Paddle the Wisconsin River for the best river camping in the Midwest

Paddling Wisconsin River

Camping on the beautiful Wisconsin River

“I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer.”

Aldo Leopold penned this beautiful line in his seminal work Sand County Almanac in 1949.  Not much has changed in Grant County since that time.  The evanescent river campsites are still seldom seen except by the wandering deer and a few fortunate canoeists.

When outdoor adventure seekers think Wisconsin the north woods or Door County come to mind.  The Lower Wisconsin River Valley is not on the radar for most that seek escape in the wilds of Wisconsin.

This is odd because the river affords the best river camping in the state, the Midwest, the country, and arguably the world.  From Sauk City to the confluence with the Mississippi the bottom of the river is almost completely made up of sand; the river is a 92 mile beach.  Wisconsin’s leading voice in conservation opined eloquently about the wonders of this area yet few heard then, and they are not listening still as the area remains relatively untouched.

Camping on the Wisconsin River

Incredible camping on the Wisconsin River

Those who have discovered the region take to the far Eastern section near Sauk City as it is closer to the metropolitan areas of Madison, Milwaukee, Rockford, and Chicago.  This leaves the far western section from Boscobel to the Mississippi for those who enjoy solitude.

Boscobel is less than four hours from Chicago and less than two from Madison.  The self proclaimed turkey capitol of the state might also be the river camping capitol as well.  The sand bars just west of this quiet river town are in the shadow of scenic bluffs that overlook the town and the river.

Wisconsin River

Golden sandbars along the river make for beautiful places to sit and watch the river flow

The sand rules here and is omnipotent.  As long as the water level is normal the sand bars line the river and invite superior river camping.  The camping is not for the fastidious as sand gets into everything.  One must accept this fact and embrace it.

Sand will fall from the camper’s hair when it is brushed, it will provide an extra crunch to one’s oatmeal, and it will line finger and toe nails.  If these inconveniences can be overlooked it will open up an amazing adventure.

A fact of life for campers is the cost of a camp spot and registering for permits.  This task and these fees do not exist here.  Canoeists on the Wisconsin River only need to arrive at a sandbar first in order to claim it.

Wisconsin River sunsets

Wisconsin River is a beautiful spots for sunsets

At a time when everyone’s travel budget is tight the Wisconsin River is a great option as a tent spot on a sand bar is free.  There is no paperwork involved and few rules.  No glass containers and one life vest per person is the short list of the Wisconsin River rules.

Leopold chose well when he used the painting metaphor to describe the sand county of the Wisconsin River.  With golden sand bars, picturesque bluffs lining each side of the valley, and lush shorelines with a thick green tree canopy the Wisconsin River resembles a 92 mile French Impressionist masterpiece.

This region is not a wilderness.  The river never ventures too far from a road and every six or seven miles there is a bridge crossing.  Despite this fact, there are many moments on the river where it feels like a wilderness experience.  When night falls this sense increases as a cacophony of sounds emanate from the woods and interrupt the campfire.

Wisconsin River canoeing camping

Sandhill Cranes in flight over the Wisconsin River

When a clan of Coyotes yips on one side of the river and another responds from the other side it feels like a wilderness.  When Barred Owls hoot from the woods all night it feels like a wilderness.  When campers are awoken at night to the kerplunk of a Beaver’s tail splashing thirty feet from the tent it feels like a wilderness.

Wildlife is often a meter for the quality of an outdoor adventure.  The richness of bird, plant, and animal life on the Wisconsin River is impressive.  Mammals often seen on the river include Beaver, White-tailed Deer, and Coyote.

The bird life is off the charts here.  Laughter from the Pileated Woodpecker echoes from the woods.  The Belted Kingfisher chatters as it cruises the shorelines or hovers in the air before it dives and catches a minnow.  Great Blue Heron quietly loom on dead falls waiting for a fish or toad.  The Sandhill Crane croaks like someone who swallowed a wind chime as it floats down into one of the river estuaries or sandbars.  The woods along the Wisconsin maybe the state’s best for abundance of birds, but the king of the river in the avian world is the Bald Eagle.

Wisconsin River canoeing camping

A Great Blue Heron flying off a limb next to the shore is a common sight

It seems that every dead tree is a perch for the once endangered Bald Eagle.  These majestic creatures were once on the verge of extinction, but now they soar up and down the valley in increasing numbers.  According to wildlife biologist Daniel Goltz with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources there are now 25 active eagle nests between Prairie Du Sac and Wyalusing and another 12 within 10 miles of the river.  There are probably more in the area that have not been counted.

Wisconsin River camping canoeing

The return of the Bald Eagle to the Wisconsin River and everywhere is a great success story

It appears that the current is barely moving with the naked eye.  While in a canoe a glance at the shoreline rushing by prove the sleepy river appearance false.  The current runs around 4-7 mph and even faster with high water, so it is easy to make good time in the canoe even while at drift.

River camping on the Wisconsin River is a recreation that appeals to all ages.  This makes a trip on the river a wonderful family excursion.

As noted earlier, the river is a 92 mile beach and also a 92 mile sandbox.  There is no one that loves a beach and a sand box more than children.  When children are happy and occupied and can frolic on their own then one will also find happy adults.  Free from having to entertain the young ones adults are able to sit around the campfire and enjoy the experience.  Just be sure the children swimming have life vests as the river can be dangerous despite its peaceful soft flow.

Wisconsin River canoeing camping

Kids love to frolic in the river and the sand

The camping along the river is not just great for families as young adults can enjoy the trip as well.  Camping with friends is a great back drop to where young people can socialize face-to-face and leave behind the social networks of facebook and I-phones.

Wisconsin River canoeing camping

A great day on the river is capped off in front of a campfire

It helps to have a canoe and equipment, but it is not necessary.  Wisconsin River Outings rents canoes and provides transportation to individuals and groups without their own canoes.

Owner Scott Teuber has been sending people on the river for ten years.  His favorite stretch of the river is the area just west of Sauk City although he enjoys the solitude and the remoteness of the area west of Boscobel.

Wisconsin River canoeing camping

Scott Teuber in front of his canoes at Boscobel, Wisconsin

The Wisconsin North woods and Door County are two areas where one should explore.  However, for the best river camping in the state the stretch of bluffs and the sand bars west of Boscobel are the best that the great adventure state of Wisconsin has to offer.

To inquire about renting canoes call Wisconsin River Outings at 1-866-412-2663.

TT

The goal of Traveling Ted is to inspire people to outdoor adventure travel and then provide tips on where and how to go. If you liked this post then enter your email in the box to get email notifications for each new entry. Daily travel photos are excluded from your email in order to not flood you with posts. There is no spam and email information will not be shared. Other e-follow options include Facebook (click on the like box to the right) or twitter (click on the pretty bird on the rainbow above).

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About Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson has been adventure traveling since he was 10 years old on camping trips with his Dad to places like the Great Smoky Mountains, The Everglades, and Big Bend National Park. In 2005 he added international travel to his repertoire with a three month trip to Southeast Asia.

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50 Responses to Paddle the Wisconsin River for the best river camping in the Midwest

  1. Steve Collins June 25, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    Wow! What a great piece. Your love of the Wisconsin wilderness is very contagious. BTW did you know that Aldo Leopold spent time in New Mexico (and being the person that he was left strong, positive impressions). I hope to see more in this series! Keep up the goodwork.

    • Wisconsin Outside June 29, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

      I do not know a lot about his life, but I did read somewhere that he also lived for awhile in New Mexico.

  2. Leslie June 27, 2011 at 1:55 am #

    Great story and pics on Wisconsin River camping!

  3. Leigh June 29, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    Looks like a lovely river to commune with nature. I know nothing about Wisconsin but am always looking for new ideas. It’s a lovely article.

  4. Baboocole July 19, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

    Awesome article! I have spent the last 3 weekends in a row on the Spring Green stretch of the Wisconsin River. First weekend was canoeing and camping on the sandbars. The last two weekends have been all about tubing because it’s too hot to be out of the water for any extended period of time. In my opinion tubing from Hwy 14 or Hwy 23 to Wisconsin Riverside Resort is as good as it gets!

    • Wisconsin Outside July 20, 2011 at 12:36 am #

      Hello and thank you for the compliment and for visiting,

      You are one lucky outdoors person to be able to have spent three weekends in a row on the Wisconsin River. This river is the perfect place to spend during the heat wave as you can just stay underwater the whole time.

  5. Leslie July 28, 2011 at 3:40 am #

    Love this article. I can read it again and again :)

  6. JasonsTravels August 24, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    Great story, Ted! Thanks for sharing it. I shall keep a note on Wisconsin Trails for the future, that was just wrong!

  7. Claire Mathison October 16, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    Thanks so much for this great article I recently got married and moved here to Wisconsin from California. I’ve kayaked many places there and want to get acquainted with what’s available here. I also love to hike and camp. My husband forwarded this to me – even though he’s not a kayaker, hiker or camper – yet! I will continue to be a fan online and look for some great outdoor places to venture to. Thanks!

    • Wisconsin Outside October 16, 2011 at 8:37 pm #

      Hi Claire,

      I can imagine how it would be difficult to move from California to Wisconsin. On the other hand, if you like camping and kayaking then you will find a silver lining in the opportunities found in Wisconsin. There are many great places throughout the state. This website will feature some of those in the coming years. I hope you like cross-country skiing as the state has awesome skiing places. You should give it a try as it is a fun way to endure the harsh winter.

  8. Ryan Schmudlach May 17, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    Saw this last summer and rediscovered it preparing for this summer. Hope you’re able to get out on the river again this year! I’m a fan of the Spring Green to Muscoda stretch (of course I’m also a little biased since my company is based in Spring Green).

    • Wisconsin Outside May 19, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

      Hello Ryan,

      We will be canoeing the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday after Memorial Day. I cannot wait. Last year was the first year I have not canoed the river in years. It was horrible.

  9. Maggie June 5, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    Thanks for the article. I’m currently in the process of paddling the entire river, one little leg at a time. Having just passed through the Rainbow Flowage I’m now fifty-eight miles from the headwaters and I have loved reading what others have to say about the river — and of course I appreciate little bits of advice regarding what to expect as I make my way down. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I believe a person could just throw a tent into the kayak and easily find great camping almost anywhere on the banks of this river. We are so blessed to have this natural heritage, so accessible, completely free, and so full of life.

    • Wisconsin Outside July 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

      I agree Maggie. It is so amazing and not many are aware of how awesome it is.

  10. Denny July 13, 2012 at 4:09 am #

    Arriving Monday from Iowa for one week of kayaking, biking, golfing, and walking. Such beautiful access so close to home!

    • Wisconsin Outside July 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

      The Lower Wisconsin River Valley is a great place for all of these activities. Have fun!

  11. Liz January 23, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    Hi Ted, Great artcle! I will be traveling cross country to South Dakota with a couple of friends and I would like to camp for the night somewhere in Wisconsin on my way out there. This river sounds amazing. Can I park my car and hke in somewhere? Won’t have a boat with me this time. Also we will be going at the end of May. What are the conditions like? Thanks!

    • Wisconsin Outside January 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

      Hi Liz,

      Usually there is a big sandbar at Woodman Recreation Area where you can camp. The water level is usually its highest in May, so the conditions are not very dependable at that time. We have gone up in May and the river was so high there were no sand bars, so we turned around and went home. Have fun in South Dakota. Are you going to the Badlands or Black Hills?

  12. Melissa May 20, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    Can you tell me if there is a way to access camping on the sandbar by vehicle? Im not a very avid outdoorsman and dont think I would like hauling all the camping gear and coolers by canoe! lol

    • Wisconsin Outside May 20, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

      Hi Melissa,

      You are technically not supposed to camp along the shoreline, only on the islands. The problem with this question is the sandbars shift year-to-year. The water has been high this year, so it will definitely affect the camping. At the Woodman launch there is usually a fairly sizable sand bar and also just west of Boscobel, but it is impossible to tell now. You will need to scout it yourself. You can also camp in regular campgrounds and then find a place along the road to walk to and swim.

