Cemetery Road to Morrison Landing: On clear water in a near-wilderness environment with zero development, an endless array of light rapids as well as one challenging Class II+ pitch, approximately one gazillion boulders, stunning rock walls with weeping seeps and then a 180° turnabout to a bottomlands finish, Morrison Creek is a paddler’s delight.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 19, 2015
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class II (with one II-III ledge that can be easily portaged)
17′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Neillsville (Black River): ht/ft: 3.3 | cfs: 190
East Fork Black River: ht/ft: 892.03 | cfs: 86.10
Gauge note: The Neilsville gauge doesn’t directly correlate to the creek. It does, however, give a good idea if there has been recent water in the Black River Falls area. The East Fork gauge is geographically closer than Neillsville while measuring a more comparable watershed.
Neillsville (Black River): ht/ft: 3.48 | cfs: -999999
Morrison Creek Visual Gauge
The best way to determine whether Morrison Creek is runnable is to check the visual gauge on the water itself at the Cemetery Road bridge. Look for the large rock in the middle of the creek on the downstream side of the bridge. Ideally, you don’t even want to see the rock. If just the tip is exposed, you’ll be in good shape. If it looks like the photo we took during our trip, you’ll scrape quite a bit but it’ll still be doable. Less than the photo, put on your walking shoes. If the rock is submerged as it was in 2017 (read our alternate trip report below) solid boat control will be required, as the current can be pushy.
This is slightly below the recommended minimum level – anything below this simply won’t be doable, much less fun.
Cemetery Road, Black River Falls, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.37633, -90.69011
Unimproved landing off Pettingbone Pass (south of Dickey Creek bridge), sometimes called “Bottom Road”, Black River State Forest
GPS: 44.35451, -90.76739
Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 5:00p.
Total Time: 4h (including a 30-minute detention to bail water from a leaky boat)
Miles Paddled: 6.75
Alternate Trip Ideas:
Cemetery Road to Pettibone Pass (5.75 Miles)
A bald eagle, toad and unidentified fish.
5.4 miles. Like most of the back roads in Jackson County (i.e., every road that isn’t a county road or state or federal highway), half of this shuttle lies along unpaved gravel roads. Not the best place for bicycles but not the worst either. Leave your road bike with its skinny-ass tires behind though.
Morrison has been on our to-do list for years now and as has been mentioned numerous times on this site, the Black River Falls area is one of our absolute favorites in all of Wisconsin. The paddler’s dilemma is which stream to do, given how many of them there are. Besides the big and burly Black River itself, there is also the East Fork of the Black River, Halls Creek, Morrison Creek, Robinson Creek and Wedges Creek, all spectacular streams offering 30-some miles of whitewater paddling.
At an easy (and pretty) 2-hour drive from Madison, the Black River Falls area feels like the paddling equivalent of going to Disneyworld (the best part is that there’s even more to seek out).
If this trip does not constitute a wilderness experience, I’d really like to know what does – especially in the southern half of the state. Ninety-nine percent of this trip is enclosed within the Black River State Forest. In fact, you’ll not pass a single house or building on the entire trip. The only signs of civilization are A) the County Road K bridge and B) a set of power lines near the take-out.
Cemetery Road to the Black River confluence offers non-stop moving water, ranging from riffles to Class II rapids (in higher water these would likely grow into Class II and III rapids, respectively) in a gorgeous environment that gradually changes from the put-in to the take-out.
The landscape is a rough-and-tumble strew of boulders and gravel-bottom where the rapids are at their best. The color of the water is quite incredible. It has that clear root beer hue that only streams this clean and swift have. The whole landscape is rugged and simply stunning until the last mile or so (which remains pretty and undeveloped in its own right, just gentler).
The rapids in the first few miles are super-fun, the complicated drop especially; it’s an ecstatic adrenaline rush that we don’t mind admitting was a little intimidating. This technical drop consists of two separate ledges that requires confidence and solid boat control to run safely (or it can be easily portaged on river-right; there’s a path). This rapid is a solid Class II, possibly a III in high water.
