Highway 35 to Perrot State Park:
An easy trip surrounded by a national wildlife refuge that finishes with one of the absolute prettiest backdrops of Mississippi River bluffs. Set one after the other in such dramatic fashion, it’s easy to forget that this is still the upper Midwest and not New England or the Adirondacks of New York.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 27, 2014
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
1.4′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Dodge: ht/ft: 4.90 | cfs: 440
Dodge: ht/ft: 5.29 | cfs: 404
This is a very recommendable level.
Time: Put in at 2:20p. Out at 4:40p.
Total Time: 2h 20m
Miles Paddled: 5.75
A bald eagle, great blue herons, a snowy egret, killdeer, kingfishers, turtles and muskrats.
6.2 miles on bike and a magnificent bike ride it is. The car shuttle is 6.4 miles. Take the back entrance/exit of the park, not the main entrance.
Not counting cars or the intermittent sleeping bag on a beach, Perrot State Park is the place I first camped alone with actual gear and did so intentionally, (not out of a homeless happenstance of desperation) so it remains firmly fond in my heart’s memory (even though on the last night a nasty storm pummeled the area with heavy downpour and 50-mph winds, snapping one of the tent poles like a toothpick with the net result of a restless evening in a half-collapsed tent with a sopping wet tent wall stuck on my face, my feet in a puddle of water, in mid-November no less – good times!). It’s also gorgeous, easily within the state’s top ten parks and is as rich in history as it is in great trails and amazing views of the Mississippi River and the bluffs of Minnesota on the other side. Plus there’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet of Trempealeau (aka “Tremplo”) just three miles east of the park, where if nothing else there are two mentionables: the Mississippi River Lock & Dam and the historic Trempealeau Hotel (more on the hotel and state park below).
Given that my nostalgic campground lies on the fringe of Trempealeau Bay and that the bay is where the Trempealeau River empties into the mighty Mississip, one might think that this river has been itching to be paddled on my to-do list. Actually, not so much. The Trempealeau River is pretty long, its headwaters near Hixton, Wisconsin (better known as the next exit after Black River Falls on I-94) but much of it is too shallow and marshy to bother with. The traditional sections covered in paddling guidebooks are from Whitehall to Dodge – some 30+ miles of easygoing clear water with nothing terribly challenging or dramatic. Barry recently covered the Whitehall to Independence section, which essentially confirmed my prejudice against the Trempealeau River: despite it being a Driftless Area river and located in one of my favorite playground areas in the state, there is little one would describe as spectacular – no riffles, no rapids, no limestone or sandstone rock outcrops, no towering bluffs. Until Perrot State Park, that is.
There, about a mile before the take-out, the previously enclosed tree canopy opens up onto a wide-angle panorama of two bluffs apiece on each side of the river, Brady’s Bluff on the left and Trempealeau Mountain on the right, both equally magnificent. This view only improves the closer you approach the two and the effect is simply stupendous. It was even more than what I had been hoping for when planning this trip and I was positively giddy. There are precious few such views in the Midwest but this one is priceless and can rival any you’d find in the northeast. Why this last section of the Trempealeau River is not better covered and advocated, I have no idea. But I am both humbled and bubbling to share and recommend it now!
What we liked:
Let’s start at the beginning. First, the put-in off Highway 35 is a dedicated boat landing, so the access is easy, safe and excellent. The water was up, so the current was steady and surprisingly swift. “Surprising” in that the Trempealeau is a gentle stream in general and most tributaries of the Mississippi River tend to slow down to a crawl the closer they reach their confluence, so this was unexpected but welcome. The setting is quite pretty too: lush, rolling bluffs in every direction in the backdrop – you’re in the heart of Driftless Country.
In the first couple miles you’ll be in a mostly marshy environment with a very pleasant blend of tallgrass, cattails, oak trees and the occasional midriff glimpse of bluffs in the distance. A number of smallish islands provide alternate channels to choose and with them, bragging rights about who chose wisely and who got stuck! Immediately you’ll see signs on the right for the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a 6,200-acre wetland and rest stop for the million-winged migration of birds along the Mississippi Flyway from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The refuge is maintained by a series of dikes, gates and pumps that mirrors the natural cycle of flooding and drainage in response to the backed up swell of Mississippi River water caused by the locks and dams, providing excellent habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
Here’s a fun fact that if you’re a word nerd like me you’ll love: The word “refuge” comes from the Latin re- meaning again and fugere meaning to flee (think fugitive). So in essence “refuge” means to return to the place from which one earlier fled and to be a refugee is less a leaving from one place than an ultimate return to another, to an ancient home. Does that not tingle a certain something in the back of your soul? It does mine.
Also on the right, about a half-mile or so downstream from the put-in you’ll see a raised bank and maybe a bicyclist or two, for that is the Great River State Trail, an exquisite crushed limestone corridor converted from a railway bed that runs parallel to the Mississippi River all the way to downtown La Crosse (from where, incidentally, one then can connect to the La Crosse River State Trail to Sparta, from where one then can further connect to the Elroy-Sparta State Trail to Elroy, from where one then can connect yet again to The 400 State Trail to Reedsburg – that’s a hundred miles of incredible bicycling all on dedicated state trails. Pretty good beginning, no?
The river itself has a sandy bottom but being so close to its confluence with the Mississippi there’s a muddy mixture. About 60’ wide, the Trempealeau is narrow enough to feel intimate but big enough so that downed trees are not a problem. In fact, this last stretch of the Trempealeau is mostly straight, so maneuvering is at a minimum. There are a few downed trees to dodge here, an up-poking log there but it’s all very negotiable and evident. By and by, there’s just enough to demand paying attention but none of it is challenging, thus making it a perfect stream for newbies renting canoes or kayaks from the state park or those paddling their own boats for the first time.
Two miles downstream from the put-in is the next/last access point on the river at the Refuge Road bridge where there’s an excellent landing on the river-left downstream-side of the bridge. From here to Perrot is another 3.5 miles and it’s simply spectacular. A mostly tree-canopied section both precedes and succeeds the bridge, providing welcome relief from the sun on a hot day. The scene here is verdant green and lovely, though peeks of autumn color scampishly flourished on saplings and vines. A hundred yards or so downstream from the bridge the river will sway to the south (a gradual right-hand bend). On our trip, we first saw two kayakers coming upstream, then a party of two canoes. As the river bends to the right/south, you’ll see a channel on the far-left around what turns out to be a ginormous island (especially noticeable when canoes come from out of the blue paddling upstream). This is part of the Voyageurs Canoe Trail in Perrot (see map), a 4.5-mile counterclockwise loop around Trempealeau Bay – a quite reputable alternative to river paddling for those without the means of shuttling.
A long straightaway follows with peek-a-boo hints here and there of the huge bluffs ahead. Eventually the tree canopy recedes, the horizon widens and two looming bluffs in the near-distance develop into view: Brady’s Bluff on the left and Trempealeau Mountain on the right. Sure, the wildlife refuge is great and who doesn’t like a bike shuttle option on a dedicated trail? But this, my friends, this is why you want to paddle the final miles of the Trempealeau River.
First comes Trempealeau Mountain. To be fair, it’s only 425’ high – more hill than mountain. Blame the French, for they’re the ones who described this island as la montagne qui trempe a l’eau, or “the mountain that soaks in water.” (Incidentally, did you catch that last part – “trempe a l’eau”? Yup, whence the name “Trempealeau” comes – or as the locals call it “Tremplo,” which is admittedly a whole lot easier to spell!) Keep this in mind too: in all of the Mississippi River, all 2,300+ miles of it, there are only three such rock islands the likes of Trempealeau Mountain and this is the only one in the upper Mississippi. Today, Trempealeau Mountain is a dedicated state natural area (SNA) that is part of Perrot State Park. It is accessible by water only.
Next is Brady’s Bluff, a little bit behind and to the left (east) of Trempealeau Mountain. At 520’ high, Brady’s Bluff is nothing to sneeze at. If you have time only to hike one trail in Perrot, let it be this (though you’re still shorting yourself by not spending a couple hours of serenity amongst the wondrous hiking trails in the park – doubling, by the way, as some of the absolute most fun cross-country skiing anywhere in Wisconsin, seriously). Brady’s Bluff is the leading star in the impressive ensemble of Perrot State Park. Well, maybe it’s Trempealeau Mountain – it’s hard to say. Paddling in Trempealeau Bay is simply gorgeous and totally tame and safe. Entering into this home stretch truly called to mind scenes in New England or upstate New York, my old stomping grounds and childhood haunts. The Mississippi River bluffs can pass for the mountains of western Massachusetts or southern Vermont any day. Together with coquettish winks of autumn color beginning to blush, I really felt like I was back east. That’s probably why the Driftless feels so at home to me… But there ain’t no Mississippi out east, or the Packers!
A quick heads-up here. Don’t be lured towards Trempealeau Mountain thinking there’s a way around it, you’ll just end up in a series of muddy dead-ends. Close to the east shore of the “mountain” what remains of the river braids out into a series of semi-navigable channels. Take the one furthest left (east) and/or just follow the helpful blue canoe signs that mark the water trail. As you do you’ll paddle up to the base of Brady’s Bluff. Here you have two take-out choices: Chinese or pizza. Just kidding. There’s both an official boat launch for motorboats as well as a kind of makeshift canoe launch. The official boat launch is easier since it skips the upstream paddling of a couple hundred yards required of the canoe launch. Plus the parking lot is much closer for the boat launch. At the canoe launch you have to carry/drag your boat about 100 yards across a grassy area. But there’s generally more traffic at the boat launch, so really it’s up to you. Both are pretty easy and convenient either way.
Last thing to mention here is the bike shuttle. Now, ordinarily I try to be pretty modest about shuttling. I am a bicycle commuter during my Mon-Fri life and bike shuttle 95% of the time for paddling trips, so allow me to lay down my obvious bias here on the table (but I totally recognize for a lot of people this is neither feasible nor practical). However, if there is one time you really should bike shuttle, it’s this trip. From the canoe launch to the put-in is only a 6.2-mile pedal, all but a couple hundred yards of it along the Great River Trail. A spur off of the campground loop road leads to the official trail, so access is supremely easy. I used my regular road bike and its skinny, smooth tires were totally fine on the compact crushed limestone surface of the trail. The section of the trail from Refuge Road to the northern-most trailhead at Highway 35 truly is one of the most beautiful stretches of bike riding I’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience. All of it is enclosed within the national refuge, in this section surrounded by an oak savanna with gentle hills, alluring bends and more glimpses of Driftless bluffs in the distance. On a sunny autumn afternoon, the soon to set sun kissing your skin on an Indian Summer weekend, the experience was simply exquisite!
Barry and I had very different experiences both on the Trempealeau River (two distinctly different sections of it) as well as Perrot State Park and the Trempealeau Hotel. Perrot is one of my favorite places in Wisconsin, in part because I myself have a personal relationship with it forged years ago. But the park itself is truly a wonder. The trails are excellent, whether in the valley shade nestled in a nook or atop a rocky bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, alongside one of many effigy burial mounds, spring, summer, autumn, or winter.
There’s a lot of human history here, too – first inhabited by the ancient Hopewellian Indians who left their burial mounds surrounded by mystery and many unanswered questions, then the Oneota and Ioway and eventually the Sioux and Winnebago (Ho-Chunk). The French Voyageur Nicholas Perrot first came to Perrot in 1685; an archeological dig by a local high school unearthed the bones of bear, elk, and buffalo in a spot that is presumed to have been his garbage pit after spending one long winter in the park. He claimed the area for France but it was ceded to the English after the French and Indian War, which territory was then ceded to the Americans after the War for Independence, although not without first having been expropriated from the Dakota Indians. Throughout this it’s worth noting that the tiny rock island named Trempealeau in the middle of the Mississippi River stayed put. The Indians, the Europeans, the Americans; the flight migration of millions of birds; the barge traffic up and down the big river and the long freight trains of the BNSF running parallel on both shores – the one constant in all this state of change is the mountain that soaks in water.
As for the Trempealeau Hotel, I feel a need to defend it without sounding defensive. I’ve been there on half a dozen occasions in the last 10 years and have never had anything but a great time. Dating back to 1871, the hotel, bar and restaurant truly do feel like stepping back in time… in the best way possible. The bar is fun, the food is good and the rooms upstairs are a delight – where else can you stay for $50 a night in a retro-cool furnished room with creaking floorboards and train-rattling windows with a view of the river and bluffs above an old bar and restaurant? It’s a unique experience and one I strongly advocate. Is their walnut burger the best thing since sliced bread? No; I’d recommend ordering the walnut burger balls as an appetizer and saving your entrée for something else. But it’s a solid menu altogether and I personally have found the staff always down-to-earth, kind, helpful and appreciative of their customers. Barry, I am truly sorry you had a crappy first impression of the place! I assure you it was the exception to the rule and will gladly go back there with you anytime to prove it so.
What we didn’t like:
There really isn’t anything to dislike about this trip, but in order that I be objective I will say this: from the put-in to Refuge Road there was an unrelenting staccato of gunshots none too far away along the river-left. It probably was target shooting on someone’s private land but it was a bit of a distraction – and detraction.
Otherwise, the only thing is this trip is too short! A scarcity of accesses is part of the problem. From the satellite view there appears to be an impromptu put-in off County Road P on the right, 1.7 miles north of Highway 35. This would add 2.75 miles of paddling for a total 8.5-mile trip, which would be perfect, but I can’t confirm whether this is an option. Otherwise you have to go up to the town of Dodge for the next access but this would make for a very long day on the water. Or, rather than adding on at the beginning, one could exit Trempealeau Bay and enter the Mississippi River itself just to say you did or around/through a nearby island and quickly back upstream into the bay. I’ve marked this on the map as a possible option, but I myself didn’t do it. It goes without saying that paddling the Mississippi River always requires caution and sound judgment, since the current is strong, headwinds can be challenging and commercial barge traffic can be dangerous.
If we did this trip again:
Next time, and there definitely will be a next time, I’ll see about putting-in upstream and maybe going into the Mississippi River as well. Either way, I’ll be sure to get out and hike up Trempealeau Mountain, for which fun I had not given myself enough time.