Sugar River II

Paoli to Belleville:
A lengthy stretch of the Sugar River with far too many obstructions to warrant paddling – one being quite dangerous. Add to that, the poor take-out options, and this becomes one we can’t recommend.

Sugar RiverRating: ☆
Trip Report Date: July 3, 2011

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles

3.5′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Verona: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 58
Brodhead: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 362

Current Levels:
Verona: ht/ft: 2.84 | cfs: 38.6
Brodhead: ht/ft: 0.96 | cfs: 258

Recommended Levels:
We recommended this level. Please note that anything below 50 cfs will be extremely shallow and frustrating. Anything above 90 cfs will likely find the river cloudy and one of the best features of this trip is the clear water. We recommend a minimum of 60 cfs on the Verona gauge.

County PB Bridge, Paoli, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.92948, -89.52443
North Grant Street, Belleville, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.86144, -89.54007

Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 3h 15m
Miles Paddled: 10.25

Alternate Trip Ideas:
County Road A to Belleville (6.25 Miles)
Highway 69 to County Road A (7.75 Miles)

Just geese.

Shuttle Information:
6.5 miles.


Having already paddled the more written-about sections of the Sugar River – Attica to Albany and Brodhead to Avon – I, of course, had to try to do something different. I want to like the Sugar River, I really do. It’s close to home, runs near hilly parts of the state and along two separate bike trails. Plus it’s named “Sugar” and that’s pretty dang cute, particularly for someone with as sweet a tooth as mine! But dang if Sugar keeps disappointing me. It’s muddy and altogether not that intimate or interesting. There are pleasant stretches to be sure but for me personally, they are too infrequent or far away to warrant coming back to.

If you take one thing away from this write-up, let it be this: Don’t paddle this section of the Sugar River! There is a weird cattle gate (for lack of a better term) that absolutely obstructs the entire width of the river at one spot. The banks are too steep on each side of it to portage around and the only way through is to get out of your boat and carefully try to slip through one of the open “tabs” of the wooden gate. A friend of mine and I did this during mid-summer so the water was low enough for it not to be a real issue (then again, I’m a skinny guy who’s 6’ tall…).

I’ve never seen a structure like this on any river, nor am I sure that it’s even legal for a farmer to put one up. It’s so weird and random and preposterous that I have often wanted to return just to take a photo of it. But I don’t ever want to do this paddle again so I haven’t. Unless your boat has a kind of “Knight Rider” option of leaping over the cattle gate, you’re going to run into trouble here. If you get pinned against the gate, remember to lean into the gate, so that your bottom acts as a buttress against the current. This will at least protect you from being dragged under, which is awful and scary and one surefire way of ruining what is supposed to be a wonderful day on the water.

What we liked:
There were some riffles, which are always fun, including one stretch at the end for about 100 yards of what probably would constitute as Class I. Beyond that, not too much.

What we didn’t like:
The damn cattle gate! It’s terrible. Plus, the takeout was a choice between two undesirables: either shin-deep mud on private land or dragging your boat a ¼ mile up a muddy, stench-ridden gulch. You do have to take out, because there’s a dam in Belleville.

If we did this trip again:
No way will I ever do this again!

Related Information:
Sugar River Overview: Sugar River Paddle Guide
Sugar River III: Valley Road to Paoli
Sugar River VIII: White Crossing Road to Valley Road
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


Alternate Trip Report: Shorter Paddle (6.25 Miles)
County Road A to Belleville
March 28, 2015
☆ ☆ ☆

A short and pretty but not terribly remarkable trip on the Upper Sugar ending in the delightful town of Belleville. This is a good place to go for beginners or those looking to knock off a couple hours after work.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Verona: ht/ft: 3.04 | cfs: 50

Current Levels:
Verona: ht/ft: 2.84 | cfs: 38.6

County Road A
GPS: 42.90042, -89.52982
Belleville Community Park, Belleville, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.86104, -89.53574

Time: Put in at 2:10p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 2h 20m
Miles Paddled: 6.25

Mergansers, two wood ducks, lots of sandhill cranes, one great blue heron, unidentifiable fish and a beaver.


March was a tease this year. After a couple weeks of blissful unseasonable warmth at the beginning, the second half of the month has gone out more like a lion than lamb. The forecast was sunny but upper 30s for Saturday, a little bit warmer for Sunday but rainy and windy. Thus, Saturday was the day for paddling. But the Badgers game in the Elite Eight was shockingly early (5:07 pm CST) so a trip closer to home and not too long on the water was the most sensible choice. The Sugar River seemed like a good bet, despite the low water. I’d done this stretch once before, years ago, but I did not truly cover it for the site. So that’s the back-story.

