Kickapoo River – Tunnelville Cliffs
Date Paddled: April 16th, 2016
Put-in: La Farge Public Landing
Take-out: Hwy 131
Distance: 6.72 miles
Time: 3 hours 24 minute
Gradient: 2.3' per mile (guesstimate)
Water Level: Kickapoo River @ La Farge 220 CFS or 3.3'
So the Kickapoo River is of course a paddling classic in Southern Wisconsin (deservedly so). The main section is from Ontario to La Farge. If you have never paddled the Kickapoo before, then that is where you want to start (here is my previous review). This review is only for seasoned Kickapoo vets looking for a new Kickapoo experience.
While the section north of La Farge is super popular, hardly anybody paddles south of La Farge. Why is this? The liveries have told paddlers that the log jam situation makes this section unfeasible. I was always a bit skeptical of this as liveries tend to exaggerate log jams (especially those that require longer shuttles away from their base) and recently a brand new landing was constructed by Tunnelville suggesting this might be feasible after all.
What makes this section of the Kickapoo distinct is that a large section oxbows into a hidden valley adjoining the Tunnelville Cliffs State Natural Area. This SNA supposedly has nice trails, ice caves, waterfalls and a “goat prairie”, but I didn’t really get a chance to explore this.
To be clear this section does not compare to the upstream sections. A general rule of thumb for the Kickapoo is that the further upstream you go, the better. By the time you get to La Farge, you are pretty downstream. There are not as many rock outcrops and the bank quality deteriorates significantly. Years of erosion and floods have resulted in steep messy mud banks and runty trees. There is also a lot of debris in the water, which with the sometimes uptempo current will keep you on your toes (there were even occasional riffles).
This is still a nice section though. One highlight is the vistas you will see of the surrounding hills as you enter Tunnelville Valley. Very striking, with some hills showing exposed sandstone. The other attractive feature is the riverside rock outcrops. There is a nice one just prior to the intermediate Tunnelville landing and a few nice ones after.
The only downside to the trip are the log jams, which didn’t phase me, but would many others. I’ve marked these on the map. It would not take much effort to completely clear these out and hopefully this can be done in the future.
There is a free public canoe launch in La Farge. Good landing with outhouse and parking, but is a tad muddy.
The Hwy 131 bridge is not ideal but is doable. You will have to drag your boat a bit to get past the guardrails and to your car.
Note, this is a six mile trip and you can cut this short by taking out four miles in at the new Tunnelville Landing.
I’m not sure if the main Kickapoo liveries would service this section. I suspect they would, but you will want to confirm this in advance. For a list of Kickapoo liveries, see my previous review on the Ontario Section.
Otherwise this is an easy bike shuttle at only 2.93 miles (the Kickapoo in general is a great bike shuttling river because its squiggly nature means short shuttles).
Hazards and Log Jams:
I heard so many nasty rumors about this section. One rumor said the section from La Farge to Viola had 26 portages (and this section is 40% of that length). Another livery told me a horror story of how big the log jams are and what horrible experiences canoers had.
My experience? I only portaged twice, both of which were easy on sandy banks. That being said though, I’m VERY good at getting through tight squeezes with my small kayak. Most paddlers in bigger boats would have to portage 5-7 times (some of which would be over steep mud banks).
I’ve included pictures and notes on the map, so you can decide for yourself if these jams are too much. More of the jams are in the 2nd part of the trip past the Tunnelville Landing (but so are more of the outcrops). Inexperienced paddlers should not attempt this section regardless of levels because of the current and deadfall, but experienced paddlers will have no problem with this.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
This was paddled at an average depth of 220 CFS per the local La Farge gauge. While the upper Kickapoo by Ontario does “run dry” in late summer months, I doubt this section ever gets too low to run. You don’t want to run this when the river is high. The Kickapoo has a bad reputation for floods and high water. With the amount of deadfall in the water and the deceptively fast current, high water can create some safety concerns, and I suggest waiting until the river subsides to a more peaceful lower level (like below 300 CFS).
Some geese, two beavers, a snapping turtle, and a deer crossing the river. The highlight was two bickering groundhogs who let me get pretty close (they might have been courting!). Woodchuck sumo is viewable 46 seconds into the main video.
Organic Valley has a factory outlet in La Farge where they sell many organic dairy products you normally don’t see in stores. They also sell non-dairy organic groceries which is rare to see outside of the big cities. I’ve marked their store on the map (they’re closed Sundays).
The Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center is also worth checking out. Part nature center and part museum, the visitor center does a good job of providing a background on the Kickapoo River and its unique history (they’re also closed Sundays).
Lastly, there is of course Wildcat Mountain State Park. The highlight is an outstanding overlook with a great view of the river. The park has great trails, camping options, ice caves and at least one waterfall I’ve seen. Definitely worth checking out if you haven’t seen this before.
Kickapoo River Overview:
- Wilton to Hwy 131 (near Nicollet Ave): 7.0 miles. Just a small creek and not too many bluffs, but are some. Fences and log jams may be an issue as well as shallow water. Guest reviewed Apr 2016.
- Hwy 131 (near Nicollet Ave) to Ontario (Titanic Livery): 5 miles. A rarely traveled section with nice rock outcrops. Reviewed Jun 2013.
- Ontario (Titanic) to Hwy 131 (after Hay Valley Road or #7): 8.5 miles. The most popular and perhaps best section of the Kickapoo. Reviewed Aug 2010.
- Hwy 131 (bridge #7) to Rockton: 5.0 miles. A good stretch. Reviewed Aug 2010.
- Rockton to La Farge: 11 miles. 2nd most popular stretch on the river. Less frequent but larger bluffs than upstream. Easy to subdivide. Reviewed Sep 2012.
- La Farge to Hwy 131 (by Ski Hill Road): 6.76 miles. Nice section but with a few jams. Reviewed Apr 2016.
- Hwy 131/Ski Hill Road to Viola (Banker Park): 7.0 miles. Maybe 2 bluffs, but mostly open I think. Have been told there are 26 portages between La Farge and Viola, so beware.
- Viola to Readstown: 12.5 miles. Should be able to subdivide. Not sure if any rock outcrops and might be some jams.
- Readstown to Soldiers Grove: 6.65 miles. Should be clear of jams and perhaps the most popular section on the lower Kickapoo. But does not seem too special and doubt there are rock outcrops.
- Soldiers Grove to Hwy B: 8.98 miles. I doubt there are log jams, but think this stretch would not be very interesting.
- Hwy B to Gays Mills: 4 miles. Probably not interesting. A dam and flowage to contend with near Gays Mills.
- Gays Mills to Hwy S: 4.58 miles.
- Hwy S to Haney Valley Road: 5.77 miles.
- Haney Valley Road to Taylor Ridge Road: 3.57 miles.
- Taylor Ridge Road to Steuben: 5.02 miles.
- Steuben to Plum Creek: 13 miles. Maybe not interesting? Think you can subdivide this if need be.
- Plum Creek Landing to Wauzeka Boat Landing: 9.75 miles. Non-exotic but flows through a wildlife area. A landing at Hwy 60 allows you to subdivide the trip.
- Wauzeka to the Wisconsin River: 0.86 miles. The last stretch before the Wisconsin. Numerous take-out options on the Wisconsin River itself.