Highway 64 to Willow River State Park:
I want to avoid the “hidden gem” cliché here, but I won’t in singing the praises of this delightful stream with so much to offer, on the exurban edge of the Twin Cities in western Wisconsin. Here you’ll find clear, cold water, very limited development, sandy or gravelly bottom, manageable deadfalls and stimulating riffles – and, for dessert, Class II whitewater.
There are possibly three, even four discrete trips one could make out of a day on the Willow River, depending on your time and paddling appetite. This report will describe four possibilities, but the complete trip could be easily accomplished in a day under the right conditions (and maybe some good luck).
By Denny Caneff
A Miles Paddled contributor
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 6, 2021
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Countless Riffles + Class II (near the end)
≈ 6′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Willow River State Park: ht/ft: 3.90 | cfs: 180
Willow River State Park: ht/ft: 3.78 | cfs: 141
The gauge read 3.9 feet and 180 cfs on the day of my excursion and was adequate if a bit low for my purposes. Average flow at this gauge is 150 cfs. Don’t run it if the flow is below 125 cfs. Another reliable source of flow information is the American Whitewater’s site, which reports hourly readings.
Highway 64, Sather Nature Center, New Richmond, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.11851, -92.56001
Willow River State Park, Willowby Landing, at the junction of County Road I and County Road A, Hudson, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.02504, -92.65638
Time: Put in at 12:30a. Out at 5:45p.
Total Time: 4h 15m
Miles Paddled: 12.5
Possibly the same great blue heron at least ten times. They never seem to learn they can avoid you by flying upstream.
County Road A, whether by bike or car, is the shuttle pipeline for all versions of this trip. Total shuttle miles by bike, between the take-out at County Roads A and I to the uppermost put-in at New Richmond, is 8.5 miles.
The Willow River is probably best known in the whitewater community because of the fun and accessible two-mile stretch of whitewater near Willow River State Park. (There’s a waterfall and gorge in the park that must be avoided.) Beyond that, this river seems to get little attention.
Those two intrepid chroniclers of small Wisconsin rivers, Rick Kark and Frank Piraino, dabbled on different sections of the Willow. In the mid-1990s, Piraino encountered the upper section that I ran but found it “plagued with deadfalls.” There are deadfalls still, but it’s been cured of the plague. For his part, Kark traveled in 1982 from the dam within the state park to a road crossing three miles downstream.
At this point, it’s worth pointing out an odd discrepancy in Google’s renditions of this river. In Google Maps, there is a long, wide “Mounds Pond” depicted where the whitewater section is now. Two dams were removed in this area when Northern States Power Company sold the land to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources to create the park. Removal of the Mounds Dam in 1998 revealed the fine rapids that had been submerged under the pond. On the other hand, Google Earth, even if it has the words “Mounds Pond” stamped on its aerial photo, shows current reality: you can see that vegetation hasn’t completely filled out the old mill pond bottom; the rapids, captured by satellite photography, shimmer in the sun.
I’d never heard of the Willow River Water Trail until seeing a sign for it at 100th Street. I suspect its members or promoters are the river angels cutting some deadfall to keep the river open. Unlike anything else I’ve read about the Willow, the Water Trail promotes the river upstream of the big impoundment at New Richmond. They show the river to be navigable from County Road T, east of New Richmond.
At 4.5 hours at my admittedly rapid pace, the full 12.5 miles may be too much for many paddlers to go from New Richmond to the take-out at the County A and I junction. I’ll describe various trip options. All options assume the take-out at the state park parking lot at the County A and I junction (called the Willowby parking lot on the state park map which requires a state park permit/sticker).
There are three put-in options we’d recommend – Sanger Nature Center in New Richmond, or 100th St., just west of Boardman. Both are well developed. If you just want whitewater thrills, put in at the state park access just off County Road E.
The long trip’s put-in is at the Sather Nature Center in New Richmond, river left just below the Highway 64 bridge. A concrete pad makes this a posh put-in.
Immediately, the Willow’s character for the next 5.5 miles to 100th Street, makes itself known. The water is clear and cold, current is steady, substrate is rocky or sandy; with very little development and no nearby highway noise (yet); things feel delightfully remote. Riffles alternate with deadfalls, almost all of them navigable at first; there is evidence local river angels cut some openings, done to my liking: they are surgical in their cuts, making navigating deadfalls fun yet safe. Silver maple forests alternate with farmland, but not very much of the latter.
