Garage Road to Halls Creek Landing:
An impromptu redo of what may well be our favorite stream anywhere (and quite possibly, in all of Southern Wisconsin), Halls Creek is simply incredible on all accounts.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 9, 2015
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)
11′ per mile
Neillsville: ht/ft: 3.5 | cfs: 200
Gauge note: This gauge doesn’t directly correlate to the creek. It does, however, give a good idea if there has been recent water in the Black River Falls area.
Use the visual gauge, as the correlative gauge is misleading. We’ve paddled this when the Neillsville gauge on the Black River was an astonishing 2160 cfs and then again at a lower 200 cfs, and while there was a distinct difference, it certainly did not correlate to 11 times less water the second time around. 200 was very low – probably too low in fact.
But it’s reasonable that if the gauge is at least 400 cfs you can be confident that Halls is running as well. Based on another Halls Creek trip, the cfs had no correlation to the water level. The key for Halls is the visual gauge on County Road E looking on the upstream side at a rock in the middle of the stream. If just the tip appears, there’s plenty of water. If half the rock is exposed, it’s too low.
Garage Road, Merrillan, Wisconsin
Halls Creek Landing, off County Road E, Black River Falls, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:25a. Out at 2:50p.
Total Time: 3h 25m
Miles Paddled: 7.5
Songbirds, bald eagle, toads, great blue heron and muskrats.
4.3 miles, doable by bike.
This return review really is intended to discuss various water levels and how Halls feels at higher and lower rates. For our full review of this fabulous, phenomenal stream, please read our earlier report.
Making the most of being in the area still after our fun trip down the Black River the day before, the Sunday morning question over coffee and quiche at the always delightful Molly’s on Highway 12/27 (aka Water Street) was where to paddle today? I myself still have both individual segments and whole streams yet to be discovered in the area – Morrison and Robinson Creeks, the East Fork of the Black – and going somewhere new always is my favorite thing to do, but seeing if Halls Creek was runnable made the most sense for the least amount of driving and the best paddling landscape. Plus neither of my two friends I was with knew anything about Halls Creek. And my second favorite thing to do is go to somewhere “knew” – by which I mean a place I know and cherish together with the rich opportunity to share that special and spectacular place with someone for whom it is their first time, their eyes wide with wonder, their slack jaws forming smiles from ear to ear. Halls Creek is that place.
For better or worse, the conventional correlative gauge for Halls Creek – indeed, for all of the Black River Falls area tributaries of the Black River – is the USGS gauge for the Black River in Neillsville. This is problematic for a number of reasons, namely that the Black River itself is so much bigger and drains such a larger watershed than any of its individual tributaries, most of it coming from way upstream.
On top of that, Neillsville itself is at least 30 miles to the north, and just because it rains up there does not necessarily mean you can skip watering your garden in parts down south. You should at least consult the NOAA gauge on the East Fork of the Black River, which is geographically closer while measuring a more comparable watershed and compare it with the USGS gauge.
But if you’re already in the area, the very best way to determine whether Halls Creek is runnable is to check the visual gauge on the water itself at the County Road E bridge. Look for the large rock in the middle of the streamed on the upstream side of the bridge. If you can’t even see the rock, you’ll have more than enough water – and a wild ride! If just the tip is exposed, you’ll be in great shape. If it looks like the photo below (or here) when we ran Halls Creek this second time, you’ll scrape here and there, and the latter two of the three total ledges will be too low to run comfortably.
Halls Creek is luxuriously exquisite, but because it is so tricky to catch at a runnable level I would say you should try your luck even at as low a level as we did for this trip, even though ordinarily I would argue that you should wait til it’s a smidge higher.
One last consideration. When Barry and I ran this last year, the water reading on the Neillsville gauge was bonkers high at 2,160 cfs. By contrast, the same gauge was sputtering at a skimpy 200 cfs when I was contemplating Halls Creek again, a dramatic difference of more than ten times less volume. But this discrepancy in no way correlated to such less water on Halls Creek. Halls was definitely lower this time around than when we ran it last year, but not to the point of negation.
