Despite its close proximity to a large population of eager Madison paddlers, the Sugar has always suffered from limited access, poor water quality, lots of deadfall, and dangerous cattle fences. However, recent land acquisition by Dane County Parks, new landings, yearly clean-up efforts by volunteer groups, and improved cattle gates have given a facelift to this great local resource.
The trip starts on a great note at the Falk Wells Sugar River Wildlife Area off Hwy 69 where a well developed canoe landing gives paddlers three path options to the water. The first mile of the river is really nice. While mathematically this shouldn’t be a fast river, it scoots along at a good pace with occasional riffles. The channel here is narrow and flanked by lush trees and vegetation. While there are down trees here and there, these are never a problem and the locals have done a great job of clearing this out. I went at slightly above normal levels, but could still at times see through to the bottom, which frequently consisted of nice sand and small gravel substrate. An odd quirk with the river is the huge number of what appeared to be incompleted or washed out bridge abutments…of which I lost count.
At about mile 2 you’ll pass under a bridge used by the Bruce Company, which has a massive tree and shrub nursery along the river. The Bruce Company has sold over 2.5 miles of riverfront land to the county for waterfront conservation. After this, the river opens up, farm fields and grassy banks replace trees and the channel slows down. Pleasant, but not as interesting.
At about mile 3, you come across another nice Dane County “Falk-Wells” landing off Paoli Road. The highlight here is a partially removed dam that creates some fun class 2 rapids you can run. I thought these were easy, but you can easily use the landing path to portage around this if you want or to run the rapids again (very fun!).
From Paoli Road to the town of Paoli is a really nice section. The trees come back and hug the river and the current picks up with some more riffles. While this is more of a creek than a river, it is plenty feasible for canoes and we saw many on the water.
The city of Paoli marks about the halfway point in the trip (~3.5 miles) and you could certainly get out here if you wanted. Paoli is a neat little town with small attractive shops. The town highlight is a four-story limestone block mill house located just west of the river. The millrace upstream that used to connect with the dam has been filled in, but in town you can still see what remains of the canal.
The next two miles after Paoli are not as interesting. The farm fields return and the trees vanish, really putting this river’s four star rating in jeopardy. There are two swing gates to contend with, but these are easy to duck under (they weren’t always).
The last two miles of the trip were my favorite part. Here the current picks up dramatically, the river narrows, and thick tree canopies shade the winding channel. Typically this section would have had the most deadfall, but thankfully this has been all cleared out. Do be mindful that while the locals clear out the river, things can change after a big wind storm, so be vigilant regardless.
Very nice canoe launch off Hwy 69. While this is a Dane County park, this does not appear to be a fee area. Three paths give you plenty of options for launching and there is good parking to boot. The only downsides are the lack of an outhouse and a lot of wild parsnip, which can cause skin blisters, so avoid touching this.
Alternative downstream put-in options include the Paoli Boat Launch off Paoli Road (great canoe landing by the dam remnants) and Range Trail bridge (a marked canoe access spot but unimproved).
For some history about the Falk-Wells landings, click here.
If you cut your trip short like many paddlers do and take out in Paoli, there are several landing options.
- Many paddlers use a mowed path from a park by the Hop Garden (northwest of Paoli Road). This is private, but the owner lets paddlers use this (unless there is a wedding).
- Another option is the lawn east of the river by the Artisan Gallery. This is also private, but I’m told the owner is relaxed and lets paddlers take out here.
- My preferred option would be to take out at the Montrose Town Hall. Basically, you can disembark upstream/northeast of the snowmobile bridge (river left) and park by the Montrose Town Hall, which is public.
For my trip, I took out 4 miles downstream of Paoli at Hwy A. The south side of the bridge is clearly marked no-trespassing, but the north side has a nice mowed path leading to the water for paddlers to use.
Relatively flat, this would be an easy bike shuttle at 4.4 miles. In fact, the area is popular with bikers because the Badger State Trail is next door (but maybe just a tad east to be included for a kayak shuttle).
Brand new in 2017, “Sugar River Outfitters” is now a rental and livery option for the Upper Sugar River.
Hazards and Logjams:
None. There used to be plenty, but these have been cleaned out, thanks to the efforts of volunteers. Stay on your toes as the current is peppy and with some down trees, but alert paddlers shouldn’t have an issue. Remnants of the old dam do create some small rapids (~class 2), but they are super easy to portage if you want to.
