Kickapoo River – Black Valley to Brookwood High
The Kickapoo is a popular river known for its scenic sandstone outcrops. Most who paddle it stay between Ontario and La Farge. What’s less well known is that the stretch upstream of Ontario also has many outcrops, but most paddlers avoid it over concerns of possible logjams and shallow water. In 2016, I had a guest review (thanks Posie!) who paddled the Upper Kickapoo from Wilton to Ontario. Sadly she found it a trying experience because of the many logjams.
But times and rivers change… When browsing updated satellite images I was shocked to see how much more open the Upper Kickapoo now was. Why I’m not sure. Perhaps local paddlers/farmers cleared out the jams? Southern Wisconsin’s climate has actually significantly changed in the past five years in that we now get much more rain. The Upper Kickapoo flows consistently wider and deeper and that may have been enough to elevate many jams up and out of the channel and onto the banks.
So I put this at the top of my todo list for 2021. The entire leg from Wilton to Ontario however was a bit long (~13 miles), so I opted for a shorter four mile sub-stretch in the middle that appeared promising.
Almost immediately after launching, I experienced my first outcrop. It was terrific and the first of many. In fact I would estimate this trip had 5 sandstone outcrops per mile (which is a lot). Tall pine trees on each outcrop acted as a proverbial flagpole which let me know far in advance when the next outcrop would appear.
Something that made these outcrops extra special was that many had ice flows coming out of the rock faces. This can be a real treat to experience when paddling. But ice flow paddles can be difficult to time as they often appear in a very narrow window (~last week of February + ~first week of March). These were a bit past their prime, but still fantastic. Along the shore suspended ice shelves hovered over the river and at the bottom were teardrop-shaped icicles…I had never seen anything like it before (see photos).
Something else that made this trip special was how open and exposed the cliffs were. Typically when I (or practically anybody else) paddles this river, they do so in the summer when the leaves are out and thick weeds crowd the banks. The Kickapoo Valley can be a proverbial jungle then which sadly obscures its best scenery. Savvy paddlers know to paddle this river late fall or early spring…not in midsummer when it is least attractive.
The Kickapoo is famous for its number of bridges, and this leg was no different. In just a four-mile trip, I encountered 7 bridges! Unfortunately these are not numbered (the ones below Ontario are) so in theory a paddler could become confused as to which bridge was their take-out. Remember your landmarks if you do this trip. Hopefully in the future, the local community will add the same numbering system to these upstream bridges and perhaps even develop some nicer landings for the Upper Kickapoo.
One of the trip highlights was a natural bridge and cave near the end of the trip which I was able to paddle through. The roof of the cave was supported by a giant sandstone pedestal with a very narrow base. Sadly this support looked very precarious and will likely be naturally destroyed in the near future by erosion.
In summary, this was a fantastic trip. Everything turned out better than expected, including the rapids, lack of of logjams, and outcrops. In fact, I suspect this leg would be a major tourist attraction if not already overshadowed by its downstream neighbor. The only downer was some unsightly erosion in a few select spots, but in general the Upper Kickapoo is much cleaner and has far less erosion than the Lower Kickapoo which can get quite messy and muddy.
Something else I would recommend would be for paddlers to experience an “ice flow paddle”. These are not unique to the Kickapoo and will be a feature of practically any river with bankside cliffs somewhat sheltered from the sun. Obviously if you do any type of winter paddling you should wear appropriate protective clothing.
Sights included deer, geese, a bird of prey (red-tail?), and a few cows. The highlight was a pair of muskrats hanging out on the riverbank.
Elroy-Sparta State Trail: This bike trail is famous for its three tunnels, two of which are located quite close to Wilton (a few miles north of my trip). In fact the largest tunnel is just a mile west of town and this would be a fun side adventure to do after a paddling trip. The Elroy-Sparta Trail requires a state trail pass which you can purchase from the DNR or any state park. The exact location of all three tunnels is shown on Google maps.
Hwy 131: Note Hwy 131 crosses the Kickapoo countless times. The bridge I used was by “Black Valley” (or south of Hwy Z or just upstream of Poe Creek…not to be confused with nearby Posey Creek). Despite a neighbor’s dog barking at me from a distant home, this was an ok bridge access. Note the embankment is a bit steep so rope may be helpful for leading your boat to the water. This bridge (like many Hwy 151 bridges) can become a weedy jungle in the summer.
Alternate Access Options: Because there are so many bridge crossings, paddlers have many options to choose from. The most adventurous will likely start upstream at the Wilton Public Campground/Library…but be warned there are likely logjams closer to Wilton. For more information on access points, see my overview below.
Hwy 131: This Hwy 131 bridge is just east of Brookwood High School and near the intersection of Nicollet Ave. This was a decent bridge access, but this too can be a weedy jungle in the summer. When I started a trip here in June 2013, the weeds were so tall and dense it made launching difficult.