This is what makes correlating water levels a very imprecise, very relative exercise. To be sure, if you’re not in the area already, correlating is better than nothing. But the way one gauge reads with respect to the current conditions on a separate stream should be taken with a grain or few of salt. Normally, I would never consider doing Halls Creek if the Neillsville gauge is at 200 cfs. But we were only a few miles away, so we had the privilege of eyeballing the level directly. I was shocked that, low as it was, it could still be run.
OK, one more one last consideration. The day before, while paddling down the Black, we took a break at the Halls Creek landing to have lunch. As we did so four whitewater paddlers decked out in hardcore gear and clearly experienced were just ending their trip on Halls. I asked how their run was and the water level and they reported that both were great. But the creek did drop in the span of those 24 hours, so keep that in mind as well – it drains fast.
And even one more little water-level postscript to this trip. One day after we’d paddled this the Neillsville gauge recorded 0.8” of rain, resulting in the river rising three feet! This doesn’t always mean that x amount of rain equals x amount of feet the river will rise, but it does provide a rudimentary ratio. At the very least, it’s correlative, not causal, as the scientists like to say. And guesstimating river levels where there are no gauges is as much an art as it is a science. So, we ended up missing that rush of rising water by a day. But them’s the breaks in the whitewater game. Not unlike new snow for XC skiing, paddling is a commitment to carpe diem. Go when the muse commands. She won’t wait for you to dance til you’re ready.
What we liked:
Halls Creek has everything a paddler will fall in love with: clear water, a sandy-rocky bottom, a mini-canyon gorge environment with endless rock outcroppings, and constantly swift current – too many riffles and Class I rapids to count, three outstanding Class II ledges in the last three miles before its confluence at the Black River. Throw in many weeping seeps, a couple mini-waterfalls, great wildlife and generally very little development in a forested setting, it’s really a slice of heaven.
For this trip we paddled the second “half” of Halls Creek, from Garage Road to the Black River, rather than begin below the dam upstream, since we were starting late and still had to drive 2 hours back to Madison (on a Sunday afternoon with all the Dells exiles returning to Illinois). This is unquestionably the better stretch of Halls Creek. It had been a kind of “welcome to whitewater” weekend as it was, with one of my friends paddling Class II for the first time the day before and the other feeling more comfortable in Class I+ conditions. Halls Creek is a great place for these platforms, even the three ledges, as each of them can be portaged if so desired.
Speaking of which, the third of these three ledges was quite different than when Barry and I had paddled it last year. Indeed, we kept punning the word “allegedly” because we never really found it. In retrospect, it must have mostly washed out in the higher level, because this time around, at a lower level, the ledge was clear as day but too shallow to run without scraping the heck out of your boat. There’s just not enough water to carry you over comfortably, so the three of us ended up awkwardly and inelegantly nudging our ways forward and down. More comical-debacle than adrenaline rush.
All that said, if you have the time, you should definitely begin your trip below the dam and run the full course of Halls Creek to the Black River. The water is beautiful and swift upstream and the landscape is still picturesque. But if you have only so much time and are mainly interested in the brawnier rapids, then skip the first four miles and begin at Garage Road. There’s a trampled down path to the river and a perfectly adequate launching spot off the grass on the upstream side of the bridge on river-left. There’s even a convenient spot to park a car just off the road.
What we didn’t like:
Just the low water level but that’s not the creek’s fault. The paddling was more thrilling last year, with more water rushing through but this year’s run was still tremendous fun!
If we did this trip again:
We’ll often return to do Halls Creek, whenever she’s up and running.
Halls Creek I: Trow Lake Dam to Halls Creek Landing
Camp: Black River State Forest
General: American Whitewater
Good People: Friends of the Black River
Map: Friends of the Black River
Map: Wisconsin DNR
Wikipedia: Black River
Miles Paddled Video: