Wisconsin River – Mazomanie
Date Paddled: August 8th, 2015
Put-in: Mazomanie Adlers Landing
Take-out: Arena Public Boat Ramp
Distance: 9.65 miles (not bad because of how straight this is)
Time: 4 hours 46 minutes (without breaks you can do this under 4 hours)
Gradient: 2' per mile
Water Level: Wisconsin River at Muscoda 4850 CFS or 1.27'
A good trip on the Lower Wisconsin takes some good planning to get right. You want to go when the water is low (for best sandbars), when there is little headwind, and when there are few other people on the river. Practically, this means September/October or a weekday in July/August. You then need to pick the appropriate segment to do (92 miles means a lot of choices).
I suggest not doing Sauk City to Mazo, as this has few if any sandbars (the dam is starving the river here of sediment for islands and sandbars). From Mazo to Spring Green is a great section and the most popular for camping, with plenty of terrific sandbars, but is very busy. From Spring Green to Muscoda is a great section for sandbars, but with fewer people (more powerboats though). From Muscoda to the mouth you gradually lose the sandbars (and most other paddlers), but you still get to enjoy superb bluffs and fun backwater channels to explore.
An advantage of starting this trip at the Mazo landing (besides being on the same side of the river as the Arena landing), is that you’ll get to paddle by three terrific bluffs. The first of which is Ferry Bluff, which is a 300′ sandstone outcrop towering over the mouth of Honey Creek. Right next door is Cactus Bluff, which you can actually climb on top of. Just park your boat directly below the bluff by the sandstone wall and you’ll discover a small trail that leads to the top for spectacular views of the river. You can also access the trail and overlook from the Honey Creek boat launch. The third bluff down is Hugo’s Bluff which, despite being a state natural area, can only be accessed from the water. I did not see if there was a trail that led to the top from the shore, but am curious. You’ll see plenty more bluffs on the trip (which makes the Lower Wisconsin special), but these three were my favorites.
As for the river itself, it is very wide and sandy with turbid water clarity. Not awful, but not great. You can swim in it, but do mind the unexpected drop-offs (and the industrial effluents from up north). For our trip the waves weren’t an issue but can be with a decent wind. What is striking is just how sandy everything is, especially where the river takes big bites out of the shore leaving really nice sand banks (not as epic as the ones by Gotham, but still cool).
The main reason why you want to do this trip is for the sandbars. They are huge, clean and open to the public. No other sandbars in the state rival those of the Lower Wisconsin. This is a top-notch section for camping (although Arena to Spring Green might be even better). Campers should remember that camping is not allowed on the river by the Mazomanie bottoms (including islands). Roughly speaking, you can finally start camping after the famous Mazo beach (you CAN’T miss it…especially on a weekend).
Camping and picking a sandbar require a bit of strategy… Use satellite maps to get a feel for where the best ones will be (roughly). Many good sandbars hide on the downstream side of large wooded islands. Generally speaking, on a weekend most sandbars will be taken, but the further you paddle, the more likely you’ll encounter an uninhabited one. Most are so large though that they can reasonably accommodate multiple campers. Even if you don’t camp, you should at least picnic or take a break on a sandbar to take in the experience.
On the downside, the Lower Wisconsin despite being mostly a protected natural area, has some noise issues. There aren’t too many motorboats because of the shallow depth, but there were multiple hovercraft, which made a TON of noise. Many paddlers were quiet and considerate, but a certain portion played loud music and would yell loud, stupid things (many of whom were under the influence). Sound carries on the water a LONG way and I wish the DNR would create decibel rules and have wardens enforce these with meters (ideally no electronic music, limits on boat noise and shouting…especially at night).
This might be THE most popular paddle trail in the entire state and the number of canoes and kayaks you will see in the water is impressive. Many were severely overloaded (like Indian trucks) and did not look seaworthy. The smart canoers would rent a second canoe just for cargo that they would drag behind. If you pack up for this trip, do remember that glass is not allowed and you must bring a waterproof container for trash.
Terrific put-in at Mazomanie (Adler’s Landing). A triple landing of sorts, with a boat landing, canoe launch and then a secondary private canoe launch next door. Massive parking area (that I suspect fills up on occasion) and nearby outhouse. This was a busy port of call with people and boats swarming everywhere. Be careful about leaving your stuff here unattended as thievery has been an issue.
Normally the Arena Boat landing would also be swarming on an early August weekend…but things are a little different with the ramp this year. Basically, the access is “sanded in” (see pictures). Quite amusing, this is still an excellent landing with good parking and outhouses, but you’ll have to walk your boat over sand. We actually helped a fisherman pull a full-sized boat over the sand (weren’t many boaters at this launch). Note, this can be a difficult launch to find from water and the best way to access it is to paddle downstream of a massive sandbar and then paddle upstream to the ramp (at least as close as you can get).
Much of the Lower Wisconsin is a difficult bike shuttle because the river doesn’t meander that much, some roads are busy with poor shoulders, and there are many miles between the bridges. This trip would have been 14.8 miles, which is extremely long for a bike shuttle.
Thankfully, there are a large number of liveries that service the Wisconsin between Mazomanie and Arena:
- Bender’s Bluff View Canoe Rental: (608) 544-2906 – E10032 Huerth Rd, Sauk City, WI 53583
- Jensen’s Blackhawk River Runs: (608) 643-6724 – PO Box 57, Sauk City, WI 53583
- Sauk-Prairie Canoe Rental: (608) 375-5300 – 7554 US HWY 12, Sauk City, WI 53805
- Traders Bar and Grill (aka Sandbar Canoe Rental): (608) 588-7282 – 6147 Highway 14, Arena, WI 53503
- Waz Inn: (608) 583-2086 – 234 S Oak St, Lone Rock, WI 53556
- Wisconsin Canoe Company: (608) 432-5058 – E5016 US Hwy 14, Spring Green, WI 53588
- Wisconsin Riverside Resort: (608) 588-2826 – S13220 Shifflet Rd, Spring Green, WI 53588
We went with Black Hawk River Runs, a livery service I like and felt we were well treated by (I’ve had my share of bad liveries to appreciate good ones). Their headquarters is conveniently located next to the Mazo landing.
Hazards and Log Jams:
Mostly none and this is a good water trail for beginners. Note, the current is deceptively fast and powerful, and there are sudden and unexpected drop-offs if you are wading. Many have drowned. Also beware of strainers along the edge. My brother flipped his canoe years ago getting too close to one on this very section.
Also beware of the wind and direction. The liveries won’t send out canoes if there are whitecaps (my livery driver shared a story of a canoer who got burnt out a week earlier trying to fight the wind and attempted to walk back to the landing before a warden found her). I suggest avoiding headwinds over 8 mph (important especially for canoes).
Lastly, be aware of water levels (more on this below).
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
We went at 4850 CFS (at Muscoda), which is a good depth for sandbars and safe paddling. Roughly speaking, you want to paddle 10,000 CFS or lower for the sandbars and frequently this won’t happen until July/August. A rookie mistake is to do a trip on the river in May/June (with exceptions). My personal preference for an ideal trip would be to go at 6000 CFS or lower…at 3000 the River is getting pretty low, but sublime for sandbars and keeping noisy motorboats off the river.
The current is again deceptively fast (at times over 5 mph with some surprise riffles), but does slow down in areas. Roughly speaking it is never too low to run the river. If you read the river wrong, you’ll have to get out and pull your boat, but this is easy with the clean sandy bottom.
I would say 10,000 CFS or higher is too high. The river can become a big monotonous (and dangerous) conveyor belt that is no fun, has dirty flood water and lacks sandbars.
An osprey, flock of geese, some painted turtles and a flock of cranes. Normally this is a great section for clams, but none were seen. The highlight (as expected) were the eagles which numbered 7-8 just for this short stretch.
Other Lower Wisconsin Reviews/Info:
- “Paddling Southern Wisconsin” by Mike Svob: A classic and contains a terrific top-to-bottom reference for the Lower Wisconsin
- Wisconsintrailguide.com: Another fine top-to-bottom guide to the Lower Wisconsin
- Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Guide: Terrific PDF/Map put out by the DNR.
- Friends of the Lower Wisconsin River – This facebook page is a great source of news for the latest happenings on the Lower Wisconsin
- History of conservation on the Lower Wisconsin
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.