Alternate Access Options: Again there are many bridges to choose from. Those willing to do a longer trip, will likely take out at Ontario (there is a public park in town).
Shuttle & Rental Information:
Brookwood High School to Black Valley – Bike Shuttle: 2.7 miles with 30′ of ascent. Because the Kickapoo “squiggles” so much, it is an incredibly easy river to bike shuttle. In fact at 2.7 miles one could simply do a walking shuttle (Google estimates that would take 50 minutes).
Rentals/Shuttles: There are a number of Kickapoo liveries, most of which are based in Ontario (just to the south). I’m not sure if any will service the river this far north, so call in advance to ensure availability:
- Kickapoo Wild Adventures: 608.337.4522 – 30352 State Hwy 131, Norwalk, WI 54648
- These guys are the furthest to the north, so may be the most willing to service the far upper Kickapoo.
- Drifty’s Canoe Rental: 608.337.4288 – Highway 33 & 131, North Ontario, WI 54651
- Fred Flasher’s Canoe Camping Trips: (608) 435-6802 – PO Box 114, Wilton, WI 54670
- Mr. Ducks Canoe Rental: (608) 337-4711 – 100 Main Street, Ontario, Wisconsin 54651
- Titanic Canoe Rental: 1-877-438-7865 – 300 State Highway 131, Ontario, WI 54651
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
Current: The river was pool and riffle, but overall moved quickly (much faster than the Kickapoo below Ontario).
Fences: There is a fence upstream of my put-in. Because I didn’t need to go under it, it wasn’t an issue. Had I been coming from upstream, I don’t think it would have been difficult to duck under. There was a second fence but it was so high up I couldn’t even touch it with my paddle extended.
Logjams: None! This was a big surprise, but a pleasant one. They used to exist on this leg (I have a photo to prove it!) but I suspect locals and floods have cleared them out.
Rapids: There were countless light rapids. Most of which were pretty easy. About a mile into the trip, there was maybe a half-foot ledge caused by a downed tree, but that wasn’t difficult.
Strainers: This stretch of the Kickapoo was fairly open, but there were a few cases where fast current moved quickly past partially submerged trees. I didn’t find these difficult to deal with, but they could be more problematic in high water. If in doubt, simply portage any strainer you don’t think you can squeak past safely.
River Depth and Navigability:
Closest Gauge: Kickapoo River @ Ontario
Trip Depth: 8.97′ – 8.94′
Navigability Estimates: Note, my estimates could be way off. Typically I use CFS from the Ontario USGS gauge. But USGS rudely stopped reporting these metrics. I’ve switched to NOAA’s report but they lack historical data and only use feet so it is a bit of a transition.
- < 8.75′: I think too shallow for paddling. It should be noted that a guest reviewer did this stretch at 8.5′. She implied it was doable but more water would have been preferred. That was five years ago and I don’t know if things are different now.
- 8.75′-8.95′: Very shallow…you might have to wade a handful of rapids at this depth.
- 8.95′-9.05′: A good target range. I did the trip at ~8.95′ and grounded out only twice. V-bottom kayaks may require more depth.
- 9.05′-9.2′: This is a higher depth and the current may be a bit pushy around some of the partially-downed trees.
- 9.2′-9.4′: A high depth perhaps only suitable for skilled paddlers.
- 9.4’+: Perhaps too high for paddling.
- Wilton to Ontario: 12 miles. This stretch is seldom paddled, but is cleaner and faster than downstream legs. Those willing to endure weedy bridge accesses and occasional snags will be rewarded with spectacular outcrops. A very underrated part of the river.
- Ontario to Rockton: 13.5 miles. This is the most popular section for kayaking on the river (if not the entire state). Highlights include many spectacular sandstone outcrops. This stretch can easily be subdivided. Shuttle services are plentiful, but this leg can get crowded and noisy during summer weekends.
- Rockton to La Farge: 11 miles. This is the second most popular stretch of the river. While the outcrops here aren’t as numerous as the Ontario leg, they do tend to be larger and more impressive.
- La Farge to Mouth: ~90 miles. After La Farge there are few rock outcrops and the river becomes much less interesting. The lower Kickapoo is a generic hardwood floodplain that is at best a mediocre paddle.
- Kickapoo River – West Fork: While lacking the outcrops of the main branch and a bit shallow in spots, this is a very underrated river with many fun rapids.
- Billings Creek: I actually like this creek better than the main river itself. There are just as many outcrops, and the water and banks are much cleaner.
- Tainter Creek: While not very big and lacking in outcrops, it’s still a cool creek with very swift current.
- Upstream of Wilton: The river here is but a small creek, navigable only in high water. Highlights include scenic outcrops, hidden ravines, and cool stone arch bridges that run under the Elroy-Sparta Trail. But logjams might be a bit much.
- Wilton Campground to Hwy 131 (East of Midge Road): 3.4 miles. This stretch was guest reviewed in 2016. At that time there were many logjams, but I suspect most have been cleared out. This stretch should have good outcrops, but likely not as nice as those just downstream from Black Valley.
- Wilton Community Campground to Hwy 131 (by Posey Creek): 1.4 miles. A narrow fast stretch with maybe 3 outcrops and 1-2 logjams. I definitely saw a major logjam blocking the river upstream of the Wilton graveyard.
- Hwy 131 (by Posey Creek) to Hwy 131 (by Mica Rd): 1.3 miles. A more open stretch with perhaps 1 logjam. I think there is only 1 outcrop, but it is part of a much larger ridge that could be very cool.
- Hwy 131 (by Mica Rd) to Hwy 131 (East of Midge Rd): 0.7 miles. Some snags to deal with and one cow fence that should be easy to duck under. Likely 1-2 small outcrops.
- Hwy 131 (East of Midge Road) to Hwy 131 (near Nicollet Ave): 4.1 miles.
- Hwy 131 (east of Midge) to Hwy 131 (by Michigan Ave): 0.5 miles. A good leg with a one nice set of outcrops.
- Hwy 131 (by Michigan Ave) to Hwy 131: 0.6 miles. Another good leg with 3 outcrops. Some minor rapids including a 4-6" ledge.
- Hwy 131 to Hwy 131 (by Nisswa Rd): 0.6 miles. One of the best legs on the Upper Kickapoo which features 6 noteworthy outcrops and terrific ice flows.
- Hwy 131 (by Nisswa Rd) to Hwy 131 (by Nordale Ave): 1.1 miles. Not as scenic as other legs with messy shorelines and eroded banks. There are still a few nice outcrops.
- Hwy 131 (by Nordale Ave) to Hwy 131 (by Nicollet Ave): 1.3 miles. Another one of the Upper Kickapoo's best legs with ~6 outcrops including a small natural bridge one can paddle through.
- Hwy 131 (near Nicollet Ave) to Ontario: 5 miles.
- Hwy 131 (by Nicollet Ave) to Hwy 131 (Oil City): 2.3 miles. Two long stretches of bluffs contain great outcrops.
- Hwy 131 (Oil City) to Hwy 131 (Kickapoo Wild Adventures): 1.4 miles. Terrific stretch with two major outcrops. One set of Class 2 rapids.
- Hwy 131 (Kickapoo Wild Adventures) to Ontario (Brey Valley Road Park): 1.5 miles. One set of outcrops.
- Ontario to Hwy 131/Bridge #4: 3.6 miles. A more open and flatter stretch of the Kickapoo. There are still 3-4 outcrops. This is THE most popular leg on the entire river.
- Bridge #4 to Bridge #7: 6.0 miles.
- Bridge #4 to Wildcat Landing: 3.1 miles. A super popular stretch and the most scenic on the Kickapoo. River flows past steep hillsides and many outcrops (at least 16).
- Wildcat Landing to Bridge #5: 0.9 miles. River opens up a bit, but still three super sandstone outcrops.
- Bridge #5 to Bridge #7: 2.1 miles. A good stretch with seven major outcrops and one cave.
- Bridge #7 to Rockton/Bridge 12: 5.1 miles.
- Bridge #7 to Bridge #8: 1.2 miles. From bridge #7 onward, the Kickapoo becomes much less interesting. There are still some good spots though. This stretch has maybe 3 outcrops.
- Bridge #8 to Bridge #10: 2.5 miles. A good stretch with 5-6 outcrops.
- Bridge #10 to Rockton/Bridge #12: 1.4 miles. This stretch is more open, but still perhaps 3-4 outcrops.
- Rockton to La Farge: 10.4 miles.
- Rockton to P/Bridge 14 Canoe Landing: 2.4 miles. An ok stretch with 3-4 outcrops.
- P/Bridge 14 Canoe Landing to La Farge/Bridge 14 Landing: 8.0 miles. A great stretch with a covered bridge and 4-5 outcrops...several of which are huge (the largest on the river).
- La Farge to Hwy 131 (by Ski Hill Road): 6.8 miles. Nice section but with a few jams.
- 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: 6.7 miles. Should be clear of jams and perhaps the most popular section on the lower Kickapoo. But it does not seem too special and I doubt there are rock outcrops.
- Soldiers Grove to Hwy B: 9.0 miles. I doubt there are logjams, but I 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: 4.6 miles.
- Hwy S to Haney Valley Road: 5.8 miles.
- Haney Valley Road to Taylor Ridge Road: 3.6 miles.
- Taylor Ridge Road to Steuben: 5.0 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: 9.8 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: 0.9 miles. The last stretch before the Wisconsin. Numerous take-out options on the Wisconsin River itself.