★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wisconsin River V: “The Upper Dells”

Lyndon Station to Wisconsin Dells:
Gorgeous sandstone bluffs, huge rock walls, labyrinthine islands, slot canyons, nooks, crannies, caves and tourist kitsch; this paddle just about has it all.

Wisconsin River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 13, 2013

Previous Trip Report:
June 1, 2011

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Flatwater

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 4800

Current Levels:
Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: 3.39 | cfs: 5640

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. Water levels are almost always reliable on the Wisconsin.

Two Rivers Boat Landing, (at the confluence of Lemonweir and Wisconsin off Cliff House Road), Lyndon Station, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.76147, -89.85271
Finnegan Avenue Public Landing, (by power plant before dam) Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.62702, -89.77995

Time: Put in at 11:15a. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 5h 15m (with lots of down time and diversions)
Miles Paddled: 11.5

A bald eagle, turkey vultures, lots of gulls and a bright red fox.


This was my sixth trip on the Upper Dells section of the Wisconsin River but it was as exhilarating as ever. For this trip I gathered together nine other paddlers for the first (of many, I am sure) Fall Foliage Flotilla. While the leaves were still about a week or so shy of their full peak, there was a lot of splashy palette to appreciate, particularly beneath an almost electric blue cloudless sky. Add to that homemade donuts, spiked apple cider and coffee and thermos-warm bacon at the put-in, we had the makings of an epic day!

A quick word about the put-in options. There are many places to begin your trip but this is the only one I know of that’s free. The others are mostly two to three miles further downstream, in the “lake” section of the river. For those who don’t like lake paddling, one of these put-in options might be preferable.

I myself don’t very much care for lake paddling but it’s not just because I’m frugal that my druthers are the Two Rivers Boat Launch: 1) there you begin at the confluence of the Lemonweir River (hence the name Two Rivers), 2) with a huge and beautifully multicolored/layered rock outcrop only about 50 yards from the landing, this just might be the coolest put-in I’ve ever used, around which bend is what appears to be native art rock paintings (petroglyphs?), 3) the labyrinth of islands is fun and helps diminish the otherwise wide and boring lake effect and 4) there’s something awfully freaky and fun about paddling a body of water that tapers from 1,000’ wide to about 50’ in half a mile!

What we liked:
I’ve written about this trip already but it’s so wonderful I’m happy to pen a couple more words about it. I don’t want to reiterate myself here, so instead I will add that the Witch’s Gulch canyon is one you really should press on and explore. Go down to the very end but by end I do not mean to boardwalk. Paddle underneath the boardwalk, through the rock fissure (even in my 15’ kayak I could squeeze through), to the other side. There’s no pot of gold or tiki bar or really anything on the other side but it’s a rare opportunity to paddle through a slot canyon and one that should not be forfeited! In fact, if you have the time (and you really should make the time, because it’s all oh so worth it!) you should paddle down every diversion, check out each canyon and side crevice.

Cold Water Canyon is pretty and worth checking out; Rood’s Glen is a gorgeous sanctuary of everything green. Circumnavigate Blackhawk Island (the water is too shallow for the commercial boats) where sandy beaches beckon picnics or sunbathing or swimming and more rock formations are found, one of which still bears the inscription of the first commercial riverboat captain, Leroy Gates. There’s much off the beaten path to explore.

What we didn’t like:
There’s no getting around this: the commercial boats. Whether it’s the annoying megaphone monologue full of the worst bad puns you can imagine (to wit, “Am I going overboard with bad puns?”) or the “get ready, get steady” bracing for the waves these boats create, they’re an undeniable pain in the ass. One of the companies deliberately soaks the passengers by gunning the engine and then killing it, with the effect of the bow diving into the water and then back out. Most of the captains of these boats are college kids, so I can’t say that due diligence, discretion or consideration is much given to folks in kayaks.

Most of the time this isn’t a big deal; you just need to let them pass while positioning your boat to meet the oncoming waves head-on – not sideways, lest you want to be swamped or worse. But you do need to be paying attention because the parts of the river these boats tour tend to be the narrowest, 50’ or so wide*, with nothing but rock walls off of which the original waves ricochet in the opposite direction. For this reason I do not recommend paddling the Dells in an open canoe. Even in mid-October, even during a Packers game, there were at least four of these boats out there. Unless you’re paddling at the break of dawn, I do not recommend this trip in summer during the height of tourism.

*Indeed, the section of the river here called “The Narrows” can get a little dicey. To that end, unless you are an ass-kicking whitewater paddler, you do not want to be on this river in high water. Check out the how dramatically the character of the river changes in low water and then in high water, especially in the narrower channels (Note the inscription of “Leroy Gates, Dells River Pilot 1849 to 1858” on the rock both as a cultural artifact but also as a gauge).

If we did this trip again:
I will, at least once a year in autumn.

