Milwaukee River – West Bend
This trip starts at the city of West Bend where large glacial moraines redirect the Milwaukee River from its southward trajectory east toward Lake Michigan. The natural river channel here descends at a steep gradient over glacial rocks and gravel. Sadly most of this gradient has been buried over the years by not one, not two, but three dams in the city of West Bend. Thankfully in 1988 one of these dams (Woolen Mills Dam) was removed. When the millpond was drawn down, it revealed a truly special section of the river and IMO the best paddle on the Upper Milwaukee.
We started the trip at the Hwy 33 dam where there is a public park and a good access area for launching. This park is scenic with a nice vista of the dam itself…but is a bit strange as it features some weird abstract art. There are random rock blocks that look like a partially deconstructed foundation…then there is a rock “feather”. You wouldn’t it was a feather unless you read the sign though.
The first mile of the trip flowed through downtown West Bend which features a relatively new riverwalk (we saw this under construction in 2018). This riverwalk consists of several scenic white pedestrian bridges, attractive stone retaining walls, a large bike-friendly sidewalk, and attractive stairs that serve as access points. From the river we saw many downtown West Bend buildings, including the Museum of Wisconsin Art.
The channel in the first mile was quite fast and featured many light rapids which were a lot of fun. Crowds from the pedestrian bridges appeared to enjoy watching us go through them. The speed of the river really surprised me and this was a trip highlight.
Downtown West Bend faded away once we passed the old railroad bridge (now the Eisenbahn State Trail). Just after this was an island with a nasty strainer in the right/south channel. But some friendly local posted a sign directing paddlers to take the left channel, which was wide open and clear sailing.
Past Indiana Ave, we encountered what used to be the heart of the Woolen mill pond. Now it’s quite different as there’s good current, a scenic prairie and a public trail system along the river. This transformation was quite dramatic and represented yet another successful dam removal project. Here are some of the before dam / after dam pictures. Sadly despite this success and others (like on the Baraboo River and Crystal River), dam removals in Wisconsin have tailed off in recent years. This is due in part because many modern conservation groups are sadly apathetic to this issue.
While maybe not quite as fast as upstream of Indiana Ave, the stretch below here is still brisk and features some rapids. The strongest of which is just downstream of the bridge and is pretty safe as long as you stay clear of the right shoreline where there are strainers.
At River Road bridge we came to where the Woolen Mills dam used to reside. Now there is an attractive public park here which is a good access option.
The second half of the trip after River Road bridge was dramatically different from the first. Scraggly woodlands replaced the nice prairie plants we saw, and the channel became slower, deeper and less clear with rusty brown water. It wasn’t a bad paddle…but it was a downshift from a 5-star stretch to a 3-star stretch.
Near the end of the trip, we encountered the outlet to the West Bend sanitation plant. It’s a unique building that features two tall holding towers you can see from some distance. Shortly after, we took out at Quaas Creek Park. The park itself was one of the trip highlights as it featured a fantastic prairie that was in full bloom. All-in-all, a very enjoyable paddle.
We didn’t see too much…likely because we were mostly within an urban metro area. But we did see two cranes and three teenage great blue herons that were hesitant to fly.
West Bend Labyrinth Garden: This is a unique public garden arranged as a labyrinth. It’s located in Regner Park (just upstream from the dam).
West Bend Courthouse and Museum: This historic building towers over the rest of the city, and can even be seen from the river. While it used to be a courthouse, it’s now a museum open to the public.
Ice Age Trail: Located on the west side of West Bend is one of the more scenic stretches of the famous Ice Age Trail. Besides the Ice Age Trail there are a number of city trails along the river that are also good hikes.
West Bend Dam/Hwy 33: There is a public parking lot here with good access below the dam…very scenic. A pier and ladder are available on the upstream side of the spillway in case you want to access the flowage or intend to portage the dam.
- Upstream of Hwy 33: In theory you could launch on Barton Pond via one of the adjacent parks, but to continue downstream you would need to portage the Hwy 33 dam (which is doable). Putting in via the next upstream dam (by Hwy 144) may be an option too, but I suspect it would be tricky as there doesn’t seem to be much room to portage around this dam. For 99% of paddlers, the Hwy 33 dam is the best put-in.
- Downstream of Hwy 33: There are numerous access points on the river here…such as by the Veterans Ave bridge or by the Riverside Park Disc Golf Course. But I don’t recommend these. If you put in too late, you miss out on the scenic downtown section that has the best current.
Quaas Creek Park – South Access: North of the main parking lot is a trail that leads to the water and a wooden pier for launching. This is a good public access (and scenic with many prairie plants), but does require dragging your boat 570′ over the trail system (IMO worth it).
- Quaas Creek Park – North Access: While we took out along the south shore, most paddlers take out on the north shore. The advantage of doing this is you can double park and pick up your boats right next to the water (almost no walking). However…be warned that a sign on Enterprise Street warns that vehicles are not allowed on the drive that leads to the water. I was told by another paddler that the city lets paddlers drive down though to load/unload (don’t quote me on that). Even if you can drive down, I’m not sure if you can leave your vehicles by the water during your paddle (paddlers still do). If you don’t leave your vehicle by the water, you’ll have to park on Enterprise Street which would entail a long 775′ hike to your car. Hopefully the city formally converts this area to an official launch in the future.
- Riverside Park/River Road Bridge (1.8 miles upstream): In some ways this is a very good take-out option…the park is nice and it marks the end of the best part of the trip. But…from the dam to Riverside Park is just 2 miles…likely too short a trip for most paddlers.
