Platte River – Hwy A
The Platte is an under-rated river for paddling located in southwest Wisconsin. Not a huge river, it is known for its good current, driftless topography, attractive limestone bluffs, and being heavily impacted by local agriculture. Previously, I did a trip from Airport Road to Platte Road (which I really liked) and then did a later a trip from Platte Road to Big Platte Road (which was good but not as nice as the upstream section). For my third time on the Platte, the plan was to explore a far upstream section from Hwy A to Platte Road (Ellenboro) to take advantage of higher water levels caused by recent rains.
One of the unique aspects of the Platte (like other nearby Grant County rivers) is the driftless topography. The river runs through deeply dissected terrain in which a meandering channel bounces across the river valley from one bluff to another. Opposite each bluff or wall, was often a vast open meadow or pasture, which gave the river a very open feeling and provided nice vistas of the distant rolling hills.
The Platte substrate has a bit of mud but is very rocky, with random angular limestone boulders sprinkled throughout the river. This is not a super deep river, with pool sections typically 2-3′ in depth, but the riffles were shallow and might require some bumping or walking at lower water levels.
One of the negatives of this trip was the impact agriculture has had on the river. Almost all the riverside meadows are heavily grazed and there isn’t much tree cover. Cows are allowed free access to the river, which destroys vegetation needed to prevent erosion, and indeed the river was very muddy. Expect to paddle by a few cows in the water… With cows come fences, and there are a lot crossing the river on this stretch (maybe 5-6). You were never sure which were electric which was quite disconcerting.
On the flip side, the highlight was the limestone bluffs and cliffs. There were many and several were quite large. Frequently, rapids would run along the cliffs to neat effect. Many cliffs had attractive mosses, ferns, flowers and huge colonies of mud cliff swallow nests (quite the sight!). Of all the cliffs, my favorite was the 1000′ stretch located just south of Kingsford Road and reminded me somewhat of the Upper Iowa (granted on a much, much smaller scale).
So despite the muddy water, the cows, the fences and the over-grazed meadows, I am giving this trip 4.5 stars. A one-trick pony that you really do for the limestone outcrops, but the class 1 rapids were fun and the open vistas of the river valley were enjoyable as well.
Lousy put-in. Ok parking, but because of the length of the guardrails, shoulder parking is some distance away from the river. So fine…we double parked and quickly hoisted our boats over the guardrail. Next issue is the steep embankment, and you’ll want to be gentle leading your boat down, lest it run away from you (or vice versa). Finally, at the bottom there is a cow fence which you (and your boat) will have to slide under (be careful not to stretch or damage the fence). It’s not like any of this is super difficult, but it was kind of annoying.
Very nice bridge access off the second Ellenboro bridge (Airport Road) that is popular with paddlers. No outhouse, but good shoulder parking. Northeast of the bridge is a nice “deep water port” which is closer to the car. Northwest of the bridge is a second more obscure trail that leads to a “shallow water port” more suited for tippy boats.
This would be a very difficult bike shuttle, stretching 6.1 miles with a lot of hill climbing (623′ of climbing and 594′ of descending). Plus, a mile of this would be on compact gravel. Only suitable for hard core bikers. Otherwise find a buddy to car shuttle with.
Hazards and Logjams:
No logjams. Well one down tree, but very easy to scoot under. Maybe a few leaning branches in fast current, but alert paddlers will have no problem getting around these.
No dangerous rapids either. Countless class 1 rapids, but nothing serious.
Many farm fences cross the river. You can see they are connected to an electric grid, but they appear to be turned off or inactive for the most part. Many of the fences were very low and over rapids, necessitating using your hands to push yourself under. The ones I did lift thankfully were not live, but be mindful that this may not always be the case.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
There is a downstream gauge on the Platte at Rockville. We ran the trip at 120 CFS which is a bit above average. The average is perhaps 110 CFS and the river will spike up to 150 to 200 CFS after a rain. 100-200 CFS is a good target range. You can go lower (and I did a trip at 77 CFS years ago with great water clarity), but you will bump into a lot of rocks and you will probably have to walk several of the rapids. The Platte can actually get very high very quickly including up to 1000 CFS after a heavy rain (which it did recently). My unscientific guess is the river becomes a bit too ugly to paddle above 200 CFS. The current is very pool and riffle. Either fast and riffly or very slow.
Notables included a tame muskrat, a barred owl, several blue herons, kingfishers, a cormorant, cows (in the river) and a woodchuck. The highlight was the huge number of cliff swallows and their nests which were abundantly plastered to the numerous limestone walls.
- Upstream of Hwy E: Probably some good navigable sections still upstream, although the river is a creek up here and vulnerable to down trees.
- Hwy E to Sleepy Hollow Road Bridge 1: (1.8 miles) River grows from creek to small river with addition of two major tributaries. Might be a few down trees.
- Sleepy Hollow Road Bridge 1 to Sleepy Hollow Road Bridge 2: (1.6 miles) Good prospect that is mostly open. Probably a few limestone outcrops.
- Sleepy Hollow Road Bridge 2 to Coon Hollow Road: (1.8 miles) Good prospect with likely a few limestone outcrops.
- Coon Hollow Road to Hwy A: (3.9 miles) Very good prospect with likely multiple limestone outcrops. Coon Hollow is a decent bridge access, but the ditch is well mowed which typically means the local owner is territorial.
- Hwy A to Airport Road: (6.4 miles) A very good prospect with great limestone outcrops (reviewed Jul 2016).
- Airport Road to Platte Road: (5.0 miles) A very good prospect with fun riffly current (reviewed Aug 2013).
- Platte Road to Big Platte Road: (5.1 miles) A good prospect with fun riffles, limestone outcrops and nice valley vistas (reviewed Jun 2015).
- Big Platte Road Bridge #1 to Big Platte Road Bridge #2: (3.2 miles) Good prospect.
- Big Platte Road Bridge #2 to Hwy O: (1.3 miles) Good prospect.
- Hwy O to Indian Creek Road: (7.6 miles) Ok prospect.
- Indian Creek Road to Mouth at Mississippi: (1.56 miles) Ok prospect
- Mississippi Options: Tricky. The Grant River Recreational Area is 3.4 miles upstream of the mouth(that can be tough sledding especially in high water). Downstream you could take out at Eagle Point Lane (very scenic), but that is 5.5 miles on a very big Mississippi.