Canoe the Wisconsin River:
One and two day trip information.


Wisconsin River rain bow

Wisconsin river reflections

Tent site

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.

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Created by Professor Peter Johnson
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I hope my photos give you a feeling for the area.
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     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.


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map from Chicagomap around Madison From 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.

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river mapriver map 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 Sauk City.

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Bait store 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 license.

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starting point 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.

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Sauk Prairie Canoe starting pointunloading the car 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.

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Railroad bridgeduck family Be 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.

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starting point starting point At 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.

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Crusing by Blackhawkpurple flower Traveling down 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.

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river hazards anchored canoe 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 drop-off.

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Ferry Bluff from up rivertrail start sign 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.).

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poison ivyfern leaves in light 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.

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view east from cliffMe top of Ferry Bluff above river 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.

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Looking down river from bluffFerry Bluff from down river 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.

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turtles on log pur[le flower 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.

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golden rod spider Ducks, 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 shore.

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map bee hive in branches On a 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.

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PJ and canoefishing While I 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.

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son in canoe PJ with bass My 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 16.

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nudist colonytent sites A mile 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.

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swimming lunch on a bar As 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 pickup.

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campsite tentsite hidden from wind 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.

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tentsite Almost set up on bar 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.

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campsite tentsite The 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.

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tentsite Set up for the nite 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 areas!

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dinner little bass 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 meal.

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tentsite near Bluffstentsite near Bluffs 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 falls.

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early sunsetlate sunset 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.

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cooking dinnereating dinnerBetween 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 outdoors.

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fog morning fog 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.

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morning reflectionspacking up 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.

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lunch stoptrees in river If 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.

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winds picks upstorm Gusty winds 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 be ready.

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getting dark rainbow Strong 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.

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grayish day pretty flower 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.

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4 tents near river group of tents As 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 explore.

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sunny day PJ fishing The 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 disappear.

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tree reflections landing at Arena 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.

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SPC bus BKC bus 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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