★ ★ ★

Rock River I

Oregon to Dixon:
An otherwise huge river featuring slaloms of large islands to take cover from powerboats and provide a sense of intimacy to better focus on several eye-catching rock formations, the Rock is worth the trek.

Rock RiverRating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 4, 2013

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Como: ht/ft: 4.10 | cfs: 5300
Rockton: ht/ft: 4.80 | cfs: 5100

Current Levels:
Como: ht/ft: 4.37 | cfs: 5330
Rockton: ht/ft: 4.30 | cfs: 3400

Recommended Levels:
Water levels are almost always reliable.

Oregon Park East, Oregon, Illinois
GPS: 42.01636, -89.32569
Lowell Park, Dixon, Illinois
GPS: 41.88803, -89.48252

Time: Put in at 9:40a. Out at 2:40p.
Total Time: 5h
Miles Paddled: 19

Turtles, lots of great blue herons and kingfishers.


So there I was on a Saturday morning, the car packed with camping supplies, boat and bike to boot, a cup of coffee and some choice CDs, all ready for a mini adventure. I won’t give away the farm but for this spoiler alert: I was going into the wooly unknowns of Iowa… or at least so I thought. To avoid telling an uninteresting story, something else came up at the last minute in Janesville which kept me busy til mid-afternoon, after which it was way too late to head west. I was far south as it was so I just followed the direction it seemed like fate was taking me.

I had been curious about the Rock River in Illinois, having heard of its impressive cliffs and it seemed like this was the weekend to check it out. Trying to compensate for my nixed two-day paddle plans, I cobbled two separate paddles into a single long one instead. It was definitely worth it and I’m glad I did it but I wouldn’t do it again. See below for my recommendation.

What we liked:
You don’t come out for the slow current or the huge width of the river. You don’t come out for the powerboats every which way. And you sure don’t come out for the housing developments. There’s only one reason why you’d consider this segment of the Rock at all: it’s got some awfully pretty geology going on (the surrounding gently sloping hills aren’t hard on the eyes either).

This might sound chauvinistic but so be it: what you find on the Wisconsin River upstream of the Dells is better. Whereas the Rock in Illinois has an outcropping here, then there, with long gaps of “meh” in between, the Wisconsin (and I don’t mean only the Dells section but well upstream of it, too) is more consistent, prolific even. But the Rock here is nonetheless very pretty. Indeed, there’s much to admire about it.

While the river itself is huge, 500’ feet wide most of the time, the effect is charmingly diminished by the many long, large islands that punctuate the entire trip. In fact, paddling near one shore while seeing the opposite side is more the exception than the rule. This was most welcome for two reasons, it kept the experience still intimate and “secluded” while also protecting me from the spoils of the hoi polloi whizzing about in gas-powered boats. We all must share our waterways and the Rock naturally provides a perfect environment for this. Fortunately, when I paddled it, there was always enough water to paddle through even the narrowest channel between islands.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the rock formations. The first is called Lowden Rock, about 2.5 miles downstream of the put-in. It’s nice but more of a random blip. Plus it’s a haunt for folks fishing in powerboats. About two miles later on river-right begins the much more impressive formations at Castle Rock State Park. You can put-in just before the park to begin your trip here and get the most of it all. While the exposed sandstone rock formations don’t last for long, this segment of the river is protected on both sides for a couple miles and it’s all very pretty.

The next one doesn’t come until five miles downstream, around the quirky kink that is the town of Grand Detour. There are three cliffs/bluffs/rock walls (call it what you will) in all, named First, Second and Third. First is nice, on river-left, Second is better, on river-right and Third, also river-right, is definitely the best. All three are better appreciated for their vertical feats, less so horizontally. What I mean is, they’re impressively tall but they don’t last all that long as you pass them by. Master Mike Svob refers to them as cliffs but I think of a cliff as being taller and wider, a formation that, like a shelf, extends for a distance (Something like what I had in mind in Iowa…). These rocks are more like anomalies, in my opinion. Still pretty, of course but I was hoping for/expecting something a bit more “thorough.”

What we didn’t like:
OK, so yes, the rock formations weren’t as “thorough” as I had hoped. And if that is the main reason you’ve come out this way (a 2-hour drive from Madison, not to mention the $3.80 in tolls), then the full effect is a little underwhelming and a whole lot more “I came all this way for this…?” I would prefer more enticement or incentive to drive all that way and then paddle such a wide river. I get away to get away and the Rock River is rarely synonymous with solitude. Lord knows the Dells in Wisconsin isn’t either, indeed, (it’s even more crowded and loud) but it’s worth enduring because the scenery is so spectacular. And much closer to home.

After Third Rock, the river itself doesn’t offer a whole lot. The islands peter out, housing development is everywhere and the course of the river is like a right angle, straight west and then straight south.

If we did this trip again:
Put in at the Castle Rock boat landing and take out at Lowell Park, a 13-mile trip. If there were an earlier take-out, this would be real gem of a trip but I didn’t notice one. A shame, because after Third Rock there’s nothing to write home about. You could probably ask a private landowner for permission to use one of the gazillion piers and backyard boat launches but I can’t speak to that.

Also, I would look into camping at White Pines Forest State Park, instead of Lowden State Park. The latter does have a separate area for tent campers, not RVs, even a primitive walk-in site about a mile from the parking area but it was boring camping and a little loud. White Pines is more off the beaten path and prettier, more like an actual park and not just a place outdoors to pitch a tent. Plus, the alluring Pine Creek flows through the park. If ever I’m down in this neck of the woods again, I will very seriously look into paddling this creek. It looked quite pretty from what little of it I could see.

Honorable Mentions:
The following is some general info and observations on the area, nothing specific to paddling. (Editor’s note: Timothy gave me the option to post this. It was so damn entertaining, I couldn’t resist)

This area of Illinois is odd. While Dixon itself bends over backwards to tell you everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about Ronald Reagan as a boy, (this is where he grew up) Oregon must be the unofficial teepee capital of the state. In just one incidental mile-long section of town, primarily along a road adorably named “Batwing Boulevard,” I counted over a dozen teepees, one billed as a “drive-thru” (I kid you not). Even the Ace hardware store has one.

In between the two towns is a little button-cute nook called Grand Detour, home of John Deere and the telling green-yellow tractor story. Still further off in the distance, in Byron, just upstream from Oregon, is a nuclear power plant, whose two huge reactors ominously line the landscape with billowy plumes of smoke rising to the sky. The area’s odd.

About one mile upstream from the put-in at Oregon is the famous 50’-high concrete statue named either “Black Hawk” even though it bears zero resemblance to Chief Black Hawk or “The Eternal Indian” (you know, just like “The Eternal European” or “The Timeless Asian”). Indeed, it doesn’t resemble anybody, as the sculptor, Lorado Taft, didn’t have any individual person (or model) in mind but rather a well-meaning if generic (and not entirely sensitive) homage to Native Americans the land over.

I’m not sure which irks me more: the it’s-OK-to-generalize-about-a-people sentiment inherent in the statue and the sculptor’s innocence/ignorance (“their love of and connection to nature…”) or the fact that it has been dubbed colloquially/locally “Black Hawk.” True, the Black Hawk War was the last skirmish fought on this side of the Mississippi, particularly places along or near the Rock River (e.g., “Fort Atkinson” in south-central Wisconsin). So maybe an argument can be made about Chief Black Hawk being a proxy for his people who were forced to concede their home and land (this region of Wisconsin and Illinois) to the White Man. But as a privileged participant of the white race and male gender, if not a descendant from those prairie homesteaders of the 19th Century, this effort seems to me weak at best and positively inadequate. In this sense, the iconography is no different than the dam mascot of the Chicago Blackhawks NHL team (even though Chicago was originally Pottawatomi country and Chief Black Hawk was Sauk).

No different except that Lorado Taft fancied himself an artiste, something lofty and refined. (Early visitors to this part of the Rock River likened it to the Hudson River Valley area of upstate New York, where the famed Hudson River School of landscape painting began. Furthermore, sculptor Taft set up a school next to Lowden State Park on a bluff overlooking the river. But, to borrow from Senator Bentsen, I grew up outside of New York City. I know the Hudson River Valley. The Hudson River Valley is a friend of mine. The Rock River is no Hudson River Valley.) But at least the hockey team (like all ignominiously named and designed sports mascots – the Braves, the Chiefs, the, ahem, Red Skins) isn’t trying to be artistic or focus group-friendly. No, they’re symbols to stir up tribal mentality and fanaticism, period. Plus Taft’s statue looks like it’s cloaked in a Greek tunic more than anything, making it all the more confusingly bizarre!

One thing the whole area does have in common is this: crazy-assed, no-patience drivers. This will no doubt sound familiar to Wisconsinites who have all too often complained about the “ill annoyance” of the driving habits by our neighbors from the south. But, man! Not only does everyone pass using the oncoming-traffic lane on 55-mph highways in the countryside, they do so around bends and up hills (when unless they’re driving Knight Rider cars with sonar or infrared, there’s just no way to know if another car is approaching and whether they’re about to have a full head-on collision). I witnessed and experienced this time and again, even in 35-mph zones with traffic lights. And not just good-old-boys in trucks and muscle cars but soccer moms in Ford Fiestas with “Baby on Board” signs on the windshield. Weird.

But not nearly as weird, or just plain wrong, as the ban on alcohol in Illinois state parks! I was prepared and so packed a Solo plastic cup ahead of time – thank you Barry! Not at all the same thing as sipping a beer from a bottle around the campfire but such are the concessions we make. Still though, what in the world is wrong with this state?

Also, meister Svob says that Lowell Park is “the largest city park in Illinois” but this just can’t be right. In fact, it isn’t, not even close. Not even close to close. Lowell Park is large, no doubt about it but at 200 acres it is nothing compared to Lincoln Park in Chicago, only two hours east away and sprawling for 1,200 acres, or six times the size. Mike Svob is a native of Illinois and I’m not sure how this slipped his attention or his editor’s. I’d never been to Lowell Park, so I was expecting something magnificent and humongous. I was also expecting there to be a sign at the entrance. You know, something like “Lowell Park.” There is literally nothing indicating as such at the park entrance.

There is, however, a Ronald Reagan heritage trail sign that hints at something and that “something” is this: the everywhere-repeated allegation that Ronny boy, while working as a lifeguard in his teens, rescued exactly 77 swimmers from drowning. Not 76, not 78 but 77. Everywhere. This statistic never wavers. I started thinking about that, too, not unlike the superlative claim about Lowell Park (which I could not fact-check until I came home, which took about 60 secs to Google and debunk). I was a lifeguard myself in my teens and I did actually rescue a child on my first day of work (which I still think was a test), the first of a handful in my own short tenure of lifeguarding. Now, I know that lifeguarding at public and hotel pools in suburban New Jersey in the 1990s is a very different thing altogether from lifeguarding on a large river in the 1920s. Still though, 77 seems awfully high.

Maybe that’s what made him great (or what many perceive as his greatness. I, myself, grew up in the Reagan ‘80s but a paddling website is neither the time nor the place to get into all that or politics). Maybe my skimpy claim of rescuing a half-dozen or so lives as a lifeguard is why I shouldn’t run for political office. That and my firm stance on violating Illinois state parks’ rules on booze with glorious transgression.

Last but not least and a nice way to end this rant of mine, I found myself driving behind a septic tank truck whose motto was “A flush is better than a full house,” complete with an image of playing cards. I’m a sucker for puns, good, bad, or otherwise and this one gave me a good giggle!

Related Information:
Rock River II: Janesville to Beloit
Rock River III: Kanow Park to County Road P
Rock River IV: Watertown to Johnson Creek
General: Rock River Trail
Guide: Paddling Illinois
Wikipedia: Rock River

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    August 9, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    Pine Creek is a classic IL trespassing stream, be very careful there. You can be safe from below the last couple bridges before the Rock, but upstream of that is very unfriendly due to pressure from the many outsiders that visit the numerous other campgrounds near Pines Rd and White Pines State Park.In the State Park is off limits too, but worth hiking this lovely park.

  • Reply
    Miles Paddled
    August 9, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    Thanks for the heads up and sounds like our kind of challenge. Considering federal law states "You have the right to access any navigable water way up to the normal high water mark," which means you don't have to stay in the water if the stream is low, simply look for the "high water mark", it should be a non-issue.But then again, I hear Illinois likes to play the navigable/non-navigable card which doesn't surprise me any more than it would surprise me for them to toll outhouse use.

  • Reply
    Aaron Smith
    August 10, 2013 at 12:05 am

    "The National Organization for Rivers Website" makes a very good legal case that federal case law overrides state restrictions when it comes to padding rivers and streams.Even though they make great points, I still would not trust our legal system or the local sheriff.If you go kayaking in a questionable Illinois river though, it might be handy to print out some of the documents on the above mentioned site and keep them handy in a waterproof container.It's an uphill fight. Even WI isn't as progressive with paddling rights as many believe. I've been told there was a recent law passed that restricts camping on sandbars (pretty much you can only camp on sandbars adjacent to public land). Pretty sure that would violate federal case law though.Then in the spring WCC tried to pass a rule to force kayaks/canoes to register their boats (thankfully that was voted down, but still).

  • Reply
    Greg Ginn
    August 27, 2017 at 8:39 am

    You can shorten trip by taking out at Grand Detour. There is a small park with a canoe landing. Its on Rt. 2 at Illinois st. Across from Catalina’s tavern. Its a great take out with good parking.

  • Reply
    Sea Oat
    December 17, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Most people who canoe the rock from Oregon to Grand Detour spend the night on campingislands.com. It is a series of islands in the rock with causeways which allow vehicles and campers to enjoy over four miles of shoreline and some of the most pristine natural areas in the state. The fishing in Grand Detour is very good, and the campground accomodates canoe groups as they allow as many people to camp as a group without separating them. It is a primitive campground, but there is a shell station across from the John Deere Park launch where you can get everything you need.

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