What we liked:
The Sugar is just a pleasant little gem of a stream. It’s not an amazing river in the sense of jaw-dropping rock outcrops, awesome rapids, or even significant riffles. But it’s close to home, the water clarity (at least in the upper river) is clear, the bottom sandy and the meanders are charming. Notable wildlife spotting is almost always a given, too. I really liked the variety of landscape settings on this short trip. The river flows past wide open spaces with sweeping panoramas of the valley and then tree-canopied spots dotted with thick oaks. There are pleasant bends and tight twists, especially in the wooded sections to keep you on your toes.

As you approach Belleville itself you’ll see a huge ridge – more like an escarpment or cuesta – that runs parallel to Highway 92. In the final section the river bends to the left and crawls past an attractive hill lined with pine trees. It’s around this point that the current comes to a silent halt, due to the lake effect impoundment caused by the dam in downtown Belleville. It wasn’t a big deal (the gradient on this trip is pretty skimpy to begin with) but I was surprised it caused a backup so far upstream. The takeout at an actual launch in a pretty and nicely designed park was a breeze. Parking is nearby and there’s water and restrooms, too.

Also nearby is the delightful Belleville Ale House. We didn’t have anything to eat but their beer menu (taps and bottles) was quite commendable. Plus it’s a beautiful interior. Our bartender plied us with free Gardetto’s and sauce, all lagniappe. If you’re in the area, we highly reco this place!

What we didn’t like:
When I paddled this the first time, three or four years ago, I (mis?)remembered it having a lot more riffles comparable to Badfish Creek. Maybe that’s due to the natural warp of memory, maybe the water was much higher at the time… Who knows? The water was very shallow during this trip, but that has everything to do with the lack of snowmelt and absence of spring rain (it’s not the river’s fault). Otherwise, there are two sets of wires to watch out for – both well marked with surveyor’s tape and even a warning sign beforehand.

This trip can be narrow in spots and those spots seem always to coincide with tree cover. There’s a fair amount of fallen trees in the water, but none so obnoxious as to require portaging (there were several conspicuous indications of sawed off limbs – thanks volunteers!). I got out of my boat to remove one large tree limb jutting into the water right at a bend where the current was quick. So while it was clear for me, my hunch is it can be prone to fallen trees in the future. Just something to think about if you plan on doing this stretch.

If we did this trip again:
This trip is definitely pleasant enough to do again but for me personally not until after exploring other untapped sections of the Sugar.

Photo Gallery:


Alternate Trip Report: Shorter Paddle (7.75 Miles)
Highway 69 to County Road A
October 4, 2015
☆ ☆ ☆

A pleasant jaunt in south-central Dane County that ventures through farms, woods and one cute-as-a-button town on a stream with clear water and a bottom ranging from sandy to gravelly, with lots of riffles and a fun Class I ledge.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Verona: ht/ft: 3.3 | cfs: 59

Current Levels:
Verona: ht/ft: 2.84 | cfs: 38.6

Highway 69, Paoli, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.94901, -89.54412
County Road A, Basco, Wisconsin
GPS: 42.90032, -89.52971

Time: Put in at 11:20a. Out at 2:00p.
Total Time: 2h 40m
Miles Paddled: 7.75

Lots of trout, blue-winged teal, sandhill cranes and a great blue heron.


A revisit of an old haunt – in this sense haunted, due to a terrible, nasty, no-good, awful and quite illegal cattle gate that spooked the dickens out of my friend and me several years ago when we paddled a portion of this trip from Paoli to Belleville. Back in August, Miles Paddled received word from a fan of the site that the cattle gate had been partially removed and thus no longer a safety threat to paddlers, which rekindled my curiosity about doing this segment again (thanks to Wade for letting us know about this improvement and also a huge thanks to the good folks of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Area and the DNR for working together with the landowner to come to an amenable compromise!)

So with this beast out of the way, I really wanted to explore the Paoli to County Road A (Basco) section of the Sugar River, as I’ve done the Verona to Paoli section several times and paddled the Basco to Belleville section earlier this year, in March. I chose the Highway 69 bridge as a put-in for this trip because I knew that Dane County had recently acquired the land along the river and that there was a parking area off the road. Plus the 2+ miles between Highway 69 and Paoli are pretty and fun. You can add another couple miles by putting in upstream at Riverside Road. But the Packers were playing at 3:30 pm and we wanted to be back in time, so we opted for a shorter paddle.