About 45 minutes into the trip, the river widens and flattens, then becomes beguiling, with more sharp turns and a handful of challenging deadfalls. One, comprised of two huge downed silver maples, should be portaged on river right. Then comes something I’ve never seen in a Wisconsin river: a sign nailed to a deadfall that says, “Notice: Please don’t damage this tree or its limbs.” Whoever put up that sign provided a sign to indicate a portage.
Take the portage should you paddle this section of the Willow, but to my mind this is questionably legal. The tree may have fallen from private land, but the river itself is a public waterway, under Wisconsin’s public trust doctrine, and you can’t block a navigable waterway. The person did provide a portage so the river is not technically blocked, but it seems silly to not allow cutting a few limbs to allow paddlers passage. The tree is doomed anyway.
That “forbidden deadfall” was one of only three that I had to leave my boat to portage or climb over. The rest made for practicing precision navigation.
The 100th Street bridge is about two hours from New Richmond. Here you could take out (river right, just upstream of the bridge, very nice access), or you could start your trip here. It is roughly the halfway point, but the lower half includes the whitewater stretch, which could be avoided if you want to. (More on that in a bit.)
From this point, the river widens and flattens again, and it appears to have been, unfortunately, sterilized of trees by the local paddling community – no more deadfalls. Riffles return pretty steadily from 100th Street to where the river passes under County Road A. You’ll swear you’re in northern Wisconsin on this stretch of the Willow, with white pines standing tall atop dolomite bluffs.
Beyond the County Road A bridge, things get interesting. There’s a nice piece of Class I water, then you’ll pass beneath the County Road E bridge. Immediately thereafter, the Class II rapids begin. I was careless and nonchalant entering the first set of rapids and quickly dumped. I was now alerted to the series of rocky runs and drops that make this section a whitewater destination. American Whitewater’s web page for the Willow describes these rapids as “shallow, not pushy at all,” and routes can be found “through easy rapids.”
I agree wholeheartedly with this description. In summer, this would be a perfect training rapid for paddlers inexperienced with whitewater but game to try it. If you are not inclined to try it, I suggest exiting the river on river-right, about 100 yards below the County E bridge, which takes you to state park access point (called Mound parking lot on the state park map). (Don’t get out at County E – terrible access to the road from the bridge.)
After the first two sets of rapids, there is a long stretch of easily navigable Class I riffles, with fun wave trains to bob over. This continues pretty much to the take-out, your signal for which is the second of two County Road A bridges. Be careful taking-out here, as the river is pushy. The best spot is river-right, downstream from the bridge. Eddy out into a small inlet. A path of fity yards takes you to the parking lot.
What we liked:
There’s the sheer surprise and delight of a sweet paddling destination so close to the Twin Cities. (The hegemony of “the Cities” can be sensed in the traffic volume and rural subdivisions.) There’s the very manageable whitewater run at the end of the trip, and if that’s not on your menu, the Willow, from New Richmond to the whitewater section at the end, is appealing and easy.
My “menu” for the Willow has four items, or distinct trips.
1: If your time is tight, put in at New Richmond and take out at 100th Street for a two-hour run.
2: Start your trip at 100th Street and bail out at the state park access just below County Road E to avoid the rapids.
3: Do the entire run, from New Richmond to the take-out at the junction of County Roads A and I (state park parking lot there). That took me about 4.5 hours.
4: Do just the whitewater run. It would take no more than a half hour, but would supply a day’s dose of adrenalin. Put-in at the state park river access off County Road E and paddle down to the County A-I junction (state park parking lot). An important note from American Whitewater: Do not proceed past the County A/I junction unless you’re a properly skilled whitewater boater who has thoroughly scouted the lower falls on foot before putting on, have awareness of what you are getting into, and a solid plan for dealing with the ledges and large falls in the lower canyon. Only expert boaters should consider proceeding beyond this point in the river as portaging the falls is difficult and dangerous.
What we didn’t like:
I paused at this section of my narrative – I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t like. Low water levels could make for misery all the way through these pieces of the Willow. When I paddled the river was slightly above average for this time of year. Average levels, or lower, and this river would not be fun.
If we did this trip again:
I had been lulled into complacency all day by the scores of riffles encountered on the upper part of this run. That led to my mishap in the very first rapid I encountered in the whitewater section that starts below County Road E. I would have scouted those first two rapids; after that, it wouldn’t be necessary.
Higher water levels would make this trip even more fun, except some of the deadfalls may be harder to negotiate with pushy water.
I’m also curious about the section upstream from the city of New Richmond, which the Willow River Water Trail Initiative claims is navigable. I’m guessing generous water levels would be necessary for that piece.