This is a trip that takes a lot of planning to get right. Basically, the Horicon area is a drained swamp that has been artificially restored by a dam near the center of the city of Horicon. As you probably know, this is a VERY popular area for birds. While there are different canoe/kayak options, the main ‘official’ canoe route is from a small landing northeast of the lake/marsh. I believe there is a minor landing on the west side and there are of course canoe options below the Horicon dam…but that is more of the Rock River and is a separate paddling experience. The far north end of the marsh is completely off limits to boaters due to national protection. The history of the marsh is quite interesting and I do recommend Googling this. Even despite all the restoration efforts it’s experienced, it’s not in its ideal native state. Invasive cattails have taken over, as have carp. They’ve recently tried to use chemicals to kill off both, but this has failed (and probably left the water quality in worse shape).
The main route is pretty popular and is serviced by a local shuttle and rental place (they also do pontoon tours of the lower section if you’re lazy). The put-in is small but nice (don’t remember bathrooms). There are roughly 3-4 sections of this ~10 mile route. The first section is a nice no-current stream that runs through a tunnel of cattail grass. The second section is an artificial canal. The third section is pretty much a decent sized lake, and the forth section is the Rock River as it runs through the city of Horicon and on to the landing (assuming you use the local shuttle service…there is a public landing further upstream if needed). You can…perhaps not get lost, but choose the incorrect routes which can waste time. You’ll probably want to study the maps or bring GPS. There are trail markers along the canoe route…but they are oddly placed (like you’ll only see them if you are already on the main route…oh well).
While generally this route is pretty navigable, we went during a drought and we had a very serious ‘get stuck’ moment about a third into our trip. The bottom is VERY muddy, so getting out to pull your kayak isn’t fun. In fact, this whole section of the marsh was surprisingly muddy–probably due to the Horicon dam, which traps sediment in the marsh. They would probably be better served by taking out the dam and filling in the canals….oh well. Try to read the ripples (still water runs deep), so you don’t get stuck like we did. Getting stuck will be the most minor of your problems though. There is no tree cover, so there is nothing to block the wind and it can be quite strong. Monitor the weather forecast for direction and speed of the wind. Probably don’t want to go if there is head-wind of more than 5-8 miles an hour. We we were told by the shuttle service, that they don’t service this route when the wind gets over 15 mph. We went when it was 20 and it was a straight head-wind (not fun). In hindsight, we should have done the route in reverse as we could have ‘sailed’ the route in reverse with no problems…and that would have been quite fun. Obviously, with a strong wind, you can dehydrate quickly, so pack lots of water.
That’s all the negative stuff…if you go during nice weather this trip can be quite nice. There are no shade trees, so you may want to go very early in the morning, in the evening, or late spring/early fall. In fact, the main reason to paddle Horicon Marsh is to see the birds. We did see a number of them, including pelicans (very cool mega-flocks), blue herons, and more…but this wasn’t during the migration periods so the volume was a fraction of what you would see if you timed this during a migration. I don’t know when the best times would be (the local pontoon tour place would know or any local visitor center could tell you). I highly recommend scheduling your trip DURING the spring or fall migrations. Besides birds we saw turtles and lots of fish (mostly carp). In fact, the carp are so plentiful and large that our kayaks would frequently spook them and they would thrash about, giving our boats a good thumping that you could feel (especially if you hugged the shoreline).
Getting back to the trip, the first section was nice (but windy). The canal was not as interesting (and even windier). The lake section was tough sledding…because then you had to not only contend with the waves but also the wind. The Rock river section itself was pleasant and relatively sheltered (although somewhat industrial…you’ll get to see a John Deere factory on your left). At the end of the lake there should be a public landing on your right and a ~mile downstream, the private shuttle service landing on your left. This is JUST upstream of the dam.
Aside from paddling, you can again take the pontoon tours…but they don’t go that far up into marsh…mostly just the main Rock River channel and the lake…then they turn back. There are a number of nice nature centers along the perimeter of Horicon Marsh that you can check out as well (Google for whatever you need). There is a county park to the east of Horicon called ‘Ledge Park’ that is quite nice and on par with most state parks. It offers a nice view of the marsh on top of a tall rock ledge. The picnic and camp areas are in a nice forested section of the park and there is a trail that runs along the west side of the park overlooking the marsh (a good spot to be during the mega-migrations).
All in all, I can’t recommend this trip, given the same terms we faced…but if you go when it is cooler, less sunny, less windy and during the migration when the famous volume of birds fly in, I’m sure this would be well worth doing and more deserving of a higher rating.
Upstream of Hillcrest Drive: I believe these portions are too congested to paddle.
Hillcrest Drive to Riveredge Park: 0.9 miles. Scenic stretch through the outskirts of Allenton with good clarity. However there are two major logjams to portage, and several minor logjams to squeak past.
Riveredge Park to Hwy DW: 2.7 miles. An open stretch through wetgrass and a state natural area. One logjam needs to be portaged.
Hwy DW to Hwy D: 5.5 miles. Outside of one nasty logjam cluster this is a pretty open creek paddle through a protected wildlife area that might be decent.
Hwy D Wayside to N. Pole Rd. Launch: 7.3 miles. A good wetland paddle prospect through Theresa Marsh. Maybe 1-2 downed trees on the upper part.
Kohlsville River: Note, the Kohlsville River joins the East Branch here, but it seems too congested with downed trees to be feasible.
N. Pole Rd Landing to River Edge Park: 1.3 miles. Slow, open, and marshy channel. Nice though.
River Edge Park to Rock River Street/Dam: 0.5 miles. A nice town paddle through the community of Theresa. One dam to portage.
Rock River Street/Dam to Hwy AY: 3.5 miles. One of my favorite stretches on the entire Rock River. While shallow in spots, it is scenic with nice woods, small boulder gardens and multiple light rapids.
Hwy AY to Gill Road(East): 0.7 miles. A brief wooded stretch that is a nice paddle.
Waupun Park to Tanner Park: 3.1 miles. Great section though downtown Waupun. Alt access at Pine Street Park, Meadow View Park and Harris Mill Park.
Tanner Park to Roadside Park: 3.2 miles. A pleasant paddle through a mixture of woods and open areas. A couple of logjam squeakers and one major portage.
Roadside Park to E. Waupun Road: 0.9 miles. River widens, slows, and gets less interesting.
E. Waupun Road to Dike Road: 10.0 miles. This is the northern unit of Horicon Marsh and is off limits to paddlers per National Wildlife Refuge rules.
Dike Road to N. Nebraska St. Ramp: 5.6 miles. Am 80% sure you can drive on Dike Road from the east to launch in the ditch. Mostly a long straight canal paddle through Horicon Marsh with perhaps interesting side canals to explore. You can also launch in a west canal by Burnett Ditch Road. The city of Horicon marks the confluence of the South and East Branches of the Rock River.
It’s a neat prospect, but I suspect the logjam situation is too much (I could be wrong).