★ ★ ★

Yahara River I

Veterans Memorial Park to Windsor Road:
Adventurous paddlers will enjoy paddling the headwaters of the Yahara River, because at the right levels, it’s swift, riffly and just a whole lot of fun. Expect some deadfall but also expect to be pleasantly surprised that this part of the Yahara has really nothing in common with the much wider, more familiar Yahara that flows through Dane County connecting all of Madison’s lakes on its way to the Rock River. Here, it’s much narrower (more like a creek) and it’s intimately engaging as it twists and turns through backyards and often beside the Upper Yahara River Trail (a convenient bike-shuttle option).

Yahara RiverRating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: July 16, 2017

Previous Trip Reports:
July 22, 2013
May 25, 2013

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty:
Riffles (One Easy Class I Drop)

≈ 5′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Windsor: ht/ft: 2.47 | cfs: 39.2

Current Levels:
Windsor: ht/ft: 1.19 | cfs: 18.7

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimum level.

Veterans Memorial Park, North Main Street, DeForest, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.24963, -89.34357
Windsor Road, Windsor, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.21653, -89.34963

Time: Put in at 12:10p. Out at 3:05p.
Total Time: 2h 55m
Miles Paddled: 5.5

Deer, heron, fish, mink, frogs, muskrat, damselflies and songbirds.

Shuttle Information:
Easiest shuttle ever by car but even more convenient for a waves-to-trails bike shuttle as the trail criss-crosses the river numerous times.


Timothy has paddled this stretch of the Yahara River a few times, but while his reports have always fed my (Barry’s) curiosity, for some reason it’s never made my frontburner until now. Being located so close to Madison, I really don’t know why I ignored it for so long because it’s a great paddle and one I’ll definitely revisit again.

Though technically a river, this section of the Yahara is very much a creeker’s creek, with a consistently held narrow width throughout, and it’s oh so fun, so long as you don’t mind putting-up with the occasional portage – or clean-out.

The put-in at Veterans Memorial Park in DeForest is easy. You may want to pull your car near the County Highway CV bridge and drop your boat(s), then park at the parking lot just south of there, otherwise it’s kind of a haul.

There’s signage at the put-in, take-out, as well as two other access points provided by Friends of the Yahara River and the Village of DeForest. They’re professionally designed, clearly marking the access points and they map out this entire trail, suggesting that it’s a common and popular route.

While it is frequented, the sole existence of such signs also suggest it’s maintained with regularity, but with a river as narrow as this, one couldn’t reasonably expect it to be kept clear of obstructions the entire year. It’s best to expect the unexpected, because at any given time you’ll probably encounter some deadfall. Especially because Wisconsin’s summer storms can be unforgiving to rivers this narrow.

After putting-in, the river maintains a rather consistent straight-lined wooded corridor for the first mile. This is the exception because the rest is nothing like that first leg. It gets much more interesting and very twisty, turny and riffly. It actually surprised me how mildly challenging it was, and had I not already read and heard about this section, I would’ve been shocked because you’d never expect that these small headwaters would be a part of the same but much larger river just a few miles south.

Continuing on, you’ll travel through backyards but few of these manicured yardscapes are rarely seen, which is surprising because you’re essentially paddling through suburbia.

It’s difficult to really characterize each section between main bridges as the scenery and surroundings all kind of run together after the first mile. The banks are grassy, rough and tumble. The water is clear but often full of beds of long weeds swaying downstream in the current. The surroundings are mostly wooded and the Upper Yahara River Trail will appear to your right, then left, and you’ll pass below the trail bridges multiple times.

There are some fun little drops, specifically the one located below the first bridge, South Street. This variety continues for the rest of the trip, alternating between bridges, riffle beds, twists, turns, little ledges, and all the while, incredibly narrow throughout. You’ll encounter some boulders here and there too which add to the pleasant makeup of this section. This topline description may sound a bit too general or light on details, but it’s pretty accurate and the river really doesn’t stop twisting and turning until the take-out.

This part of the Yahara is kind of a scrappy paddle – but not in an annoying kind of way – more like an adventurous kind of way. It’s scrappy like Token Creek which should come as no surprise since they are not only part of the same watershed, but geographically quite close to each other. I’ve often suggested paddling Token to locals, but that stretch is no longer kept up and it wasn’t even all that great in hindsight. Instead, if you don’t mind paddles that subscribe to the come-what-may variety, this is a better paddle to be had because it’s just as close to Madison and there’s more fun to be had.

As for portages, we encountered four of them. Two we cleaned up (thanks to Timothy’s badass sawzall and sometimes brute force) and then two more – one that only 40-year-olds could limbo (inside joke) or insanely-flexible people, I suppose.

All that said… coincidentally, the week after we paddled this, some good friends of ours (and contributors to the site) also paddled this same section. They took advantage of the epic levels caused by two very wicked storms that hit the area within the week. The subsequent rains caused even more deadfall, rendering some of our work a little besides the point. (So, there’s that – all it takes is a week – to render a report outdated!) They too did a little cleanup work, but also had a blast – though on a MUCH friskier and deeper run (it was at 4.6 ht/ft and 230 cfs!).

The take-out off Windsor Road is decent as far as access to the water but do note that there is a 600′ haul from the river to the trail head parking lot. There you’ll find enough parking for a dozen cars, a temporary outhouse, as well as an always-adorable Free Little Library.

What we liked:
Starting in downtown DeForest and ending in the outskirts of Windsor, this trip is the perfect waves-to-trails expedition, especially for those who like small streams. These are the kind of creeks I love to paddle. It should also be noted that we didn’t have any issues with any cranky property owners like the one we’ve encountered in the past.

Another thing we liked was my favorite wildlife encounter in quite awhile. Near the end of our trip, we had the most amazing trifecta of nature experiences. While paddling around a corner, Timothy shushed me from ahead as he floated up to a deer standing in the water. The deer soon scampered up the bank but at the same time, we spotted something swimming across the water. We couldn’t figure out what it was so we paddled quietly closer to get a better view. Just as we were getting closer and discussing what it could be, we were interrupted by a (very) scared heron who flew up out of the grassy bank and shat himself upon take-off (ya know, the silly string poop we’ve discussed before) and literally within inches of Timothy’s bow. I actually thought Timothy got shat on! But Mother Nature spared him – though it could’ve been one hilarious mess (although it was still kind of hilarious).

After the trip, Timothy headed back home so I stopped in at the Rodeside Grill for a drink – mostly because I’m always curious about oddly-named places I might not otherwise visit. It’s a nice place with friendly folks, great beer on tap and some excellent curds – I do recommend it.

What we didn’t like:
Not much to be honest. This actually exceeded my expectations. I knew we’d run into “stuff” but I thought we’d run into much more than we did.

Had I been bike-shuttling though, I might feel differently as I didn’t much care for this (potentially terrifying) sign that suggests snakes will attack your bike tires! (Unless I’m totally reading that wrong.)

If we did this trip again:
Only 10-15 minutes from Madison, this Yahara River trip is a great option for those who like small streams. It’s fun and pretty and kind of unique that it’s amongst a populated area but never quite feels like it. And it being essentially (though not technically) the headwaters of the more familiar (and larger) Yahara which connects all our lakes, makes for a pretty cool aspect for us locals.

