White River – Sheridan Springs Road
The White River is an underrated paddling prospect in southeastern Wisconsin that flows northeast out of Geneva Lake. The lake and adjacent community (Lake Geneva) are very popular with Illinois tourists. While Geneva Lake itself is an ok paddling prospect with clear water, it can get a little crowded. The subjective highlight of paddling this famous lake is the opportunity to gawk at some massive and expensive homes. Mind you not just expensive homes…but the most expensive in all of Wisconsin. Three of the state’s four most expensive homes for sale are located on Geneva Lake (the ritziest section is on the western lake shore). But really, for all the attention the lake gets the White River is more interesting for paddlers.
This trip started just downstream of the golf course by the first Sheridan Springs Road bridge. The first 2.7 miles meander through an attractive wetland. The water clarity here was the best despite the relatively deep water (3-4′ deep on average with a sandy bottom).
The next bridge is Sheridan Springs Road (again), and here most paddlers start their trip (great access). The river changes significantly past this second bridge. Much of the marshy wetgrass is replaced by hardwood forest, the channel straightens and narrows, the depth decreases, the substrate becomes rocky, and the current picks up significantly. In fact the next 1.5 miles were almost continuous rapids, which were a lot of fun.
A quarter mile downstream from the bridge, you’ll paddle past a towering barn marking White River Park. In theory you could launch here, but you would have to drag your boat down a long hill. Some paddlers take a break here to use the local outhouses though. The highlight of this relatively new park is its trail system which first goes by a fantastic prairie and then parallels the river for several miles. Twice the trail crosses the river over scenic arched, wooden bridges overlooking some of the best rapids of the trip.
The channel here for the next two miles is narrow and canopied by tree limbs which gives it a tunnel effect. While the rapids were never very strong, they are still quite cool because of their length.
After the rapids, we lost our woods again and entered another marsh area. Water clarity was ok but not as good as previous sections. The highlight here were the pondweeds that would sway gracefully in the current.
Under the Spring Valley Road bridge, you’ll come across the remains of a mostly (but not completely) removed dam. The result is a significant drop and noteworthy Class 2 section of rapids. I highly advise scouting this before running it. But really it was pretty safe for a Class 2 and everybody (including the 10 or so people that passed us) had no problem going down. Even a stand-up-paddler ran the rapids! This is all viewable in the video (2:57).
For the next mile, the river flows through the community of Lyons which is scenic with several riffles. There is a great take-out at Mill Street where we met a number of other paddlers. This was the MOST popular paddling river I’ve done all year…in fact we saw more kayaks that day than I had on all other rivers combined in 2017 (maybe a total of 50 paddlers).
This was a great trip that I highly recommend. The crown jewel was the section with the rapids (2nd Sheridan Springs Road Bridge to Mill Street). Unfortunately lighting was very challenging and many pictures didn’t turn out, but take my word, you’ll have a good time. Special thanks to Morrall Films for their video guide which was the inspiration for this trip. Sadly their DVD’s are no longer being published but there are copies floating around in some libraries.
The first Sheridan Springs Road bridge is a good launch area popular with paddlers. Parking is available on the shoulder and there is a nice gravel area for launching your boat. There is no outhouse though.
If you only want to run the rapids, then launch 2.7 miles downstream at the 2nd Sheridan Springs Road bridge instead. Here there is a dedicated launch area and parking lot. Most paddlers start their trip here.
There is a great take-out in Lyons just west of the Mill Street Bridge. This is the most popular landing on the river (during that day there might have been 20-30 cars parked here). The two take-out ditches are slightly muddy but still quite nice. An outhouse is located in the western end of Riverview Park.
Supposedly there is a shuttle service for this section of the river, but nobody picked up when I tried to call them. You may have better luck.
- Codie’s Kayking and Canoeing, LLC – 262-221-0769
The bike shuttle would be pretty easy. Only 3.5 miles and no major hills.
Hazards, Logjams and Current:
This is a pretty safe river and somebody has cleared it of most logjams. We never once had to portage an obstruction.
There are many Class 1 rapids but these are pretty beginner friendly and safe. But be mindful that these rapids may become dangerous in high water.
The most significant section was a Class 2 drop below Spring Valley Road. I advise scouting this beforehand if possible, otherwise it isn’t too bad and the best line is pretty much smack in the middle.
River Depth and Navigability:
There is a gauge on the White River just below the Lake Geneva dam, but it is separated from a significantly-sized millrace so likely isn’t super accurate. For what it is worth, we went at 8.5′ which was a good depth. Not too shallow, not too high.
The best marker is likely the Nippersink Creek gauge but this won’t perfectly reflect the river either. Here is my depth guide based on guestimates.
- 0-100 CFS: This is too low to run the rapids (we had multiple paddlers tell us horror stories of having to walk their boats). But…if you don’t do the rapids section (aka White River County Park to Mill Street), the rest of the river is likely clear sailing.
- 101-200 CFS: The rapids would likely be extremely bumpy and frustrating to most. Clarity would be excellent.
- 201-260 CFS: I think the rapids would be doable here but perhaps a bit bumpy.
- 261-320 CFS: A great depth for the rapids, but only mediocre clarity. Our trip was done at 300 CFS.
- 321-500 CFS: A high depth with likely poor clarity. Some rapids may become pushy.
- 501-700 CFS: Likely a very high depth with pushy rapids.
- 701+ CFS: Likely too high for most most paddlers.
A couple of redtails, two blue herons, a fat water snake, a muskrat, some clams and many mosquitoes. A unique sight was seeing three mosquitoes actively feeding on a green frog who didn’t seem to mind…never realized that mosquitoes like amphibians.
Alternate White River Trips:
- Geneva Lake: A pleasant lake paddle with multiple access options (Williams Bay Beach, Edgewater Park, Big Foot Beach State Park, and Elm Park to name several). The issue is that the area is overrun with Illinois tourists, but the lake does have a unique vibe to it and it may be worth it to see some ridiculously expensive homes.
- Lake Geneva Dam to Sheridan Springs Road1st: 4.1 miles. Launch by Flatiron Park near the dam. This is a crowded area and finding free parking spots can be tricky on summer weekends. Water clarity here is exceptional. This is a good prospect. Note the put-in is confusing because it is next to a millrace which is bigger than the river. I think they merge shortly but am unsure…you may want to scout this first.
- Sheridan Springs Road1st to Mill Street: 6.6 miles.
- Sheridan Springs Road1st to Sheridan Springs Road2nd: 2.7 miles. Nice stretch through open wetland with good water clarity.
- Sheridan Springs Road2nd to Mill Street: 3.9 miles. Terrific section and likely the best part of the entire river. Lot of rapids, but this section can get too shallow in low water. Highlight is a Class 2 drop under Spring Valley Road.
- Mill Street to Hwy JS: 7.4 miles. Mediocre section. Likely more open, marshy and lacking the rapids of the upper sections.
- Hwy JS to Wagner Park: 1.4 miles. Last segment of the river before joining the Illinois Fox. Likely nothing special.