Canoe the Wisconsin River:
One and two day trip
This page provides maps, photos and directions for visiting,
canoeing, and camping on the Wisconsin River between Sauk City, just north of
Madison WI, and Spring Green, 21 miles down river. The info is also good to Lone
Rock. Pages are dated but info good.
I hope my photos give you a feeling for the area.
If you use these
materials to plan a trip, let me know how it went.
If you send me info or a
photo I will add you to the Recent voyages Page.
(Scanned materials are credited when source is known.)
The Wisconsin River meanders south through the
center of Wisconsin. Near Portage, 30 miles north of Madison just off I 90-94,
the river veers more towards the west on its way to joining the Mississippi
near Prairie du Chien. While the Dam at Prairie du Sac 5 miles north of Sauk
City creates a lake above that point, south of Sauk City the river is very wide
in most places and in the summer is dotted with many islands. Depending on the
time of year and the amount of rain in the area, the river has many shifting
sandbars and shallow spots as well as deep drop-offs. The down river side on
most of the islands contain long sandbars. The sandbars offer nice places to
stop and swim on a hot day, picnic, or camp for the evening. The banks of the
river are privately owned and not generally available for camping. Both the
river banks and the wooded parts of the islands are laced with poison ivy. The photos below will give you an idea of
what several days on the river would be like. Day trips from Sauk City to Arena require
less equipment. The river flows between 2 to 5 knots depending on its height.
When the river is running at 5 knots, it takes only several paddle hours to
reach Arena. Normally it takes over twice that long. Canoeing up river can be
very hard work so try to anticipate your route as you paddle. Remember to aim
the canoe up river of your destination to compensate for down river drift.
If you are doing a overnight to Spring Green, plan on more
paddling and less playing and think about finding a tent site just before Arena
or just after you pass it. Camping islands become sparse after that for awhile.
If you are making an overnight out of the one day Arena trip, seek a site just
before or after the nudist beach (a mile or so past the bluffs), stop early,
play often, and get off late. In either case, be aware that during high water
periods, islands can be flooded and camping sites few. Always pitch your tent at
least several feet above the river level as it can rise or fall several feet due
to conditions up river which you might not be aware of. I always tie my canoe to
my tent just in case of unexpected water rise. Type "A" folk might want to try
the longer 27 mile trip from Sauk City to Lone Rock.
Chicago, go north on the Kennedy (I-90, toll road) to Rockford and then north
towards Madison WI. Just before Madison, take Rt. 12 west into Sauk City. You can also continue 10 miles past Madison on
I-90 and turn west on Rt. 19 which connects with Rt. 12 just north of Madison.
Typical canoe rental costs depend on the length of the
trip and number of overnights..
On the maps, #1 and #2 are the two canoe rental places mentioned. They
are also public access points if you have your own canoe and pick up. Point #4
is the "adhoc" nudist beach and #5's are the best islands to camp on. Arena is
#6 and #7's are the last camping islands before Spring
Green landing, #8. On this map, many of the areas can be identified by the
same numbers as used on the maps above. The trail at #3 goes to the top of Ferry
Bluff State Natural Area. This is also a pick-up point for a half-day trip from
Many outfitters rent canoes in the Sauk City area. The ones I use most
often are Blackhawk River Runs and Sauk Prairie Canoes. The second is easier to find.
You can see their sign from the Rt. 12 bridge as you cross the Wisconsin River
going into Sauk City. The first is more likely to have canoes on a busy weekend
and is nearly an hour closer to less populated, better stretches of the river.
Ray's, just before the bridge, is a good place to get a fishing
I usually check out the river
conditions and get supplies in Sauk City. The shopping center is on the west
side of town off Rt. 12. A list of supplies for an
overnight trip should include two bags of ice and plenty to drink. Put the heavy
stuff in the center of the canoe. Put "to stay dry" stuff in large plastic bags
and tie them shut. I strap all bags to the canoe with bungee chords. The picture
of the Rt. 12 bridge is taken from the Sauk Prairie Canoe loading area..
Turn left just west of the bridge
to get to Sauk Prairie Canoes. Their ramp goes down to
the water so you can unload the car easily. You will park in the back of their
lot after unloading. Pick a paddle that is at least chest high. Remember, this
is a no-glass enforced river and DNR river patrols often spot check coolers in
the summer. Make sure everybody understands the pick-up plans. Take pay-phone
change just in case..
careful to follow directions about going to the far right at the railroad
bridge. The middle sections of the bridge have old submerged pilings that can
hang-up and tip your canoe. The picture looks back on the bridge. Several miles
ahead you paddle past the ramp at Blackhawk Canoe Runs, another starting point.
Motorboat traffic will decrease as you leave the Sauk City area but pick up
again near Arena and again near Spring Green..
Blackhawk you can park your car across the road from the loading area. As you
stand at the river's edge note its speed as judged by the ripples near the edge
and things floating past you. Note the wind by looking at waves in the center of
the river. If it is very windy day, plan on hugging the shore and using islands
as a wind block. All the gear should fit neatly in the canoe. Needed stuff
should be accessible..
river is an easy combination of paddling and drifting unless there is a strong
west wind. The current makes big "S" curves as it heads down river and, if not
over steered, the canoe will take much the same path. Try to read the currents
and river colors. Dark looking water is usually deep and lighter colored
indicates sand just below the surface. Reading these signs will help to avoid
grounding on the many underwater sandbars. Steep cuts in the sand bars or river
banks indicate deeper, faster water..
Watch out for the fast water near the banks where trees, some submerged, can
capsize the canoe if you are not skilled. It is not uncommon during the dry
months to have to get out of the canoe and pull it to deep water. Take a rope
(20ft.) for this purpose. I also carry a small 10 lb anchor seen here holding
the canoe in very shallow water in the middle of the river while I fish a
If you start from the Sauk City area, the first
natural reference point is the cliffs of Ferry Bluff on the north side of the
river about half way to Arena. The east face of the bluffs was carved by the Honey River which meanders in from the north. Steer the
canoe to the base of the cliff and beach on the west side of the Honey River if
you plan on hiking the trail to the overlook (ca. 1/2 mi.)..
Depending on the season, you way need to trek through a mud
flat to get to the trail. The trail has been "improved" and now winds around the
back side of the hill before ending at the overlook. Wear shoes or sandals when
you hike. Take bug spray in the spring and early summer. Watch out for poison
ivy as you climb but enjoy the flowers and ferns along the path..
It is not a long hike to the
overlook, but on a hot day you should carry drink and snack so you can sit and
admire the vista. Indians used this spot to view the area. The view from the top
provides a panorama of the river valley in both directions. The DNR has put
informational signs near the overlook..
Looking down river, you can see most of the islands that provide camping for an
overnight trip to Arena. The ripple line crossing the river indicates a
drop-off. The number of islands seen depends on the water level. Its a good idea
to wash your legs after the climb. The bluffs are impressive looking back at
them from the sandbar just down river. .
Expect to see many animals along the trip. Deer and raccoon often visit the
river banks and islands. Turtles sun themselves on logs and dive into the water
as you approach. Large snapping turtles sun on the sandy banks. The occasional
water snake will scurry across the water seeking a meal. Fish will smack the
water as they go airborne after insects..
geese, egrets, and large blue heron make the river their home. Large fish,
usually carp, splash in the shallows. Little creatures live amongst the many
wild flowers which bloom most of the spring and summer. Expect to see monarch
butterflies in the fall. Wild deer and big Canadian geese visit the islands,
often at night. Check for tracks along the
windless day paddling is easy and the trees make colorful reflections in the
still water. On windy days, expect to work hard fighting the prevailing west
wind. Keep your eyes open for creatures. As we paddled quietly along the bank in
search of good fishing areas, we passed this large wasp's nest attached to an
overhanging branch. We left it alone..
usually beach the canoe if I intend to stop and explore, I often use the small
10 lb anchor to "park" the canoe in shallow water mid stream and wade to good
fishing spots. Notice the line in the water indicating the shallow water from
the deeper water I am standing in after the drop-off . On a still day you can
see the ripples in the water ahead indicating a drop-off is near..
son is taking a rest as he sits on the canoe which we have beached on a sandbar.
We both carry ultralite fishing gear using 4lb test line. This bass was too
small to fry so it was tossed back into the river. We have caught many large
bass, pike, and walleye in this area casting 2 inch jointed lures towards the
shore or over the drop-offs. Make sure to get a fishing license if you are over
or so after the bluffs you will cruise by an informal nudist beach. Keep to the
left if you want to join them or gawk. Otherwise, just paddle on by mid river.
While there are usually some islands just after the bluffs, this is the point
that you will start to see many more islands with trailing sandbars. On a busy
weekend in the summer you will find tents on many of them so you need to stop
early or be less fussy..
mentioned, no glass bottles are allowed on the river so there is very little
broken glass in the area. For this reason you can walk and swim in the water
without fear of cuts. I like to float on the fast currents between islands.
Sandbars are also great spots to stop for lunch or just to explore. I will camp
on these first islands when I am doing an overnighter using the shorter Arena
If I am going on to Spring Green, I will use the islands just
beyond Arena for camping. I like sites that are back from the water and
protected from the wind if I am uncertain of the weather, but which will get sun
in the morning. Remember to use at least 10 inch tent pegs in the sand in case a
wind comes up..
If I am certain of the weather, I will camp at the end of a bar
where I can hear the river flow by and "skinny-dip" for a shower. The umbrella
is for shade. Plan the fire pit so smoke does not invade the tent or dinner
area. You will notice there are very few bugs when you are in an open area with
a mild breeze blowing..
pictures show some of my camping sites. Note that one of these sites appears way
off the water. Actually the river bends and is just out of the picture. It is
hard to unload and make camp if the site is set back too far off the water.
Being close to the trees or brush, especially if you are downwind from them,
often invites bugs in the evening. Sometimes you take what is available or ask
to share a spot and make new friends..
After the tent is up, the canoe is emptied, and I have chilled
out, I make a firewood run. I pack one old pair of pants, heavy socks, and a
long sleeve shirt so I can forage into the underbrush for firewood. While I
carry a small hatchet, I only take dry fallen logs, branches, and small starter
twigs. Watch out for beehives in old logs and ticks which can infest the bush
Lifted out of the water and turned over, the canoe bottom makes a good dinner
table and flat sorting area. A cheap plastic table cloth and big candle enhance
the mood. I usually take the Coleman stove and lantern so I can enjoy the night.
Evening is a good time to try to catch fish for dinner. Make sure they are legal
size unlike this small bass which was put back to grow and become a
This site is only a mile past the bluffs. In the summer when
the nights are mild, one can sit at the water's edge and watch the sun go down
as the stars come out. Try to have the tent and bedding set before dark. Air out
the bedding for awhile but get it into the tent before the evening dew
A late evening
swim makes the fire inviting. Sunsets are often breathtaking. Don't be surprised
if you are visited in the middle of the night by furry creatures checking to see
if you protected your food. Keep the flashlight near by. A light in the face
will send most marauders scurrying. A gaggle of geese can keep you up all night
if you don't chase them away..
Between the fire
(beer soaked corn on the cob, foil wrapped potatoes, or planked fish) and the
Coleman stove (tarragon chicken, sliced potatoes, Spanish onions, and a veggie),
we eat like a king, or queen, as the case may be. Cantaloupe cools in the wet
sand at the river's edge for morning. Now this is enjoying the
Morning often brings fog to the
area which usually lifts by mid morning. The eager types are on the river before
the fog rises. I would rather stay in my sleeping bag. The dew is usually heavy
early in the morning so expect everything to be wet till the sun warms the area.
The days can be very hot and you need to watch out for sunburn. Use 15 block,
lip sunscreen and wear a hat..
Some mornings are
clear and the tent will too hot to stay in by 8 am. This morning I took sunrise
pictures shortly before a heavy, early morning shower dumped on the area for an
hour. I went back to bed till the sun materialized around 10 am. While the tent
was drying, I cooked breakfast and made coffee. I use the big tarp to sort and
pack sand free for the final leg and to cover the canoe if it rains while I am
on the river..
I am only going to Arena, I will use the empty canoe to cruise, fish, and
explore before packing to head down river. Here we paddled to another island
with the cooler and cooked hot dogs (yuck) on the beach for lunch. Trees in the
middle of the river are a sign of shallow water but you need to be careful
because fast currents can be created by the obstructions..
and dark clouds are a sign that things could get exciting. Six inch waves near
the shore indicate that waves in the middle of the river could be 1 foot or
more, plenty high to capsize a canoe. If the waves pick up, keep the bow of the
canoe pointing into them and head for calmer water nearer shore. Thunderstorms
are always possible in the summer. They usually don't last long but you need to
gusts of wind can howl down or across the river. Lightning and thunder can be
part of the show. Look for an island that has cover to block the wind and get
off the river. Pull the canoe well off the water. Remember the river can rise
several feet as a result of a strong rain in the river's watershed or from the
opening of the dam flood gates up river. If it looks like it might be a while,
fast pitch the tent and take a nap. Don't worry..
After the storm
blows past the humidity is heavy and the sky often gray for awhile. During this
still period, the trees and islands cast mirror-like reflections in the river.
The flowers have drops of water hanging from their leaves. You know the sun is
going to come out and its going to be a good day. The rope between two paddles
pushed into the sand makes a quick clothes line to dry wet things..
we cruise between the islands, we pass several group tent sites. Look these over
as you go by for ideas on setting up your own area. Both of these sites are very
exposed. My guess is that the weather forecast was for two days of great weather
and they took a chance as I often do. I have never had a vacant site rummaged,
but common sense should prevail. Take valuables with you as you
Arena landing lies across the river from the second set of bluffs on the north
side of the river. As you go down river you will have many choices of routes to
take. Some of the small streams between the shore and nearby islands can be fun
and full of wildlife as they are often very quiet. Be prepared however to tow
the canoe through sections of these areas as the navigable water can suddenly
Keep track of time as the canoe glides down river to the pickup point. You will
get out just past the yellow cottage on the south side of the river. If your
destination is Spring Green, you pass several more island after Arena and then
lots of open river. You will know you are making progress when you see the water
tower far down river after Arena. The picture is taken from the Arena landing
looking east at canoes returning after a great trip. .
Peck's Landing Park
and ramp are about a mile past the Spring Green railroad bridge. Stay far left
next to the steep cliffs after the second bridge to avoid a large sandbar just
before the landing. If it is a less crowded week day, you will need to walk
across the bridge to the restaurant and call for you ride home. Pick-up buses
come in all shapes. I hope you have enjoyed this vicarious river voyage. Try it
yourself or with a group..
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