One of the first three rivers to be classified as Wild & Scenic, the Popple River throbs through the heart of national forest and offers paddlers a splendid mix of calm tranquility surrounded by an undeveloped natural landscape, plus a few adrenaline-spiked rides down Class I-III rapids.
Together with the Pine River, its sibling twin running parallel to the north, and the nearby Pike River, these were the first three rivers designated as Wild and Scenic by the Wild Rivers Act of 1965. Wisconsin was the first in the nation to pass such an act which prevents development along the banks of these rivers and safeguards them from various industries, the likes of dams or logging. The result is an absolutely admirable nook that nearly has the look and feel of a national park located entirely in one county in northeastern Wisconsin – Florence County.
The Popple is positively lovely and spectacularly picturesque. Even if you knew nothing of its protected status and unique designation as “wild and scenic,” you’d still know that something special was going on. Most places just don’t look like this. Root beer-hued water, a sand-gravel bottom, rugged outcrops, boulders scattered here and there like glacial crumbs, and miles upon miles of tree-lined banks comprising a mix of deciduous and conifers.
The Popple requires the right water level to comfortably paddle any section. It’s notoriously low and most folks aren’t equipped from a skill standpoint to handle four Class III waterfalls in one section. The section above Morgan Lake Road is more accomodating to the intermediate whitewater paddler and there’s primitive campsites available mid-section between both. This rugged river offers stunning scenery along miles of unspoiled landscape, and of course, those challenging and exhilarating rapids – making for a truly wild and scenic adventure.
Paddling Style: River Paddling + Whitewater Paddling
Best Suited For: Whitewater Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Riverside
Availability: First Come, First Served Designated Sites + Undesignated Public Land Camping
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: Yes
Camping Fee: No | Camping Permit: No
There are two primitive campsites on these sections of the Popple. There is little known about Nine Day Camp – it’s only noted in a thumbnail image on the DNR’s site about the Pine-Popple area, but the name is in reference to its proximity to Nine Day Rapids and is only paddle-in. The other one, Burnt Dam Rapids Camp, is accessible by road and located near (where else?) Burnt Dam Rapids at the Forest Road 2159/Newald Tower Road access point. Since they are both first come, first served, it’s best to have a backup camping plan. Thankfully, there are numerous options in the area that are very close.
Alternately, camping along the Popple in rogue-fashion is permissible in Florence County, provided it’s not private. Private land should be posted, but that can’t be promised. According to the Wisconsin DNR, “Camping is not restricted on Florence County and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest land, and the user may set up on any suitable site along the river. Camping may or may not be permitted by the landowner on private industrial forest land, and local inquiries should be made as to the permissibility of camping on these lands.” When camping outside of designated campsites, it’s as primitive as it gets. Prepare to deal with human waste, pack-in, pack-out, and practice Leave-No-Trace ethics.
Nearby Campground: Lake Emily Park | First Come, First Served
18 Sites. All electric.
Facilities: Pit toilets and water.
Nearby Campground: West Bass Lake Campground | First Come, First Served
29 Sites. All non-electric.
Facilities: Pit toilets and water.
Paddling the Popple River:
The river from Forest Road 2398 to Morgan Lake Road is narrow, remote and can be tricky at low water levels, specifically due to deadfall, thick alders and beaver dams, etc. There are a lot of quiet stretches, but also lengths of extended class I-II boulder gardens, as well as the notable Burnt Dam Rapids, a series of Class II pitches.
After Morgan Lake Road, comes an expert-level whitewater run. Only skilled paddlers should consider the stretch as there are four Class II-III drops and it begins immediately with Little Bull Falls. After a long quiet stretch, you’ll encounter sustained class I and II rapids until Big Bull Falls near Highway 101, which is followed by a repetitive “Nirvana-esque” loud-quiet-loud pattern where calm stretches give way to class I and II rapids. What follows is Class III Washburn Falls and then quickly by Jennings Falls. All these must be scouted (and portaged if in doubt). Though, as an expert running this section, you would do so anyway.
Downstream from this comes the confluence with the Pine River, and a few miles later the 22′ La Salle Falls. It’s unnrunnable and the portage is a half-mile on foot.
Forest Road 2398 to Morgan Lake Road
Morgan Lake Road to Pine River Confluence
Newald Tower Road/Forest Road 2159 to Morgan Lake Road
Newald Tower Road/Forest Road 2159 to Highway 101
Morgan Lake Road to Highway 101
Highway 101 to Pine River Confluence