Public launch next to River Bay Campground

Costs five dollars

Decent but crowded boat ramp

Interesting boat parked next to the ramp

Lot’s of wild rice in the area

Exiting the bay

Heading toward the first group of bluffs at Stand Rock

Holiday Shores to our left (alt put-in but busy)

Stand Rock Boat Docks

Tiny cave

Amazing rock texture

Looking back on Stand Rock

Next highlight – Grand Cambrian

Looking upstream on the lake

The gates to Witches Gulch

Dramatic change in the layering

Great texture

Super green water in Witches Bay

Witches Bay Boat Docks

Neat effect

You can make it up a little ways into the creek

Lighting was REALLY bad in here

Think this is Witches Cauldron

About as far as you can go

Entering the bay again

Tallest bluffs I think are here

Cliff swallows not under a bridge!

Pillow Rocks!

First of many tour boats

These are kind of annoying

Entering the famous narrows

He gunned it after he passed us…huge wake.

Chula Vista Resort peaking behind Steamboat Island

A glen before Steamboat Island

Perfect to keep boats out but let kayaks in

End of the glen

Very scenic

Hanging gardens…kind of…photography in here was difficult

You can actually see Chula Vista windows from the glen

Time to check out Steamboat Island

Another dock

The tour boats squeeze in here…it can be a tight fit

Somebody stole my paddle…

Looking back on the island

Cool little micro waterfall and rock stratification

The artificial drainage pipes don’t mesh with the watefall

Great little cave

The entrance is to the right

Lunch time in one of the bays

I think this is called diving board rock

Looks like a radiator

Another trip, yet another paper wasp nest….weird!

No wake zone marks the entrance to Black Hawk Island

But first we need to check out Coldwater Canyon

Very scenic

A bad joke from the Dells Boat Company handiwork…(it’s state land BTW)

Old building at the end of Coldwater Canyon

Nice shoreline around Blackhawk Island

Apples from this tree were floating down the river

Much smaller channel around the island

Lost count of all the no-tresspassing signs put up on state land

Take-out is all the way to the right

Nice landing

Ok Parking…important update…this entire landing is now closed!

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Upper Dells – 2

Date Paddled: September 8th, 2013
Put-in: Town of Lyndon Landing (by River Bay Resort)
Take-out: Black Hawk Island Landing
Distance: 6.5 Miles
Time: 8 hours (abnormally slow though)
Gradient: < 1' per Mile
Water Level: Wisconsin Dells 3500 CFS or 3.2'

Of the many areas in the Dells to paddle, this is the best and is a must paddle for Southern Wisconsinites.  In a previous review, I paddled the first half of the Upper Dells from Two Rivers landing to about halfway on the flowage lake (take-out at River Bay Campground).  For this trip, I’ll pick up where I left off and paddle down to a nice take-out next to Black Hawk Island.

There are multiple options for putting in, of course.  See my other review for more upstream options.  For the lower section, I would prefer to launch somewhere on the large flowage/lake created by the Kilbourn Dam.  There is a small public landing on the NE side of the lake that is hidey and requires some channel paddling but would be a good option.  Halfway down the lake on the left/west side is River Bay Campground and a local public ramp (Town of Lyndon Landing).  This costs five dollars and can be somewhat busy during the summer.  Parking can fill up during the summer, too, so you might want to arrive early if you go on a weekend.  Another put-in option is on the east side of the lake in the Holiday Shores Campground, but this can be extremely busy and might be the most pricey put-in option.

One bonus of the Town of Lyndon Landing is you’ll get to see a cool steamboat parked there.  It’s a nice sheltered area from the lake with abundant wild rice.    Once you are on the lake, things can get choppy and windy.  Make sure you are comfortable with open lake paddling before you embark on this trip, and it might not be a bad idea to check the weather for the wind direction and speed.  You should see bluffs almost all around you.  Louis Bluff is upstream, but we didn’t hit that on this trip.  The Stand Rock Bluffs will be south of the landing, the Cambrian Overlook south of that, and Witches Gulch SE/across from those (it’s all marked on the map).  All three of these locations have land access points.  The Cambrian Overlook is public, but you do have to pay a small fee to visit Witches Gulch or Stand Rock from land.  The gates for the latter two have poor hours, so check ahead of time with the boat company before planning a visit.

Witches Gulch will be the first highlight of your trip.  You’ll enter a massive entrance that reminded me of the Gates of Argonath from the Fellowship of the Ring!  The channel itself is very nice, and at the end is a tour boat dock and boardwalk leading into the gorge.  They don’t tell you this on the tour…but you can actually kayak under the boardwalk and into the gorge a bit–possibly further during high water.   I ran out of navigable water, I think, by “Witches Cauldron.”  Would have taken more pictures but lighting was beyond horrible, even with a kayak-mounted tripod (taking pictures inside of Witches Gulch is always a challenge).  The water in the gorge is not too dirty…but incredibly green from the algae (which actually looked kind of cool).  The carp must have loved it, as they were plentiful and splashing about in the bay.

Continuing on…  It will be almost nonstop bluffs to the take-out next to Black Hawk Island, so no shortage of scenery on this water trail.  After you exit Witches Gulch, you’ll enter a ~7 mile stretch called the “Narrows” which, simply put, gets its name from the river being so narrow at this point.  Reading reviews of this in advance, almost all them are adamant that this is a super dangerous area for kayakers.  We went 7:00 in the morning on a Packer game day in September and still saw our share of boat traffic, but it was nothing like it would be normally.  I think if you are an experienced paddler and go during off times, you’ll be all right.  The main problem is the bus-sized jet boats–very fast and produce a huge amount of wake that can easily swamp a kayak or really bang you against the rocks if you’re not careful.  For this trip, we checked with the Dells Boat Company and they didn’t run the jet boats on the upper Dells this late in the season.  But the competing boat company (Dells Army Ducks) did.  But the only one we saw was at Black Hawk Island, which is safely protected by a no-wake zone.  From my experience on the lower Dells… some jet boats will slow down and give you space…some will not.  Be vigilant. 

The second problem is the large tour boats.  They can also produce massive wakes, but it largely depends on how fast they go.  Most gave us room and slowed down as we went by.  After one tour boat went by, there was nobody else on the river so he gunned it and the wake was incredible and really smashed against the bluff walls…that would have been dangerous had we been close or hidden from the captain’s sight.  Power boaters can be a nuisance as well.  I don’t want to scare you away from doing this section though, as, for the most part, despite some boat traffic, I never felt remotely in danger.  Wear your life jacket and go during off-peak times and you should be fine.

There aren’t really any houses/buildings you’ll see on this segment.  There are four major wooden docks that the Tour Boats use though (Stand Rock/Witches Gulch/Steamboat Island/Coldwater Canyon).  The one exception is the massive Chula Vista Resort you’ll see before Steamboat Island on the narrows.  While I’m sure it’s nice for resort guests to book rooms that overlook the river…it kind of stands out from the water.  Before you get this far, there will Roods Glen on your left that you should check out.  The nice thing about this one is that it is too shallow/narrow for bigger boats, so is perfect for kayaks and is kind of secluded (except where you can see resort windows looking down into the glen). 

Steamboat Island is your next marquee river attraction.  Go left and you’ll enjoy a scenic narrow channel through the bluffs.   Big tour boats also love this narrow channel, so be careful.  On the left side will be a cool micro-water fall running over stratified rocks.

Soon after Steamboat Island, on your right, will be a cool cave that really only a kayaker can enter (I barely fit at 12.5′ though).  Don’t get trapped in here while power boats are going by as you could get bounced around inside the cave.  It’s kind of hidey, so be on the lookout for it….it has an entrance and exit (see pictures).

There will be a couple more small bays/gullies you can check out as well on the narrows that can be nice spots for lunch breaks.  Your next marquee river attraction will be on your left (right near Black Hawk Island/No-Wake sign) in Coldwater Canyon.  Super cool, this is definitely worth checking out, but be very vigilant about tour boats.  While you can fit in Witches Gulch just fine with the Tour Boats…this is a tighter fit.  And these tour boat drivers can get very upset with smaller boats in these channels (these are public waters though).  Definitely try to time Coldwater Canyon when a tour boat isn’t there. 

Exiting Coldwater Canyon, you can continue down either the east or west channels of Blackhawk island.  I prefer the west channel, and our landing was there for this trip.  Blackhawk Island is very nice and I actually liked the river here better than the upper Narrows because the river loses its excess girth and it becomes more intimate.  This would have been very cool to see before the dam was put in as it was said to have fierce rapids….you can kind of get an idea from these old pictures here.  It also would have been interesting to see the Dells if the plan in the 30’s to make it a national park had gone through. 

Blackhawk Island is very scenic on both sides of the river.  There is some boat traffic on the west channel but it is light because of the shallow water, which is perfect for kayaks.  The no-wake zone around the island really helps a lot (but is ignored by some boats we saw).  The Island itself has a super nice trail system that runs around the island and is a great way to experience those bluffs.  But, despite the island being public/state property, there are no trespassing signs everywhere and 4H (which is a private institution) is given pretty much exclusive access/control of the island.  I asked if I could land my kayak on one of the island docks and explore their trails and they told me no…I would have to sign up for a 4H event and go as part of a large group.  Most people don’t realize this…but many of the Dells areas are publicly owned–Stand Rock, Witches Gulch, Coldwater Canyon, Blackhawk Island, much of the Lower Dells…  But for the most part there are no trespassing signs everywhere and these areas have been set aside for companies to use largely exclusively. 

Take-out west of Blackhawk Island (see map) is very nice.  This is one of the few free launches in the Dells area and has a public pull-off area.  No bathrooms though.  The pull-off area is small and this does fill up in the summer though, so you might want to park your car early here if possible.  Editor’s update…this landing has recently been closed (for no good reason).  Very tragic…paddlers will now need to continue down to the Wisconsin Dells boat ramp, or portage the dam and take out at the landing below it.

All in all, this is a terrific trip that is absolutely a must do for any serious paddler.  You can, of course, extend this trip or loop around Black Hawk Island.  There is a public beach just southeast of Blackhawk island, but it is about a mile walk to the parking lot, so that is not feasible for kayakers.  There is a public lanuch in the city of Wisconsin Dells (see map), but this does have a fee.  Further down, I suppose you could portage the dam, as I believe there is a portage path on your left.  People have done it, but I think it might be a decent hike for most paddlers.  You may inquire with the local power company regarding the best portage options around the Kilbourn Dam.

For non-kayaking excisions, Stand Rock, Witches Gulch, Grand Cambrian Overlook, and Blackhawk Island are worth checking out.  Lost Canyon also is one of the marquee canyons in the Dells, but it requires you pay to go on a horse drawn wagon tour to see it.  There is a public trail SE of Blackhawk island that leads down to a beach that is so-so.  The trail upstream of this is nicer and leads through a path with very big trees.  There is a side-path (that you are not supposed to go on) that leads from this trail to the top of Witches Gulch.  This is risky because the rocks up there are so thin, it would be easy to break them and tumble down to your doom.  Besides the rest of the upper Dells, the lower Dells are worth checking out for kayaking as would Mirror lake.  Spring Brook has some gems but is tough to recommend to the general public because of access issues.

Wisconsin River – Alternate Trips:

There are plenty of other good trips on the Wisconsin River.  Here is a map of all possible water trails and landings from Castle Rock Lake to Wyalusing.

Below is the same information but in bullet list format:

  • Castle Rock Lake to the Lemonweir River:  10 miles.  An ok section reviewed Aug 12th 2012.
  • Lemonweir River Mouth to the Two Rivers Landing:  7 miles.  The first half of the classic Upper Dells.  Reviewed Aug 19th 2012.
  • Two Rivers Landing to Blackhawk Island:  6.5 miles. Note, the Blackhawk Island landing might be inaccessible now.  Second half of the classic Upper Dells.  Reviewed Sep 2013.
  • Black Hawk Island to Wisconsin Dells Dam:  2.0 miles.  More nice sandstone outcrops.  You can take out at a public ramp off Indiana Ave or portage the dam and take out SW of the dam by a launch off Wisconsin Dells Pkwy/Hwy 12 .
  • Dells Dam to Two River Landing/Indian Trail Pkwy:  6.4 miles.  Classic Lower Dells section.  Reviewed Jul 2011.
  • Two Rivers Landing to Levee Road Landing:  10.3 miles. Not as popular with nothing exotic, but an ok paddle.  Nice sandbars at the end.
  • Levee Road Landing to Portage/Hwy 23 Access:  6.1 miles. Less popular simple section, but more nice sandbars.
  • Portage to Baraboo River/Thunderbird Road:  5.2 miles.  A good section with great sandbars, but can be crowded in the summer.
  • Baraboo River to Dekorra Park:  2.5 miles.  River splits into several channels which can be fun to explore.
  • Dekorra Park to Tipperary Road/Washington Street Landing:  4.7 miles.  A near section with rock outcrops, large island deltas and sandbars.  Unfortunately this part of the river is INSANELY congested and overun by motorboats on summer weekends.  Many alternate access options.  Partly reviewed Jun 2013.
  • Tipperary Road to Prairie du Sac Dam:  13.2 miles.  The river turns into “Lake Wisconsin” here.  An inadvisable section due to the amount of open water paddling required.
  • Prairie du Sac to Mazomanie:  8 miles.  An ok section of the Wisconsin but lacking in sandbars.  Reviewed Aug 2013.
  • Mazomanie to Arena:  9.7 miles. A great section with nice sandbars and scenic bluffs.  Reviewed Aug 2015.
  • Arena to Hwy 14:  8.0 miles.  Classic stretch for camping with great sandbars and bluffs.
  • Hwy 14 to Hwy 23/Spring Green:  2.2 miles.  Neat mini section with sandstone outcrops.  Very popular in the summer.
  • Spring Green to Lone Rock:  7.4 miles.  Another fine sand/bluff section with some nice rock outcrops too.
  • Lone Rock to Gotham:  8 miles.  This stretch has super impressive rock outcrops and sand banks.  Reviewed Aug 2017.
  • Gotham to Muscoda:  7 mile.  Cool limestone rock outcroppings.
  • Muscoda to Port Andrew:  7 miles.
  • Port Andrew to Boscobel:  9 miles.  Wooded islands start to get massive.
  • Boscobel to Woodman/Big Green River:  9 miles and start of the less paddled stretch of the Lower Wisconsin.  Far fewer sandbars from here to the mouth, but good bluffs and side sloughs to explore.
  • Woodman to Adiantum Woods State Natural Area:  3.9 miles.
  • Adiantum Woods State Natural Area to Millville:  3.8 miles.
  • Millville to Bridgeport:  5.3 miles.
  • Bridgeport to Wyalusing (the mouth):  9 miles.  Partly reviewed Jun 2017.

For an expanded list of liveries for the Lower Wisconsin, see my livery map here.


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2 Comments to “Upper Dells – 2”

  1. For the last few weeks my partner and I were planning a paddle on the Wisconsin River. We had seen a few beautiful photos online from the water, including the glens like Witches Gulch and Coldwater Canyon, and knew we needed to check this place out. Your blog post was BY FAR the most helpful resource we could find! There’s so little information out there about this waterway… and not unintentionally, I think. The boat tour industry certainly seems to have a monopoly on the area. Thank you so very much for all the photos and detail you provided about this trip. We went this past Friday and I already want to go back.

    By the way, the take-out beside Blackhawk Island is indeed inaccessible now. We went to check it out first and a fence has been built there. Ironically, when we pulled up with our kayaks atop the car, a gentlemen waved us down and told us about how he’d enjoyed this paddle many times, but on his most recent trip, he actually got arrested for trespassing at the landing. What a ridiculous shame, in my opinion. You’d think law enforcement would have higher priorities to attend to. Anyways, I digress. The river was even more gorgeous than we thought it would be. Thanks again for your resource, it was a fantastic help!

    1. Thanks for the great comment!

      Yes it is so tragic that that landing was shut down as its location was so important. Ironic as this is technically government land and should be public anyways.

How did your trip turn out? Questions? Comments? Or just say hi.

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