Turtle Creek is a real gem in southern Wisconsin. Popular with locals but for some reason mostly unknown to outsiders (which is probably just fine by the locals), there’s a lot to love about this pretty stream. It’s not terribly long (only 44 miles, one-third of which we recommend skipping altogether) and it’s often on the shallow side – the Beloit section in particular – but there’s still a variety of environments it passes through, each with its own trip experience.
First off, even though it’s called a creek, it looks and feels like a river. Even in its upstream sections in Delavan it ranges between 50-100’ wide. Why it’s called a creek and not a river is anybody’s guess. It flows out of Turtle Lake, south of Whitewater and close to the very attractive Ice Age Trail segments in the Kettle Moraine South (close to, but no cigar). From its source, the creek is entirely channelized for 8 miles and change to Comus Lake. Out of Comus Lake it behaves like a creek again but there are some undesirable aspects until School Section Road.
For those reasons we really only recommend the three sections from School Section Road to Dickop Street, about 50 yards upstream of the confluence at Rock River. These three sections couldn’t be more different from one another, which makes the Turtle even more notable. See below for the specifics, but you essentially have your choice of lush public land and flatwater; riffles, a few rocks and the prettiest bridge you may have never yet seen; or urban escapade in moving water with some rapids.
Turtle Lake to Comus Lake
We haven’t paddled this section and frankly, we’d only attempt it if we lost a bet or if someone paid us. It’s been subjugated by agriculture, its streambed artificially channelized (is “lobotomized” too strong a word?). For 7-ish miles… and then you’re paddling a lake. It seems entirely pointless even if it is doable, about which we’re uncertain in the first place.
Comus Lake to School Section Road
Miles: 6 | 2015 Trip Report
This stretch is tricky. Access from the lake to the creek is ambiguous and there’s a dodgy low-head dam within the first half-mile that awaits. In high water (300 cfs) it’s runnable, but it’s typically a smart rule of thumb to leave these beasts be and portage around them. Trouble here is there’s no practical place to do so. What about putting-in below the dam? Sure, in theory, but in reality there’s no way to do so without schlepping your gear a long distance through brush and marsh. And while ordinarily we’re none to shy away from minimal inconvenience for maximum reward, here there’s very little reward. Do it if you’re curiously curious, otherwise, you won’t be missing much by skipping this.
School Section Road to O’Riley Road
Miles: 8.25 | 2015 Trip Report
OK, here’s where the getting gets good. For one, virtually all of this 8-mile segment lies along public land, the pretty Turtle Creek Wildlife Area. You’ll see very few buildings in this stretch. In fact, most of the signs of civilization are simply bridges. The rest is just open natural space, not even many farms (a rarity in this part of the state). The current is gentle, even when the water is high. But for one very brief area below Creek Road, there should be no taxing obstructions to encounter. This trip doesn’t have a whole lot of drama but it’s really pretty, sweet and tranquil. Another plus? The bridges between School Section and O’Riley roads come at uncannily even 2-mile marks and each has access to the water, so you can shorten – or add to – this trip as much as you’d like.
O’Riley Road landing to Sweet-Allyn Park
Miles: 9.75 | 2019, 2016, 2013 Trip Reports
Whereas the previous trip has a uniform feel of pretty paddling and surroundings, this trip – also pretty but more developed in the mid-section – feels like a familiar road trip with known landmarks along the way. Here, you’ll first come upon the Little Turtle Creek on your left (paddleable up to a point), attractive but camouflaged rock outcroppings on both banks, a handful of hollows and raised banks, an old truss bridge in a country setting, a gorgeous and historical limestone arch railroad bridge, many pleasant riffles, one easy rapid and a gazillion great blue herons all along the way. Accesses are excellent, and there’s even a bar with a back patio facing the water on the opposite bank of the take-out. Water levels can be tricky, however. Paddle this at 200+ cfs to avoid scraping. At 300 cfs the creek really swings – but remains safe for any level of paddler. This is a great trip!
Sweet-Allyn Park to Dickop Street
Miles: 11.5 | 2013, 2011 Trip Reports
The final leg of Turtle Creek offers the least secluded section of the stream anywhere, but it’s probably the most fun too. You’ll never be far from houses or development, in fact, you’ll be paddling into the heart of country homes, then suburban back yards and finally the very urban Beloit and South Beloit. But midway through the better homes and gardens tour, the gradient increases precipitously and the riffles-light rapids combination packs a one-two punch that does not take a breather until the take-out. Either you won’t mind the houses and yards since the creek is so fun, or you’ll be too focused on reading the water and avoiding obstructions in the peppy current to notice. Of all the stretches on Turtle Creek, this is the only one that requires caution and beyond-beginner paddling skill. It’s not difficult or dangerous but basic boat control is a must. If you’re confident in that, you’ll love this trip. It’s an absolute blast.