Related Information:
Yahara River Overview: Yahara River Paddle Guide
Yahara River II: Windsor Road to Yahara Heights County Park
Yahara River III: Mud Lake to Lake Kegonsa
Yahara River IV: Lake Kegonsa to Stoughton
Yahara River V: Stoughton to Stebbensville Road
Yahara River VI: Stebbensville Road to Murwin County Park
General: Village of DeForest
Good People: Friends of the Yahara River
Map: Upper Yahara River Trail
Wikipedia: Yahara River

Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video:

Miles Paddled Video

Photo Gallery:


Previous Trip Report:
July 22, 2013
☆ ☆

A case study in what a difference two months makes, this paddle was a perfect illustration of how utterly different the same river can be in different conditions, this, a previously pleasant trip, was positively miserable but not hopelessly so.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Windsor: ht/ft: 1.60 | cfs: 38

Current Levels:
Windsor: ht/ft: 1.19 | cfs: 18.7

Time: Put in at 6:30p. Out at 8:30p.
Total Time: 2h

Wildlife: An owl who swooped right before me across the river, four deer all drinking from the water, a hawk and a handful of blue herons.

Truth be told, I had no intention of documenting this trip at all. I didn’t even take my camera along. What I had thought would be a quick and easy early evening paddle (like going out for a quick jog) turned into something else entirely, of course. And it’s for that, that I’m writing this trip report.

So there I was with a sunny and free early evening on my hands, eager to go grab a quick paddle while I could. The day before we had a good hour-long soaking of hard rain, so I knew the water levels should be favorable.

This upper stretch of the Yahara was a no-brainer. I had done it once and loved it but was eager to have at it again with more water. It’s only a five-mile long trip, 25 minutes from my house and the gauge indicated that yes, the water level was better than last time. Alright then let’s go!

While the gauge was a touch higher, it’s essentially insignificant. I will assert here and now that anything under 2-feet will be fraught with frustration, unless you really enjoy scraping and scooting. So that’s one helpful thing I learned. Another is that because this is so close to the headwaters of the Yahara River itself, it does not take all that long for the additional water after a heavy rainfall to work its way downstream.

To wit, it dropped 8 inches in 24 hours! In other words, you have to practically already be paddling on the river to feel the full effect of its rise, which of course is quite reckless and almost always boneheaded and generally ill-advised (as someone who got screwed by paddling a river when it was still cresting and a bit out of control, I can say from experience that this is generally stupid and unsafe). That said, if I had been able to paddle this same segment at 6:30 am and not at 6:30 pm, I would have comfortably felt the effect of the higher water and this would have been a much different experience.

Well, almost. The thing I learned about this segment of the Yahara is how spectacularly prone it is to deadfall and logjams. Holy moly! There was already one about a ¼ mile after the put-in, an annoying harbinger of many more to come, most of them impassable. I lost count but a conservative estimate was portaging six times, on a trip that is only 5 miles. This would test the patience of even the most forgiving paddler.

Most of these were of this sort: Get out of the boat and stand in the river and climb onto/over the obstruction while schlepping your boat and/or climb onto slippery, muddy banks into questionable plant life/potential quarreling landowners. Not fun either way. “Fortunately,” it had begun to rain by then (so long sunshine!) so getting wet was irrelevant. But the last time I did this trip I had to portage only once. This was an entirely different-feeling river. And the blockages were gigantic, averaging 4-feet-high, which I found quite surprising for such a small creek of a river.

What we liked:
Let me say that while doing this paddle, which is also to say scraping and portaging and mucking it up in the mud, I really didn’t want to like this river, at least this upper segment. I won’t lie, I was yelling at it a couple times. But then you’d come around a bend and see a charming little hill, or an exposed rock outcropping, or cool boulders strewn in the stream to steer around. And there goes that owl again, or you spook a squawking heron, or you pass under a pedestrian bridge and appreciate how remarkable it is that developers set aside these parcels of pretty green space and protected this quirky river with its tight twists, riffles and clear water. And you think, alright, I really can’t dislike this place, even if it does get frustrating.

Really, what probably is the most frustrating part of this Yahara River segment is its (un)dependability. It is not a go-to river whenever it pleases you. You must go to it when the conditions are right, which will be selective and capricious. As for the deadfall and logjams, that’s another matter altogether requiring diligence and maintenance.

What we didn’t like:
The low water and all the blockages. It made what had been a very memorable past experience into a present miserable one. But at least I learned something.

