Headwatered in southern Milwaukee, the Root River flows south through suburbia before taking a turn east through downtown Racine where it empties into Lake Michigan. It’s not a bad paddling stream and locals seem to enjoy it.
Most Wisconsin paddlers traveling to the Root will take the I-894 Milwaukee ‘Bypass’ which is an unfortunate way to start any day. This is a hideously congested, fast, narrow-shouldered, and confusingly designed freeway that requires constant lane changes. After surviving that I arrived at 6 Mile Road which was one of my contingency put-ins. While not great and with little parking, I wasn’t in the mood to scout other put-ins, so decided to start the trip right there.
My first impression of the river was somewhat positive and it reminded me of the Popple River in central Wisconsin. The banks were wooded and the channel while somewhat turbid had some clarity. There were occasional small boulder gardens and ledges which are always nice. On the downside the current was occasionally stagnant and the banks appeared to be somewhat beat-up and unhealthy.
After a mile, I paddled by 5 Mile Road/Linwood Park which is a decent access option (and was one of my contingencies). The subsequent mile honestly was pretty uninteresting, as the channel slowed and widened. To use another river analogy, this reminded me of the Rock River (the more boring parts) and my internal star rating dipped below 3.
Everything changed after 4 Mile Road though. The current really picked up with several fun light rapids and this was followed by great boulder gardens…very reminiscent of the Waupaca River trip I did a few months earlier. At the east end of this stretch was the Caledonia Dog Park which had the biggest and best boulder garden, and where a dog ran away from its owner to chase me.
After the dog park, the river entered a massive golf course, which wasn’t as interesting. There were plenty of golf balls in the water and golfers along the shore looking for them. After the golf course the river entered a wooded section. In keeping with my river analogies, this had a very Turtle Creek feel to it (a good thing). I ended the trip at Hwy 31, which wasn’t the funnest take-out as the shore was muddy and the air smelled like a mix of manure and burnt garbage (from I believe a nearby factory). But parking was good, which you always appreciate when on the outskirts of a large city (Racine).
In summary this was a mixed bag trip. 6 Mile Road to 5 Mile Road was solid but unspectacular. 5 Mile Road to 4 Mile Road was slow and uninteresting. The final 3 miles (4 Mile Road to Hwy 31) were great and likely the best stretch on the entire river (although the rapids below the Root River dam seem intriguing). Adventurous paddlers could continue on after Hwy 33 where there are several good accesses, but the river will be slower and less interesting because of a flowage. This was a fun paddle but mostly suited for locals as the nearby Bark, Oconomowoc and Milwaukee River will be much more interesting for paddlers.
Not much. A few dragonflies, minnows, a painted turtle, crayfish and clams. The highlight was an owl that showed up near the end of the trip.
The Root River has historically suffered from industrial pollution and its substrate does contain excess amounts of phosphorous as well as some heavy metals.
In roughly the year 2022, a pipeline will be completed that will send Waukesha’s wastewater into the upper Root River (close to Oakwood Ave in Franklin). Waukesha’s ground water is currently contaminated with carcinogenic radium. Personally I suspect its huge 250′ open pit mines located near the downtown are partly to blame, but that is another story. Because Waukesha is located outside of the Great Lakes Basin (and isn’t a Chicago suburb) it can’t draw water from Lake Michigan legally. A compromise solution was created such that Waukesha will be able to use Lake Michigan water if it returns its wastewater to the Great Lakes…and it plans to do so through the Root River.
This will actually have a very positive impact on the Illinois Fox which is currently the unlucky recipient of Waukesha’s effluent. Currently the Fox is very weedy and I suspect it will be a much cleaner and more interesting paddle once the pipeline is completed.
But, this will dramatically change the Root River. There are different estimates of how much waste water will enter the Root, but my best guess is +90 CFS (which for a small river is a lot). I saw another estimate that this could increase river levels by 5 inches which would permanently smother some of the smaller boulder gardens and rapids. Another issue is this wastewater will carry a number of nutrients as well as phosphorous which will create weed issues on the river, especially along the slow sections. So all in all, kind of sad. The Root that I paddled likely won’t exist after 2022…it will still be navigable but will be a different experience.
One other environmental note… Just downstream from my take-out is the Root River dam. It’s considered a safety hazard as officials don’t believe it can withstand a hundred year flood and they are in discussion to remove it. Obviously the Waukesha pipeline will just make matters worse. Locals are fighting a proposed dam removal (like they always do)…but I really hope this succeeds as it will help with the water quality and make the section above the dam much more interesting for paddling.
