Ontario to Rockton:
After five years, we finally paddled the beloved Kickapoo, an absolutely gorgeous river, flowing through one of the most beautiful areas of Wisconsin. By canoe or kayak, you must experience the paddle from Ontario to Rockton. It’s as pretty and scenic as a paddle gets in Wisconsin.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 7-8, 2012
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Riffles + Class I
3.5′ per mile
This was below ideal levels but fine nonetheless. We recommend 60-100 cfs for a scrape-free journey. In general, for the Ontario to Rockton stretch, 60 cfs is the minimum and the sweet spot is between 70-100 cfs. The Rockton to La Farge segment is more forgiving with less of a gradient and more mud. You don’t want to be on the water when it’s high, as it’s prone to flash flooding due to its high rock walls and narrow streambed. What’s too high? 200 cfs and above.
Day 1: 9.7.08
Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 5:15p.
Miles Paddled: 11.5
Day 2: 9.8.08
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 12:30p.
Miles Paddled: 1
Total Time: 4h 45m
Total Miles Paddled: 12.5
Alternate Trip Ideas:
Landing 4 to Landing 14 (13.25 Miles)
Hawk, eagle, deer, crane, ducks, muskrat, a leech, slug and cows.
Ever since taking up kayaking and starting this site, I’ve often been asked if we’ve paddled the Kickapoo yet (yet being the key word). For no reason in particular, it took us a long time to pull the trigger on this trip. But unable to paddle many of our planned destinations this summer due to low water, the Kickapoo looked like it was holding steady so we set out to see what we were missing. We chose the two most popular sections for our initiation. They’re popular for a reason. It’s an absolutely stunning paddle, dotted with limestone cliffs throughout, that leaves you in awe of this driftless region.
The night before our trip, I stayed at Wildcat Mountain State Park before meeting up with the guys in the morning. It’s set between Ontario and Rockton and in fact, you paddle within its boundaries between bridges #4 and #5. Contrary to the name however, I didn’t spot one wildcat but I did enjoy the sound of coyotes howling and yelping me to sleep. My time there was short but it was another great Wisconsin State Park to check off the list.
In the morning, I stopped at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve to clarify how camping on the Kickapoo works. Many, if not most of the sites are paddle-in only. What was confusing was the first-come, first-served aspect. First-come, first-served means inhabiting the campsite with some gear. But the paddle-in factor makes this process a luck of the draw. What if the spot you choose is taken when you get there? Well, it turns out you find another one and simply change the campsite letter on your slip. The Reserve recognizes that you paid for camping and may have to move if your chosen site is occupied. You’ll find self-registration posts at the landings along Highway 131.
It was also at the Reserve where I met a most entertaining fellow by the name of Eugene who spoke in old-timey language (That “He was twenty-stories tall if he was a foot” – kind of dialogue) and had story after story for me (with no pause for me to get a word in edgewise) about the valley. He laughed at my “paddling it all” (meaning bridges 1-20) and how it paled in comparison to his story about paddling the whole river all the way to the Wisconsin River 40 years ago on a makeshift pontoon that he and his brother built. When they couldn’t get the pontoon over flood trash, they poured gasoline on it and burned their way through (talk about different times…). Eugene offered me his business card and invited me to his Old-Fashioned Shoeshine stand in Viola. I told him the next time I’m in the area wearing something other than Chacos, I’d stop by.
Unique to both of these sections on the Kickapoo (Ontario to Rockton, Rockton to La Farge) are 20 bridges which are almost perfectly spaced. Technically, there are only remnants of bridge #12 and I heard the same of bridge #17 but we never spotted any sign of #17. They are almost all clearly marked from the road and from the water too which makes map reading particularly easy.
Between bridges #1 and #12 are three convenient landings off of Highway 131 (five if you include the landings at #1 and #12) and one off County Highway P. The stretch between bridge #4 and #5 is the longest you’ll paddle without seeing a bridge as you make your way through the land of Wildcat Mountain State Park. The park has its own landing simply called “Wildcat”. All the landings between bridge #1 and #20 are excellent, offering a pit toilet, registration stations and garbage and recycling cans. Having these numerous access points makes it incredibly easy to tailor your day paddles.
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 $4.00 parking fee is required unless you’re camping, in which case, parking is included.
