Upper Dells – 1
Put-in: Two Rivers Landing
Take-out: River Bay
Distance: 7 Miles
The most famous section of the Wisconsin River is in the Wisconsin Dells area. This is commonly divided into ‘Lower Dells’ (below the Kilbourn Dam) and ‘Upper Dells’ (above the Kilbourn Dam). And in the Upper Dells you can kind of divide that in half….this review will be about that upstream half.
The put in will be at the Two Rivers landing, located at the mouth of the Lemonweir River. This is considered by many to be the ‘start of the Dells’ (and was where an early proposed national park map would have started). The landing itself is very secluded, but nice–with parking and bathrooms. Once you put in there will be a nice rock formation straight ahead which marks the entrance of the Wisconsin River. On the east bank there is another nice rock formation that requires a little upstream paddling. Here in this inlet, the water is very clear and there is a cool indented cave inside on the bluffs where somebody tied a simple rope ladder to some tree roots and piled stones to climb up to the cave. During flood stage, you can explore this inlet upstream for a couple of more bluffs and you should even be able to paddle under Hwy 13.
In this 7 mile stretch, you can kind of divide it into three parts: A ‘bluffs’ section along the river. A wooded island and channel section without bluffs. Then the lake section…with very cool bluffs. After you put in at Two Rivers, you will see nice bluffs on both side of the river for the next few miles. As you enter the ‘island section’ (probably created by the artificial lake slowing down the sediment), you’ll be paddling past wooded banks with (honestly) probably nothing too special except wildlife (we saw turtles, eagles and huge carp). During higher water, you should be able to explore the smaller channels. Here and there are occasional sandbars which you can stop at and have lunch if need be.
If you stay to your right, you’ll see a massive bluff that is very photogenic (I believe it is called Louis Bluff). This kind of marks the start of the artificial lake created by the dam. Looking over the lake, you’ll see the massive Holiday Shores RV Park/Landing on your left (this is a private landing and requires a long drive through a restricted speed zone). Downstream on your left, you will see massive bluffs with an inlet known as Witches Gulch. On your right (west bank) you’ll see another series of bluffs after Louis, an inlet (that goes to the Town of Lyndon landing by River Bay Resort…hard to see), and then there is Stand Rock. You’ll mostly just see the Tour Boat docks and some of the surrounding rock formations instead of Stand Rock itself. Most reviews of the Upper Dells warn against going during busy times because the wake can be kind of rough for kayaks (and the rock walls don’t dissipate the waves like normal shoreline would). While this may be true for sections downstream, like in the narrows, I didn’t find the wake to be a problem for this upper section of the Upper Dells. In fact, boat traffic was quite light and I suspect this is because the water is too shallow for them to get upstream of the lake and it is also getting pretty far away from Wisconsin Dells. Once you get out onto the Lake for the last few miles, there are some wake issues, but they didn’t seem too bad. Be vigilant for the giant jet boats, as the wake they create is always hazardous no matter the section of river you are on. To kind of sum up the difference between the top 7 miles of the Upper Dells and the lower 7 miles of the Upper Dells, you can say the upstream section is much less touristy with much less traffic, and while it has very nice rock formations, the downstream section probably has better rock formations and gullies. In the future I hope to review the rest of the Upper Dells, including the narrows and the surrounding gulches.
Assuming you are following the route I suggest, you’ll hug the right shore, then paddle a little upstream into a hidden inlet where the Town of Lyndon landing by River Bay is (you’ll see a massive steamboat called the Princess Kay there). You also might be able to hear the neighboring stock car races from this area (we could hear the cars all the way from the lake). This landing, while is public, charges 5 dollars per car. The surrounding River Bay harbor and residential park unfortunately creates a busy and noisy atmosphere, but the landing is decent with bathrooms. Parking can be a problem though if you go later in the day during a weekend. There are problemat dogs and their entrails throughout the landing, which is unfortunate. You can take out at other landings… There is a small quiet county landing (see map for all these references) on the northeast side of the lake. I think this is free…but requires going over one the bridges to get there. A little downstream, also on the east bank, there is Holiday Shores, which is another private landing even busier than River Bay more intended for power boaters and I believe they charge more than the 5 dollars the Town of Lyndon landing charges. If you bypass the lake…you really make this a longer trip. I don’t know if there are landings on the narrows…but there is a nice landing on the west side of Black Hawk Island. Assuming no side-adventures (like gulches) this is only ~4 miles from River Bay, for a total of 11 miles from Two Rivers (although you do want to explore the gulches). Then there is a city ramp in Wisconsin Dells (east bank) but I believe they charge quite a bit.
After your trip, you may consider exploring some of the famous landmarks in the area. Most people don’t know this, but many of the famous sites like Stand Rock, Witches Gulch, Roods Glen and Cold Water Canyon do not require purchasing a 25 dollar ticket from the Dells Boat company to explore. Most (at least Stand Rock and Witches Gulch) can be accessed by side roads for a fee of three dollars per person. A frugal alternative to purchasing boat tickets to explore these areas! The gates for these attractions do close at 6, I believe though. Definitely call the boat company for hours and times of these special access areas, as the times do change. Many don’t know it, but much of the Dells is owned by the state of Wisconsin. In the case of Stand Rock/Witches Gulch/Coldwater Canyon, the Dells Boat company has a deal in which they have signed a lease that guarantees exclusive access and use rights to these public areas. The state also owns Black Hawk Island (which they let a 4H company manage). You can access that area by paying for a boat/hike tour with them. For the Lower Dells, again the state owns much of that, but in this case they mostly let the local duck companies manage these areas.
Wisconsin River – Alternate Trips:
There are plenty of other good trips on the Wisconsin River. Starting from Central Wisconsin and working downstream…
- Castle Rock Lake to the Lemonweir River: 10 miles. An ok section reviewed Aug 12th 2012.
- Lemonweir River Mouth to the Two Rivers Landing: 7 miles. The first half of the classic Upper Dells reviewed Aug 19th 2012.
- Two Rivers Landing to Blackhawk Island: 6.5 miles. Note, the Blackhawk Island landing might be inaccessible now. Second half of the classic Upper Dells reviewed Sep 2013.
- Black Hawk Island to Wisconsin Dells Dam: 2.0 miles. More nice sandstone outcrops. You can take-out at a public ramp off Indiana Ave or portage the dam and take-out SW of the dam by a launch off Wisconsin Dells Pkwy/Hwy 12 .
- Dells Dam to Two River Landing/Indian Trail Pkwy: 6.4 miles. Classic Lower Dells section reviewed Jul 2011.
- Two River Landing to Levee Road Landing: 10.3 miles. Not as popular with nothing exotic, but an ok paddle. Nice sandbars at the end.
- Levee Road Landing to Portage/Hwy 23 Access: 6.1 miles. Less popular simple section, but more nice sandbars.
- Portage to Baraboo River/Thunderbird Road: 5.2 miles. A good section with great sandbars, but can be crowded in the summer.
- Baraboo River to Dekorra Park: 2.5 miles. River splits into several channels which can be fun to explore.
- Dekorra Park to Tipperary Road/Washington Street Landing: 4.7 miles. A near section with rock outcrops, large island deltas and sandbars. Unfortunately this part of the river is INSANELY congested and overun by motorboats on summer weekends. Many alternate access options. Partly reviewed Jun 2013.
- Tipperary Road to Prairie du Sac Dam: 13.2 miles. The river turns into “Lake Wisconsin” here. An inadvisable section due to the amount of open water paddling required.
- Prairie du Sac to Mazomanie: 8 miles. An ok section of the Wisconsin but lacking in sandbars. Reviewed Aug 2013.
- Mazomanie to Arena: 9.7 miles. A great section with nice sandbars and scenic bluffs. Reviewed Aug 2015.
- Arena to Hwy 14: 8.0 miles. Class stretch for camping with great sandbars and bluffs.
- Hwy 14 to Hwy 23/Spring Green: 2.2 miles. Neat mini section with sandstone outcrops. Very popular in the summer.
- Spring Green to Lone Rock: Another fine sand/bluff section at 8-10 miles with some nice rock outcrops too.
- Lone Rock to Gotham: A 6 mile stretch with super impressive sand banks.
- Gotham to Muscoda: 7 mile section with some cool limestone rock outcroppings
- Muscoda to Port Andrew: 7 miles.
- Port Andrew to Boscobel: 9 miles…wooded islands start to get massive.
- Boscobel to Woodman: 9 miles and start of the less paddled stretch of the Lower Wisconsin. Far fewer sandbars from here to the mouth, but good bluffs and side sloughs to explore.
- Woodman to Millville: 7 miles.
- Millville to Bridgeport: 6 miles.
- Bridgeport to Wyalusing (the mouth): 9 miles.
For an expanded list of liveries for the Lower Wisconsin, see my livery map here.
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