First there’s a small drop with a clean slot to line up with. Immediately below is a curious curler wave on the left in the middle of a 3’ drop. You don’t want to go left of the wave, as there’s an unforgiving rock wall but right is no good either as it’s too shallow. You want to hit the wave, pivot and then be prepared for a sheer bow-down drop into the pool below. In other words, this is more of a sheer ledge, not a beveled cascade. Follow that with high-fives and attaboy’s all around – and toasting the next can of beer.
The average gradient for Morrison is 20 feet per mile, so there’s always action, even to the very end. About midway into the trip the sandstone show starts and it’s positively gorgeous! The creek flows past one exposed rock outcrop bluff after another surrounded by lush ferns and weeping seep walls with the sound of trickling water. The creek will take on a sandy bottom here, though riffles will continue. It’s hard to imagine anything more desirable than easy rapids surrounded by mini-canyons of sandstone rock outcrops.
The final segment is not as beautiful as the previous two, but in lower water, you’ll find the absence of boulders and gravel bottom – replaced by trees and sand – a welcome change. The creek meanders quite a bit but still has great flow, riffles and a light rapid here and there in a floodplain bottoms area approaching its confluence at the Black River. This is where it differs greatly from Halls – which is continous rubbernecking.
Gone here are the rocks, replaced by lots and lots of trees – several of them in the water (we had to portage only once but there was evidence of recently cleared spots that would have necessitated more portaging otherwise – so thank you fellow paddlers/volunteers!).
What these bottomlands have that the upstream section doesn’t is something that neither of us has ever seen before: an abandoned motorboat being slowly swallowed by sand and water. Sure, we’ve seen canoe-wrecks before, inner tubes and stray paddles, etc. But a motorboat? Never. A motorboat on a creek that could barely float a kayak? Inconceivable. It’s a pretty cool relic, however.
Also, just to clear up a possible ambiguity reported by multiple online sources: Both the put-in, take-out and all the water between the two fall within public property; thus all of this trip is open to paddling. According to DNR staff (we enquired), there are no trespassing issues on Morrison Creek with respect to Ho-Chunk territory.
What we liked:
In many ways Morrison Creek is like the sister stream to Halls. Each has a similar look and feel, width and length, and each empties into the Black River at almost the exact same spot, one from the west (Halls), the other from the east (Morrison), like an inkblot image. After considerable scrutiny and strict circumspection, i.e., a couple of beers and memory, we agreed that Halls is a prettier creek.
But this is like arguing which of Charlie’s Angels is the most beautiful (or as we like to say in Madison really smart and kick-ass talented). Halls offers more miles of paddling and it’s simply spectacular from the very beginning to the very end. That’s a hard number to top. Morrison feels more primitive though, while Halls has a few houses along the way.
If you want to plan a great weekend, here’s our recommendation: Grab a campsite at the East Fork Campground (site 13 is pretty sweet, but so are 11 and 15, which can be reserved). Wake up early Saturday morning and paddle Halls Creek from the dam to the Black River. Come Sunday morning, paddle Morrison Creek.
If you have a whole week to paddle: Then add the Black River first from Neillsville to Lake Arbutus, then below the dam creating Lake Arbutus to Halls Creek. Spend a day on Wedges Creek. Spend a different day on Robinson Creek. Spend another 1-2 days paddling the East Fork of the Black River.
Mind you, these are just the whitewater portions of the Black River Falls area paddling portfolio. The Black River itself is lovely as can be and offers much to admire below Halls Creek and then below the dam in downtown Black River Falls all the way to the Mississippi River. What’s there not to love?
What we didn’t like:
The low water level but that’s not the creek’s fault. We did this when it fit into our schedules, which is admittedly, somewhat stubborn. For streams with any notable gradient, you do it when they’re running, whenever that happens to be, regardless of your own schedule. The few obstructions in the final mile were not a big deal by any means but we’d hardly say we liked them. And the wildlife was weirdly underwhelming for a creek that otherwise courses through what feels like wilderness.
If there’s one genuine dislike it’s the take-out. If you’re unfamiliar with this neck of the woods, (and, really, why wouldn’t you be?) the road is pretty much in the middle of nowhere: half in a huge State Forest, half in a Ho-Chunk Reservation – Pettingbone Pass is the name of the road off of which there are two dirt roads (“paths”?) that lead to the water. If you’re coming from the south, the dirt road you want to take is just before the bridge crossing a small creek, on the left. This is located within the state forest – there’s even a sign saying so. Alternatively, still coming from the south, if you pass over the bridge there’s a second dirt road (also on the left) at a bend where Pettingbone Pass turns right (east).
If this were not ambiguous enough, there’s another dilemma. The second dirt road (north of the creek bridge) is shorter and easier on your vehicle and it cuts off a solid mile of meandering bottomlands. But it’s not part of the State Forest. I saw no signs saying private property or Ho-Chunk residents only but one never knows. The first dirt road is very unforgiving to a low-clearance vehicle and may well be impassable after a good rain (which of course is when you want to paddle the creek) without an AWD or 4WD. It was a tough day of scraping to both my boat and the underbelly of my VW Golf.
If we did this trip again:
We can hardly wait to do this again… but only in higher water. We did a lot of scraping on this trip, with one of us (Timothy) having to sponge out spectacularly absurd amounts of water from an already cracked boat (read: formerly cracked; about midway through this trip there was a solid quarter-sized hole in the hull that needed to be duct taped ASAP). It would be deliriously thrilling to run this clean and true without distracting scrapes and indiscernible boulders just below the surface that you can’t help but smack into.
Miles Paddled Video:
Alternate Trip Report: Shorter Paddle (5.75 Miles)
Cemetery Road to Pettibone Pass
May 5, 2017
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Clear to root beer-hued water in a near-wilderness state forest with no development whatsoever, a non-stop parade of rapids up to and including one challenging Class II-III ledge, and an astonishing mix of granite boulders followed by stunning sandstone rock walls with weeping seeps – Morrison Creek is bawdy and blissful.
Neillsville (Black River): ht/ft: 3.48 | cfs: -999999
Cemetery Road, Black River Falls, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.37633, -90.69011
Trail off Pettibone Pass (just north of Dickey Creek bridge).
GPS: 44.35671, -90.75795
Note: There are two rough dirt “roads” off Pettibone Pass. The one heading west on the downstream side of the bridge at Dickey Creek is longer and unforgiving (but doable) and leads to the Black River immediately downstream from the mouth of Morrison Creek. This is what we did in September 2015. For this trip we took the other option, which is about 700′ north of the bridge. Where Pettibone Pass bends east, stay straight and take the dirt “road” into the woods. There is a postal address sign marking the spot. Sometime in the past there must have been a couple properties back here, but today it’s all open and abandoned. Old paddling maps state that this is private property, and maybe it still is, but there are no “No Trespassing” signs, so we opted it for it to shave off a mile of meandering bottomlands and to save the underside of our cars.
Time: Put in at 4:00p. Out at 6:15p.
Total Time: 2h 15m (including bailing out after an accident, sawing down the cause of said accident, and much contemplation/discussion about running the intimidating Class III ledge before we finally did it)
Miles Paddled: 5.75
Bald eagle, deer, frogs, turkey vultures and one great blue heron.
We love Morrison Creek. In fact, we’ve gone back and forth about whether it’s prettier than Halls Creek. Or maybe Robinson Creek is the fairest of them all. Or… And such was the inspiration behind a 3-day weekend of paddling all three creeks in celebration of Timothy’s 40th birthday.