Ontario has a rather large number of outfitters for a town with one gas station. Mr. Duck’s, Titanic and Drifty’s are all based at Landing 1. I stopped at Drifty’s to inquire about paddling time to Rockton. They were very friendly and helpful in answering my questions. They said it takes 5 hours between #1 and #12. It wasn’t necessarily because of low water in their opinion, just that it was a crooked river and sometimes you paddle north.
That estimate felt a little high because the general rule of thumb is that you paddle about 3 miles an hour (of course, wind and current have a say in that too) but they were correct in that timing. We averaged a solid 3mph but if you add in breaks (of which, we took a couple of course) we were almost spot-on at 5 hours.
After completing our shuttle and loading our boats, we set off on our first part of the trip. We were immediately struck by the beauty of the river and just kind of knew it was going to be a great couple days. The Kickapoo gently meanders back and forth between the beautiful limestone and sandstone cliffs created by the glacier. To paddle this for the first time is a special experience as rounding every bend brings something new. It’s never boring as there are too many curves to keep you occupied. It’s sometimes riffly and sometimes the current can get a little pushy but it’s generally a very leisurely paddle. There is one short little drop about a mile into the trip but nothing too significant otherwise.
Water levels were a bit below normal, as expected since practically all of Wisconsin has suffered from the drought but it didn’t adversely affect the paddling. Early on, there were a couple times where we misread the current, got hung up in the shallows and got out instead of scooting but those portages were nothing more than a few feet of walking. There was almost always an obvious channel to follow as the water moved from bend to bend.
The water is quite clear and appears generally shallow, but don’t let it fool you, it does get quite deep especially where the current meets the rock walls and tight turns. It’s mostly sandy-bottomed along the entire stretch but you will encounter some rocky and riffly areas as well as some sand that takes on the personality of mud.
The Kickapoo offers much more than geologic-love. It’s also home to many species of flora and fauna unique to this valley. We didn’t spot any of the rare turtles (as expected) but we did come across a hawk, a bald eagle, crane, a muskrat, a leech, a couple slugs and cows. The cows were polite and moved from the river up the bank in a brisk manner. We saw evidence of fish and we assume they were trout (restoration efforts have made this a popular trout stream once again) since we noticed some snapping at insects on the surface of the water.
One of the great encounters we had was while rounding a bend. Brian came upon a buck. I can safely say the point-size was a minimum of 10 (and that is almost definitely on the low-end). The rack was really ornate and sculpted. And the coloring of this guy was really unique. You could tell he’d been around awhile. I often startle deer on the river but I’ve never seen a buck and as luck would have it, we came across two more that were straddling the side of a rock wall river-left a few miles downstream. They had smaller racks and were closer to 6-8 pointers. They quickly turned around and headed the other direction.
We paddled this first section on a Friday and didn’t come across any other signs of human life. It felt remote but in reality, we knew we’re always just around the bend from another bridge or take-out and you’ll hear the sounds of vehicles throughout.
We camped a little earlier than expected but only because we came upon the beautiful campsite W, located on a hair-pin turn, up a steep bank, with two gorgeous limestone walls surrounding us. It definitely made my top-five favorite campsites based on sure beauty. And at night, I was once again serenaded by the sounds of coyotes (amongst other critters of the night). We should point-out that the campsites on the Kickapoo are the definition of primitive, much like Lower Wisconsin River camping. Be prepared to pack-in and pack-out, have a saw handy for downed wood to burn and bring a shovel. On our way down the river, we did take note of other campsites for future reference, some of which were equally stunning from our view on the water.
We calculate mileage using Google Maps mapping feature. However, sometimes it’s a little squishy in its accuracy. This was mapped to be 13.75 miles (which seemed high). The map from the Reserve has it logged at 12.5 miles and Mike Svob’s writeup in Paddling Southern Wisconsin has it mapped at 11.5 miles (which seemed low). So for this trip, we took the average of 12.5 miles which seemed to align with our paddling time of 3mph and time spent on two breaks for a total of 4 hours and 45 minutes (split over two days) between landing #1 and #12.
What we liked:
Everything. I mean, it does live up to its billing.
What we didn’t like:
Not a thing (except Jason expressed a wish for more riffles – he’s a tough customer).
If we did this trip again:
The Kickapoo River, like the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, is a staple for canoeing and kayaking in Wisconsin. It’s more stunning with every stroke that carries you down river. Of the two sections we paddled (and this is solely our opinion and it greatly differs from Eugene’s), we had the slightest preference for this upper Ontario to Rockton section. They are incredibly similar but there was just something a little more unique and grand about the first 12.5 miles.