The other thing I didn’t quite cotton to, though certainly not the river’s fault, was the spectacularly cataclysmic lightning storm happening in the sky. Most of this trip is tree-canopied and what with all that scraping, I could keep telling myself that what I heard was kayak-against-gravel, not rumbling thunder. It really wasn’t until the takeout that I appreciated how beautifully but scarily eerie the sky was. Towards the east, a soft baby blue. To the west, a charcoal gray, rusty ochre lit from within by plumes of lightning and no discernible delineation between the two. Why hadn’t I taken my camera?!?

It was awesome in every sense. But freaky. And I still had to walk along a road to get to my car and then put the kayak on the car (thank heavens I had already pedaled my shuttle!). The lightning was non-stop. To be fair, I had checked the forecast before heading out but there was only a 10 percent chance of t-storms after 6:00 pm. So the meteorologists had a margin of error of 90 percent. I don’t always get things right myself…

If we did this trip again:
I probably will but only when the gauge is at a minimum of 2-feet and ideally after some foreknowledge of the river being cleared of obstructions.


Previous Trip Report:
May 25, 2013
☆ ☆ ☆

A surprisingly scenic and riffly stretch of clean, clear water in an otherwise developed area. While a short trip, this portion of the Yahara is protected and has great landings thanks to volunteer efforts. However, there is one section where a landowner is less than friendly.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Windsor: ht/ft: 1.20 | cfs: 30

Current Levels:
Windsor: ht/ft: 1.19 | cfs: 18.7

Time: Put in at 1:30p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 3h

Wildlife: Not one, not two but three owls and all in the same tree! A couple blue herons and turtles too.

A friend of mine scouted the upper waters of the Yahara a couple months ago but truth be told, I paid him little attention. It’s not that I don’t like the Yahara, I’ve had many a fine paddle on it, including my very first time in a kayak on a river (circa September 2008). But I have found myself having more of a “lower Yahara” state of mind. Ordinarily, the Yahara conjures too many congestions with too many people, usually in power or pontoon boats and usually in the Madison environs blubbering along from one lake to another.

Typically, for me, paddling is so much about escape and at least an illusory conceit of solitude. To my credit, on paper the DeForest area does not in any sense inspire escape or solitude. There’s development and people-stuff all over the place. However, to my friend’s credit, this stretch of the river is surprisingly picturesque and intimate at times, notwithstanding all the development.

For kicks and giggles, take a look at the map of this trip and compare the difference between the “Map” view and the “Satellite” view. You will notice that the entire stretch of the Yahara here is like a green sleeve (cue the music!) protected on each side as an urban environmental corridor. To be sure, it’s no wilderness and you’re seldom far from earshot or eyesight of backyards or cul-de-sacs. But it is a commendable effort in “greening” a developed community and giving the residents therein a place if not to escape from the rush of the everything else, than at least a temporary and well-deserved respite.

What we liked:
The width of the river at the beginning of the trip is nearly such that it could be brooked with a good running start (Note to self: look up origin of the phrase “jump the brook”). It’s like this for the first mile, during which you will paddle past unexpected quaintness at many turns, whether manifested as pretty trees or open fields. Needless to say, a scrappy creek boat would be better than a longer touring one.

This beginning section will be the slowest moving of the trip but there is a respectable gradient otherwise and you will find many laughing riffles welcoming you along the way. And if you like passing under bridges (and really, what’s not to like?) this short trip offers them up in abundance. Most of the bridges are part of the Upper Yahara River Trail, a pedestrian/bicycle path that wends around the river and it provides a delightful bike shuttle opportunity before or after the paddle.

There are no rapids on the trip but the current does rev itself to a quick clip at some points, which of course could be dangerous in higher water. There are a few very modest drops and only one or two choppy moments but nothing worrisome, just lively and fun! There are a few hills to course around, one of which has a very handsome exposed rock outcrop, which never fails to jazz me while paddling, particularly somewhere you’d never expect to come upon such geology hidden in plain sight.

