River Falls to Kinnickinnic State Park:
Hands down, one of the cleanest, clearest, most beautiful and exhilarating rivers to paddle in all of Wisconsin, the “Kinni” is just incredible, as it swiftly wends its way around one stunning bluff and cliff after another, with peppy rapids all along the way, but hardly any development. Just be sure it’s high enough to avoid scraping too much.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: April 29, 2018
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class II
≈10′ per mile to County Road F, then slow and sluggish to the St. Croix River
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
River Falls: ht/ft: 10.34 | cfs: 125
River Falls: ht/ft: 8.41 | cfs: 99.4
This is the recommended minimum level. While plenty doable, we scraped a lot. It would be much more fun (and less damaging to your boat) to hit the Kinni at ~175 cfs minimum.
Time: Put in at 10:55a. Out at 1:45p.
Total Time: 2h 50m
Miles Paddled: 10
Alternate Trip Ideas:
River Falls to County Road F (7.5 Miles)
Bald eagles galore, turkey vultures, hawks, double-crested cormorants, geese, ducks, turtles, pileated woodpeckers, as well as pelicans and loons (on the St Croix River).
10.5 miles by bike or car. Note: there’s a steep schlep of 1200′ from the beach on the St Croix River up to the parking area that is foot traffic only. Take your kayak/canoe two-wheeled cart for this, if you take out at the mouth of the Kinni.
We first paddled the Kinnickinnic back in August 2013 and absolutely loved it. It’s pretty much a paddler’s dream come true: a crystal-clear stream with swift current surrounded by stunning cliffs, bluffs, and rock outcrops but virtually no development, for mile after blissful mile. Ever since, we’ve been eager to do it again.
The Kinni is doubly dammed (causing twice as much cursing) in so-called River Falls, Wisconsin. We’ll get to the dams in just a minute. But as a result of them, paddlers typically put in below the second dam. And generally speaking, they take out at County Road F, which is just shy of three miles upstream from the end of the Kinni, where it meets the mighty St. Croix River. Those final miles run through Kinnickinnic State Park, which boasts of a very alluring two-for-one state natural area: a gorge and a large sandy delta at the confluence of the Kinni and St. Croix. Indeed, we’d wanted to paddle all the way down to the mouth back in 2013, but what we hadn’t known at the time is that to get to the sandy delta/beach area you have to walk down a short but steep road. That part’s fine. Rather, it’s the getting back up from the river that’s the issue. You can’t drive down to the water – meaning, once you reach the take-out, you’d have to schlep your boat and gear up a considerably steep road to the main parking area. Seems like just the thing for a kayak caddy/2-wheeled carrier, which we didn’t have with us at the time. (Note to self: why not just keep that in the car?)
So, we skipped that last clip in 2013. But it’s always been on the to-do list… someday… with the caddy.
That day ended up being the end of April, 2018. We were up in the area anyway for the Midwest Mountaineering Expo in downtown Minneapolis, a really cool three-day event that’s like a micro-Canoecopia. No way were we going to drive up to Minneapolis and back – literally passing over any number of premier streams not in our backyards (Robinson Creek, the Black River, the Chippewa, the Red Cedar the Kinni, the St. Croix, the Mississippi, to name more than a few) – without paddling one of them. We opted for the Kinni in order to explore that long last final leg.
But also because it was quite timely, in an unfortunate way.
Earlier in the month, American Rivers rated the Kinnickinnic River in northwestern Wisconsin as one of America’s top ten most endangered rivers, on account of the dams and their deleterious effects on the local ecology. For more about the problematic dams, read here. One quick shout-out goes to the (now-defunct) Friends of the Kinni (aka FOTK) volunteer at the Midwest Mountaineering booth – calling Dr. Page. We chatted for a toothsome bit about where things currently stand in the dam removal process and the River Falls city council. He not only gave us “FREE THE KINNI!” stickers, but also a copy of the gorgeous and endearing The Fishing River, a formerly out of print children’s book written and illustrated by a River Falls native back in 1962, about trout fishing on the Kinni. The book was reprinted thanks to a generous contribution from the Page family, and all the proceeds from sales go towards the restoration and conservation of this incredible river in northwestern Wisconsin.