But you shouldn’t have to choose if you’re already in the area. We recommend you make it an overnight (or possibly extend it into two nights) and continue down through the beautiful Rockton to La Farge section as well. It truly is a memorable journey and it’s hard to believe it took us this long to experience it. I’m already looking forward to the next time we visit.
Kickapoo River II: Rockton to La Farge
Kickapoo River III: Highway 131 to Ontario
Kickapoo River IV: Plum Creek Road to Wauzeka
Camp: Wildcat Mountain State Park
General: Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Good People: Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Outfitter: Drifty’s Canoe Rental
Outfitter: Mr. Duck’s Canoe Rental
Outfitter: Titanic Canoe Rental
Wikipedia: Kickapoo River
Miles Paddled Video:
Alternate Trip Report: Longer Paddle (13.25 Miles)
Landing 4 to Landing 14
August 22, 2015
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A return to a Wisconsin classic, one of the very best paddling prospects anywhere in the state (and arguably the Midwest in general), in order to celebrate the birthday of a friend who’d never been on the beloved Kickapoo, this trip did not disappoint… for the most part.
Time: Put in at 1:10p. Out at 6:40p.
Total Time: 5h 30m
Miles Paddled: 13.25
Mink, turkey vultures, hawks, trout and first-time canoeists.
When it comes to the Kickapoo River, most paddlers think about one of two things: the Ontario to Rockton segment or the Rockton to La Farge segment, a continuous stretch of some 22 miles along public land, where the most beautiful rock outcrops and mini-canyons are located anywhere on the 120ish miles of the whole river. To be sure, if you’ve never paddled the Kickapoo, then you should start here. There are, of course, segments upstream and downstream also worth doing in their own right. I myself have paddled the last leg of the Kickapoo into the Wisconsin River (sorry, no report; it was pre-Miles Paddled, egad!) and can assert that it is truly beautiful and wonderfully diverse.
It’s been three years since Barry paddled the Kickapoo and I myself haven’t been back in five. I’d first paddled the Rockton to La Farge segment in the summer of 2009 and fell for the river heels over head. I returned that fall to check out the Ontario to Rockton segment just upstream and was decidedly less impressed. Why? Because this stretch of the river is like a beautiful woman in a crowded bar who’s had one too many strong drinks and is slurring her words a little too loudly when not dancing like a slob: it’s extremely pretty – though evidence of graffiti and litter were more evident – but there are hoards of paddlers mostly in rented canoes who do not know the first thing about paddling a canoe, much less after the stowed-in or towed-behind cooler of cheap beer and bad classic rock (which begs the question: what is it about paddling and cornball music? Is there an unwritten mandate that all music blaring from speakers whilst on the river – any river – be recorded not before 1971 but no later than 1985? Is Ozzie or Foreigner really the soundtrack that gets conjured when paddling past sandbars and sandstone rock outcrops? I just don’t get it. But there’s a lot about people I don’t get…).
Not coincidentally, this is the most popular segment of the Kickapoo River, and by “popular,” let’s be clear about something: all that means is it’s where the local outfitters send their customers. It’s not necessarily “popular” because people voted that way or prefer it to the Rockton to La Farge segment (in fact, I’d argue that the latter is preferable for a variety of reasons – it’s as scenic, if not more so, and has way less traffic, which enhances the wildlife sightings). A year and a half later, on Memorial Day weekend of 2010 at that, I returned to the KVR a third time to paddle the Rockton to La Farge segment again. It was just as lovely as ever, and despite the three-day weekend, we had the river to ourselves.
For this trip I took two friends who’d never paddled the Kickapoo but have always wanted to. Days before we all decided to this, the spectacular magnum opus that is Richard Kark’s e-book came to our attention. One particular stream that caught my attention is Billings Creek, a tributary of the Kickapoo River flowing past the other side of Wildcat Mountain State Park. Since one of my friends is a lover of trout streams, and since we were out this way to celebrate his birthday as it was, I thought it would be terrific fun to put in at Billings Creek, paddle down to the Kickapoo, and take out at Rockton. Billings is described as a “mini Kickapoo” with added advantages of crystal clear water and swift current bordering on light rapids. We scouted the creek but decided it was just too shallow to risk running. Even another inch would’ve made the difference. Instead, we resolved to return another time at higher levels (maybe in autumn during the foliage) rather than scrape and feel frustrated.
