Coon Hollow Road to Ellenboro:
Virtually nonstop riffles and splashy rapids together with rolling hills and rock outcrops galore make this the most beautiful and fun section anywhere on the Platte River. Catching it with enough water is tricky, and there are a few sets of electrical tape/wire to be mindful of; but otherwise this trip is one of the best paddling excursions anywhere in southwestern Wisconsin.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 23, 2018
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈5′ per mile
Rockville: ht/ft: 5 | cfs: 360
We strongly recommend this level.
Coon Hollow Road
Airport Road, Ellenboro, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 12:10p. Out at 3:30p.
Total Time: 3h 20m
Miles Paddled: 9.75
Bald eagles, kingfishers, turkey vultures, hawks, one raccoon, a couple alpaca, a few horses, and whole lotta cattle.
8.2 miles. Virtually all the shuttle trips for paddling the Platte River are torturously hilly, and this one’s no exception. In fact, it might well be the worst – at least via bicycle. In a vehicle powered by a combustion engine it’s splendidly scenic and should induce a heart attack.
The Platte has been one of our favorite rivers for years now, one we’ve returned to with all due reverence time and again. On par with Badfish Creek, the Bark River, the Mecan River, and the Waupaca River, there’s hardly a stream in Wisconsin we’ve felt such fidelity for or single-minded preoccupation with. Sometimes, these relationships begin on a personal note. Other times it’s more casual or circumstantial. But whatever the background, eventually they do become intimate. The bond between two spiritual entities – in this case, landscape and paddler – is a terrific and unique, truly profound one. That may sound a little woo-woo to some, especially in light of landscapes dominated by corn or soybean crops for mile after homogenous, synthetically engineered mile. But like a best friend, we look past the superficial blemishes and minor imperfections (together with dumb puns and bad dad jokes) and see the true character. Tap into the Platte, and you’ve struck a main vein of the Driftless Area, a region teeming with a history that is simply incomprehensible and endowed with an aesthetic quality that is unsurpassed in the Upper Midwest.
We also like underdogs. (Well, all dogs, sure, but particularly those overlooked and underestimated). The Platte is such a scrappy pup in that it’s often mentioned in relation to its riverine sibling to the west, the Grant River — but always in a lackluster, watered-down sense. That may be the fault of the otherwise commendable grand old man of paddling guidebooks, Mike Svob. In his Bible, Paddling Southern Wisconsin, his opening line for his recommended trips on the Platte is “If you’ve paddled the Grant River, you’ve had a good preview of the Platte.” (Does he cross-reference the Platte in either of his two trip write-ups for the Grant? He does not). Two sentences later he states “It has few of the dramatic rock formations found along the Grant, but is otherwise comparable.” Svob then combines his two trips (21 miles total) into one single entry, using the same large map for both. Indeed, the entire narrative for Platte River 2 is a single compact paragraph comprising a hundred words. In my opinion, the Platte deserves more than that. Crazed letters to the editor in the monthly Willy St Co-op Reader are allotted more space.
The other shrift we found short is how Svob says nothing about the Platte river upstream of his first recommended trip (which, given how little space and attention was, ahem, granted, Platte River 2 may not be surprising). But usually Svob does a good job mentioning something about sections of rivers up- or downstream from those he recommends in his write-ups. Considering that roughly half of the entire Platte River is laid out by him in a single page, it begs wondering “what about the upper half?” And so over the course of a couple years we set to exploring the obscure as laid out in 2016 and then again earlier this year. Those trips were singularly fantastic, by and large, but each had a coupe cons dogging their many pros. And so it made sense to head back to the Platte sometime and carve out the definitive upstream trip, taking from here and there of our past experiences, cobbling together the best of the best. Platte a la carte. Without further ado, that trip is this trip, courtesy of Miles Paddled.