What we didn’t like:
Before I get to the main point that will likely command more attention, I do want to say this first: this stretch of the Yahara will be runnable only in early spring or after a mighty hard rainfall. There was just barely enough water for us to enjoyably paddle this section. Had there been even another two inches of water this would have been a spectacular stretch but anything less than what is noted above would be inviting misery.

OK, now the main part. There comes a time in every paddler’s life when one happens upon a cranky property owner who apparently has no other passion or pastime in life than to bark at canoers and kayakers. Such is their prerogative, I suppose. Here’s what you may well expect to encounter, based on our experience.

A smidge more than midway through the trip you will have to reconcile the most obtrusive of deadfall blockages (Note: there are several in this 5-mile segment). Because I am stubborn and strong-willed and paddle mostly in a 9-foot crossover boat, I was able to forcibly propel/scoot my way over most of the obstructions. And as always, we did a fair amount of hand-sawing and trunk-tossing to better clear some of these clogged spots. But there’s one that requires a full-on chainsaw crew, which of course happens to be right beside the backyard of a curmudgeon shockingly quick on the draw to yell at us. He never threatened us (with what he would’ve, I don’t know) but considering that the law is on our side here but he was a real stick in the mud.

As often is the case in such confrontations, logic and fact-based argument do not prevail. Fortunately, we were a party of three, our ages ranging from 36 to 52, all of us well-meaning stewards of the land who’d sooner hug than cut down a tree. I still don’t know what his bugaboo was. All we were trying to do was a) paddle a public stream and then b) portage around an obstruction because circumstances required doing so.

Here is a short list of what we were not about but maybe he thought we were: picnicking on the 2-foot-wide muddy bank strewn with poison ivy; camping out that night in the crops; breaking out the boombox blaring Miranda Lambert while littering a case-full of Coors Light cans all over the place; or busting out a little impromptu foosball tourney.

All we wanted/had to do was portage over a fallen tree! Because his property line extended on both sides of the river I can only deduce that he felt that he owned the river…? Or that the moment we stepped foot onto dry land (when in the mud, I use the term “dry land” loosely) in order to portage we were trespassing. He advised us to take out and portage further upstream, actually pointing to some tree I could not possibly account for (anymore than someone pointing to a star at night and asking “see that one there?” Um, no… because there are thousands that look just like it!) and then walk through a field with our boats entow. Which of course begs asking the question, wouldn’t we then be trespassing on someone else’s land, in this case flagrantly trespassing now since we’d be cutting through woods or fields? But we placated in order to make nice and just be on our way again, which I must say is probably the best course of action to take, logic or ego aside.

But so we’re clear on this point, here is the law:

Public, navigable waterways in Wisconsin are defined as “lakes, rivers, and streams [that] have a bottom (bed) and side (bank), and enough water to float any boat, skiff, or canoe of the shallowest draft on a reoccurring basis. Occasionally, barriers such as wood or plant debris may impede actual navigation but waters are public even when multiple portages are required to get around obstructions. A waterway does not need to be regularly used for recreational or other general purposes, but is a public waterway based on its capacity to be navigable and public.” (Source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources). Additional info here.


If we did this trip again:
I will indeed, but only with more water.

Photo Gallery:

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  • Reply
    June 14, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    There are always a few people like that, probably get that way from previous bad experiences. Or they are just naturally crabby people. Not much you can do about it. Luckily there are more that are friendly and helpful.

  • Reply
    March 6, 2022 at 6:18 pm

    We did this trip on 3/6/20, after a day of rain and snow melt. The river was up to 4.5 feet and 200 Cfs overnight, but had dropped to about 70 CFS and 2.5 ft by 1pm , Good levels, and good fast current, we did the 5 miles in only1.5 hours. We were worried about obstructions as we were probably some of the first to run it this year, but there was only one fairly easy duck under and no obstructions. The river is in great shape for spring paddles, let’s hope we get some decent rains this spring.

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