What we liked:
This is a pleasant trip with a variety of scenery along the way, ranging from thick woods, cow pastures and a small but very quaint town. The put-in is excellent and a welcome addition. The water is attractively clear, riffly and intimately narrow (much more like a creek than a river in this upper section). The meandering nature of the stream is quite present in the first mile – you’ll want to give yourself some time to do this trip, especially if you paddle it with another or a couple others, so that everyone doesn’t pile up on one another. It’s not spectacular per se but it’s certainly pretty, pleasant and a nice alternative to Badfish Creek or Koshkonong Creek (relatively similar streams about equally far from Madison as the Sugar).

After you begin to see buildings on your right, approaching Paoli, the river will swing to the left and you’ll see a sign that reads:

Fast Water

It’s an 18” drop that’s plenty safe and easy to run but there’s a well-marked portage on the right if you wish to avoid this (alternatively, you can run it, take-out on the right and run the drop again as many times as you like). This is the only rapids of the trip.

After the drop, woods enclose again all the way to downtown Paoli and here the riffles pick up in earnest (and for the most part remain all the way to the takeout). At the County Road PB bridge, choose the right channel around the island. After that, Highway 69 runs parallel to the river for a mile or two and there will be two wires/gates to paddle under (the second of which is the formerly infamous gate).

The river will swing west, away from the road and woods will once again enclose in an especially pretty and remote-feeling part of this trip. This was my favorite section. The takeout bridge at County Road A has no official landing or parking area but it’s easy to access on upstream river-left and there’s next to no traffic on the road.

A very special thanks must be made to all the volunteers who keep these segments of the Sugar River clear of deadfall. Evidence of recently sawed off limbs and totally-removed trees was everywhere. We didn’t have to portage once and only twice were there low-clearance trees where we had to duck under (maybe limbo under in higher water). The folks at the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association deserve commendable thanks for all that they do, whether it’s organizing, outreaching, collaborating or chainsawing. This trip would be miserable without their efforts. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

What we didn’t like:
There are one or two sections on the river where it widens and the surrounding landscape is bland, flat, agricultural and/or the sound of Highway 69 is immediately present. These are worth putting up with on account of what precedes and follows them but they’re worth mentioning as well.

The other thing with this segment of the Sugar River is watching the water level. You shouldn’t consider doing this below 50 cfs; it will be just too low and you’ll be scraping/walking more than paddling. Alas, it often is on the shallow side, so just be mindful about this.

If we did this trip again:
The Sugar is a darling stream, especially if you live in the area. It’s not really a “destination” river though. So unless you’re already in the area, whether living here or visiting, I wouldn’t recommend driving more than an hour to paddle it. But those of us who do live nearby are awfully lucky to have this treasure so near to our homes.

We’d definitely do this again, either exactly as is or putting-in upstream or taking-out downstream in Belleville.

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    Tandem Paddler
    July 15, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    The impoundment (Lake Belle View) above the dam at Belleville has been improved over the last couple of years, so the take-out should be improved. We put in downstream of the dam yesterday (7-14-13) and paddled to the Hwy X take-out, so we did not get to try the landing above the dam, but it appeared there has been a small swimming beach constructed near the southeast corner of the lake, North of Bross Circle and West of Hwy 69(no swimming bouys or signage, but folks were swimming there both at put in and when we retreived our car).

  • Reply
    Andy Richardson
    September 13, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    I've paddled this stretch too. The cattle "gate": WTF!! I was not able to get under it in the kayak or on foot. I portaged around by climbing up the steep bank on the left, through weeds 4-5 feet high, and then putting in on the back side of the "gate". There was not any fencing to deal with this way but the bank was very steep. Throw the boat up first. There were two other dead falls to portage, but besides that I actually really enjoyed this stretch of river. Saw three bald eagles about 2 miles up river from Belleville. My trip was 8/21/2013.

  • Reply
    Ram bling
    September 18, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Hey Andy,

    Thanks for the comment. What the 'f' indeed! I don't know how this can be legal… I agree though that this section of the Sugar is otherwise quite pretty and fun. Paddle on!


  • Reply
    Wade Moder
    August 6, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    I can tell you that the ferocious cattle gate in question had a section of it removed on the east side of the river, and is now easily passable. Thanks to the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association and DNR for working with the land owner to physically remove that section of fencing.

  • Reply
    Colet Cook
    October 31, 2016 at 12:09 am

    I have read your information on the Paoli to Belleville section of the Sugar River a few times over the past 5 years and always wonder why you had such a bad experience. I must say that I’m glad you gave it such a poor rating because I usually get to enjoy this section of the river all by myself! I paddle this part of the Sugar at least 4 times every year between April and October. I think that this section is about 45% wooded and 35% farm crops (mostly corn) and the other 20% is marsh or natural prairie.

    Today, the fall colors were beautiful. The river was at least 12 inches higher than average and fast. It took me 3 and 1/2 hours but that included about 1/2 hour of stops to talk to a home owner, snack/stretch break and watch and photograph wildlife plus another 30-45 minutes exploring backwater areas. My kayak is faster than the average kayak and I steadily paddle unless I’m looking at wildlife.

    Today, I only had trouble with 3 obstacles. Two farmer fences were a challenge because the water was so high and I didn’t know if I could bend over far enough to get under one but managed it, and the other one I had to lift up the barbed wire line to get under it. One tree was down and the area that had been sawed off was blocked by other debris. I managed to get 1/2 way over the trunk and had to wiggle my kayak over the rest of the way, it was a little precarious. There were many trees that had fallen on the river but there was always a way through. I enjoy the challenge of having to figure out the best spot to squeeze through and maneuver around trees. The farmer just south of Paoli who used to have plywood boards hanging across the river where a portage was required has removed one section of board which is easy to get through.

    I almost always see bald eagles and saw 2 today and discovered an eagle’s nest I’d never seen before in a backwater area close to Belleville. Today, I also saw, for the very first time, 2 river otters! I saw great blue herons over 14 times, hawks 8 times (3 were red tailed hawks), heard sandhill cranes, saw belted kingfishers, blue jay, red bellied woodpecker, American black capped chickadees, hundreds of red winged blackbirds, barred owl, wood ducks, mallard ducks, Canadian geese, muskrat, 6-point buck and a doe. There were lots of other birds that I couldn’t ID their appearance or birdcalls.

    Other times, on this section of the river, I have seen northern flickers, various warblers, orioles, green herons, red breasted grosbeaks, northern shovelers, great horned owls, blue winged teals, double crested cormorants, various woodpeckers, nesting sandhill cranes, mink and hundreds of cedar waxwings.

    I enter by the Paoli Mill Terrace and Park and take out by the little boat landing in Belleville. I have no problems, except when weddings are taking place in the park and they have the parking blocked off, then I just go upstream to the next put in spot where there is a parking lot. The boat landing in Belleville is before you go around the corner to the dam. They had a boat dock a few years ago but haven’t put it in the last 2 years so I just get out on a large flat rock next to the landing.

    Just thought you might want to give this section another chance someday and, if you do, I hope you have a better experience.

  • Reply
    Ben Fitch
    June 18, 2023 at 4:29 pm

    I tried continuing on past Paoli and Basco to get to Belleville a year or two ago, and it had gotten pretty clogged with trees. I ended up paddling back upstream some, giving up, hiding my stuff, and then running to my bike — not a great experience, but it’s looking better now!

    I cleared some limbs on my first attempt, and did a few more this time. Others have also clearly been doing good work in the Basco Wildlife Area and beyond – many thanks to them! It’s still a maneuvering challenge, but the variety of the landscape makes it a decent paddle. 2 wires remain that could be problematic when the river’s high, and one looks electrified.

    Percentage of time attacked by deer flies: 4%
    Incredibly smelly farms: 1
    Houses: Half a dozen; not too shabby!
    Depth: Verona gauge was at 71.5 — this might be my recommended minimum for this stretch. Some of the farm sections look to have had bank erosion that’s decreasing the depth. There were some decent sections of fast riffles at this level that I like to think of class 0.5 rapids.

    Pro: A large chunk Highway 69 that’s currently closed for construction is a pretty big bonus — super quiet on a Saturday. I almost forgot the highway was there at all until orange barrels would come into view.
    Con: Yeah, the last mile or two has basically no current, but that’s when you get a good workout in!!

    Final note: The Belleville Community Park somehow hadn’t put their dock in the water yet, but the takeout is still better than it sounds like it used to be.

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