northern Chippewa River Recommended Routes:
Arpin Dam to County Road D
County Road D to County Road A
County Road A to Highway 8
Highway 8 to Flambeau River Confluence (Flater’s Resort)
Northern Chippewa River Outfitters:
Paddling the Chippewa River South of Eau Claire:
The Lower Chippewa traditionally starts below Eau Claire at Hobbs Landing. Here, it’s free-flowing all the way to the Mississippi and there are a lot more public islands in the coming miles. The river is wider and flatter compared to upstream, but quite diverse. And also like upstream, there are numerous access points all the way to the Mississippi making it convenient to tailor trips as needed.
There are a few small drops where mill dams have been removed or destroyed by time but other than a brisk current, paddlers will be treated to wooded shorelines, sandbars, islands and in some places, calm lake-like paddling. As you move further away from Eau Claire, the environment becomes more wild and feels more remote but the characteristics are similar to upstream with wooded and lowland grassy banks. Channels and sloughs are numerous but the current is almost always noticeable, which makes for some choose-your-own adventure paddling. Once the current slows closer to the confluence, you can take out at the Great River Road access point, or venture further onto the Mississippi River itself and take out five-and-a-half more miles downstream.
Nearby Campground: Holden Park Campground | First Come, First Served
15 Sites. All electric.
Facilities: Vault toilets and water.
Southern Chippewa River Outfitters:
Corral Bar and Riverside Grill (Durand)
Maps + Guides:
Bureau of Land Management Wisconsin Public Island Map