Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
I’m a firm believer in the notion that the character of a river determines the tenor of a canoe trip. If it’s thrills I’m looking for, I’ll ride the pulse-pounding Gauley in West Virginia, where my heart is in my throat half the time. If I want to unwind, I find there’s nothing more soothing than a float down the unhurried Wisconsin River.
For 92 miles, the waist-deep Wisconsin cuts through a gorge lined with long ridges, past tallgrass prairies dotted with shoulder-high bluestem, and alongside football-field-size sandbars that invite you to pull over for an afternoon swim. A Class I ripple is about as close to whitewater as you’ll find on the Wisconsin. For excitement, you’ll have to settle for kicking up your heels to watch a circling bald eagle or red-shouldered hawk. Or dragging a fishing line to test your luck against smallmouth bass and channel catfish.
Better yet, watch the changing scenery float by. Near Tower Hill State Park, walls of sandstone thick with ferns, mosses, and swallows’ nests rise up from lush hardwood stands. Where the Blue River drains into it, the Wisconsin has a habit of braiding into multiple channels and quiet, blackwater sloughs. Detour off the main channel and keep an eye out for rainbow-colored wood ducks whipping through the swamp oak and maples.
As afternoon melts into evening, pull up to an empty island and stake your claim. Then, after night falls, follow Orion as he flees from Artemis across the sky. Until the coyotes begin to yap and the barred owls hoo-ah, you can hear something close to absolute silence.
QUICK TAKE: Lower Wisconsin RiverWay
DRIVE TIME: Blue River is 150 miles (3 hours) due west of Milwaukee and 220 miles (4 hours) northwest of Chicago.
THE WAY: From Madison, take US 14 west to WI 60 at Gotham. Follow WI 60 west to Blue River. The landing is on the north side of the river, on WI 60 less than 1 mile east of the bridge at Blue River.
WATER TRAILS: The Lower Wisconsin Riverway, as the river is known below the dam at Prairie du Sac, divides into three sections: the Upper, the Middle, and the Lower, where you can sometimes canoe for a full day without seeing a soul. The 29-mile Lower section, between Blue River and Bridgeport, is a two-day paddle. Add the Middle section and it becomes a four-day outing. Camp on the sandbars or public islands.
CAN’T MISS: In the Middle section, downriver from Spring Green, be sure to pull over for a walk through Avoca Prairie, the largest native tallgrass prairie east of the Mississippi.
CROWD CONTROL: Weekends on the Upper section can get crowded. For solitude, the rule of thumb is the farther west of Madison you go, the better.
PIT STOP: Wisconsin’s Friday night fish fry tradition lives on at the Blue River Cafe in Blue River.
WALK SOFTLY: Paddlers are required to carry waterproof sacks for their trash. Glass containers are strictly prohibited.
MAPS AND GUIDES: An excellent series of maps detailing scenic and historic highlights is available through Tower Hill State Park (see the address below).
MORE INFORMATION: Tower Hill State Park, 5808 CTHC, Spring Green, WI 53588; (608) 588-2116. For canoe rental and shuttle services, call Bob’s Riverside (608-588-2826) for the Middle section, and Rent-A-Canoe (608-375-5130) for the Lower.