I launched at 6 Mile Road which was not a good put-in. Heavy traffic was an issue and there was barely room to pull off the road (there is a small spot northwest of the bridge that works). I then had to drag my boat 300′ through a grassy ditch to reach the river, where it was easy to launch. All doable, but not fun.
An alternate access 1.3 miles upstream would be at West 7 Mile Road. I believe other paddlers use this as an access and it should be doable. This additional segment should be mostly wooded and nice, with perhaps one logjam.
An alternate access 1.2 miles downstream would be at Linwood Park. This is a good public access although the banks here are a bit steep and muddy.
I took out at the northwest corner of the Hwy 31 bridge. Doable, but not a great access. Disembarking is a bit trick as it is muddy here but at least the banks are flat. From the water, I dragged my kayak 340′ north along a fishing trail to reach a utility pull-off where local fishermen park. If you park here, make sure to park off to the side in case utility workers need to access their station. There is also parking available at the nearby Caledonia Conservancy trailhead.
An alternate take-out 2.0 miles downstream would be at Armstrong Park which would likely be a good access. However this leg probably isn’t as interesting.
An alternate take-out 3.5 miles downstream would be a public landing just northeast of the Hwy 38 dam. This would involve mostly flowage paddling and likely be boring.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
The bike shuttle wasn’t too bad at only 4.1 miles, all paved, and only minor hills. Hwy 31 is not a fun road to pedal along because of its heavy and fast traffic as well as stop-light intersections, but is shoulders are wide. East River Road and 5 Mile River have small shoulders but little traffic.
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
Current: Outside of a few light rapids, the current is pretty slow.
Hazards: None really. There are rapids, but all are Class 1. During higher flow rates, they may be stronger and more tricky though.
River Depth and Navigability:
There are two gauges on the Root with the downtown one being more relevant for paddlers:
- 0-20 CFS: An average fall depth. Likely too shallow for paddling.
- 21-40 CFS: Most rapids would likely have to be walked. Clarity though should be good.
- 41-80 CFS: Likely a good depth with pronounced boulder gardens. You can get through most ledges/rapids ok, but some will be bumpy. This trip was done at 57 CFS which was a good level.
- 81-110 CFS: A higher depth that will be fun for running the rapids. Boulder gardens will be smaller at these levels though.
- 111-150 CFS: A much higher depth that wouldn’t be as scenic.
- 151-1000 CFS: This might be only suitable for experienced paddlers in whitewater boats.
- 1001+ CFS: Very high levels and likely not recommended.
Alternate Root River Trips:
- E. County Line Road to West 7 Mile Road: 1.8 miles. I suspect this is a simple stretch with no rapids. See overview map for exact put-in location.
- West 7 Mile Road to 6 Mile Road: 1.3 miles. Likely a nice section. Maybe one logjam.
- 6 Mile Road to Hwy 31/Ole Davidson Road: 5.7 miles.
- 6 Mile Road to 5 Mile Road: 1.2 miles. Ok section with several small ledges and small boulder gardens.
- 5 Mile Road/Linwood Park to 4 Mile Road: 1.3 miles. A slow and somewhat uninteresting section.
- 4 Mile Road to Hwy 31: 3.3 miles. Terrific section with some fun light rapids and scenic boulder gardens.
- Hwy 31 to Armstrong Park: 2.0 miles. Fewer woods and some development. Likely a less interesting segment.
- Armstrong Park to Horlicks Pond Landing: 1.5 miles. Mostly a stagnant flowage. Likely not interesting. Landing is located northeast of the dam.
- Horlick Dam to Quarry Lake Park: 0.6 miles. A rocky and scenic section with perhaps some dells. Numerous Class 2 rapids and one Class 3. Best put-in is likely east of the dam which fishermen use, but I haven’t scouted this so I don’t know how difficult it is to launch here. Daredevil boaters run the dam (not recommended).
- Quarry Lake Park to Lincoln Park: 1.4 miles. Flows mostly by a golf course, but this should be a pleasant stretch. Alt access at Colonial Park.
- Lincoln Park to Clayton Park: 2.4 miles. A mixture of suburban neighborhoods and public parks. This can be a rocky stretch in low water. Likely a good prospect. The Steelhead Dam would have to be portaged which should be easy. Alt access at Horlick Park.
- Clayton Park to Lake Michigan Pathway Ramp: 2.3 miles. River widens for the last segment. Paddle partly through downtown Racine, see a drawbridge and huge fleets of sailboats. Multiple other take-out options near or on Lake Michigan.