★ ★ ★

Sugar River X

Highway 69 to County Road A: 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.

Sugar River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 4, 2015

Class Difficulty:
Riffles (One Class I ledge)

3.5′ per mile

Verona: ht/ft: 3.3 | cfs: 59

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

Highway 69, Paoli, Wisconsin
County Road A, Basco, Wisconsin

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.

Shuttle Information:
4.3 miles by car or 6.3 miles by bike (half of which lies along the Badger State Trail).


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.

Related Information:
Sugar River Overview: Sugar River Paddle Guide
Sugar River II: Paoli to Belleville
Sugar River III: Valley Road to Paoli
Sugar River VII: Riverside Road to Paoli
Sugar River IX: County Road A to Belleville
Sugar River XII: 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

Photo Gallery:

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