★ ★ ★ ★

Willow Creek

Highway 58 to Dog Hollow Road:
A scenic trip that’s as thrilling as it is serene set in the gorgeous Driftless country of Richland County. The best that Willow Creek has to offer the paddler is here, beginning with stunning rock outcrop bluffs, frisky riffles, and finally the most peaceful meadow of lazy meandering you can imagine. Add to these features clear, cold water and remarkable wildlife. Now subtract the following from this promotional premise: poor accesses, a few truly awful portages, and a stream that is often too shallow to paddle. That’s Willow Creek in a nutshell, a true diamond in the rough.

Willow Creek

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 5 + 22, 2017
Date note: We visited the creek on two separate occasions, on account of various circumstances. You can certainly treat Willow Creek as two separate trips, but for a variety of reasons it makes more sense to do both as a singular outing.

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: 
Riffles

Gradient:
≈6′ per mile first four miles, 2′ per mile for the remainder

Gauge:
n/a
Gauge note: 
There are no good gauges nearby to correlate water levels. The best thing to do is to wait to paddle Willow after some rain. Mark at Pine River Paddle & Tube knows the area very well; contact him for current conditions.

Recommended Levels:
Anytime there’s enough water to get through the first five miles without having to get out of your boat. Willow Creek is usually very shallow, so catching it with enough water will be tricky. That said, stay off if it’s too high, as it’s prone to flash flooding. When in doubt, consult the local outfitter for advice. The second four miles should have more consistent, predictable water levels.

Put-In:
Highway 58 just south of County Road D and north of Loyd, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
Dog Hollow Road, Neptune, Wisconsin

Trip 1: 8.5.17 (Highway 58 to Dog Hollow Road)
Time: Put in at 4:45p. Out at 6:30p.
Miles Paddled: 4.25

Trip 2: 8.22.17 (Highway 58 to Highway 58)
Time: Put in at 1:20p. Out at 3:50p.
Miles Paddled: 4.75

Total Time: 4h 15m
Total Miles: 9

Trip note: For what it’s worth, we did these two trips in reverse order of sequence. We recommend paddling sequentially by putting-in at the Highway 58 roadside immediately north of Rustic View Road and then taking-out at Dog Hollow Road.

Wildlife:
Deer, sandhill cranes, wood ducks, great blue herons, hawks, bald eagles, trout, dragonflies galore and songbirds.

Shuttle Information:
4.8 miles, fine for bicycles, pretty much all along Highway 58. Alternatively, one could take Roger Drive off of Dog Hollow Road, for a more scenic jaunt. It’s a dirt-gravel road, however, which won’t be suitable for some bike tires.


Background:

First, let’s be clear about something, there’s more than one “Willow Creek” in Wisconsin. Indeed, there’s more than one “Willow Creek Fishery Area” in Wisconsin, too. This Willow Creek and associated public fishing area is in Richland County, not to be confused with the other one in Waushara County.

Willow Creek has been on our backburner for several years now. On a personal note, I (Timothy) had a job as a FedEx driver one ill-fated June in 2014. 14-hour days, $10 an hour, no PTO, whole lotta driving. On the plus side, my route was out in Iowa and Richland Counties. For anyone not from or familiar with the area, it’ll probably sound surreal or bemusing that there are towns in Wisconsin named Boaz, Gotham, Neptune, and Sextonville, and I’m not saying that such town names aren’t without their peculiar curiosity (to say nothing of their pronunciation – yeah, that’s right, I’m looking at you “GO-tham”). But these places used to be part of my daily route. And thanks to them, Willow Creek first came to my attention. At each bridge crossing I slowed down to take a glance (and by that I mean flashed on the hazards, got out of the van and took a look-see). I didn’t like how narrow, shallow, or tree-debris’d the wee creek was, but I sure did admire the landscape and bluffs. Awhile later, Mark from Pine River Paddle, confirmed the secrets this creek held in a Facebook photo gallery, and he then graciously sent us in the right direction with some subsequent info.

Comparable to the Pine River a few miles to the west, of which Willow Creek is a principal tributary, Willow is narrower and rifflier than the Pine. It’s also more rogue, obscure, and prone to shallow water levels. From the Madison area, it’s a good 90-minute drive to Willow Creek – and seriously one of the most heavenly drives in the state (County Roads B and N in Sauk & Richland Counties in particular). So, between the low water levels, likelihood of running into deadfall, and a long drive, it’s taken us awhile to finally get out there.

Also, while it shouldn’t be surprising that in a woodsy state like Wisconsin there are more rivers than one named “Pine,” what are the odds that there’s a Pine River also in Waushara County that’s also a part of Willow Creek Fishery Area? Come on, Wisconsin! Let’s step up our appellations!

Overview:
Willow Creek begins south of Cazenvovia and west of Lime Ridge, mainly flowing south – parallel to Highway 58 (under which it’ll cross several times) – before feeding the Pine River below Twin Bluff Road. There are two options for putting-in at the northern-more portions of Highway 58 (north of “downtown” Loyd): one is horrible, the second is quite decent. Of course we opted for the horrible one. Why? To take advantage of some riffles and rock outcrops. We’re hopeless suckers for that. The horrible one is the actual bridge over the creek on Highway 58 due south of County Road D. The better one is along Highway 58, just north of Rustic View Road. The river and a gorgeous bluff will be right on the right (if you’re coming from the south). There’s a public easement here to access the river. It’s roadside parking, on the shoulder, but it’s totally doable. Whereas the bridge at Highway 58 requires a schlep through god-awful weeds and loose rocks and nowhere good to even put in, the easement along Highway 58 is a short schlep without weeds on a flat embankment that’s easy to put in at.

From here for the next five miles the narrow, shallow Willow Creek will follow a pattern of meandering through pastureland in a series of endless, delightful riffles, then run right alongside a rock wall that’s part of a towering bluff, then back to the pastures. You will pass a farm or two, but this trip is very intimate still. And even when you’re coursing through pastures, the surrounding hills of the landscape are supremely pretty.

In all, there are three prominent bluffs in the first half of this trip, all on the left: between the put-in, Doolittle Road and Smyth Hollow Road; between Smyth Hollow Road and Lost Hollow Road; and then between Lost Hollow Road and Highway 58. Each time, the creek flows past it on the left, the water directly lined by rock. The rock wall between Doolittle and Smyth Hollow is exquisitely colored; the sandstone is practically tropical, as is the jade green pool at its base.

These two features – the direct rock walls/towering bluffs and the peppy riffles – are the definitive attributes of the 4.75 mile stretch between the two Highway 58 bridges.

However, they don’t come without a price. And that price is deadfall that you’ll have to portage around. One of the reasons why it took me 2.5 hours to paddle 4.75 miles is I took the time to clear out five spots that were hazardous and/or stupid nuisances. One was an ugly strainer immediately upstream of the “midway point” Highway 58 bridge (i.e., the put-in for one trip and the take-out for the other), the second an equally hideous cluster just downstream from the recommended access along the upper Highway 58 bridge. The other three were between those two. Thank you sawzall!

Still, you’ll have to portage at least three other times. The first two are between Doolittle and Smyth Hollow Road. The first of these is simple and easy as can be, involving dragging your boat about 8′ over a bank that is as low as the water itself, so getting out and back in is effortless. The second one merits language unbecoming to this website. You know it’s a bad portage when you have to use a sawzall just to make the getting up and around whatever’s obstructing the water easier. I got out on the right, pulled my boat up a very steep, uneven bank, over and then under various tree limbs, and walked maybe 20′. This is at least one reason why having a towrope at your bow is a good idea. This portage just sucked. And I’m pretty sure it’s where I picked up my poison ivy which I’ve been scratching six ways to Sunday ever since.

The third portage comes after Lost Hollow Road and sucks as badly as its predecessor. At this point I was impatient and testy, so I just climbed over a huge honking tree and rogue-portaged out of dumb stubbornness. There may be a better way around this one, but there’s no avoiding portaging it.

Above the midway Highway 58 bridge there’s a messy spot that might collect future debris (including a log just beneath the surface that you can ride over easily enough). But as of this paddle, it’s now clear enough to get through.

Things take a change for the better but less dramatic below the midway Highway 58 bridge. From this spot all the way down to the take-out at Dog Hollow Road, the creek is totally undeveloped and protected as public land (part of the Willow Creek Fishery Area). It’s truly a serene landscape, almost all of it open and exposed to the great big sky. My girlfriend perfectly compared it to the Mecan River in its characteristics: a narrow stream that meanders like mad around banks that are neither tall nor short, with tufts of grass growing out of tree stumps in the water resembling a pineapple. Different landscapes entirely, different parts of the state, but similar feels in terms of paddling.

There still are rock outcrops to appreciate, all on the right this time, but they’re all away from the water. Very close, but no longer directly lining the water. And while the current is still moving along, the riffles have long since petered out by now. But the overall effect of the “second half” of this trip is positively delightful. You’re always paddling, given the meandering nature of the creek, and there some obstacles to dodge (including one very easy portage), but the meadowy openness of the landscape, the absence of any development, the Richland County hills in the background, the occasional rock outcrop suddenly appearing behind a bend in the water – it’s all just wonderful.

After one final rock outcrop appearance, Dog Hollow Road will appear. There’s a very adequate take-out on the downstream side of the bridge on the left at a convenient (intentional?) cleft in the banks. There’s even a foot- and boat brush to keep invasive species at bay.

What we liked:
Whether it’s the Wisconsin River, the Kickapoo, the neighboring Pine – we will never tire of paddling rivers that are lined with rock walls. They’re rugged and gorgeous, sure, but they just feel right in a way that’s hard to describe. And while we love the granite of central and northern Wisconsin, there’s just something about sandstone that touches our souls. So, anytime there’s a “new” discovery (relative our radar) with such features, we’re sure to fawn for them.

Willow Creek offers a dazzling display of not just rock walls, but magnificent bluffs towering above its shallow, riffly waters. It is very much like the Pine River just to the west, except that Willow Creek is a smaller stream, which makes it feel more intimate. Add to that its clear, cold waters (habitat for trout), compared to the muddy Pine, and its umpteen riffles, Willow Creek truly is a special place.

Even though we did this 9-mile stretch in two separate trips, any paddler with experience can definitely do this in one singular outing. The more dramatic aspects are in the first “half,” while the second is more peaceful. The two complement one another quite well, and the overall feel will be quite blissful (in spite of the two really bad portages). Think of it as awe-inspiring followed by contemplative.

And to repeat, County Road B in Sauk County and County Road N in Richland County, good lord, are they ever beautiful roads to drive along! Just ribbons of road going up and down hill and dale, left curve, right swerve, barn, bluff, open sky. Seriously, it’s a heavenly drive.

What we didn’t like:
The Highway 58 bridge south of County Road D is a horrible put-in and should be ruled out without further thought. I’m sure it’s less weedy and burly in spring (as opposed to August after a historically wet and hot July), but it’s a damn jungle from the road to the water. Yes, there are cool rock formations and riffles there, but you’ll be treated to more downstream without forfeiting anything.

Similarly, the “midway” Highway 58 bridge that we used as a take-out for one trip and a put-in for the other is also a pretty terrible access. It’s doable beneath the bridge, on river-left, closer to the downstream side, thanks to some rocks to avoid a mud fest; but you’d still have to contend with loose rock rubble and a whole lot more waist-high grass and weeds as you schlep boat and gear a good 30 yards from the bridge to the road. Your other option is getting on the upstream side of the bridge on the right; but here the bank is really steep, the grass really tall.

The low water level was disappointing, but not surprising. I returned to do the upstream “half” the day after the area was forecast to receive half an inch of rain overnight. Maybe it didn’t rain or rain as much. Maybe the creek needs more than half an inch rain to avoid scraping… I had to walk in a couple places because it was just too shallow. It would be a truly thrilling occasion to catch these shallows, shoals and riffles with enough cushion to ride them more like easy rapids. It’s all in the timing…

Really, the main criticism is how deadfall-prone Willow Creek is. We’re glad to have cleared out several obstructions that were there previously and make this trip more accessible for future paddlers, but this is subject to change overnight come the next storm. That’s just inevitable. Meanwhile, the two really bad logjams ain’t going anywhere anytime soon (unless delivered from their evil by river angels with chainsaws). It’s one thing to have to disrupt your time on the water by getting out to go around an obstruction. It’s quite another when the getting around practically requires you to enter a Tough Mudder competition. For some paddlers, such portages might be a deal breaker, which we’d understand. We’d still contend, however, that Willow is worth the effort.

If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely return and do this again – ideally with a chainsaw-wielding crew to clear out some of the awful logjams. Regardless, the official Willow Creek trip will be from the Highway 58 roadside (immediately north of Rustic View Road) to Dog Hollow Road. It’s the best of the best with the least of the worst.

That said, if you only want dramatic rock outcrops and riffles, then put in at the Highway 58 roadside but take out at Lost Hollow Road, downstream side of the bridge on river-right. It’s a better access than the midway Highway 58 bridge and you’ll skip the second of the two nasty logjams.

Incidentally, further downstream in the town of Ithaca (Go Bulldogs!) is a unique ledge immediately upstream of aptly named Willow Creek Road that looks fun. Really though, below Dog Hollow Road Willow Creek becomes increasingly agricultural and less, well, bluffy. Downed trees will be horrendous, and the water itself will be silty from runoff.

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Related Information:
General: Fly Fishing Willow Creek

Photo Gallery:

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