In terms of popularity the Kickapoo is one of the most popular canoe and kayak rivers in Wisconsin. Probably doesn’t have quite the rental volume of the lower Wisconsin River, but certainly has the highest paddler to river mile ratio in the state. What makes the Kickapoo attractive is the relatively clean water (at least for the upper portions), small sandbars, hilly countryside…but mostly the bluffs that make the river famous. The best and most popular part is the far upper section from Ontario to Rockton (Rockton to La Farge is probably second best).
For a beginner kayaker, this is probably the best river to start on because it is so safe, well serviced, scenic and, while not having a strong current, it’s not weak either. There are no dams on the river except for a minor low-head dam near Gays Mills (that is actually considered dangerous). The federal government was planning to dam the river decades ago but abandoned plans because of environmental and cost issues (a very good thing). What started as an idea to control severe flooding in the valley evolved into plans for a huge recreational lake and development. Many of the bluffs that make the river trip so scenic and enjoyable would have been lost.
The Ontario to La Farge section is probably one of the most famous and popular canoeing sections in the entire state of Wisconsin and it deserves it reputation. In total this is 22 miles, so obviously you’ll want to split this up. From Ontario to Rockton is a very good trip (~14 miles/7.5 Hours) and will include the best scenery. For beginner/slow paddlers, the best sub-sub-trip would be from Ontario from bridge #7 (it’s marked) or just a little past Hay Valley road. This trip is 9.4 miles and runs mostly through Wildcat Mountain State Park and has the best scenery/waterside bluffs/mini-sandbars. The take-out here is excellent (with a bathroom, too) and this section would be my official recommendation for a newbie wanting to kayak the river.
There are numerous rentals in the area with three mega-operations in Ontario itself (all have waterside access). At Ontario, the Kickapoo is pretty small, but clean and nice. There is a public park (marked on the map) if you don’t want to use the services from these liveries. The big problem with the Kickapoo (well, this section in particular) is the people. There are lots of them, and they tend to make a lot of noise. The key is to go very early in the morning, go on a Sunday or a Saturday…or absolutely preferred…go on a weekday. The congestion is worst from Ontario to about the end of Wildcat Mountain State Park…then lightens up (only slightly) to Rockton…then lightens more so after Rockton…then significantly so after La Farge. By going off-peak hours you can probably get a sandbar (they’re tiny) and/or a swimming hole for yourself. The best swimming and sandbar areas are on the far upper sections and they really tail off the further downstream you go (significantly so after bridge #7).
The nice part about this part of the river (besides the relatively clean water, healthy bank quality, and mostly protected shoreline) are the bluffs that run right into the water. Very cool and most frequent on the upper section from Ontario to Rockton (the sweet spot). The frequency tails off from Rockton to La Farge but still they are very nice. After La Farge riverside bluffs tend to be very infrequent. It’s very easy to figure out where the bluffs are…just eye the Google map below and where there is a sharp rise on the top map next to the river, you’ll have waterside bluffs. Another nice thing about this stretch is that the local companies do a very good job of cleaning this of debris. Current is medium…not slow, but not really fast. There aren’t any riffles…with one minor one on the upper section close to Ontario. If you are looking for riffles on the Kickapoo, then Wilton to Ontario or the West Branch of the Kickapoo might be what you’re looking for (although both are shallow).
Third Party Resources:
- Kickapoo Valley Reserve Map – Very well done with detailed bridge numbers. The Rockton landing had free printouts of this map that you can take on your trip. Don’t trust their distances though.
- Kickapoo Valley Reserve – Visitor Center
- Drifty’s Canoe Rental : 608.337.4288 – Hwy 33 & 131 North, Ontario, WI 54651
- Kickapoo Wild Adventures : 608.337.4522 – 30352 State Hwy 131, Norwalk, WI 54648
- Mr. Duck Canoe Rental : 608.337.4711 -100 Main Street, Ontario, WI 54651
- Ok Corral Canoe Rental : 608.337.4517 – 30531 St Hwy 31, Norwalk, WI 54648
- Titanic Canoe Rental : 608.337.4551 – 300 State Highway 131 Ontario, WI 54651
- Kickapoo Yacht Club : 608.625.4395 – S2463 Rockton Loop Road La Farge, WI 54639
- Crooked River Resort : 608.629.5624 – S. 8019 Hwy 61, Readstown, WI
- Flasher’s Canoe Camping Trips : 608.435.6802 -PO Box 114, Wilton, WI 54670
- 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.
View Kickapoo River in a larger map