The only two things we didn’t like about our first trip down Morrison a couple years ago were the low levels at which we paddled it and the dirt road leading to the take-out (well, Timothy’s low-rider VW Golf didn’t like it). Upon crossing the Cemetery Road bridge to get to the East Fork Campground in the Black River State Forest, we stopped to see the visual gauge rock mentioned above. It was underwater, and we were super-psyched. But we dawdled a bit at the campsite before we hit the road for our paddle trip, which is why we opted for a different take-out this time around.
There’s no real purpose in regurgitating what we like about Morrison Creek in general; that can be read in our first account. But as the saying goes, “you never paddle the same river twice.” That’s especially true when the river has rapids and you catch it at a higher stage than during your first time-round. A few extra inches made a huge difference. We often joke that such-and-such a trip would’ve been better if the stream had only had 1-2 inches more water. But it really is true. Morrison absolutely rocked at this level, whereas last time we scraped all the time. Both times we just adulated over how unfreakingbelievably pretty it is.
Cemetery Road is the official put-in for paddling Morrison Creek (upstream, river-right). The reason for this – and why Morrison is such a short trip – is there are no bridges or even nearby roads upstream of Cemetery Road for 10 miles, at Highway 54. (Upstream of Cemetery Road is nothing but ATV trails through the State Forest.) What little info there is out there on Morrison is strictly in reference to Cemetery Road to Pettibone Pass.
As short as this trip is, it combines some of the best “lightwater” paddling with jaw-dropping scenery. What do we mean by “lightwater”? That’s our playful neologism for mild whitewater: the kind of whitewater paddling that hovers around Class I-II rapids; the kind of whitewater paddling that allows you to drink beer and still be silly; the kind of whitewater paddling that allows you to take photos; the kind of whitewater paddling that doesn’t require a spray skirt. Other than the Class II-III ledge that appears in the first mile, there’s nothing intrinsically technical or difficult about Morrison Creek – it’s just good clean fun in a spectacularly pretty environment. That said, it’s not a stream for beginners. And prudence dictates to keep off the creek when it’s surging high.
Of the three primary creeks in the Black River Falls/Jackson County area (Halls and Robinson being the other two), Morrison appears to be the only one affected by glaciation. This does not mean it’s flat, however. Far from it. Like the East Fork of the Black River and portions of the Black River itself upstream of the interstate, giant boulder deposits abound, and they’re nothing to be taken for granite. (Sorry.) But roughly midway through this short 6-mile trip the boulders and gravel bottom yield to sandstone rock outcrops, canyon walls, super-tall sand banks surrounded by lush ferns and weeping seeps and a sandy bottom. The Black River Falls area pretty much lies on the boundary between Driftless Area and glaciated, and nowhere is this contrast better demonstrated than on Morrison Creek. In just six brief miles you paddle through what is palpably where the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded. To put it differently, the second half of this trip, where the landscape is ruggedly intact and still dominated by sandstone, is very, very old.
And it bears reiterating: there is no development whatsoever along this trip. Not a single house, farm, building, cabin, deer stand or anything. It’s just gorgeous flora and geology.
About a mile downstream from the put-in is the only notable whitewater hazard on this trip, a Class II-III ledge/chute. You’ll want to scout this on the right-hand side before running it, to see where it’s safest to do so. Or you can portage it easily enough.
More thrilling Class I rapids whisk you down to the County Road K bridge, the only bridge on this trip. Below it, rapids will continue until about half a mile or so upstream of the confluence at the Black River, where Morrison slows down in a floodplain forest. Before those bottomlands, however, magnificent cliffs and giant boulders line the landscape. As the landscape starts to level out, you’ll have two choices of where to end your trip: still on Morrison Creek, via a dirt road that leads to a dead-end open field parallel the creek, or at the Black River, immediately downstream of the confluence (also via a dirt road that leads to a dead-end open field). Both are on river-left. Both are rugged, haggard dirt roads. The only notable tree debris/obstacles are in the bottomlands upstream of the Black River.
