★ ★ ★

Red Cedar River I

Menomonie to Downsville:
The legendary Red Cedar River is a wonderful trip for novice paddlers looking for a leisurely paddle. There are few sights to be seen but the rails-to-trails bike shuttle offers an element of convenience and fun.

Red Cedar River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 30, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Class I

2.7′ per mile

Menomonie: ht/ft: 7.61 | cfs: 2,090

Recommended Levels:
I wouldn’t paddle this any higher. I sense it might be more interesting at lower levels but how low is too low? Good question.

Highway 29 Boat Landing, off River Road, Menomonie, Wisconsin
Highway 25 Boat Landing, Downsville, Wisconsin

Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 3:50p.
Total Time: 1h 20m
Miles Paddled: 8.25

Bass, Carp, Trout, Heron and Bald Eagles.

Shuttle Information:
The bike shuttle on the Red Cedar Trail is an old railroad bed so the grade isn’t strenuous. It’s flat, straight and long and took me a solid hour to travel from Downsville to Menomonie.


Stretching the northwestern-most limit of Mike Svob’s guide, Paddling Southern Wisconsin, I thought I’d visit the Red Cedar before heading into Minnesota territory to explore some new water trails. I opted to shorten the trip to 8.25 miles and take-out at Downsville instead of Mike’s authored 15-mile section which ends in Dunnville because I was already three hours into my Saturday (having driven from Madison) and I still had a shuttle ahead of me as well as needing to find a place to camp for the night (plus, in some ways, Mike is a salesman of rivers and he didn’t sell me on the last 6.25 miles with “less riffles”).

In hindsight, I could’ve done the whole 15 miles in no time at all because the water was moving – like really moving – these water levels, were indeed high. In fact, I averaged 6 mph which, aside from maybe the Wisconsin River at higher levels, is something I’ve rarely experienced. Needless to say, I was shocked at how quickly this trip went by. I actually spent nearly as long on the bike shuttle (1 solid hour) as on the water (1 hour, 20 minutes).

But, I’m content with this 8+ mile jaunt because there wasn’t anything real remarkable about it and it did have me wondering whether it’s more ideal to paddle it at lower levels.

What we liked:
The put-in is easily accessed off River Road, upstream-left from the Highway 29 bridge. It’s really just a broken down field of concrete (a typical boat launch) and there are no facilities.

The river is wide, over 200 feet wide at these levels and it never gets narrower, save for a couple islands that interrupt the route (I haven’t figured out why Mike says it’s 100 ft, when by Google Map accounts, it’s 200+). Adding to the width, another tally in the pro-column for beginners, is the fact that there are a minimum amount of twists and turns – it’s mostly straightaways.

The water is dark and clarity is inches deep but occasionally, I’d look down in what seemed like deep water and catch glimpses of lighter stones and boulders. I imagine that at lower levels, one would also find more riffles when those stones and boulders revealed themselves.

In some ways, the environment reminded me of our trip down the East Fork of the Black River last year, except that, by comparison, was much more exciting with more twists and turns and some Class I’s (mind you, people don’t paddle this section because they’re looking for whitewater, it was just a comparison to the width, depth and straightness of the river). Instead, the best this stretch has to offer are occasional riffles but they’re the big splashy and bouncy kind which brought about a little fun and was a welcome diversion to a paddle without a whole lot to look at.

Prior to the trip, I was excited to see the “Accordian Cliffs” just past Irvington but the actual experience, at least from the river, is underwhelming. It is indeed the most impressive sight as far as cliffs go but you can only really see a sliver of them and even that sight is blemished by a giant electric pole impaled into its highest point which kind of detracts from the beauty of it.

Aside from what glimpses of cliffs you can capture, there’s an impressive tall and sandy-banked elbow in the river where erosion is working tree roots from their once sturdy place. It’s quite an amazing sight to see these giant trees scattered beachside as if a giant dropped a handful of toothpicks from a 100 feet above. It also feels as if you’re patient and give it time, you’ll witness another tree giving way to a swift wind at any moment.

The take-out was again, super convenient and another traditional boat landing. The landing doesn’t have facilities but the Red Cedar State trail is located just across the river and there you’ll find additional parking, facilities and a self-registration booth.

The trail requires a State Trail pass ($4.00 a day/$20 annual) but it’s well worth it. There’s nothing better than having a dedicated bike trail for put-in to take-out (or vice versa) purposes. Rails-to-trails paths, by their nature, are usually straight with little gradation so they’re accommodating to many people. Most importantly, they’re safer than the backroads and highways we often contend with (I’m going to suggest that paddle routes with dedicated bike shuttle routes as counterparts should really be called Waves-to-Trails routes. In fact, I should really trademark that. Nah, never mind, but ya’ll can use that one).

I’d recommend taking the trail because there are actually more sights to be seen by bike than by water. While the path parallels the river nearly the entire way (and I mean entirely – you’ll literally relive the paddle in rewind), it acts like a lower mezzanine allowing for a better vantage point of some lovely rock walls and the sandstone cliffs near Irvington that were virtually hidden from the river because the bank between the river and the trail is often tree-lined, thick and was already grown up this early in the season.

As a footnote, while heading west towards Minnesota, I ended up camping at Nugget Lake County Park. It was bumpin’ with kids and families. It was loud and cramped and everyone was kind of piled on top of each other but it was affordable and every site had electricity so at least I could charge my gear.

What we didn’t like:
Well, certainly more scenery and more riffles would have been welcome. Wildlife was also virtually nonexistent but that’s a strange thing to complain about. There were certainly a lot of fish jumping about but not much else.

And for as much as I love a Waves-to-Trails paddle, (see how I used that?) a bike shuttle that is almost as long as the paddle itself is not, in my opinion, ideal. But then again, my bike does kind of suck so one could probably shave some time off the shuttle (I really need to get that third gear fixed).

If we did this trip again:
The Red Cedar is great for beginners. Advanced or intermediate paddlers looking for a little more excitement may look further north for that fix. I wouldn’t go out of my way to do this section again but I wouldn’t discount it either. I am very intrigued about what’s in-store upstream and would probably aim to explore more of that before returning immediately.

Related Information:
Red Cedar River II: Menomonie to Dunnville
Red Cedar River III: County Road W to Colfax Park
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Wikipedia: Red Cedar River

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

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