County Line Road to Red Horse Bend:
A simply solid Northern Illinois day float, this section of the Kishwaukee River is a delightfully appealing paddle with easy accesses to boot. While not particularly scenic, there’s enough unique features to keep it interesting along the creek-like environs which are similar to Turtle or Piscasaw Creeks. When the water levels are right, it’s worth a visit.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 23, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈ 2.7′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Marengo: ht/ft: 8.22 | cfs: 155
Marengo: ht/ft: 7.52 | cfs: 75.6
These are perfect levels to paddle the Kish. Marengo is the go-to gauge for this trip as the Belvidere USGS is located downstream from the take-out (and below a dam). I’ve tried to paddle this section at lower levels and it’s just not doable.
0-140 cfs = Too low
140+ cfs = Ideal
Time: Put in at 11:10a. Out at 1:40p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 7.75
Turtles, a hawk, plenty of geese and goslings, and lots of backyards and RV campers.
This 30 minute-ish bike shuttle is surprisingly flat for the gradient of the river, but the majority of the shuttle is on Lawrenceville Road which has no shoulder, is well traveled, and is therefore, a bit hair-raising. I’d suggest a car shuttle. Or an Uber.
The inspiration for this trip came from a reader of Miles Paddled, Mr. Billy Sunday. He had posted an update on one of the zillions of groups I follow, so I made note of it incase I was in that neck of the woods. It looked appealing enough to check out and the mileage was right for a day trip so when I was in the area a few years later, I took the opportunity to check it out. And thank you Billy, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip.
Truth be told, I was here last year but it was much too low to paddle. In fact, I couldn’t even get out of the inlet (where the put-in is located) and reach the Kishwaukee without walking through marsh. I gave it a quick go, but gave up after bottoming out once too many times. If you can’t get from the put-in to the inlet without walking to the Kish proper, just turn back – it’s not worth it. It was a quick lesson on Kish water levels but I knew that the levels on this day were right considering they were nearly three times higher.
A tributary of the Rock River, the Kishwaukee is 64 miles long, flowing from Woodstock to Rockford, Illinois. Much of it is paddle-able but it’s makeup changes many times and not every chunk of miles is easily paddled. The Belvidere Park District has provided marked access points for many miles of the Kishwaukee, but they don’t maintain the river. Local paddlers/paddling groups do (shout out to Illinois Paddle!)
With no less than three RV parks on this stretch, you’re never too far from civilization. The environment and make-up of the banks and streambed reminded me a lot of Turtle Creek, and of course Piscasaw Creek, a feeder stream whose confluence coincidentally happens to greet you at the Red Horse Bend takeout.
The put-in is an easy concrete landing maintained by the Park District. There’s a roundabout for easy drop-off, but don’t park in that immediate landing area despite the fact that it could totally accommodate a dozen vehicles. Instead, park across the Boone McHenry County Line road at the County Line Road Access Conservation Area. I only know this because a ranger stopped me at the put-in and pointed out I could not actually park in the roundabout. It seems like the parking signs could be clearer as there’s plenty of room, but who am I to argue?
The put-in is actually located on a slightly-stagnant inlet, so after launching there’s a short 700′ clip until meeting the Kishwaukee proper. While it begins in this semi-marshy scene, the stream bed soon reveals its mostly sand and gravel colors. The water is amazingly clear and it’s generally about 1-2′ deep for most of the first part of the trip. It does, however, suddenly drop off at will to depths far below half a paddle.
The surroundings begin narrowish, with scrubby trees, low grasses and banks with piles of deadfall lying in the stream to navigate around from time to time. It was all navigable even if it looked like a portage from a distance. As soon as I as close enough, I always found a clean passage – or, well, relatively clean passage. At these levels, the current was noticeably brisk at times, so some moderate paddling skills are required to manuever around some of the tighter deadfall. This section does get paddled often, so there’s a moderate level of maintenance but depending on the time of year, or even after a storm, there’s no guarantee it’s going to be clear with the amount of old canopy along the banks.
