★ ★ ★ ★

Sugar River I

Belleville to County Road X:
This is a fine introduction to what the Sugar River is all about. While there’s nothing notably spectacular about this section, it’s semi-remote, generally wide enough to avoid deadfall and an overall pleasant paddle.

Sugar RiverRating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: June 9, 2012

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Verona: ht/ft: 2.97 | cfs: 47
Brodhead: ht/ft: .90 | cfs: 276

Current Levels:
Verona: ht/ft: 2.84 | cfs: 38.8
Brodhead: ht/ft: 0.94 | cfs: 255

Recommended Levels:
This is just below the recommended minimum level. Please note that anything below 50 cfs will be extremely shallow and frustrating. We recommend a minimum of 60 cfs on the Verona gauge.

Belleville Community Park, Belleville, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.86083, -89.53419
Highway X
GPS: 42.79994, -89.48646

Time: Put in at 11:30p. Out at 3:30p.
Total Time: 4h
Miles Paddled: 10.25

What we liked:

To be completely honest, we had the Sugar River written off before we even paddled it. We expected to spend the day ducking farm fences, crawling over downed trees, encountering cows (stampedes in the river specifically) and getting our Chacos muddy. We were partly correct about the mud aspect but we were pleasantly surprised by this section of the Sugar River and we’re excited to experience more of what it has to offer.

Heading into today, we knew the popular section of this river was Attica to Albany. With a nearby campground (Minnihaha), a couple tubing outfitters (S&B and CrazyHorse) and popular write-ups like Mike Svob’s trip report, it’s easy to see why we thought we may have chosen the wrong section to paddle. Google didn’t give us a whole lot of information about canoeing or kayaking this section of the Sugar. It’s 50+ miles of paddle-able water but we couldn’t find a whole lot beyond Avon Bottoms and some Illinois love.

This section isn’t the beginning of the Sugar River and being “river completists” we considered starting at the headwaters. But the maps we found gave us the feeling that starting further upstream wasn’t the most ideal initiation to the Sugar. And we were already plenty sketchy about getting our kayaks downstream in this Belleville to County X section. But it couldn’t have been a better introduction to this great little river. Maybe it was the weather (which was perfect) or maybe it was just that we were in the right paddling mood because we really enjoyed this paddle.

The put-in at Belleville Community Park was a wonderful place to start the trip. For those who appreciate dams (which is semi-ironic considering we love wild rivers), the lake has a beautiful dam and spillway. We were greeted by fishermen (fly and bait) casting into the waters below. Belleville is in the midst of cleaning up the lake and also upgrading the park which indicates that this put-in is only getting better as a place to start your journey.

The Sugar River is brown. Baraboo River-brown. Yet despite the coloring from farmland run-off (which has been harnessed by local farmers) and the natural prairie that it flows through, it was still accessible for getting out and taking a break on the pebbly and at times, sandy ledges and bars.

The water level was at the lowest point we’d ever paddle it. In fact, we posted both gauges because we’re not sure how the dams affect the gauge and how relevant they are. We got stuck but not frustratingly often and we never had to portage. The current was pushy at times but it was still a long trip for 10 miles. It took us 4 hours and we only really spent a total of 30 minutes on sandbar breaks.

Throughout the journey we scared up a lot of fish, turtles and other unconfirmed critters. I believe there are trout in this section because it’s the right habitat and we encountered a lot of splashing and scurrying as we made our way through but the only fish we could identify for sure were carp. We also scared up some ducks just earning there wings, a bald eagle, one crane (which seemed unusual because they often guide us down these types of rivers), a zillion turtles (one the size of a tire) and the river bottom was dotted with huge clams.

The first 4.25 miles to the Highway 92 bridge offers good opportunity to get out, relax, beer, lunch, etc., Then the next couple miles become sparse with islands. The last 3 miles are very windy and though we never had to get out of our boat, we got awful close multiple times. 10 miles is just over our recommended mileage for a day trip and the last 3 could be taxing for amateur paddlers. It’s not a clear float trip at that point as there is plenty of maneuvering required.

The take-out at Highway X is very accessible although the sign is a bit hidden. You’ll find a parking lot entrance on the northeast corner of the bridge.

What we didn’t like:
Not a whole lot except we had “Sugar Sugar” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” in our heads all day.

If we did this trip again:
We’ll definitely do it again but we’ll work our way down for comparison. A 4-star rating by our standards might be a reach. A subsequent paddle of this section might knock it down a notch (maybe a 3-star paddle) but because our expectations were so low, and we had such an incredibly great day on the river, it deserved the rating. We couldn’t have asked for a better surprise or better weather for a day on the water. If you told me we’d enjoy a paddle sans riffles on a muddy bottomed river, I wouldn’t believe you. But we had a great day on the water and that’s that’s what it’s all about.

Related Information:
Sugar River Overview: Sugar River Paddle Guide
Sugar River IV: County Road X to County Road EE
Sugar River VI: Albany to Brodhead
Good People: Upper Sugar River Watershed Association
Good People: Lower Sugar River Watershed Association
Map: Upper Sugar River Trail
Outfitter: Sugar River Outfitters
Wikipedia: Sugar River

Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video (Belleville to Exeter Park):

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:


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  • Reply
    Tandem Paddler
    July 15, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Paddled this section yesterday 7-14-13. Belleville to Dayton (Hwy 92) was great. Dayton to Hwy X was much more challenging. Lots of trees in the water requiring sometimes intense manuevering, twice I was forced out of the boat to navigate over & then under fallen trees.As for wildlife, we saw many large clams, several kingfishers, a couple muskrats, two great blue heron, no turtles, no eagles, no cranes, no ducks, no geese, no fish, splashing and scurrying or otherwise.We won't be hurrying back to this Dayton to Hwy X section any time soon.

  • Reply
    Miles Paddled
    July 16, 2013 at 1:17 am

    Thanks for the update! Almost caught you on the same stretch a day earlier but decided to head elsewhere.

  • Reply
    Justin Meyer
    May 4, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    A friend and I paddled Belleville to Exeter Park on 5/2/15. It was a beautiful day and there were no obstructions in the river. Exeter Park (Hwy 92) was a great take out and let us avoid the negatives described by Tandem Paddler above. A bike shuttle back to Belleville also worked well though the traffic on 92 was a little too fast sometimes.

  • Reply
    Ram bling
    May 5, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    You did the better section, Justin. Good call. Below Exeter Park the river has its moments — mostly sweeping pastures and hilly prairies — but I recently ran this a few weeks ago and got frustrated by the number of obstacles. One definite portage on top of several close calls and somewhat tiring amount of pivot-turn meanders were too many cons outweighing the pros. But Belleville to Exeter Park is solid. Thanks for chiming in.

  • Reply
    Chris Vander Ark
    May 11, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    I did this same section, Belleville Park at the dam to Exeter Park, yesterday morning. It was a such a beautiful time on the river–and one I could take novice paddlers on in the future. Everything was green and lovely.And about the commute–if you keep on 92 to where it turns into W, you can catch the bike path at CC to bring you back to town, so more of the ride feels effortless. It's true that, as signs indicate, a trail pass is required for that stretch.

  • Reply
    Ram bling
    May 22, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Hey Chris — yes, that's the Badger State Trail, one of the best in the state in my opinion. It starts in Fitchburg and goes down to Illinois near Freeport, where it then links up to another trail, the Jane Addams Trail. http://www.badger-trail.com/There's a really cool (and not just literally) tunnel where the trail goes through a sandstone bluff, located in between Belleville and Monticello, basically due east of New Glarus. I definitely recommend it, but yes, a state trail pass is required. It's $20 a year and gives you access to any trail in the whole state and is good for XC-skiing in the winter months, too.

  • Reply
    Joe Backes
    June 6, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Susan and I found it fun but a sometimes challenging (downed trees) paddle on 6/5/2016, it appears there is a new tree down about 1.5 miles south of Belleville and a portage was needed at 5.75 miles (just needed to exit kayak, lift kayak over tree, and reenter kayak). Beautiful scenery plus saw an eagle and a fox. Ten miles is accurate from Belleville Community Park to Hwy X takeout. I would recommend for adventurers, but certainly not for beginners near downed trees.

  • Reply
    Miles Paddled
    June 10, 2016 at 2:08 am

    Hey Joe,Seeing bald eagles is always awesome and a fox is even more impressive! We're sorry to hear about the many downed trees, however. We paddled this a second time last year in May and the section between Highway 92 and County Road X was fairly problematic.We totally agree that this section of the Sugar is not for beginners. Thanks for the comments and we hope your next trip is still as pretty but hassle-free!

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