Wisconsin River – Dekorra to Lake Wisconsin
Date Paddled: August 16th, 2020
Put-in: Dekorra Landing
Take-out: James Whalen Memorial Park
Distance: 6.9 miles
Time: Expect 3 hours
Gradient: ~2' per mile (good current though)
Water Level: Wisconsin River @ Wisconsin Dells 4900 CFS or 3.3'
This is the last stretch of the Wisconsin River before Lake Wisconsin (a large flowage created by the Prairie du Sac Dam). There are many put-in options to choose from in Dekorra, but the best IMO is Dekorra Landing, which was where we started our trip. The first highlight of the trip is actually just upstream of the launch where there are scenic cliffs which locals jump off. There’s even a small “sea cave” which you can paddle into.
The river here is divided by large islands into a north and south channel. The north channel is much bigger and popular with motorboats, so we opted for the more quiet south channel. This back channel was quite pleasant, with wooded shorelines and a smattering of lakefront homes. Much of the south channel is no-wake (to protect the shoreline), but jet skiers tend to ignore these rules and fly though at high speed.
Soon we came to St. Lawrence Bluff which has an attractive set of cliffs at its base. When water levels are high, you can actually follow these cliffs for some distance into a floodplain back channel. Here you can see more sandstone, white pines, and even paddle between flooded trees.
North of St. Lawrence Bluff is a large cluster of islands where sandbars are common. This can be a good area for picnics and camping…but also can be competitive. The good sandbars get scooped up quickly on summer weekends…which is actually true for almost all sandbars upstream of Lake Wisconsin. As a general rule though, the closer you get to the lake, the more congested the sandbars will become.
Just past St. Lawrence Bluff, the north and south channels join…but then split again. The new south channel (which I’ll just refer to as the interstate back channel) was on my original itinerary, but unfortunately water levels were low and the entrance was sealed shut by a sandbar. We could have portaged this, but simply decided to take the main channel. Here on the main channel we saw a decent number of motorboats, but also a few canoes.
We soon approached the I-90 bridge which was impressive. My plan was to access the interstate back channel by paddling directly under the bridge. This was feasible 7 years ago when I did a similar trip in high water, but now levels were too low. Still wanting to access this back channel, we simply got out and portaged directly under the bridge. This was a somewhat unique experience as the cars rumbling overhead created unique echos and the concrete pillars towered overhead like ancient Roman columns. At the south end of the bridge we finally connected with the interstate back channel. The highlight here was a series of outcrops with the best being directly under the interstate itself. This one had a unique bright color and smooth texture…likely a byproduct of the bridge protecting the rock face from erosion.
We continued down the interstate back channel which was surprisingly nice. It was peaceful, wooded, and had excellent clarity. We could see the crayfish and fish scurrying along beneath our boats. Unfortunately this channel got shallow and then dried up completely, leaving just a river of sand which forced us to portage. This wasn’t a bad experience though and was kind of scenic as the sand was quite nice. Along the shoreline were piers, cabins and boathouses that had been built when the channel was more open, but now resembled something you might see from the infamous Aral Sea. A small creek joined this channel and scenically cut through the mounds of sand and towering purple loosestrife until it finally it joined the river.
The interstate back channel wasn’t just closed because of low levels but because of recent sedimentation. I used to live in this area and 30 years ago you could actually take a motorboat through here. I hypothesize that things really started to change after the bridge construction done in 2013. Here a lot of heavy equipment was used at the south end of the interstate and massive sand piles were dug up. I suspect these sand piles ended up in these back channels. This slowed the current which created a feedback loop by which more sand filled in the channel. In theory the residents of Oak Knoll Drive could actually open this up again by setting up home-made wing dams (say downed trees/rocks set at angles) which would dig the channel open again.
We continued down the river on what I’ll refer to as the Hwy V back channel. This was also quite pleasant and protected from the main channel. Here there was a small cluster of sandbars which gets crazy busy on summer weekends. Several side channels here that used to be navigable (from what I recall 30 years ago) are now silted in and unnavigable.
Following Hwy V, we finally joined up with the main channel again. To the north was an attractive archipelago of islands with hidden sloughs and sandbars we could have explored. But instead we chose to hug the south shore to check out Focke’s Bluff…which was a trip highlight. At the base of the bluff is a nearly mile-long stretch of continuous sandstone cliffs that IMO are Wisconsin Dells caliber. We saw a few fossils, many exotic patterns, and even a small tunnel that I was almost able to paddle completely through. The best part of the bluff was where a massive wedge had been sheered off at a sharp right angle. What remained was huge pile of sand (maybe 30′ high). We were able to get out and climb up this sand tower where there was a great view of the river.