What we liked:
The first time we paddled Morrison Creek, it was way too low. While still fun, and breathtakingly beautiful, scraping all the time got frustrating (and unforgivingly punishing to my boat). This time around, the water level was several inches higher, and the difference was outstanding!
Also during that first time, we ran the Class II-III ledge in the first mile on the right. At that water level there was a curious curler wave in the center of the drop, while the left was to be avoided as it looked like you’d run against a rock wall. Well, this time around things were much different. With greater volume a nasty hole appears at the base of the drop on the right, which we very much wanted to avoid. So we ran it towards the left, while still steering clear of the rock wall. It wasn’t difficult to read the correct line, but it was a little intimidating, to be honest. It took a good 10 mins or so of psyching ourselves up to do it. And once we did, and didn’t screw up, it felt glorious. Especially for our pal, Mitch, who’d never run a ledge like this before. He ran it like a champ, and then needed about 10 more mins to calm his nerves afterward. Attaboy Mitch!
But again, this ledge can be portaged around on the right, where there is a rock formation. Either way, you’ll want to scout the ledge, whether you run it or portage it.
Lastly, we found the alternative take-out much easier and more forgiving than the “main” one we did the first time around. While the dirt road leading to the creek is rutty and pocked by crater-like potholes, it’s not as bad as the other, and it’s much shorter. As far as the creek itself goes, you’re forfeiting less than a mile, all of which is meandering flat bottomlands, where tree debris tends to pile up.
What we didn’t like:
As noted when we did this the first time around, the wildlife again was weirdly underwhelming for a creek that otherwise courses through what feels like wilderness. But this could’ve been because we were a party of four paddlers, often exclaiming loudly “This is so [expletive deleted] pretty!”
The only notable thing we didn’t like was capsizing within the first five minutes… We were approaching a run of rapids where the creek took a sharp bend to the right. The far right was a no-go due to a downed tree. The middle looked undesirable due to a shallow boulder garden. The only problem with going left was a fallen tree on the left bank that extended some 15′, hovering above the water by about 18”.
Timothy was first and miscalculated the line and/or force of the current and headed straight for the tree. While never desirable, this isn’t always a foregone conclusion of disaster; sometimes you can still quickly duck under the tree before getting a gazillion gallons of water in it. But when the next paddler does almost the exact same thing as the first, and crashes into the first who’s holding onto a tree, well… It was a sticky situation for a couple minutes. Remarkably, the camera never got wet, even though Timothy did (up to his neck – while wearing the camera), having no other choice but going under the jutting tree limb.
Fortunately, one person took a hold of my paddle, then my boat, while I lowered myself under the jutting tree limb, while passing from one hand to the other the above-water camera. It was rather gracefully coordinated, if I do say so.
And then I dumped out a whole lotta water from my boat.
We can’t remember if this obstruction was there when we first paddled Morrison. We remedied things by sawing off as much of the tree as we practically could so that future paddlers won’t get clothes-lined. That said, the other two paddlers in our party had no problem avoiding the tree while not scraping in the boulder garden in the first place. Point is, don’t underestimate the magnificent power of swift current!
If we did this trip again:
This is our second time running Morrison, and despite the mishap just after starting, it was even more fun than our first time. We’d do this trip again and again. Which take-out we choose will depend on the vehicles we have. The final mile of Morrison is mostly bottomlands, but confluences are always fun, too.
At some point, we’ll have to try our luck on the upper stretch of Morrison Creek (about which there is zero info out there anywhere). There are no bridges upstream of Cemetery Road until Highway 54, which would make for a 10.5-mile trip of who knows what. One must assume there’s a reason why this section is shrouded in mystery. Maybe it’s littered with down trees? Or maybe it’s just much calmer than downstream. Or maybe the parallel ATV trails through the state forest detract from the experience. The topo map doesn’t look as promising (it’s flatter), but the satellite map looks wild and undeveloped. Another day…