As we mentioned in our first report, finding the actual river below the second dam takes a little forethought since it’s kind of hidden. First, go to Glen Park in River Falls (355 Park St, 54022). Next, drive down to the tennis courts and park in the lot. Now, head west – or just follow the end of Park Street to a foot path and staircase that descends down the bluff and to the river below. It’s about a 900′ schlep from the parking lot to the water below the dam, fyi, every step worth it. There’s no official place to launch a boat, but the ground is level with the water, so it’s easy. Just be mindful of the discharge from the dam as well as any fishing lines from folks ashore. The Kinni is an extremely popular place for fly-fishing. Indeed, you should expect to come upon an angler or two waders-deep in the water along this trip.
It’s a hell of a thing to think about the eponymous falls that gave the small city its name, hidden behind that concrete wall that is the second dam. Sometimes with dams you have either to use your imagination to see the falls in your mind’s eye or it simply wouldn’t even occur to you to wonder what the river would look like untamed. But here it’s clear as day, as the dam is flanked by rock outcrops on each side. Someday the Kinni will be free…
Neither the nostalgia nor future hope will keep you preoccupied long, as the river’s riffles and light rapids immediately downstream shall snap you from your reverie. Like a good action movie summertime blockbuster, the swift current will not quit til just past the bridge at County Road F – the only bridge on this trip, by the way. In high water (i.e., 200+ cfs) the rapids could be challenging and command attention, but ordinarily the Kinni is easy swiftwater for miles on end. Perhaps on account of the missing human-made features (i.e., bridges – or power lines, houses, buildings, etc.), it’s pretty easy for this trip’s features to blur into a singularity – but one that’s spectacular and virtually continuous. Unless, of course, one finds nonstop bluffs, rock outcrops, mini gorges, crystal clear water, and riffles to be monotonous.
After an approximate mile there’s a sign on the left bank stating that this is the last/only place to get off the river until the County F bridge. It’s part of an intricate trail system parallel the river on the east bank (river-left), primarily for hikers and anglers. You’d never want to take out here – or put in; we simply mention it for the sake of reference. Plus there’s a cool twinge knowing that you’re entering a “wildish” area point of no escape for several miles… It sounds more formidable than it is. The bridge at County F will come all too soon, believe you us. You’ll be disappointed when it appears. In the meantime, sit back (but don’t relax too much – there are obstacles to dodge, shallow spots to avoid, and light rapids to read, etc) and soak up the majesty of the landscape.
That turquoise/jade green color of Driftless trout streams simply shimmers in the sun and nicely contrasts with the equally eye-popping evergreens of pine and the cream-colored rock outcrop bluffs. In shallower spots the color of the river will yield to its sand/gravel bottom, as if a little boy spilled a handful of marbles.
While all of this trip is blessed with geologic splendor, the epic hits from the show come more or less midway, featuring such unforgettable classics like small waterfalls tumbling down slickrock facades, a horizontal shelf-shelter 30′ wide cut into the sandstone bluff a couple hundred feet high, and a wall of weeping seeps dribbled through the gristled beard stubble of green moss – all on river-right. Don’t get us wrong – there’s splendor aplenty on river-left as well! The whole series of sequences is simply spectacular.
The right bank will lower a little, and around a bend you’ll pass a small house – the only one on the river (except for one earlier in the trip atop a bluff). It looks kinda fun and funky, but we’ve yet to see any human inhabitants thereof on either of our trips. An engaging series of light rapids, about 75 yards long, precede a bend that then leads to the bridge at County F. Again, most paddlers call it quits here, for understandable reasons. The take-out access is on the right, downstream side of the bridge, where there’s a parking lot that is technically considered on the grounds of the state park, meaning an admission sticker or daily pass is required ($28 annual or $8 daily for WI license plates).
Below the bridge the action remains for another couple hundred yards with a couple more fun riffles and light rapids. But, then, slows… down… to… a… crawl… And that shall remain all the way down to the St Croix. Fortunately, the landscape is as gorgeous here as upstream. Speaking of, the aforementioned gorge is no more or less prominent here in this part of the river than previously upstream. It’s definitely not a canyon; while there are two bluffs on each side of the river, it feels more like a valley, since they’re widely spaced apart. But it’s still ridiculously pretty.
