The Kickapoo river is one of the premier paddling destinations in not only the beloved driftless region of our state, but all of Wisconsin. If you ever wished for an idyllic setting to canoe or kayak, this is it. It’s a narrow and intimate river with small riffles, tight corners, modest-to-grand outcrops and stunning rock formations. With easy and well-maintained access points and many paddle-in riverside campsites, it’s really a bucket-list destination. The Kickapoo has been know for being crooked and twisty but it’s generally a leisurely paddle as it gently meanders back-and-forth between beautiful sand and limestone cliffs. Novice paddlers should be able to handle the twists and turns, along with the riffles and sometimes pushy current as long as they have proper boat control.
The Kickapoo is simply gorgeous and by canoe or kayak, you must experience the paddle from Ontario to La Farge. It’s as pretty and scenic as a river paddle gets in Wisconsin.
Paddling Style: River Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
The Kickapoo Valley Reserve allows for first-come, first-served primitive camping at a total of 26 designated sites surrounding the river. Of the 26 sites, there are 15 that are vehicle accessible (two of which are on the river) and there are 11 Paddle-In/Hike-In/Bike-In sites (9 of which are on the river). Registration and a camping permit is required but there are 16 self-registration stations throughout the Reserve, as well as at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center (which is well worth a visit on its own account).
The paddle-in factor makes the process a little bit luck of the draw but if your spot is taken, or you find another one along the way, simply change the campsite letter on your slip. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve recognizes that you paid for camping and may have to move if your chosen site is occupied. The campsites on the Kickapoo are the definition of primitive. Outfitted with only a fire ring, you should expect to bring water, a shovel for “personal” matters and prepare to pack-in and pack-out. You are allowed to burn dead and downed wood found on the Reserve so have a saw handy for dead wood.
Do note that from time to time, campsites are moved due to erosion, which was the case in 2020, when many sites were relocated. Also, this river gets really busy on weekends, so it’s best to consider a weekday trip if you have the opportunity and/or prefer things a littler on the quieter side.
If you need a pre- or post-paddle campsite, aside from the numerous off-river sites within the Reserve, Wildcat Mountain State Park is also a really nice option.
Paddling the Kickapoo River:
The beauty of the entire Ontario to La Farge stretch (which are the most popular sections) is that they can be conveniently split into two day trips or combined as an overnight since the mileage isn’t terribly long. Unique to both of these sections are numerous landings, some of which are aligned with exactly twenty bridges that exist between put-in and take-out (although, technically, only the remnants of bridge #12 remain) and they are almost all perfectly spaced. The landings are (almost) all clearly marked from the road and from the water too, which adds a bit of comfort and makes map-reading particularly easy.
It’s difficult to capture just how beautiful the Kickapoo River is – you really have experience it yourself. Rivers are rarely this intimate, interesting and also provide camping opportunities for paddlers. Between the two sections, we have only the slightest preference for Ontario to Rockton, but you shouldn’t choose one over the other if you’re heading there to paddle. Instead, paddle both, because a night under the stars in the Kickapoo River valley is pretty amazing.
Ontario to Rockton
Miles: 10.5 | Trip Report
The put-in at Ontario (the proudly-proclaimed “Canoe Capital of the Kickapoo”) is just north of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve boundaries so there is no need to pay for parking. The take-out in Rockton is within the boundaries of the Reserve so a small parking fee is required unless you’re camping, in which case, parking is included.
All the landings between landings 1 and 12 are excellent, offering a pit toilet, self-registration stations and refuse/recycling containers. Having these numerous access points makes it incredibly easy to tailor your trip. Between Landings 1 and 12 are three convenient access points located off Highway 131, as well as one off County Highway P and one located within the boundaries of Wildcat Mountain State Park simply called “Wildcat”.
On this upstream section, you’ll encounter many breathtaking limestone walls and picturesque outcrops along the way. The water is clear and generally shallow, but be aware that it can suddenly get quite deep, especially where the current meets the rock walls and tight turns. It’s mostly sandy-bottomed along the way but you will encounter some rocky and riffly areas as well as some sand that takes on the personality of mud so be careful where you step.
Rockton to LaFarge
Miles: 13.75 | Trip Report
Just like upstream, Rockton to La Farge is gorgeous. With more beautiful sand and limestone bluffs, and many species of flora and fauna unique to this valley, there’s something around nearly every bend to discover and give you another reason to pull out the camera.
The put-in for this section is in the town of Rockton and is within the Kickapoo Valley Reserve so if you’re parking at landing 12, you will need a parking pass. One notable difference between the upstream section and this Rockton to La Farge leg is that there is only one “official” landing – Landing 14, but there are some alternate primitive/rogue access points along the way. This is, however, a slightly shorter section.
One of the unique landmarks on this stretch is located between bridges #18 and #19 where the relics of a concrete tower – the start of an abandoned dam – that looms large in the distance. The dam would’ve flooded the valley creating a lake meant to bring in tourist dollars. The project was abandoned at the last minute when numerous studies showed it might not have the economic impact that was anticipated. A lot of damage had been done as the bitter issue divided the community and changed the economic face (and almost changed the environment) of the area for decades and beyond. It’s an eerie “what if” kind of monument. One that’s even eerier knowing you wouldn’t be paddling this gem of a river had it become a flowage.