Note: At least one boater lost their paddle though which I recovered. If you’re missing a kayak paddle from the Sugar, contact me below and I’ll see if I can arrange to get it back to you.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
The gauge just upstream of our leg, read 64 CFS. A local I talked to thought the river was above normal, but it didn’t seem too high and was a good depth. The river is pool and riffle in nature with many of the pools being consistently 3′ deep. I doubt the river ever gets too low to run. Lower levels should help with clarity. I am not sure what flood stage is. 100 CFS is probably a pretty full river. 200 CFS and 300 CFS levels happen infrequently and only after heavy rains. Because of the fast current and number of down trees, I’m not sure I would suggest going when the river is high.
An eagle, many kingfishers, and a turtle. Highlight was a muskrat fighting the Sugar’s current to take a mouthful of weeds back to its den. Plants included many honeysuckle bushes with red berries, elderberries in flower, and pondweeds waving in the water.
What was unique about the trees on the Sugar was that many were very “horizontal.” Some, like bur oaks, have naturally horizontal limbs, but many other trees would lean over the channel for extra sunlight. Even those that went down continued to live, creating fun little arches to paddle under.
As Madison bikers on the “Paoli Loop” have long known, half the fun of the trip is visiting the historic little town of Paoli–a hub for bikers, artisans, and organic food producers. A Wisconsin State Journal article describes how the county’s Falk Wells land purchase may also add large numbers of paddlers to this mix.
This examiner.com article surveys Paoli history and lists some of the stores, galleries, and restaurants in the town, which include an organic food store and restaurant and an ice cream shop (perfect for an after-paddle snack!).
- Upstream of Hwy PD: Likely too many logjams.
- Hwy PD to White Crossing Road: (0.4 miles) Mostly straight and likely channelized. Perhaps a few logjams. Could be a tight fit during low water.
- White Crossing Road to Valley Road: (4.9 miles)
- White Crossing Road to Bobcat Lane: (2.2 miles) Open, straight and channelized…this is a simple but pleasant paddle with frequent vistas of Epic Systems. There are a few logjams here that can be hopped over in high water.
- Bobcat Lane to Valley Road: (2.7 miles) Slower, twistier and more wild than the upstream section, but less interesting. No noteworthy logjams.
Valley Road to Riverside Road: (1.8 miles) There might be a logjam or two, as well as a problematic cattle fence.
- Note from Wade at Uppersugar.org: “The fence has been redesigned to be more paddling friendly. Both sections of the fencing now have a gap with vertically hanging PVC pipes that boats can pass through. It’s my understanding that this has worked well, but if you go down the river and have a different experience, please let me know.”
Riverside Road to Hwy 69: (1.6 miles) There were fences and logjams here, but I think they have been cleared out.
- Hwy 69 to Hwy A: (7.7 miles)
- Hwy 69 to Paoli (Montrose Town Hall): (3.5 miles) Fantastic section.
- Paoli to Hwy A: (4.2 miles) Good section….but not as scenic as the previous leg.
Hwy A to Frenchtown Road: (0.9 miles) A solid prospect.
Frenchtown Road to Belleville Park: (4.7 miles) A solid prospect with some flowage paddling at the end.
Belleville Park to Exeter Park: (4.8 miles) Nice paddle with scenic put-in and take-out. Highlights include a few sand and gravel bars and an attractive wooded section with good current.
Exeter Park to Hwy X: (5.4 miles) A good prospect.
Hwy X to Hwy C (Attica): (5.0 miles) A mediocre prospect.
Hwy C to Hwy EE: (6.4 miles) A mediocre prospect.
Hwy EE to Albany Boat Ramp: (2.5 miles) A weak prospect because of the lake paddling.
Albany Boat Ramp to Decatur Albany Road: (2.9 miles) A weak prospect.
Decatur Albany Road to Decatur Park: (4.5 miles) A weak prospect with some flowage paddling.
Decatur Park to Hwy F: (2.2 miles) Good prospect.
Hwy F to Clarence Bridge Park: (4.6 miles) Good prospect with an exposed rock outcrop.
Clarence Bridge Park to Hwy T: (5.9 miles) A good prospect.
Hwy T to W. Beloit Newark Road: (1.9 miles) A good prospect.
W. Beloit Newark Road to Nelson Road Boat Ramp: (4.6 miles) Avon Bottoms Wildlife Area is probably nice but perhaps some downed trees to negotiate.
Nelson Road Boat Ramp to Haas Road: (6.6 miles) Good prospect.
Haas Road to North Street: (4.1 miles) Good prospect.
North Street to Harrison Road: (5.0 miles) Good prospect which ends at the Pecatonica River.