The Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is unlike most paddle-camping options in Wisconsin. For one, it’s the hardest-working river in America, where large barges and heavy commercial boat traffic can cause pause for even the most experienced paddler. The main channel requires skill and experience to navigate the often strong and varied currents which change drastically from low to high water. Also, this is the largest river in the state where you can camp virtually anywhere on the numerous islands and sandbars along the way, as long as your camp is within sight of the main channel.
The entire refuge extends 261 miles from the confluence of the Chippewa River to Rock Island, Illinois. Sectioned off by “pools” that relate to the space between the numbered locks, there’s miles of marked paddle loops and trails that wind between the mazes of braided sloughs, channels, bays and islands. There are also three backwater “Canoe Areas” without a designated trail that are for great for beginners because they are generally low-current and shallow (though they do get choked with vegetation later in the summer).
The refuge is home to a variety of wildlife including deer, beaver, muskrats, raccoons, many species of turtles and all sorts of birds like hawks, osprey, bald eagles, tundra swans, blue heron and pelicans, to name a few. Best yet, fishing on the Mississippi is all but sure to land you the unexpected. Throughout the pools and backwaters, there are many species including walleye, bass, sauger, crappie, catfish and northern pike.
The Mississippi River can be an intimidating paddling prospect, but with the proper preparation, this unique camp-at-will adventure set in the wild and rugged environment of the Old Muddy provides an alluring option.
Paddling Style: Quietwater 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
It’s legal to camp on any of the river’s islands and sandbars in the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge as long as you can see (and be seen from) the main channel. However, most find that the DNR that patrol the land off the main channel are lenient as long as there’s nothing illegal going on.
Camping on these lands are limited to (a generous) 14 days, but they must be occupied daily. Camping within 200′ of boat landings, parking lots, trails and other facilities is prohibited. There is also no camping in posted or “No Hunting Zone” areas. As water levels change, especially in spring or during heavy flooding, shorelines and islands change complexion and accessibility, as do public landings which sometimes close altogether. Camping on the refuge is as primitive as it gets. Prepare to deal with human waste, pack-in, pack-out and practice Leave-No-Trace ethics.
Paddling the Mississippi River Fish & Wildlife Refuge:
The designated paddle trails are marked with green signs, but sometimes become dislodged or submerged in high water, so it’s best to be prepared with maps, GPS coordinates, etc. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provide these as well as brief descriptions and difficulty ratings of all the paddle trails on their site. Here are those trails broken down by pool.
Pool 4: Chippewa River Water Trail
6.5-7 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult | Map
This trip begins on the last few miles of the Chippewa River before briefly winding around the main channel of the Mississippi and then up through Government Light Slough. It is not recommended when the river is running high.
Pool 4: Nelson-Trevino Trail
4.5-6.75 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Map
In this maze of sloughs, strong paddling skills are needed since some of it is against the current. This is especially true in high water and/or on windy days.
Pool 5: Finger Lakes Trail
3.5-6 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult | Map
This trip is best paddled in high water, otherwise portaging will be required in the braids between 1st Lake and Wiggle Waggle Slough (is that not the best name for a slough, by the way?) Or you could opt for the shorter loop.
Pool 5: Halfmoon Trail
5.25 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult | Map
This trail can be difficult in high water and also at the end of summer due to more vegetation. Though recommended for experienced paddlers, there’s an option to stay off the main channel of the Mississippi which involves weaving through many braided islands.
Pool 5A: Verchota Trail
11.25 Miles | Difficulty: Difficult | Map
Much of this paddle is against the current at the outset, and there are some submerged rocks that cause difficulty in times of low water. Alternatively, paddlers could choose to put-in at Bass Camp and follow the current downriver to Verchota Landing forgoing paddling against the current.
Nearby Campground: Merrick State Park
Pool 6: Aghaming Trail
6-7 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult | Map
This there-and-back trail is easier at the upfront, but paddling back is against the current.
Pool 7: Long Lake Trail
4.5-5 Miles | Difficulty: Easy | Map
This is a backchannel looping-trip with slower moving water which avoids the strong currents of the main channel.
Pool 7: Brown’s Marsh Canoe Area
Canoe Area | Difficulty: Easy | Map
This is one of three Canoe Areas where there’s no designated or marked trail. You can spend as little or as much time exploring in this lake-like setting. Of course, vegetation can get thick and the water very shallow, which will limit easy-paddling at times.
Pool 7: Lake Onalaska Trail
5.25 Miles | Difficulty: Easy to Moderate | Map
The Onalaska Trail is a generally easy paddle that winds through the backwaters of the Black River.
Nearby Campground: Perrot State Park
Pool 8: Goose Island Trail
7-7.5 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Map
Circumnavigating Goose Island County Park, (a great option for beginner paddle-campers in it’s own right) half of this trip is against the current which can be strong in high water.
Nearby Campground: Goose Island County Park
Pool 9: Reno Bottoms Trail
3-14 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Map
There are multiple access points for this trail that can be tailored to your liking. And with the many sloughs and islands, conditions change with water levels. Millstone, New Albin/Army Road Landings often underwater in the spring. Use Visger’s Landing during high water conditions.
Pool 9: Blue Heron Canoe Trail
3-11.5 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Map
There are a couple options to take-out on this trip, which could be a short 3-mile journey, or up to a 11.75 paddle through a maze of channels and islands. Two take-outs, Blackhawk Park and Big Slough Landing, require crossing the main channel.
Pool 10: Ambro Slough Canoe Area
Canoe Area | Difficulty: Easy | Map
This is one of three Canoe Areas where there’s no designated or marked trail. Shallow water and thick vegetation can make navigation difficult at times.
Pool 10: Johnson Slough Canoe Trail
6-6.25 Miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Map
Half of the Johnson Slough trip is against the current and it follows the main channel for about three miles.
Pool 10: Wyalusing State Park Canoe Area
Canoe Area | Difficulty: Easy | Map
This is one of three Canoe Areas where there’s no designated or marked trail. This paddle winds through the Wyalusing backwaters. There are stop signs to indicate the main channel for those who aren’t comfortable with paddling on the big river.
Nearby Campground: Wyalusing State Park
General Camping Info: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
General Paddling Info: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Maps + Guides:
Upper Mississippi River Maps