★ ★ ★ ★

Wisconsin River VII: “The Lower Dells”

Wisconsin Dells to Norway Drive:
A veritable playground of natural features for paddlers, this short trip on the Lower Dells should be in anybody’s bucket list, as the sandstone rock outcrops and islands are as spectacular, if fewer in number, as on the Upper Dells.

Wisconsin RiverRating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 6, 2011

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Flatwater

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Wisconsin Dells: n/a

Current Levels:
Wisconsin Dells: ht/ft: 2.42 | cfs: 3540

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

Finnegan Avenue Landing, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin (below the dam)
GPS: 43.62389, -89.77879
Norway Drive/Fox Run Road
GPS: 43.58338, -89.72782

Time: Put in at 6:00p. Out at 8:00p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 5.50

Eagles and carp.

Shuttle Information:
Left onto Fox Run Road. Right onto Erickson Drive. Left onto County O. Left onto Highway 16. Left onto 23/16. Left onto Finnegan Avenue.

What we liked:

This paddle holds the last remnants of the sublime rock outcroppings and geological splendor unique to the Dells area of the Wisconsin River.

What the Colorado is to Utah and Arizona today, the Wisconsin River was back in its day – that day being, oh, 350 million years ago (give or take). OK, that might be a stretch, but where my scale is askew, the sense is imaginatively akin. As with the section of the river above the dam you will find inspiring bluffs and sandstone cliffs, walls, caves, outcroppings aplenty. What’s more, there are some gorgeous rock islands worth paddling around (and through) here that the upper sections lacks. Unfortunately though, the fantastic offerings in this stretch start to peter out after the 2.5 mile mark – so pay attention and bask early! After this, the river, while lovely in its own right still, becomes flat and open. Bald eagles and sandhill cranes are all but guaranteed….

What we didn’t like:
Again you will have to contend with lots and lots of motor boats, many commercial (with loud captains narrating and telling awful jokes), some private. And don’t forget about jet-skiers. It’s a shame, too, because this section, like above, is so naturally gorgeous. To be fair, from Madison it’s an hour drive just to paddle 5.5 miles; and like most shuttle trips for the Wisconsin River, the trip from boat to car is longer than actual river miles (though here only by a little). But it’s worth it, it really is! I deliberately sought out a “sunset” paddle for this trip (putting in at 6:00 pm), thinking there would be less traffic at that hour. Maybe, but I still had to keep a wide berth of no fewer than three commercial tourism boats, plus umpteen private fishers, and a couple hotdog jet-skiers. So it goes.

Note: the parking area is not the easiest to find. You have to drive down Finnegan Ave for about a ¼ mile and then eventually you’ll see a sign and then a short path to the right. Once parked, you have to carry your boat and gear down the cliff to the sandy beach below – probably about a 70’ descent or so. The path down is well-marked, but a little rocky and rooty.

Also, there’s little current in this stretch since you put in just after the gigantic dam. But you want to take your time here anyway.

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.) But some things need to be embraced, no matter how embarrassing, because in the long run there’s nothing you can do to prevent their happening in the first place…

An alternate option to driving downtown Dells: Washington Ave runs parallel to the main drag in downtown Dells and is accessible by Race St (on the east side) or La Crosse St (on the west side). This allows you to circumvent the throngs spilling out into the streets, unless kitsch on steroids is your thing. Personally, I’d say that the downtown Dells is where good taste goes to die, and I try to avoid it all as best I can, but call me curmudgeonly…

If we did this trip again:
This was my third time, and I would indeed do it again. Though preferably in late spring or early fall, to avoid the worst of tourist congestion.

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

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Jonathan Beers
    November 15, 2021 at 3:46 pm

    On Nov. 6, 2021,we paddled from 43.62455657929403, -89.78427495807409 (downstream from the dam, river right) to Indian Trails Launch: https://goo.gl/maps/5PidYBkyssX8bvXi9 (This landing is directly across from the Norway Drive landing.)

    ~3500 CFS on the gauge at the Dells. Quite a few anglers on the upper stretch, including two in kayaks, but only a couple of the Dells Ducks tour boats. Beautiful 65 degree day, albeit with some strong headwinds at times.

    In the Sugar Bowl cave, there’s a big pile of sticks that I’m guessing is the work of a beaver?? Link to photo: https://photos.app.goo.gl/7RQZa6qTCghRWp9dA

    At this water level, we had to carry our boats across some sand at the takeout for 30 yards or so. Using this put-in and takeout makes for a shorter shuttle, mostly on Hwy A.

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