The river sustains a creek-like width for much of this trip, alternating from forested to mostly open grassy plaines. Not long into the paddle, you’ll encounter the first of three RV parks set along manicured banks. Gentle riffles also appear, and they come and go throughout the day – nothing rambunctious, just gentle and fun. The river widens again before Garden Prairie Road but then returns to pretty tree-lined banks, then prairie grasses, then to some backyards, and soon to more canopy creating inviting visuals from the high sun.
The river continues to twist and turn around sand depositions, brushy deadfall, and switching between shaggy canopy to green-grassed banks. Soon, there’s a few little islands to meander around after returning to a creek-like state for a spell. When it gets wider, you’ll encounter a gnarly footbridge followed by yet another, more impressive gnarly footbridge, which indicates you’re about halfway through the journey.
The second of three RV parks can soon be seen on river-left. After which, the river is defined by eroded banks and more of the same scrubby trees and grassy banks all the way to the Epworth Road bridge. Shortly thereafter, the river narrows as you make your way through the Holiday Acres Camping Resort – the last of the RV parks – and the most interesting, aesthetically speaking.
The river contracts under dense canopy and there are some mild riffles (which is absolutely lovely) leading towards the remnants of what appeared to be an old bridge, but I’m told was actually a former dam. RVs lined the river-left shore, along with some friendly locals who inquired about conditions as they were about to set off on the water themselves.
After the campground, it’s not too long until you hit a very long straightaway. The reason for it is because a railroad line abuts the river-left bank, creating a barrier that will ensure that the river will never meander that way again. Low-forested muddy banks line river-right where I saw some signs of wildlife, or at least their tracks leading from the river’s muddy edge into the forest. The banked riprap of the train tracks on river-left appear from time to time. In the meantime, all you do is paddle along and dodge the occasionally lodged log or pile of debris.
At the end of the straightaway comes a rather impressive sight. A giant metal truss bridge (pictures don’t do justice as to how large this thing is). It was a welcome surprise because it’s impressively huge and made all the more interesting as it’s framed by an old concrete bridge that now likely leads nowhere. Kind of eerie/spooky, but totally fascinating. And I wasn’t expecting it so it was a pleasant surprise.
That’s the one tangential thing about paddling I never expected – finding an interest in bridges. They’re not just mile-markers or points of interest, but relics of history. Each one has a story. I could go on all day about bridges, from footbridges to Highway bridges – I find them fascinating. Much like everything that’s manmade.
This bridge is at a confluence of where both branches of Mosquito and Coon Creek feed into a short inlet of the Kishwaukee. After the bridge, the river changes dramatically. It starts to get wider for a spell with only one last narrow section before it opens up much wider, gets deeper, slower and any of the features are pretty featureless on the homestretch to Red Horse Bend. Here it’s at its widest, and with the traffic from Lawrenceville Road flanking river-right, any sense of seclusion is also cast away all the way to the takeout.
The takeout at Red Horse Bend isn’t as nicely set up as the put-in. Instead of a concrete landing, it’s just an eroded bank, muddy on this day, but not too steep to get up and out and on my way. It’s kind of pretty in both sights and sounds because the Piscasaw’s confluence makes a bubby greeting/kiss with the Kish (which also makes this access point a popular place for fishing).
What we liked:
I really enjoy paddles like this. Clean, convenient, creek-like, with a brisk current to remind you that you’re actually going somewhere, and interesting even when seemingly uninteresting. Even if the scenery is nothing spectacular, I’ll take a paddle like this any day of the week.
What we didn’t like:
To be honest, nothing particular. It was basically what I expected. I guess the shuttle route could be better for biking, which again I don’t recommend, but that’s outside of the paddle itself.
If we did this trip again:
This paddle will appeal to those looking for a relaxing, no-frills kind of outing and I’d definitely do it again. It’s a fun float.
Now, I wouldn’t, but you could extend the trip through downtown Belvidere, but it’s wider, slower, and slack before the dam. I was already feeling the effects on the last half-mile to the takeout so that idea is even less appealing for me, but if you’re looking for a longer day float, there are three access points downstream to consider.