As you get closer to the St. Croix the banks will taper and then basically disappear into a blend of floodplains. The bluffs in the background are still prominent, however, so at no point does it feel flat or dull. There’s just no current. Should you have the time and inclination, paddling through the roots-submerged trees is a fun novelty unto itself and worth the ad hoc excursion.
Eventually, you’ll see the unmistakable mouth and the mighty St. Croix downstream. Since we did this in late April, after a very peculiar late winter, the trees were still leafless. One can imagine that the effect of the floodplains and the lead-up to the confluence in full summertime bloom would be even more dramatic, a little like light at the end of a tunnel. Once on the St. Croix, take a moment to appreciate the big river, a whopping 1800′ wide – the single largest tributary of the Mississippi River (itself only 8-ish miles downstream) in this upstream location. Bluffs line both shores of the St. Croix. Turn right and paddle a short distance upstream to the beach in a clockwise direction to the Wisconsin side of the shore. For our trip, the sandy delta beach was completely submerged by recent ice-melt and high water on the St. Croix. Again, the effects of the beach should be downright lovely in summertime.
The official take-out is at the end of a concrete drive. Not a true boat ramp per se, since no vehicles are permitted down here anyway, but it looks like one. There’s a restroom and picnic tables here. There’s also a steep-ass hill to now schlep your boat and gear up, back to the main parking lot at the top of the bluff. Good thing you brought your boat caddy/2-wheeled cart!
What we liked:
Everything. Honestly, the Kinni is a paddler’s dream come true.
But to offer something different than our previous report, let it be this: snow and ice! It is practically inexplicable and sublime to be paddling in shorts and a t-shirt on a warm, sunny day in spring, nearly May, past blankets of snow piles in shadowy hollows and rock-clung ice blobs still brazenly facing north. This was totally unexpected and cool as hell! Particularly a wall of ice that directly dipped into the river, which we could take a sneak peak behind in a micro cave-like effect between the ice wall and the rock outcrop.
We recommend paddling the Kinni whenever the water is high enough, period. But catching it in late spring with this wintery postscript was true serendipity. As were the flocks of cormorants – dozens upon dozens of them – pelicans, and bald eagles. The lone loon on the St. Croix was just the cherry on top of this Sunday paddle.
What we didn’t like:
Why quibble? The Kinni is incredible, so anything we might write here will seem so petty. But, again, to offer at least something we’ll say that the water level was much too shallow for practical paddling. It was doable, but at the very bottom margin. We scraped a whole dang lot, and the Uff Da was punished royally.
Also, for the sake of objectivity, the stagnant flatwater after County Road F is indeed a marked contrast to the nonstop action from the put-in to County Road F. If the wind is against you, then these final few miles will be a lot of work. (But on the plus side, if you’re the kind of paddler who wants to soak up great geology but not have to deal with pushy current and obstacles, then this section of the Kinni is right for you!)
Finally, we understand that not every vehicle sports a State Park admission sticker year-round. If your car doesn’t already have this, then this trip will cost money, which strikes us as inherently counterintuitive when paddling. At least in Wisconsin. (Yeah, we’re looking at you, Illinois!) That said, this trip in particular sure is worth the price of admission.
If we did this trip again:
Oh, we will! Ideally as soon after a recent rain as possible, in order to benefit from A) higher water levels and B) more waterfall and weeping seeps action.
There’s a reason why most paddlers take out at County Road F. The final couple miles of the Kinni are as beautiful as anything upstream of County F, but the current disappears altogether only a couple hundred yards downstream from the bridge. We love confluences, but it’s slow-going and sluggish to reach the St. Croix. And then there’s the steep schlep from the beach back to the parking area. It’s awfully tempting just to call it quits at County F.
Either way, we’ll always want to do the Kinni. And likewise, we’ll be among the first in line once those damn dams are down to paddle the falls in their natural form.
Camp: Eau Galle Recreation Area
Camp: Willow River State Park
Good People: Kinnickinnic River Land Trust
Outfitter: Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters
Wikipedia: Kinnickinnic River
Alternate Trip Report: Shorter Paddle (7.5 Miles)
River Falls to County Road F
August 11, 2013
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
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.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
River Falls: ht/ft: 10.53 | cfs: 102
River Falls: ht/ft: 8.41 | cfs: 99.4
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.