County Road W to Colfax Park:
One of the prettiest stretches of the leggy Red Cedar River featuring picture-perfect sequences of stunning hills and hollows with exposed rock outcrops, this longish trip is great for newbie paddlers as well as those with plenty of miles under their belts who are just looking for a relaxing day on the river to soak up the scenery and see some extraordinary wildlife.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 24, 2020
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
2-3′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Colfax: ht/ft: 3.3 | cfs: 1,100
Colfax: ht/ft: 2.85 | cfs: 757
These are recommended levels and there should always be enough water to paddle this trip.
Wayside off County Road W (immediately south of County S), Sand Creek, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.10086, -91.72235
Colfax Park and Boat Launch at 910th Avenue (off Highway 170 at County W intersection), Colfax, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.00744, -91.73666
Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 4:35p.
Total Time: 3h 50m
Miles Paddled: 12.5
Bald eagles galore, otters, red fox, deer, wood ducks, sandhill cranes and geese.
7.8 miles, all of which is up and down and along County W. Definitely doable by bicycle, but it would be a workout on account of the hills.
Beginning near Rice Lake in the northeastern-most nook of Barron County, the Red Cedar River quaintly and quietly flows for some 100 miles before meeting the Chippewa River midway between the City of Eau Claire and the Mississippi River. Because it lacks rapids and has a mediocre gradient, it’s one of the most reliable rivers – water level-wise – anywhere in Wisconsin. And one of the most popular, too, on account of its pretty aesthetics and virtually worry-free hazards.
While we have paddled the lower river several times now (from Menomonie down), this was our first foray on any of the upstream segments of the Red Cedar. Of those – and there are many individual day trips paddlers can choose from – this one is touted as being the most scenic. Why? On account of the many beautiful hills, hollers, steep undercut sandbanks, and stunning rock outcrops. Add to those toothsome features an alluring array of wildlife encounters, not to mention an accommodating width without sacrificing much in the way of riverine intimacy – this trip is tremendously rewarding.
We took our cue from established guidebooks – namely Mike Svob’s Paddling Northern Wisconsin and Michael Duncanson’s A Canoeing Guide to the Indian Head Rivers of West Central Wisconsin (alas, long out of print). Each recommends beginning this segment of the Red Cedar River at Highway 64, but that makes for a nearly 17-mile-long trip, which would have been overly ambitious for us on this 32-degree day in late October with waning daylight. As such, we cut out 4ish miles by putting in at a perfectly inconspicuous wayside off of County W just south of County S. There were no Private Property or No Trespassing signs, so we sided with plausible deniability and the golden rule of asking for forgiveness as opposed to permission. For the take-out, we bypassed Svob’s recommended Price Park on account of its crappy parking and necessity of schlepping boats up steep banks and across a lawn, and instead found a paddler’s dream of an official boat launch park that is a little tricky to find but worth the effort.
A quick note about each of these accesses before we get started. If indeed the wayside is private property, there were no signs indicating it as such and nothing stating in no uncertain terms that it was verboten. To find it, keep your eyes peeled for a flat, low-level grassy area with a feint path leading to it from the road (the road being County W). It’s approximately 600′ south of the intersection of County S. As for the take-out, that’s a little squirrelier. We happened upon it by dumb luck, I think… But at the intersection of Highway 170 and County W just northwest of town (Colfax) there’s an easy-to-miss road named 910th Ave to the west. Turn onto it and then turn left immediately onto an unmarked road that loops down to a park and then the river and then back up to Highway 170. This might sound more confusing than it actually is. Kindly refer to our map, if in doubt.
Putting in at the wayside is a piece of cake, as the banks are flat and grassy. As will happen on multiple occasions during this trip, a “small big” island appears just downstream, splitting the 150′-wide mainstream into side channels. Just past that, on river-left, is the mouth of Trout Creek, one of a few reputable tributaries you’ll pass that account for the touted fishing on this stretch of the Red Cedar. Below Trout Creek another, more sizeable island again splits the river in two side channels. Off to the west (river-right) you’ll see big hills undulating in the near background – another regular feature on this trip. And the first quiet caress of the river running along the base of a steep hill with some modest outcrops exposed – almost always on river-right – appears shortly downstream as well, followed by an extraordinary, handsome cabin/house if you died and went to heaven.
A long straightaway follows. Soon after you’ll pass a skinny slough first on the right and then shortly later on the left, both probable oxbows from an ancestral meander that got cut off when the river found a more expeditious – indeed, is “streamlined” too on the nose? – course to take. Both of these look like they could be their own streams, but they’re not. After the one on the left, the river will make an abrupt bend to the right and then follow a large S shape meander. As it does so, the first of a few steep sandy banks will suddenly rise on you right. The whole effect, since it’s a sinuous bend, is elegant and full of grace. Then you thread through a brief flat bottomlands where, at least when the leaves are off, a glimpse of a big bluff looms in the distance (technically the east bank of the river). At the tail end of the letter ‘S’ the river makes a bee-line to the base of a gorgeous pyramid-shaped bluff which is essentially one huge exposed rock outcrop fissured in layers like tissue paper. A road (County M) runs along it, so there is a smidge of a distraction/detraction, but it’s otherwise entirely stunning.
The first bridge appears after this, at County MW. On the downstream side of the bridge, on river-right, is a small park named 22-Mile Ford Park, where there is a dedicated landing for paddlers to begin or end a trip here. (If you do begin here, please do yourself a favor and paddle upstream half a mile to take in that pyramid-shaped bluff; it would be worth it!). Downstream from the park the river enters a neat corridor of pines and then a very attractive steep sandy bank on the left all in a relaxing straightaway. Another backwater slough, this one a truly ancient meander, appears on river-right, entirely worth exploring if you have the time and inclination; the water will be flat and probably shallow, but you never know what kind of wildlife you might spook up in such hideaways… A few more zigs and zags ensue, past steep undercut sandbanks on the left. A straightaway takes you to the next fluffy bluff, which eventually you’ll paddle right up to, beautiful exposed sandstone and all. And then one of the most utterly lovely sequences comes next.
The river will bend left around a hill on the right at the base of which is undercut sandstone rock outcrops. On the opposite bank lies a similarly steep and secretively intimate hill, the river in between some of the narrowest on this trip. The river wraps around this other hill and then returns to the first one; with each meander comes prettier and prettier rock outcrops as well as steep, soft cliffs draped in mossy green and swaths of grass. Take your time here and soak in the scene. It’s positively dazzling.
Alas, a very long broad straightaway follows this, a good 1.25 miles before the next notable meander, leading you under a set of power lines. But then a big gentle sweep to the left takes you around a pleasant hill on the right with various attractive cabins that all appear to be part of the same property. Then things get a little wooly, wild, and weird, for suddenly the mainstream seems to shatter into a maze of indecisive side channels where huge islands break its resolve. Which route you take will be up to you, depending on your preference for short cuts or saunters and narrow stretches with occasional (and heretofore wholly unexperienced) trees to dodge or broader boulevards. Some will lead to dead-ends, living vestiges of long-dead meanders. Be careful here regardless, as the current will pick up some. There are no rapids, but there’s nothing to take for granted either when a pushy current meets a riparian area with downed trees and grabby strainers.
Once all the side channels converge there will be a couple more modest islands and a mostly straight shot with a little wave here and there. Soon you’ll know for sure you’re entering town when a few houses appear one after another on the right bank. Fear not: while the end is nigh, there’s still a lot of fun to be had before turning back into a landlubber again.
Past the row of houses it’s about 0.3 mile until the next bridge, which is Highway 170. We got a little turned around here for a couple of reasons. For starters, Svob’s map has you take out a Tom Price Memorial Park, which is on river-right some 600′ upstream of the bridge, but we never saw it. Instead, we first scouted another park that’s closer to the bridge but on the opposite bank, river-left, called Colfax Park. This is the one we decided to skip on account of the steep banks and schlepping. Svob makes no mention of this park in his book, or where we ended up taking out, which has a dedicated boat launch. Also confusing is the river makes a 1.5-mile horseshoe-shape bend southeast-west-northwest as it enters Colfax, plus the intersection of Highway 170 and 40 is a little disorienting as well.
Nonetheless, venture on past the bridge, where riffles whisk you past a steep bank on the left and a handful of backyards. It was here where we saw a weathered red fox scamper about the banks running away from us but plain as can see in the afternoon right in town. As it’s my soul-animal, seeing riverine foxes always sets my heart aglow. The left bank remains steep enough to obscure what’s above it, thus keeping intact a sense of welcome intimacy right until the last paddle stroke. The river will make a slight bend to the right past some scrubby trees and low-lying fields also on the right. You’ll see downstream an abrupt bend to the left, but you’ll have to save that for next time, as the landing at the public park is on the right beforehand.
What we liked:
This is just a swell trip all around! I know that sounds a little hokey, but it really is. It’s a perfect stretch for new paddlers as well as seasoned ones looking for extremely pleasant scenery with next to no hazards. For us, considering the cold, we were entirely content with staying dry and soaking in, if not the sun, the beautiful aesthetics – most notably the slight shawl of residual snow still draped in the wooded hills. I’m sure this trip is no less engaging at other times of the year, but for us this was an especially spectacular effect.
The wildlife also was terrific, all around, but specifically seeing three otters first in the water, then get out on the banks all huddled together like the trio they were (a family of performance artists perhaps?), and then dive back in one after another after another. It was hands down the single-best otter encounter I personally have experienced (and that’s saying something, because this has been an especially good year for otters).
Finally, both the put-in and take-out are extremely convenient and provide generous parking with easy logistics. They might take a little extra effort to find, but they’re plenty worth it.
What we didn’t like:
The long broad boulevard-like straightaways can be a bit of a chore sometimes – and absolutely if you were fighting the wind. (We weren’t, but I can see how formidable that would be if you were facing a southerly wind.) But, all things considered, the straightaways were fine and not a big deal.
If we did this trip again:
We absolutely will – although probably in warmer weather. To do something different, we might put in at 22-Mile Ford Park but continue past the boat launch park to the next access downstream before the impoundment of Tainter Lake (the result of the Red Cedar dammed north of Menomonie – where it’s then dammed again.) The handful of miles upstream of the Tainter Lake impoundment look wild and beguiling. But in all honesty, that’s just to do something for new. We’d redo this trip any old time. We really liked it.
Miles Paddled Video: