Date Paddled: July 21st, 2019
Put-in: Wazee Lake Beach
Take-out: Wazee Lake Beach
Distance: 2.1 miles
Time: 3 hours 9 minutes (no pictures...figure 1 hour)
Water Level: Black River at Black River Falls 15000 CFS or 48.0'
Until the middle of the 20th century, a hill named “Red Mound” existed just east of Black River Falls. This was a unique hill formed 2.5 billions years ago by volcanic activity and was left rich in iron. While it miraculously survived the Ice Age, it did not survive a large iron taconite mine that operated from 1969-1986. This mine not only removed the hill but replaced it with a huge open pit mine (pictured here). In the 80’s steel prices crashed, and Wisconsin’s last iron mine went out of business. Without the pumps running to clear the quarry, a lake formed which the county converted into a popular park. This conversion was uniquely viable because this mine lacked the acidity issues typically present with other iron mines.
In researching Wazee Lake, I heard so many superlatives…it was Wisconsin’s deepest inland lake (355′), it was the most popular diving spot in the state, and one reviewer said it had the best beach in Central Wisconsin. When heavy rains submerged my many other plans, I finally decided to check it out.
This being a lake, you can kind of paddle it however from wherever. We decided to start at the main beach (located at the east end) and to do a counter-clockwise loop along the shore (timed for optimum conditions like wind/sun/photography lighting). The main beach, while technically artificial is fantastic. It’s basically a large semi-circular bay dug out of the side of the lake and filled with a local whitish sand (the high quality type frac sand miners love).
As we paddled west along the north shore we came across the first boat landing which was packed with cars and a scene of bustling activity. This is the main landing used by divers and a large group was diving just in front of us (likely a class).
Following the landing, we paddled past a 1000′ long section of exposed cliffs topped with oaks and pine. Yes, these “outcrops” are artificial and actually were the northern rim of the open pit mine, but they were still scenic. Along these red cliff faces, we could see the exposed iron-bearing rocks, quartz and other minerals that gave this area its unique history. With the good clarity we could also see interesting parts of the cliffs extending well below the waterline. Bright bits of quartz would occasionally reflect light and sparkle from underwater. Locals do actually jump off the cliffs, but it is prohibited by the park and we did see a warden patrolling the top of the cliff.
The western end of the lake wasn’t as interesting and featured several more small landings and scuba entry points. We returned to the beach which was by now packed with people…a far contrast to the morning when hardly anybody was there. I guess locals don’t like to wake up early.
In summary this was a great trip for many reasons. The water was fantastic…clean, clear and with an attractive turquoise hue. The beach was one of the nicer ones I’ve seen in Wisconsin, and the red iron cliffs along the northwest shore were surprisingly scenic. If you do this trip…I highly recommend a sunny and windless day to best experience the clarity and color of the lake. Also consider checking out the nearby hiking trails and lookouts.
One loon and a few dragonflies. The highlight were the many fish that were easy to spot in the clear turquoise water (mostly bluegills and other small species).
Put-in / Take-out:
Wazee Lake is part of a local county park and a $5 admission fee is required (payable at the western entrance). We launched at the main beach (east side of the lake) which is a scenic area with nearby outhouses. The only downside to choosing the beach, was that we had to drag our boats 370′ to reach the shore from the parking lot. Note, this beach can be very busy on weekends and the parking lot can overflow.
There are numerous other access options along the lake. Check out the map for more options.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
Wazee Sports Center (located a few miles to the west) does rent out kayaks.
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
Wind: Be mindful of the forecasted wind speed.
Open Lake Paddling: Kayakers that don’t have a good wet re-entry move or don’t wear a life jacket are advised to stay close to the shoreline for safety.
Wazee Lake is one of the most popular diving locations in the Midwest. Diving highlights include incredible clarity, extreme depth (over 350′), underwater cliffs, submerged trees, and abandoned mining equipment. The park does charge $10 per diver (on top of a $5 entrance fee). Nine people have died diving the lake since 1995…but mostly due to either diving too deep, running out of oxygen, or coming up too fast. Those seeking the absolute best clarity might consider a winter dive when clarity can reach 80-100′ and the experience is considered otherworldly.
River Depth and Navigability:
This being a lake, depth won’t matter much. In fact this is a good paddle to do when other water trails are too high. However, the depth will affect clarity to some degree so here’s a quick estimated guide based on the Black River Falls gauge (which won’t be super accurate).
- 0-300 CFS: Likely best clarity with more of an exposed shoreline.
- 301-2000 CFS: Still good clarity.
- 2001-10,000 CFS: A high depth.
- 10,001+ CFS: Clarity will still be very good. We did the paddle at 15,000 CFS. The main dock and some picnic tables were partly underwater, but the lake was otherwise fine for paddling.