Wisconsin Rivers the Best for Canoeing

By Brian E. Clark
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

Mention canoeing on Badger State streams to most folks and they’ll probably think of the Lower Wisconsin River, thanks to its 90-plus miles of unimpeded flow from Sauk City down to Prairie du Chien and its numerous sandbars ideal for camping.

But if paddlers want to expand their horizons a bit, canoeing guru Darren Bush - who runs Madison’s Rutabaga Paddling Sports store and puts on the Canoecopia extravaganza each year - says there are plenty of other rivers in Wisconsin ideal for exploring.

“One of the things I really like about paddling in this state is that in addition to big rivers like the Wisconsin and the Mississippi, we have lots of little streams like the Grant, the Sugar and Mecan that are lots of fun to get out on. And some of them flow through little towns that have great pie, ice cream and cheese.”

Here’s a rundown on some the top rivers for canoeing:

Northwest Wisconsin

The Namekagon near Hayward is part of the National Wild and Scenic River system and flows into the St. Croix. It boasts more than 90 miles of canoeing, has a few riffles and is a great option for a multi-day camping trip. For shuttles and rentals, see the National Park Service website.

Most rivers in Wisconsin flow generally south, but the Bois Brule runs from near Brule north into Lake Superior and has more than 40 navigable miles, though the section closest to the lake has more rapids. The river flows through the Brule River State Forest, which has numerous sites for camping. Outfitters include Brule River Canoe Rental and Kinni Creek Lodge.

Southwest Wisconsin

The Kickapoo, also quite popular, is a tributary of the Wisconsin that twists and winds through a deep valley in the Driftless Area. The best section is 22 miles long and runs from Ontario to La Farge, which should probably be done in two days. Rental outfits include Drifty’s, Titanic and Kickapoo Wild Adventures.

The Grant, which Bush calls a “baby Kickapoo,” is also flat with some riffles, numerous turns and is bordered by limestone cliffs and sandstone bluffs. The Grant has more than 30 miles that are navigable and enters the Mississippi at Potosi, home to the Potosi Brewery and National Brewery Museum. For rentals and shuttles, see Grant River Canoe Rental.

Central Wisconsin

Bush calls the Lemonwier River north of Mauston in Juneau County a “crooked little gem”, twisting and turning repeatedly for nearly 50 miles, and emptying into the Wisconsin River near the Dells rock formations where there’s tons of bird life. For canoe rentals, call Country Cruisin’ Rentals.

The Mecan is in the center of the state near Princeton. Its upper stretch is considered a first-class, spring-fed trout stream. It then opens a bit and becomes suitable for canoeing. Bush says it makes for a great two-day trip and chances are good you won’t see many other paddlers. For rentals and shuttles, see Mecan River Outfitters and Lodge.

South Central Wisconsin

The Sugar River near Verona flows south to its junction with the Pecatonica River. Arguably the best sections are around the Dane County burg of Paoli, which has a number of shops - where you can get a snack and tasty ice cream - plus an old limestone mill, part of which has been turned into the Hop Garden Brewpub. For rentals or shuttles, see Sugar River Outfitters.


For even more great canoeing spots, browse our Canoeing and Kayaking Directory. Explore the waters of Wisconsin with the best of all our paddlesports.

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