We paddled somewhat close to the cliffs, which was a bit harrowing as a large number of fast motorboats and jet skis raced by us at high speed creating large waves. These waves would bounce off the rock walls at odd angles and create some occasional tippy moments for our boats. These waves weren’t only annoying to paddle through…but were actually harming and eroding the rock face. Focke’s Bluff has changed quite a bit over the years sadly. Some of this is due to natural erosion, such as from tree roots and ice cracks…but artificial waves are also to blame. In fact the waves are so persistent they’ve actually formed micro sea caves along the cliffs.
We hugged the south shore until we came to Wildcat Road where there is another nice protected back channel. The shoreline here is heavily developed but has a unique vibe to it. Unlike other lake communities, Dekorra is on the older side which means the homes are smaller (almost cabins in some cases) and the trees much larger. The vibe is also completely unlike other nearby communities (like say Baraboo or Portage). Here the residents are more laid back and affluent. Many have roots from out-of-state (such as from the Chicago area).
We came to Camp Rest Park which was a nice park and access option. Just to the north is a large archipelago of islands and sandbars (the last before Lake Wisconsin). These can be fun to explore but are also the busiest in the area. I crossed the hectic channel to check yet another set of nice sandstone cliffs (by my count the fifth set).
The last mile of the trip was over open water and pretty rough. The wind started to pick up speed and we saw some occasional white caps…but the motorboats created the worst waves. In hindsight we should have taken out at Camp Rest Park which was the last protected stretch of the river. We mostly hugged the south shoreline which was heavily developed. Here the banks were quite steep and the locals had developed some fairly elaborate and exotic staircases to reach the water. We ended the trip at James Whalen Landing by Tipperary Point which I consider the unofficial start of Lake Wisconsin.
In summary this was a great trip. In fact outside of the Wisconsin Dells area, this might be my favorite part of the Wisconsin River (which is high praise). The highlights were the sandbars, hidden back channels and terrific sandstone cliffs. The downsides were the noisy boats and big waves….but much of this can be avoided by taking back channels where possible and to travel at off-peak times. Most residents of Lake Wisconsin wake up fairly late…so setting your alarm for an early morning paddle can be a great strategy for paddlers.
Sights included crayfish, many small fish, a number of clams, a painted turtle and a very large softshell turtle. The highlight was the cliff swallow nests which were a common sight on the sandstone cliffs. The birds used their beaks to carve micro-caves into the sandstone which created a cool Swiss cheese effect on the rock walls.
Dekorra Landing: This is a large boat landing that is a good access. Behind the landing is a large parking lot and outhouse. Note, the ramp closes at 10:00 PM and camping is not allowed. If you use this ramp, make sure you don’t block boat trailers. Paddlers may be advised to simply use Dekorra Park instead of Dekorra Landing which is just next door. The park has better parking, is closer to the water, and you don’t have to compete with boat trailers coming in and going out.
- Hooker’s Landing (900′ downstream from Dekorra Park): While this may appear like a private landing given it’s proximity to Hooker’s Resort, it is actually public. The advantage of using this landing is that it is much less crowded and it is a shorter walk from your car.
- Portage (7.1 miles upstream of Dekorra Park): Launches available at Sunset Park or Hwy 33. This would be a long add-on…but would feature some nice sandbars with less motorboat traffic. There aren’t too many outcrops on this leg, but there is a nice stretch just upstream of Dekorra Landing.
- Baraboo River Mouth (1.5 miles upstream of Dekorra Park): There are a pair of launches at Thunderbird Drive and Waterfront Road. These are ok…but badly positioned for shuttlers. Just to cross the river means a 16 mile drive because of how the roads are configured.
James Whalen Memorial Park: This is a good public boat launch located at the tip of Tipperary Point (IMO the spot at which Lake Wisconsin starts). Outhouses are available and there is a public parking lot.
- Camp Rest Park (1.6 miles upstream of James Whalen Park). In hindsight we wish we took out here. It’s a great access (picnic area, outhouse, parking lot). It used to be a boat ramp, but the main ramp silted in…so now paddlers don’t have to compete with motorboats. After Camp Rest Park, the current and islands vanish, and the river becomes much less interesting. These open waters can have rough waves and fast powerboats.
- Lake Wisconsin Take-outs: There are countless other access options on Lake Wisconsin and beyond. Most involve (IMO) uninteresting big water paddling, but some may find this interesting. Here’s a map with launches on the Lake.