The put-in at Coon Hollow Road is surprisingly accommodating, but for one caveat: an electric tape strung across the river right at a lovely rapid. (When we first paddled this stretch of the river earlier in the year it was still technically winter, which we now know is a time of year before farmers set out their wires, thus giving an intrepid paddler full of eternal-sprung hope a kind of false positive about removed impediments. There’s a lesson learned.) The tape itself is just downstream from the bridge. As such, paddlers have two launching options: 1) by the bridge on the downstream side, river-right, where the bank is low and relatively mud-free, and then just deal with the tape moments upon entry; or 2) schlep boat and gear about 75 yards and launch on the downstream side of the tape, where it’s a little steeper and muddier but still pretty decent.
This may not come off as “surprisingly accommodating” to some readers, to be fair. But roadside parking at Coon Hollow is notably better than most country road bridges here in the Platte River watershed, and compared to other bridges with a steep gradient from the road to the river, or loose rock rubble, or wild weeds, or barbed wire – or all of the above – Coon Hollow is by contrast a real gem. It’s also endowed with a very attractive rock wall about 20′ tall. Together with the immediate Class I rapids, it’s quite an inspired put-in.
Now on the water, the surrounding landscape is pastoral and pretty typical of this part of the state: 6-8′ tall banks with slowly eroding soil exposure and/or tree-lined banks twice as tall and more intact, modestly embedded with rock outcrops. Either way, the current remains riffly, the river itself averaging 60′ wide. After a short straightaway the river will make an abrupt horseshoe-shaped bend to the left around what is singularly the most impressive rock formation anywhere on the Platte River, a 70′-tall cliff of marbled limestone (or sandstone – it’s hard to tell which it is), beautifully fissured and festooned with dripping vines. But before you leave yourself awestruck at its majesty, be sure to get through the next piece of electric tape – they always come in pairs of two – where the river begins to bend to the left. At the base of this stunning cliff is a series of small but engaging Class I ledges and a boulder garden. Even at the high-water level of 5′ there was a bit of scraping here. Notably lower than 5′ and you’ll probably have to walk your boat through here. It’s so ridiculously pretty though, you won’t mind.
The river wraps itself around the rock wall for about 500′ but then veers away from it, still running along in a series of fun riffles. The right-hand bank here is essentially flat, but on the left are a couple continual hills with handfuls of rock outcrops held within. Riffles continue as you’ll pass a cornfield or two. On the right, at the base of a small hill there’s a totally random picnic shelter/kiosk/cool-ass country compound; totally private, in the middle of nowhere, with no roads leading to it, it’s someone’s slice of private heaven, and good for them. It’s impressively elaborate and developed for a hideaway hidden in plain sight. Maybe someday we’ll be invited over for a beer or brat…
Following a calm section, a small tributary tantalizingly named Bacon Branch comes in on the left. Just downstream, also on the left, is a tank-sized boulder, preceded by a wave train of really fun Class I rapids, bumpity-splashity-bump. This is immediately followed by a beautiful rock wall (again on the left) and then an attractive but decrepit truss bridge all in quick succession. Just downstream is the huge bridge at County Road A, where there is no viable access (in spite of using it once as a put-in and later as a take-out in years past). For those keeping track at home, from Coon Hollow to County A it’s about 3.75 miles – all of them just lovely and really fun paddling.
Below County Road A the river here more resembles the segments paddlers who’ve paddled the lower Platte would be familiar with: still riffly and hilly, but now more meadowy. Here as elsewhere, trees will line the banks, but none (at least in our experiences thus far) posing any safety hazards or obstruction. The sight of high-water lines in these trees was just astonishing. At times towering 10′ above, patches of scrubby grass resembled Spanish Moss draped around the lissome limbs of tarantular oaks like so much Southern Goth, as though everyday were a beckoned call for Halloween decorations (which, isn’t that just how it is in New Orleans anyway?). But to think of the same river you’re on in the present having been 10′ higher only 72 hours earlier… damn! Just, damn.
Also below County A, after a relative lull, the geology show starts to go all out. First, there’s a humble rock wall on the left flanked by frisky riffles and scrappy rapids shaded from the sun. And then you’ll come out of that in a swath of big sky country with a huge hill in full view directly before you neatly composed of various tree types and exposed sandstone in a meadowy landscape. The river will bend around that hill at a 90-degree angle then follow the cream-colored rock wall now on the right. The rock formations here (and again shortly downstream) are quite breathtaking, some of the boulders clearly having calved off a long time ago. After a straightaway the river will swiftly swerve to the right around a ridgeline. Here, paddlers will delight in following along a gorgeous rock wall on the left for a thousand feet (and umpteen riffles). On the right is a pastoral meadow mostly open but for a few trees. Expect to encounter cattle here – and where there’s cattle, there’ll be wires or tape to keep them in, about a ¼ mile downstream from a left-hand bend and series of swift riffles around a hill and some boulders now on the right.
More riffles and an attractive rock outcrop wall appear on the left, followed by a short straightaway with a couple small islands with side-channel options. Again, the geology will knock your socks off. Then comes the tall bridge at Graney Road, where there’s zero access. But only half a mile downstream is another bridge, at Kingsford Road, where on the upstream side, river-left is an OK/make-do access point, if necessary. Kingsford Road lies at the 7-mile mark. Immediately below the bridge is a really fun and scenic stretch where the river flies past a gorgeous rock wall on the right, rapid after rapid (all easy, safe stuff), for another quarter-mile. A bucolic red barn lies nearby off to the left bank. Things will simmer for another moment, but then swift riffles resume, together with more rock outcrops and boulders again on the right-hand side. And another set of electric tape to be on the lookout for. That pattern will repeat itself about half a mile downstream: a quick quiet pause in an open setting, and then the river will drop again along a rock outcrop hill on the right.
On account of the steep hills and generally rugged landscape, while on the water you’ll continually go from patches of total shade to full, raw sunshine, over and again (a little tricky for light settings on the old camera…). The segment from Kingsford to Airport Road is truly one of the finest along the Platte, one of the reasons why we love and recommend this trip.
Things will slow down once more in another open, meadowy area. Soak it up, as the end is nigh! Where a small tributary comes in at the left bank, the main river will bend abruptly to the right in a long straightaway nearly half a mile long. Another tributary, Willow Branch, will enter from the right, just upstream from the Highway 81 bridge. Below this bridge the river will bend to the left around a wooded section. From here to the take-out is only a third of a mile. Off to the left you’ll see a view or two of a huge quarry high on a hill. The river will make a subtle turn to the left, then right, where on the left-hand side is a surprisingly reputable Class I rapid – the last of the many on this trip, which might leave you with a lap-full as a wet forget-me-not. The take-out bridge at Airport Road comes into view. On the upstream side of the bridge, on the left, is yet another small tributary you call pull into (it’s very shallow here, the clear-water bottom sandy and clean). The bank here is a little steep and can be muddy, making it not the best access but still pretty good, all things considered.
What we liked:
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this trip is the best of the Platte River’s best, the crème de la crème. Riffles, rapids, cliffs, fissures, rock outcrops, weeping seeps, natural springs, rolling hills – this trip features all of these, in abundance, repeatedly, for ten blissful miles. It truly is an exquisite section of the river. And we’re not saying this to brag, in the sense of having come up with this trip out of thin air, having cobbled it from previous exploratory trips on the Platte. We offer its success with full humility and utter thanks. That we can offer it to the paddling community as not just a viable addition to the more “mainstream” (no pun intended) Platte River trips, but arguably a more recommended one is simply serendipitous. We got lucky – really lucky – with the upstream Platte.
Also, we want to give a shout-out to the farmers/landowners we ran into at the put-in, who were re-installing their electric tape. At first it was a little awkward, not gonna lie. Here we were, a group of five kayakers, clearly about to launch from the bridge, while they were actively installing an impediment to our progress only a couple hundred feet from where we were. But that’s a story told entirely from the biased (and privileged) perspective of a paddler. Re-installing the tape for them was one of many jobs on their Sunday to-do list – one of many in the wake of the insane high-water events only does before. First, they recommended where we could launch below and out of harm’s way from the tape – on their property. But secondly, and even more exceptionally considerate, they waited for us downstream at the second tape, deliberately and patiently deferring to us by holding the tape up and above our heads before re-installing it at regular height. They didn’t have to do that – I doubt too many folks would. But they did, and it was a great example of kindness from strangers.
What we didn’t like:
There are two definite detractions to this trip, plus one relatively minor consideration. In order of importance, they are as follows: water levels, wires, and slippery slopes.
Water levels. We caught this when the Platte River gauge was exactly at 5′. This is an exceptionally high level, although in point of fact the river was actually coming down from a spectacularly, near-cataclysmically high level of 11′ only three days earlier!?! Catching the Platte at 5′ will be tricky and short-lived. It can be done without much scraping a few inches shallower, but we’d advise doing it no lower than 4.5. The river typically baselines around 3.5, but even that is low and scrapey for the downstream segments. Do not even entertain paddling the upstream Platte when it’s only 3.5, lest you truly bear ill will towards your boat.
Wires. The upstream Platte really is no different than the downstream Platte when it comes to wires – or electric tape (note, not “electrical tape,” but actual live current-conducted tape, typically white). You’re in cattle country here (and just about anywhere in southwestern Wisconsin), so there are wires and/or tape to keep them wayward bovines homebound in a few sections, always in groups of two. They’re also always in a riffly area, which adds a little bit of adrenaline. Thanks to our ingenious friend, Scotty, the inventor of the Y-er, we now have a safe and hassle-free means of passing under such hazards. Just don’t let go of your Y-er (although they do float). And if paddling with others, don’t be chivalrous and try to hold the wire/tape open for the person behind you; it won’t work, as your boat will still be moving downstream and the effect will be dropping the wire/tape on the person behind you.
Slippery slopes. The access at Airport Road, in Ellenboro, is a bit steep and muddy (although otherwise convenient). It’s probably a victim of its own success in that it’s a popular place for many paddlers to put in at, so the grass gets trampled, the bare ground more exposed – and thus muddy. In past years there’s been a carpet there for ease of access, but it could’ve been swept away in any of the flood events this past summer. The Friends of the Platte River group does terrific work improving accesses along the Platte with a whole lot of commendable sweat equity (and actual money) going into established landings now at Baker Field Road, County Road B, and Big Platte Road. It is to be hoped that someday Airport Road can get re-groomed. Until then, just pack along a separate pair of shoes and a plastic bag to put your muddies in. Or a container of water to rinse off afterward.
If we did this trip again:
Honestly, the only thing I think we’d do different is continue past Airport Road, add on four more miles, and take out at Platte Road. At least at a level of 5′ high, this trip went by in a flash, with everyone ruing that it was over once the bridge at Airport Road came into view. But 14 miles is a long stretch for most paddlers. A 10-mile trip is more feasible (and an hour+ less of a time commitment). Conversely, you could add only 1-2 miles by launching from at either of the two bridges upstream of Coon Hollow, both along Sleepy Hollow Road.
Platte River Overview: Platte River Paddle Guide
Platte River I: Ellenboro to County Road B
Platte River II: Ellenboro to Platte Road
Platte River III: Platte Road to Big Platte Road
Platte River IV: Big Platte Road to Indian Creek Road
Platte River V: County Road A to Platte Road
Platte River VI: County Road E to County Road A
Platte River VIII: Indian Creek Road to The Mississippi River
Good People: Friends of the Platte River
Wikipedia: Platte River
Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video: