One of our favorite rivers in Wisconsin, the Platte is where it’s at. Plumb in the Driftless Region of rugged hills and hidden valleys, the Platte flows along quiet pastures and exposed rock outcrops with a quick skip in its riffly step. Its water is clear and inviting, and the wildlife is usually outstanding.
While not as celebrated as its sibling to the west, the Grant River, and bereft of the enchanting railroad tunnels that marks its sibling to the southeast, the Galena/Fever River, the Platte makes for a great day of paddling in its own right. Like its siblings, there will be some barbed wire to avoid, and expect a traffic jam involving cattle cooling off in the stream. To be sure, the Platte is out of the way, and makes for a long day of driving back and forth; but it will be a memorable day that is totally worth going out of your way for. Plus, there is a public campground in Platteville.
If there’s any bad thing about the Platte River, it’s catching it with enough water to avoid scraping or taking your boat for a walk. It’s a very riffly river, which it means it drains quickly and often is shallow. Check the USGS gauge before you leave home and make sure it’s at least 3.5′ high. 4′ is even better. Below 3.5′ will be dicey but ultimately doable. Below 3′ is a no go. It’s a long drive to take your boat for a walk!
In his seminal guidebook Paddling Southern Wisconsin, Meister Mike Svob starts his two recommended trips on the Platte River in Ellenboro. That’s all fine and good, but it begs asking what about upstream of Ellenboro? Interestingly, even the Wikipedia page on the Platte River states that it’s “navigable” from Ellenboro down to the Mississippi. Coincidence or conspiracy? Or just some person who wrote the page based on Mike Svob’s book?
Considering that the Platte River is only 40-some miles long and that half of that is from Ellenboro down to the Mississippi River, one has to wonder about what lies above Ellenboro. In other words, why does Svob not even mention the first “half” of the Platte. Both the satellite and topo maps looked promising and comparable to Ellenboro and below, but such perspectives can sometimes belie the reality on the ground. So, being the intrepid paddlers we are with a penchant to explore the obscure, we headed out in spring 2016 to see what was what. Since the better-known Platte is tough enough to catch with enough water without scraping, we surmised than anything upstream of Ellenboro would be even “thirstier”; so we waited til the gage was at least 4′ high. It ended up being one of the best paddles of the year, even though it was so early in the season. We began at County Road A (see below) and later learned of another ambitious paddler who several months later began his trip 3.7 miles upstream of County Road A, at Coon Hollow Road, taking out in Ellenboro, and reported only 1 portage and 4-5 wires (by Ellenboro)
So, OK, what about even further upstream of County Road A or Coon Hollow Road? Great question. We have scouted some of the bridges, from County Road E down to A. At County Road E the Platte is hardly wider than a brook and looks very shallow. It does benefit from a feeder stream called Leggett Creek immediately upstream of the next bridge, at Sleepy Hollow Road, which is 2 miles downstream from County Road E. If only for that reason, it would be more practical — but still a gambit — to begin at Sleepy Hollow Road. From there to County Road A is 7 miles; however, County Road A is a pretty lousy access and questionably legal. Instead, we’d recommend going down to either Graney Road (2.7 miles from County Road A) or Kingsford Road (3.1 miles from County Road A). Upstream from County Road E seems essentially impossible, or at least pointless. Besides, it’s all pastoral and not as ruggedly bluff-lined. Regardless, if anyone has any intel about the far upstream segments of the Platte, we’d love to hear the good, bad, and ugly!
The Upshot on the Platte:*
If you don’t have all day or don’t want to paddle your butt off (and your skills are above beginner) then we can guarantee you’ll have an excellent experience on the Platte Road to Big Platte Road section – again, as long as the water is high enough. For us, it has everything you’d want: riffles, small rapids, wildlife, big rocks, bigger bluffs, pleasant obstacles and solitude, all at a perfect length of 8.4 miles. If you’re a beginner paddler, however, we would discourage this section, as there are many tights twists and nimble maneuvering around deadfall, boulders and strainers, especially where there are riffles and pushy current. Instead, we recommend the final segment of the Platte, towards (and even into) the Mississippi River.
* We can’t resist a pun. The word “platte” comes from the word for lead shot, and it was the mining and manufacturing of lead that first brought Europeans to this part of the state in the first place. The huge ‘M’ you can see on the Platteville mound via Highway 151 (the largest letter M on Planet Earth, incidentally), is for miners.
