★ ★ ★ ★

Lake Michigan: Port Washington

Port Washington to Grafton:
Take one part jade green water, one perfect launching site, innumerable cool dunes, plus one hike-in gorge and you have the makings of one very fun sea kayaking paddle.

Lake Michigan Port Washington

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 20, 2013

Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Great Lakes Paddling

Put-In + Take-Out:
South Beach, Port Washington, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.38254, -87.87018

Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 3:30p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 6.25

A gazillion gulls, a handful of diving mergansers and lots of big fish easily seen in the clear water.


Still a newbie to sea kayaking, I find it positively and irrepressibly thrilling. What the Great Lakes might lack for scent of salt in wind or wave, they more than make up in stunning colors of water, accessibility and solitude.

Despite the downright crappy weather (temperature in the upper 40s, windy, rainy) the sea glass sheen of jade green water was nearly surreal. And perhaps the gentle fire of autumnal foliage in the root-clung trees and shrubs of the dunes illuminated more so for the sodden and dull steel-gray sky. The contrast was impressive. Besides, this late in the paddling season one cannot afford to be a fair weather fan. Whatever shivers I might have had were more than overcome by the exhilarating rush of those equinox elements. The rawness was something to embrace, to plunge into.

What we liked:
Surely there must be something akin to a good omen when one sees a sign on the road telling you to turn for the official Canoe/Kayak Launch! This is the case for South Beach in Port Washington. And while the beach is literally adjacent to the gargantuan techno power plant, as soon as you begin paddling, your back turns against it, leaving nothing but unbroken miles of beautiful shoreline for your eyes to take in (see note below of where to put-in specifically).

South Beach is flat, a welcome act of geology for putting in and taking out but not for long. Almost immediately, the dunes rise and keep rising the more southerly you go. Averaging 50’ high, they hit their peaks at Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve, the highlight of this trip, towering 100’ high or more. Looking more like folds of old rock than sandy dunes, the landscape is just gorgeous. Speaking of gorges, you should paddle to the shore at the northern boundary of the nature preserve, stretch out your legs and explore.

There is at least half a mile of shoreline to comb or look up and feel puny, compared to the huge castle-like dunes hovering above. There are no signs saying “Lion’s Den Gorge” but it should be obvious that you have arrived. There is a small stream that flows into the lake from the gorge. In mid-October this was but a trickle, not even quite reaching the lake itself. But in spring I can imagine it rather spectacular. Behind the stream, in the beginning thicket of the gorge, you’ll see the trail and staircase taking you to the top. The dunes are very sensitive and prone to erosion; please do not attempt walking up or spilling down them. Lion’s Den is sizeable (73 acres) and offers a variety of well-maintained and thoughtful trails. You could easily spend the better part of an afternoon exploring the place.

What we didn’t like:
Not knowing any better, I made a beeline for the water from the parking lot entrance at South Beach, heading straight for (and then shins-deep into) some awful maritime muck. Very much like quicksand, it made for a tricky place to get me and my kayak loaded and ready to go. But much worse, my feet were icky wet before I even stepped foot into my boat. Despite wearing neoprene socks and shoes, I was already soggy. Avoid this by turning right (south) to where there is no more muck, just clean, firm, unstinky sand.

Also, while Lion’s Den is the basic destination, there is nowhere to takeout officially. In fact, the only official access to the top of the dunes is from the gorge and from there it is a ¾-mile walk to the parking lot (to say nothing of trying to schlep a loaded kayak up a twisting staircase of nearly 100’). Thus you have two options: turn around and paddle back to South Beach or continue paddling southward, where the next take-out option is at Concordia University.

I do not know anything about the take-out option at Concordia, other than it seems to be doable. I had time enough for a paddle and a quick exploration of Lion’s Den, so I opted for a lake loop rather than a one-way paddle. I prefer a one-way paddle rather than reverse my trek, particularly when that means having to look at the distracting eyesore of the huge power plant in the distance but that’s not always in the cards. All the same, with the wind now at my back, I got to ride waves rather than fight them, which was a ton of fun.

If we did this trip again:
I would look into the Concordia take-out option.

Related Information:
Overview: Treasure of Oz
Wikipedia: Port Washington, Wisconsin

Photo Gallery:

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