Shuttle & Rental Information:
Bike Shuttle: James Whalen Memorial Park to Dekorra Park (6.7 miles + 174′ of ascent). This is a longer bike shuttle with a steep hill. Taking out at Camp Rest Park will shave a mile off of this trip.
Hazards and Concerns:
Wind: This trip will involve a lot of open water paddling in which wind can be an issue. Check the forecast and make sure you don’t paddle into a strong head wind (eg 10+ mph).
Waves: If you stick to the back channels, these are mostly a non-issue. But the main channel can develop big waves created by powerboats. The worst are by Focke’s Bluff (where the waves actually bounce off the rock walls). The waves can also be strong downstream of Camp Rest Park where Lake Wisconsin starts and whitecaps are not an uncommon sight. Paddling early mornings is a great way to avoid the big waves.
Drop-offs: If you go swimming note the river has unpredictable undertows and drop-offs that have claimed numerous lives over the years.
Strainers: Generally speaking this stretch isn’t bad for strainers…but in high water the current picks up speed and there can be some tricky strainers along the shoreline. Give these a wide berth.
Poison Ivy: If you picnic or camp on a sandbar, do note that many have poison ivy.
River Depth and Navigability:
Nearest Gauge: Wisconsin River @ Wisconsin Dells – 4900 CFS
- 0-4,000 CFS: A very low depth. Optimum for good sandbars. Motorboats will not be able to access parts of the river and therefore will be much less of a plague for paddlers in some areas.
- 4,001-6,000 CFS: An average summer depth. Decent sandbars.
- 6,001-8,000 CFS: An average spring depth. Mediocre sandbars.
- 8,001-10,000 CFS: Very small sandbars. Some of the back channels may open up at this point.
- 10,001-13,000 CFS: A high depth. Likely navigable but not very inviting.
- 13,001-20,000 CFS: A very high depth with no sandbars but open back-channels. I did a trip at 18,000 CFS which was a unique experience. The high water allowed me to paddle among the trees and explore the full extent of the St. Lawrence Bluff cliffs.
- 20,000+ CFS: Perhaps too high for paddling.
Other Wisconsin River Trips:
For details on access locations, see my Wisconsin River Overview Map.
- Castle Rock Lake to the Lemonweir River: 10 miles. An ok section.
- Lemonweir River Mouth to the Two Rivers Landing: 7 miles. The first half of the classic Upper Dells.
- Two Rivers Landing to Blackhawk Island: 6.5 miles. Second half of the classic Upper Dells known for its fantastic outcrops. Note, the Blackhawk Island landing is no longer accessible without special permission from the local 4H club.
- 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 Indian Trails Landing: 6.2 miles.
- Dells Dam to Newport Park: 2.2 miles. This is the heart of the famous Lower Dells with many scenic outcrops. Unfortunately jet boats are a serious plague on this stretch.
- Newport Park to Indian Trails Landing: 4.0 miles. Features the famous “Sugar Bowl” and four super cool caves. The outcrops soon disappear and this stretch is mostly uneventful (but peaceful) big river paddling.
- Indian Trails Landing to Pine Island Boat Ramp: 9.8 miles. Few paddle this stretch as it isn’t as interesting. But…it does have a good concentration of sandbars and few competing paddlers for them.
- Pine Island Boat Ramp to Portage/Hwy 33 Access: 6.0 miles. Not an elite section that is lacking in cliffs and bluffs. It does have good sandbars though.
- 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 James Whalen Memorial Park: 6.6 miles.
- Dekorra Park to Camp Rest Park: 5.1 miles. A terrific section with rock outcrops, large island deltas, hidden sloughs, and nice sandbars. Unfortunately this part of the river is popular with motorboats and jet skis which can be a plague. Multiple alternate access options.
- Camp Rest Park to James Whalen Memorial Park: 1.5 miles. Not a great section because of the open water paddling, powerboats and big waves. The west shore though does have nice outcrops.
- James Whalen Memorial Park to Prairie du Sac Dam: 14.5 miles. The river turns into “Lake Wisconsin” here…an inadvisable section due to the amount of open water paddling required. There are many intermediate access options.
- Prairie du Sac to Mazomanie: 8 miles. An ok section of the Wisconsin but lacking in sandbars.
- Mazomanie to Arena: 9.7 miles. A great section with nice sandbars and scenic bluffs.
- Arena to Hwy 14: 8.0 miles. Good section with a high concentration of sandbars. One of the more popular legs on the Lower Wisconsin.
- 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 sandbar/bluff section with some nice rock outcrops too.
- Lone Rock to Gotham: 8 miles. This stretch has super impressive rock outcrops and sand banks.
- Gotham to Muscoda: 7 miles. 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.