Related Information:
Wisconsin River VI: Dekorra to Whalen Bay
Wisconsin River VII: Downtown Dells to Norway Drive
Wisconsin River X: Portage to Dekorra
Wisconsin River XII: Pine Island to Portage
Wisconsin River XIII: River Bay Road to Norway Drive
Castle Rock Dam to Lyndon Station
Photos: Rock Formations: Vintage Wisconsin Dells
Wikipedia: Wisconsin River

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:


Previous Trip Report:
June 1, 2011
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A must-do for any paddler, this trip on the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River is where water and gorgeous rock formations collide on one of the prettiest stretches of water anywhere in the state.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 7270

Current Levels:
Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: 3.39 | cfs: 5640

Time: Put in at 3:20p. Out at 6:50p.
Total Time: 3h 30m

What we liked:
The scenic grandeur of the upper Dells section of the Wisconsin River is unparalleled, where the geological past is duly ogled by the living present. Sandstone cliffs and turrets, sculpted by wind and wave, predominate mile after mile. Pine trees manage to cling with a toe-hold above these pocked cliffs, above which turkey vultures and bald eagles soar. There are back channels and secret nooks to keep the trip more personal and private, or promises for future explorations. Anthropomorphic figurines seem carved and incarnate in the rocky shelves.

Fabled and phenomenal, this stretch of river is truly legendary, and for good reason. It’s simply spectacular. There are so many features to see and admire, from the first 50 yards to the very end: petroglyphs at the former, the Jaws at the latter (where the narrow caverns open up, like coming out of a tunnel of haunting mystery). And the lovely, alluring Blackhawk Island in between to paddle off the beaten path (water too narrow for large boats to tread through) and find a strand of beachy sand to stop and have a picnic, or stretch out your legs (and back) and hike some on this rather huge spot of dry land.

What we didn’t like:
In a word, tourists. Silent sport enthusiasts and nature lovers are not the only ones who pay homage to this unique landscape. Once the river narrows (more on this below), tour boats are ubiquitous (some the official Ducks, others just commercial knock-offs). Yes, it’s annoying overhearing the microphoned formulaic script narrated by the boat’s captain full of awful clichés and bad jokes to a captive audience of tourists who begin gawking at you. More annoying and potentially dangerous, are the waves caused by these large vessels, especially the knock-off ones which, perhaps making up for lacking the original cachet of the Ducks boats (which operate also as land vehicles that can drive on the road – they were designed for amphibious use in World War II), the knock-offs take careless pride in hotdogging on the river, particularly hydroplaning (and giving those on board a fun splash). The wake created by these stunts is especially formidable.

This section of the river is quite varied. If you looked at it from a satellite (and did so with a little imagination), it might resemble a snake that’s swallowed a liter bottle of pop. Where the Lemonweir empties out into the Wisconsin, the river is modest in its width, maybe about 75 yards wide, and remains so for the first 3 miles. After this the river widens considerably for another two miles until it just flat out resembles a big lake. Personally, I’m not much of a fan of lake paddling; the current is slow to a trickle, and if it’s windy, you’re either gonna get wet or pushed off course (or both). The “lake” section is three miles long and it can be grueling.

For the most part, the surrounding environs are flat and ordinary, with some exceptions – notably Louis Bluff, which jutts out prominently river right after the first mile. There’s really no getting around this section, which is unfortunate. There are a couple alternative put-ins on both sides of the river but they’re private and will charge a fee. I’m a frugal fellow and refuse to enable such extortion. (That said, the first time I ever paddled this upper section I did use the landing at the Holiday Shores Campground and Resort. It was one of those anomalous 70-degree sunny days in late October, and the place was deserted. I figured it was off-season and none was the wiser. It did cut two miles and change off the lake section, but you still had to contend with roughly ¾ of a mile of wide, windy, wet water. But it’s worth it, so very worth it!)

However, one caveat must be obliged. Where the river narrows again (and it does so abruptly) there’s nothing subtle about it. There’s potential for danger, entirely depending on the traffic on the river. I’ve done this stretch now three times, in October, May, and June but I would never paddle this in the zenith of the summer season. It would just be too spoiled by the throngs and I have never encountered any safety issues over high or turbulent water.

The official (and sacrosanct) Paddling Southern Wisconsin, by Mike Svob, cautions about this section in no uncertain terms. Many websites I’ve looked up about this section also warn the reader about the danger. Again, I’ve never experienced it and I’m nothing more than an amateur paddler. I’ve anticipated danger and braced myself for it but have not once encountered it. Common sense dictates not to paddle too close to the sandstone walls when there’s heavy traffic on the river. Otherwise, I don’t know what the worry is.

Finally, there’s the kitsch and gaudy over-the-top madcap splurge of Wisconsin Dells, epicenter of summer tourism in Wisconsin. It’s loud and garish and all but impossible to drive anywhere, with so many people walking in the streets downtown. (It can literally take 10 minutes to drive half a mile, between all the traffic lights and crosswalks, carnival barkers and cotton candy dandies.) Depending on where you’re coming from, as well as where you take out, you can circumvent most of the morass. (See Shuttle info below.)

If we did this trip again:
I will! The first time I did so was late October in 2009 and I have done it twice since. Tourism and kitsch aside, this is one of my all-time favorite places to paddle.

Photo Gallery:

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    October 2, 2023 at 1:03 am

    I paddled upstream to the narrows at a time of high water, a few days after some rains in the state, and had to go around Blackhawk island on the shallow western channel. As I approached the narrows, I have never heard such a loud ranging water there up ahead that I could not see, as well as the volume of water coming out of there near the “slow no wake” posted signs on the rock bluff sides. I turned around, as I could not keep going without extreme effort, and also safety won over. When I reached the mouth of thr narrows on the upstream side, I had not ever seen waters swirling with such force there, tossing the nose of the kayak one way then quickly another. Lesson learned…go during times of drier weather.

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