★ ★ ★ ★

Kinnickinnic River I

River Falls to County Road F:
A true wilderness river experience with zero development the entire way (and only one bridge, at the take-out) with crystal clear, riffly water, occasional easy rapids, spectacular cliffs, lush greenery and a gorge section toward the end, the “Kinni” is the real deal. The only problem? Lots of paddlers.

Kinnickinnic River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 11, 2013

Class Difficulty:
Class I (One Class II)

River Falls: ht/ft: 10.53 | cfs: 102

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimum level. Ideal range is 110-150 cfs to still appreciate the beautifully clear water and swift riffles and light rapids.

Glen Park, River Falls, Wisconsin
County Road F, Kinnickinnic State Park

Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 4:45p.
Total Time: 2h 15m
Miles Paddled: 7.5

One bald eagle, wood ducks and song birds.


Serendipity determined this trip. I had never even heard of this river until a month ago, which I learned of only thanks to a happy accident. While looking up info on the Kinnickinnic River that runs through the south side of Milwaukee, a concrete-lined urban runoff river that is the utter opposite of the one in northwestern Wisconsin, I came upon this sparkling gem.

I was instantly won over after watching a YouTube video about it. And then I learned, rather sheepishly, that this trip is listed by Meister Mike Svob in his book Paddling Northern Wisconsin, which I have, treasure and have combed through evangelically. Alas, my version is not the revised edition. So yes, I guess one moral of the story is to buy the updated copy of this book (and not settle on the $7 older one scored at a second-hand bookstore). But my way of looking at this tale is this: the original book was published in 1998, the revised edition January of 2012. That a spectacular paddling experience the likes of the Kinnickinnic River Gorge can be considered an addendum and not the very inspiration for a book on paddling the rivers of northern Wisconsin, something added 14 years after the fact, gives me great hope that there remain similar discoveries everywhere, in northern as well as southern Wisconsin.

What we liked:
There are primarily two things that make this trip so saliently memorable, the scenery and the water itself. The trip begins immediately with interesting rock formations and the impressive relief only gets better and bigger as you go downstream. Ranging from steep banks and high bluffs to cliffs, some as high as 200’ and some “weeping” from invisible springs, the final leg of the “Kinni” from the dam to its mouth at the St. Croix River is a geological gorge and yes, indeed it is gorgeous.

But for the many folks flyfishing, as well as the groups in rentals, the setting and sense of this trip is so remote that a stab of dread would be felt if you heard a banjo being strummed off up in the hills. And then there is the water itself. Crystal clear, riffly swift, it’s not for nothing that I paddled nearly eight miles in nearly two hours.

There are innumerable Class I rapids, all of them easy and approachable (if nothing else, take it from the gazillion renters on the water, many of whom clearly had never stepped foot into a kayak before, many of them kids still in single digits, some of them adults who were well on their way to too many drinks and all of whom were taking on these Class I’s (sometimes reluctantly, sometimes triumphantly). So don’t let this dissuade you. When I paddled it the water was, to my liking at least, a little low. I could read the river well enough to navigate it correctly and not get stuck but I passed lots of folks who scraped, cursed, butt-scooted and just plain gave up, got up and went for a walk.

Consequently, there was only one tricky rapid, which I will generously nominate a Class II (a Class I and then some, at any rate), mostly because it preceded a very tight sweeping turn at the bottom of it. This is not a chill-out floating river, though novices certainly treat it as such and then often tank. I counted at least three paddlers who were sopping wet. The river is not demanding but it does deserve respect and attention paid.

What we didn’t like:
The put-in at Glen Park is not the easiest place to find and once there, the river itself is not the most accessible. Truth be told, I didn’t mind this but I do feel obliged to mention it here. The park, appropriately enough, is on Park Street, which is off of Main Street. If you’re not familiar with the River Falls area, I recommend having a map handy so you’re not guessing once you get there (like I did). Once you find Park Street, drive down towards the tennis courts. There you’ll see helpful signage about paddling. Bear in mind though that once you park your car, there will be a 100-yard walk to either a staircase or switchback trail down to the river itself, about 100’ or more down. Everyone does it and it’s unavoidable (no kayak elevators so far as I could tell) but you’d be doing yourself a big favor by packing a kayak caddy ahead of time to make the schlep a little less toilsome.

So as you might have guessed, I was less than keen on all the traffic on the river but such are the concessions we make. Besides, it was a sunny Sunday afternoon in August, this is such a beautiful paddle and there is at least one outfitter in town whose raison d’etre is renting kayaks for the Kinni. (By the way, “Kinni” is not a cute affectation of my own whimsy, this is how all the locals refer to the river.)

But as a result of all the “dude, bro!” and high-pitched eight-year-old shrieking there wasn’t much wildlife to observe. Some wood ducks and other pretty songbirds but that’s about it. I did spot one bald eagle at the take-out but so too were about 20 people standing around, nary a one of us inspired to belt out “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” All in all, I counted three parties of six or more I passed in the brief two hours I was on the river, one of which was putting in as I dropped off my boat at Glen Park, then drove to Kinnickinnic State Park, did a quick reconnaissance, dropped off my car at the take-out, then rode my bike 7.5 miles back into town. And I’m no super-athlete or anything.

It’s worth noting again that the water was a little too low for my liking. If nothing else, when the water is higher, those rapids must really sing and that would be a treat! Normal cfs is 90-120. At 102, when I did it, the water was on the low side. I personally would not recommend paddling the Kinni below 100 cfs. The happenstance of low water and the inevitable scraping should never influence the timelessness of such a haunting place as the Kinnickinnic Gorge.

If we did this trip again:
I will for sure! But not on a weekend in the summer. Also, I will go at least as far as the mouth at the St. Croix River. When I began researching this trip I kept remarking that it was odd that all the authorities have you take out at the County Highway F bridge outside of the State Park. No one, anywhere, ever suggested that you can continue past the bridge for another two miles and change to the St. Croix River. There must be a reason for this, but what?

Well, I had planned on doing just this but was disabused of the idea when I began to account for what it would require. Sure, there’s another couple miles of bike shuttling added on but that’s no matter. The one major snag is there’s a considerable uphill hike from the beach area, a true delta where the Kinni spills out into the St Croix. It’s very picturesque, to the parking area. I had not taken my kayak caddy along with me and I determined that the schlep would have been a bit much but if I had begun my paddle earlier in the day, then that would have been different. Another 2.5 miles (or so) of paddling and also pedaling, plus a kvetched schlep up a hill after a day of play, all followed by the four-hour long drive home to Madison… Nope. Better to save that for another time and not rush through everything.

I mean, how fun would it be, after the thrilling intimacy and dwarfing effect of the tall gorge for 10+ miles, to end your trip at the wide horizon of a beach and hang out on the sand for a bit and relax?! Or, if you wanted to add yet a couple more miles, paddle downstream the St. Croix and take out at the first landing, river-right, on the Minnesota side. Yes, this is what I shall save for next time.

Related Information:
Kinnickinnic River II: River Falls to Kinnickinnic State Park
Camp: Eau Galle Recreation Area
Camp: Willow River State Park
Good People: Friends of the Kinni
Good People: Kinnickinnic River Land Trust
Outfitter: Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters
Wikipedia: Kinnickinnic River

Photo Gallery:

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