  13. Tara May 20, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Beautiful article! I’m from New York and excited to visit (southern) Wisconsin for the first time this summer. We have one unplanned day there and I really want to get out on the water. Any suggestions for a guided half day trip or somewhere we can rent and do our own thing without spending too much time picking up equipment or on transportation?

  14. Wisconsin Outside May 20, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    Thank you! You cannot go wrong with the Wisconsin River or Kickapoo River. Call Wisconsin River Outings at 1-866-412-2663 for details. The Sugar River is another nice river farther south if this is too far from where you will be.

  15. @mrsoaroundworld August 4, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    One day I will go to Wisconsin, one day!
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..A British Summer day in Salcombe, Devon, UK

    • Ted Nelson August 4, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

      It is a beautiful state and not a place many people from other countries visit, which is a shame.

  16. Anita Mac August 4, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    Looks idyllic….you are going to have to invite me along on one of your camping trips…you know all the awesome spots!
    Anita Mac recently posted..Missing the boat when Spiderman came to town!

    • Ted Nelson August 4, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

      If I had to pick only one spot I could canoe on for the rest of my life it would be this river. It never gets old. Come on down any time Anita Mac.

  17. Pola (@jettingaround) August 5, 2013 at 5:03 am #

    Hmm, river camping… Maybe this is something I should try next, since I’ve been quite the camp gal lately. :)
    Pola (@jettingaround) recently posted..Photo of the Week: Bookstore in Buenos Aires

    • Ted Nelson August 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

      The Wisconsin River is the place to do it.

  18. Erin at The World Wanderer August 7, 2013 at 6:19 pm #

    I’ve never camped on a river, but it sounds like something I’d enjoy. Loved the imagery here: “Sand will fall from the camper’s hair when it is brushed, it will provide an extra crunch to one’s oatmeal, and it will line finger and toe nails.” – I could totally feel all of those things!
    Erin at The World Wanderer recently posted..Music Monday: Pompeii.

    • Ted Nelson August 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

      Glad to hear my imagery is appreciated by an English teacher. River camping is great, but you really need to the right river. You need good campsites on the side of the river and the river cannot be too challenging as it is hard to maneuver a heavy boat through logjams and rapids. Dumping with a loaded canoe really stinks. This is why the Wisconsin River is perfect.

  19. lola dimarco August 8, 2013 at 1:09 am #

    Sand everywhere… ummm. I don’t know if I’d like that crunch in my drinks! Looks like a great place to camp! You know, for people who do that ;)
    lola dimarco recently posted..How to have an Endless Summer…head to the Caribbean!

    • Ted Nelson August 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

      If you are careful, you can protect your drink, but it takes extra diligence.

  20. Raul (@ilivetotravel) August 8, 2013 at 1:18 am #

    Gosh, in this day age of being permitted to death to give money to government coffers so people can steal it, it is nice to hear about this little peace of heaven. And the sand/beach by the river sounds actually can of cool to me despite getting into my food. I would not dare do something like this on my own, so I am glad to know of a provider who can help get this organized. I have read enough of your outdoor adventures in Wisconsin that it is actually now on my list to try this – thanks for inspiring this city boy!
    Raul (@ilivetotravel) recently posted..Reflections on Beginnings and Endings…

    • Ted Nelson August 10, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      Very true Raul, it is rare to find a place where the rules are so carefree. You can avoid sand in your food if you are careful, but a little crunch does take places from time to time.

  21. Life Vest February 14, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    It’s an awesome idea to spend vacations near a river bed. I think without adventure in the travel , there is no fun and enjoyment. We always have to do something new in life as it encourage us and our feeling in our heart. We never have to think about fear as we are going on an adventurous trip. We always have to live bravely and adventurous life.Thanks for sharing this post with us.

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