An extremely pretty trip with more bluffs and cliffs than you could shake a stick at – including what may well be the most striking sheer-faced rock wall on the Platte, rivaling its riverine sibling to the west, the Grant River – this far-upstream (and hitherto obscure) section of the Platte has a lot to offer. What it lacks, however, is enough water to float a boat most of the time. Also, the accesses at the beginning and end are pretty lousy, and select strands of barbed wire in between are a bit prohibitive.
County Road A to Ellenboro (Airport Road)
Miles: 6.25 | 2016 Trip Report
A glorious stretch of constant riffles and light rapids flanked by sweeps of bluffs, cliffs and rock outcrops in a pastoral setting. Indeed, some of the most striking rock formations anywhere on the Platte River lie in this stretch. As is true downstream, expect a couple cattle traffic jams. Otherwise, as of March 2016 there are no obstructions in this section, natural or human-made. The gradient is steep and drains quickly, so you will want to run this at a minimum of 3.75′ on the USGS gage to avoid frequent scraping. The access at County Road A is intimidating on account of its inconvenient parking, steep slope, loose rock foundation, and a barbed wire fence you have to climb over.
Here you’ll be treated to many riffles, several beautiful rock formations and lots of sweeping bluffs. The water has a noticeably jade-green color in deeper pools, otherwise clear and pretty in the shallows. The put-in is pretty good, and the takeout is OK. You’ll want a bare minimum of 3.5′ on the gage to avoid scraping, though we recommend 3.5′-4′. Paddlers can expect to encounter 2-4 wires in this stretch, unless doing it in early in spring or late in autumn. As elsewhere, wildlife is excellent but prepared to happen upon cows/bulls in the river. They’ll usually leave soon after they see you, but don’t be surprised to wait for them to take their sweet old time as well. Paddling matadors, andale!
Platte Road to County Road B
Miles: 4.25 | 2013 Trip Report
Much the same as the previous segment. This trip begins with a huge beautiful bluff towering right in front of you, together with some fun riffles. Plus there’s an attractive old truss bridge (the kind that are all the more iconic in this part of the state). One of the highlights of this trip is a tall rock wall lining the left bank along a lively stretch of riffles and some giant streambed boulders. There may be more cattle to contend with. County Road B makes for a less than ideal takeout, but it will be doable for most paddlers.
County Road B to Big Platte Road
One of the prettiest stretches down the river, here bluffs and riffles are essentially constant. A mile or so upstream of the takeout at Big Platte Road the river sweeps along a lovely hillside on the right with exposed rock outcrops, shelves, and secret crevices. Unless the water is very high, there’s an attractive gravel bar on the left to picnic. Even on an overcast day the water is clear or even a hue of jade green. There is one last strand of barbed wire to watch out for, and it’s annoyingly placed right above one of the pushier riffles/rapids in a bend in the river (although it can be easily portaged, if in doubt). Both County Road B and Big Platte Road are manageable accesses, but each has a steep gradient to/fro the water. There are some snags and strainers here requiring caution, but the prettiness of this trip more than makes up for things.
Big Platte Road to Indian Creek Road (Banfield Bridge Recreational Area)
Miles: 8.5 | 2013 Trip Report
On this final stretch of the Platte there will be only a few of the riffles that the upstream sections are full of (all in the first couple miles), but the bluffs here remain plenty scenic. This final segment of the Platte may well be the most intimate, as there are fewer bridges here than on any of the upstream sections. And there is an unmistakable thrill knowing that with each stroke you are paddling closer and closer to the Mississippi River.
In spring and fall the last three miles of the river (below the Highway 35 bridge) give you opportunities of observing migrating birds, swans in particular. The takeout at Banfield Bridge boat landing is excellent, with plenty of parking, picnic tables, facilities and great water access. The only bad things about this trip (“bad” being a relative term, of course) are the eventually slack current, fewer rock features, and paddling against the wind if it’s strong and coming out from the south or west (which is usually the case).
Indian Creek Road (Banfield Bridge Recreational Area) to The Mississippi River
Miles: 1.5 (3 roundtrip) | 2020 Trip Report
As is the case with every tributary stream we’ve been on that feeds the Mississippi, the closer you are to reaching the Big Muddy, the flatter the water is (which is notable since the current on the big river is pretty strong). As such, it’s easy there-and-back paddling from the last access on the Platte to the big river and back. It’s worth it, if you have time, but your life will go on just fine, too, if you don’t.
Unfortunately, there’s no access until several miles downstream from the confluence, so we don’t really recommend spending too much time on the Mississippi, unless you’re looking for a workout paddling upstream.