- Goeden County Park (6.3 miles downstream): Most paddlers will consider our 3.9 mile trip too short and will prefer to take out at Goeden Park which is a good access. The stretch from Quaas Creek to Goeden County Park is solid and one that I reviewed two years ago.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
Bike Shuttle: 3.5 miles with 85′ of ascent. While we car shuttled this would be a fantastic bike…in fact one of the nicer kayak/bike combo options in the entire state. This shuttle would require little road peddling and be mostly along public trails that have scenic vistas of the Milwaukee River. Be warned that the main shuttle route does include the Eisenbahn State Trail…which technically requires a state trail pass.
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
Logjams/Fences: Practically none. Between the railroad bridge and Indiana Ave there is an island…and the south channel has a logjam. But the north channel is wide open and a sign warns paddlers to stay left (north) to avoid this.
Strainers: In high water there are some strainers in fast current along the shore to be mindful of. Experienced paddlers shouldn’t have any problem dodging these. Either way, this is definitely a stretch you want to wear your life jacket on.
Rapids: There are many rapids upstream of River Road. Most are Class 1 and easy…but there is a Class 2 (in higher weater) just downstream of Indiana Ave. Stay away from the right bank where there are some strainers…otherwise this is pretty easy.
River Depth and Navigability:
The nearest gauge is a decent ways downstream at Cedarburg but should still be somewhat helpful. We did the trip at 700 CFS (which was high).
- 0-250 CFS: Good clarity, but likely too shallow for paddling upstream of Riverside Park. The stretch downstream from Riverside Park likely never gets too shallow for paddling.
- 251-350 CFS: You may need to walk your boat in several stretches (upstream of Riverside Park). We scouted this area during our 2018 trip (278 CFS).
- 351-600 CFS: A good target range for the stretch upstream of Riverside Park.
- 601-800 CFS: A high depth. The current will be more pushy and the rapids will be bouncier…but this should be manageable.
- 801-1000 CFS: A very high depth. The current may become very pushy and obnoxious. Perhaps only for experienced paddlers.
- 1001+ CFS: Probrably too high for most paddlers.
Additional access options are visible on the overview map. Special thanks to Milwaukeeriverkeeper.org which has some detailed information on the river, including this great map.
- Above Kewaskum: The Milwaukee River splits into two (west branch and main branch) and while I think these are good creek prospects (especially the west branch), I don't know enough to say. Some additional information has been posted on the overview map.
- Hwy 45 to Kewaskum Dam: (3.6 miles) Starts technically on the West Branch. Maybe 2-3 logjams, otherwise a nice prospect.
- Kewaskum Dam/Park to Hwy H: (2.9 miles) Solid prospect.
- Hwy H to First West Bend Dam: (6.3 miles) A solid prospect with some flowage paddling at the end. The take-out entails dragging your boat across a private parking lot.
- First West Bend Dam (Barton Ave) to the Second West Bend Dam: (1.3 miles) Mostly an urban flowage paddle. The first dam is a difficult portage or put-in.
- 2nd West Bend Dam to Quaas Creek Park: (3.8 miles)
- 2nd West Bend Dam (Washington Street) to South River Road: (2.1 miles) Terrific section with a restored prairie, fast current, light rapids, and good urban scenery.
- South River Road to Quaas Creek Park: (1.7 miles) A paddle through urban woods...pleasant but not top-notch.
- 2nd West Bend Dam (Washington Street) to South River Road:
- South River Road to Hwy M: (6.3 miles) A pleasant stretch with little development and clear water.
- Hwy M to Main Street Bridge (Newburg): (3.4 miles) Good prospect with small boulder gardens in shallow water.
- Main Street Bridge (Newburg) to Hwy A Bridge: (6.3 miles) A popular paddle with great water clarity.
- Hwy A to Waubedonia Park (Waubeka): (5.7 miles) A decent leg with good current, some rocky stretches, and nice color in the fall. North Branch joins up and significantly enlarges the river.
- Waubedonia Park to Ehlers Park/Mink Ranch Road: (5.3 miles) A solid stretch with I believe some light rapids.
- Ehlers Park to Peninsula Park: (2.5 miles) A suburban stretch with maybe one set of rapids.
- Peninsula Park to Grafton Canoe Launch (south Saukville on Hwy O): (1.9 miles) Kind of a suburban paddle.
- Grafton Canoe Launch to Veterans Memorial Park (Grafton): (4.1 miles) Some suburban and flowage paddling, although I think there are minor rapids in the upper stretch.
- Grafton Dam (SW of Bridge Street) to Lime Kiln Park: (1.3 miles) A terrific section with class 2-3 whitewater and scenic dells.
- Lime Kiln Park to Hwy T: (1.6 miles) Good section with scenic 'Grafton Dells' and some Class 1 whitewater. I'm not sure Hwy T is a good take-out.
- Hwy T to Pioneer Road: (1.9 miles) A solid prospect.
- Pioneer Road to Thiensville Park: (6.9 miles) Solid prospect but with some flowage paddling at the end.
- Thiensville Park to Brown Deer Road: (4.8 miles) A solid prospect with a few minor rapids.
- Brown Deer Road to Kletzsch Park: (4.1 miles) Solid prospect.
- Kletzsch Park to Estabrook Park: (4.1 miles) Some flowage paddling and a nasty low-head dam to portage. A second dam has been I believe recently removed so this section might be very different now.
- Estabrook Park to Riverside Park: (3.1 miles) A number of decent rapids in this wooded but urban paddle.
- Riverside Park to McKinley Marina: (6.3 miles) A great trip on the last section of the Milwaukee.
- Riverside Park to Bruce Street Boat Ramp: (3.9 miles) A scenic paddle through downtown Milwaukee featuring some skyscrapers and great architecture.
- Bruce Street Boat Ramp to McKinley Marina: (2.5 miles) A bonus add-on section along Lake Michigan that features scenic vistas of the downtown.