As it happened, I had a backup plan for this, having suspected that the creek would be too shallow. I knew it would be crowded on a sunny Saturday in August on the Ontario to Rockton segment in particular, and I didn’t want to start right in town anyway. So we put in at Landing #4, coincidentally four miles downstream from downtown Ontario. This is the closest access point relative Wildcat Mountain State Park (unless you’re already in the state park, in which case there’s a separate boat launch at the Lower Picnic Area). The next few miles on the river will offer breathtaking views of Mount Pisgah on your left. A number of rentals end their trip at this access, thereby offering the benefit of reducing the traffic further downstream (alas, some rentals also put in at Landing #4, too, so take the whole high/low traffic volume thing with a grain of salt).
Furthermore, since we were putting-in downstream of the conventional starting point in Ontario, I knew we could paddle past Rockton a couple miles for what would be in effect the same length of a trip, and this much is certain: the traffic volume on the river does decrease considerably from Rockton to La Farge. This is one of best attributes of the Kickapoo River from Ontario to La Farge: there are so many different access points (and all of them great) to tailor the kind of trip you’re looking for. In other words, you don’t have to (and arguably should not) simply begin and end where the guidebooks tell you.
What we liked:
The river is just gorgeous. Minus the crowds, of course, it’s everything you want a river to look and feel like. It’s only 20-30 feet wide most of the time with mostly clear water, good current and it’s continually endowed with an unabashed glory of Driftless geology – a wildfire of lush green ferns, secret, sunken hollows, sandstone and limestone rock outcrops directly lining the water itself.
As mentioned above, the many accesses are all excellent and supremely convenient. And if all that were not enough, there are a dozen riverside campsites accessible only by the water, allowing for drybag camping, whether you’re canoeing or kayaking, at wonderfully isolated and primitive locations (alas, we didn’t camp during this trip but I have in the past and it’s a real delight). The whole Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR) feels like a paddler’s paradise – and really it is!
That’s the essential synopsis for the Kickapoo between Ontario and La Farge. For this particular trip I loved that the landscape beauty begins right off the bat at Landing #4 and basically remains beautiful for the entirety of the trip. The sights of Wildcat Mountain and Mount Pisgah towering above the surrounding valley several hundred feet high is quite captivating. There are umpteen sandbars along the way, each offering pleasant respites to stretch your legs, pee or picnic (or in my case, de-water your boat – more on that below). And after a fairly long day on the water, our chosen takeout bridge at Landing #12 (aka the County Road P bridge) was picturesque (an old truss bridge) and easy-as-pie.
Also cool about all these landings? There are designated trash cans for garbage, plastics and aluminum (don’t take glass on the river – any river, ever). There even are meshed bags at these points, presumably for canoe rentals to collect all the canned beer. Pretty smart!
What we didn’t like:
Two things can detract from the Kickapoo’s wonder: throngs of people and low water levels. The crowds are ridiculous, and I’m not kidding. I’ve never seen so many paddlers on one stretch of river ever before in my life. And this was on a day with a stiff headwind from the south. Normally, I never mind seeing other folks on the water for no other reason than it confirms a commonality that others too love something as I do. But this was crazy.
It was loud and crowded, both in front of you and from behind, the confused canoes going sideways in particular (“boatjams”?). Saying nothing of the compromised “getting away from it all” feeling most of us seek if we’re to drive two hours from home, congestion of this sort pretty much precludes any wildlife opportunities (although we did spot one mink on a log, which was awesome).
The low water was in every sense a drag. But that’s nothing more than bad timing (the third week of August with very little rain in the game), not some intrinsic issue with this stream. Paddle this at the higher levels recommended above and you’ll have a great time. The shallow water did leave one very unfortunate impression, however: a two-and-a-half-inch gouge on the bottom of my boat. At various times I kept noticing surprising amounts of water in my boat, sometimes sloshing around as though I’d been running Class II rapids or plunging down drops. I knew something was up – I had to “sponge out” the cockpit five times in as many hours. But it wasn’t until we took out and I had taken everything out of my boat, turned it over, that I saw my new blemish. And this is a boat designed for whitewater! It’s not like the Kickapoo is considered a rocky river – it isn’t, by and by – but the water was low, and I must have hit some sharp rock at just the right wrong spot. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It was just bad luck (there’s certainly no reason to draw the conclusion that the Kickapoo is a dangerous river that will damage your boat).
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again, though next time only in off-season or mid-week. It’s just too distracting on a summer weekend – bordering on an amusement ride at the Dells. It definitely detracts from the overall experience, which otherwise should be one of sheer awe and wow.