★ ★

Mukwonago River

Mukwonago to Big Bend:
To be honest, this is a fairly boring trip. It has a pleasant beginning but it gets dull and monotonous soon after… and then all the way to the take-out.

Mukwonago River

Rating: ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: November 3, 2015

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles

1.5′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Mukwonago: ht/ft: 2.5 | cfs: 64
Waukesha (Fox River): ht/ft: 3.1 | cfs: 90

Current Levels:
Mukwonago: ht/ft: 2.41 | cfs: 34.2
Waukesha (Fox River): ht/ft: 3.12 | cfs: 90.5

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimal level. Paddling below this level, at least on the Mukwonago, will be miserable and/or simply not doable.

Below the dam, off Front Street, Mukwonago, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.85655, -88.32959
Big Bend Village Park, Big Bend, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.87701, -88.21143

Time: Put in at 12:30p. Out at 3:15p.
Total Time: 2h 45m
Miles Paddled: 9

Great blue herons, mussels, wood ducks, hawks, fish, painted turtles and bald eagles.

Shuttle Information:
7.4 miles, mostly fine for bicycles (you’ll want to ride on the sidewalk along Highway 83).


Let’s start with a disclaimer: this trip does not include the exciting and beautiful section of the Mukwonago River through the Kettle Moraine State Forest upstream of Upper and Lower Phantom Lakes (that trip will appear on our site at a future time). No, this section highlights the last couple miles of the Mukwonago as it feeds the Fox River and the rest (most) of this trip is a float down the lazy brown Fox.

This trip has been a curious itch of mine to scratch for a couple years now, why, I’m not really sure. It’s nowhere near where I live, it’s a mostly urban trip in none other than Waukesha County and it’s a pretty flat and unremarkable landscape. But this section of the Mukwonago River is a designated State Natural Area – despite the interstate being right next to it. Plus most of this trip’s portion of the Fox River is in Mike Svob’s Paddling Southern Wisconsin, so one could infer that it’s a preferential stretch.

(In retrospect, this is not the case, in my opinion. The segment of the Fox upstream of this trip – between Waukesha and Mukwonago through the pretty and protected Vernon Wildlife Area, is a much more pleasant paddle than this trip.)

What we liked:
While brief, the last two miles of the Mukwonago River are indeed pretty. The water is crystal clear and the riverbed is that wonderful mix of sand and gravel brought to you by the last glacier of the Ice Age. To be sure, there’s an interstate highway that runs parallel to the river but the environment is otherwise undeveloped. And once you merge onto the Fox River there’s hardly any development but for an occasional farm or powerline until you approach Big Bend.

The landscape is hardly wild but it is pleasantly natural. The Fox is mostly brown – in stark contrast to the Mukwonago – but there should be no problems with shallow water. On either river there were no obstructions.

What we didn’t like:
To begin, accessing the Mukwonago is not the easiest feat. There is no designated put-in per se, but it’s not difficult to launch a boat from a low-gradient bank below the dam. The trouble is you have to park and then schlep your boat and gear some 650′ to the water. If this were a great paddling prospect, then such an inconvenience is minor. But here it’s just a pointless nuisance.

As alluring as a State Natural Area that itself is a river is, the Mukwonago River SNA is kind of blasé and what natural beauty it arguably has is entirely compromised by the reality of I-43 directly on your right (once you reach the Fox River, you turn right, and there are the two interstate bridges. Once you pass them, the noise does diminish).

The Fox River itself is pretty dull, frankly, at least the section on this trip. The current is tediously slow and the river is turbid. Just to the west are hills but the landscape is painfully flat – like flapjacks flat. It’s nearly 7 miles of slow, dark water in long straightaways of mostly flatland marshes. It’s a little reminiscent of the Rock River, with an hour more of driving from Madison.

Lastly, once you arrive at Big Bend Village Park there’s an associated $5 fee to use the boat launch, courtesy of Waukesha County. In my experience, this always is the case for boat launches in Waukesha County. (This is why you pay taxes, people! There, I said it – the “t’ word. Oooh!) This felt like a clumsy way to end a dumb trip. On a better river or lake I’d be fine with coughing up five bucks. But here? For this? Nah.

If we did this trip again:
You’re kidding, right? No, I won’t bother with this trip again. The main section of the Mukwonago River is gorgeous and wonderful and absolutely worth doing (although you must paddle it at a minimum of 70 cfs to avoid abject scraping). And the segment of the Fox through the Vernon Wildlife Area is truly lovely, but this trip is too boring and presents too many unjustified hassles to warrant paddling again.

Related Information:
Good People: Friends of the Mukwonago River
Wikipedia: Mukwonago

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    September 23, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    The upper part of the Mukwonago River is (in my mind) is the nicer part to do. However, it is a spring only section. The cat-tails and marsh grass get to think in the summer and fall. I know the local fire department has had to go rescue people who have gotten lost out there due to impassible waterways. The first part is wooded. The launch is muddy and always wet. Put in at the bridge off Beulah Road. The take out is a little better. It is at the next bridge on Hwy I. But again, IT IS ONLY A SPRING PADDLE.

    • Reply
      Miles Paddled
      October 2, 2016 at 7:16 pm

      Hey Laura,

      Thanks for chiming in! We definitely agree that the upper part of the Mukwonago is much better than this trip. In fact, that section is in Timothy’s “60 Miles” guidebook that just came out. We love the section from County Road LO to County Road I. Beulah Road bridge is a good halfway point (although the rapids are upstream of there). That some folks had to be rescued is not surprising, as the section between CR I and the Phantom lakes can be a real labyrinth. We agree that the upstream section is doable only in high water, whether that’s in spring after snowmelt or anytime after a hard rain. Thanks for sharing your two cents!

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