Every time I drive over the Black River on I-94 when heading into northern Wisconsin, I long for a canoeing Black River Wisconsin adventure. The Black River State Forest and the Driftless Region are two of my favorite areas of the state, and this river slices through both of them.
Wisconsin a diverse river system
Wisconsin has one of the most diverse river systems in the United States. There are whitewater rivers, there are lazy muddy rivers that meander through the dairyland, there are northwoods rivers with clear water that flow through pine forests, and then there are the majestic Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers – the confluence of which meets in southwest Wisconsin.
Lately, it seems I have been stuck on the Wisconsin River. I first canoed this wonderful river when I was 10 and have continued to enjoy it at least once every year since. I have dabbled on a few other rivers including the Kickapoo and the Brule, but a majority of my paddling has been on the Wisconsin.
Related: Halls Creek canoeing adventure
Plotting a Black River Wisconsin canoe adventure
This changed thanks to an early May trip to the Black River. The first river on my list is the Black River. The most popular stretch of the Black River is between Black River Falls and LaCrosse where it flows into the Mississippi in God’s Country. This is about 30 miles downstream from Lake Arbutus.
The many facets of the Black River and the state forest
I have paddled the Black River in the past, but only the stretch into the Mississippi River into LaCrosse. This section goes through Lake Onalaska and the river generally widens out as it prepares for its confluence with the mighty Mississippi. I thoroughly enjoyed this stretch, but I longed to paddle the more narrow river upstream with golden sandbars.
Further upstream, the Black River is a whitewater stream with class III-IV rapids. It is amazing the different personalities one river can exhibit as it flows downstream.
Since this post, I have also discovered there are several tributaries of the Black River in the Black River Forest. Robinsons Creek, Halls Creek, and Morrison Creek all run into the Black River in the state forest. I absolutely loved Halls Creek and look forward to checking out the other options in future years. There are just so many streams in Wisconsin to paddle.
Furthermore, the area also has some of the best cross-country skiing in the state. When there is enough snow in the Black River State Forest, which is a big “if” these days, the trails are phenomenal.
Related: Black River State Forest cross-country skiing
Similarities and differences between Wisconsin River and Black River
The Black River is very similar to the Wisconsin River. In fact, it used to be called the Little Wisconsin River. The river is the same color and it flows through the sand country in the state’s Driftless Region.
It is called the Driftless Region because it is the only section of the state untouched by the glaciers, so its terrain is a little different than the rest of the state and the rest of the upper Midwest. The bluffs and hills are a little more interesting here as they are craggier and less smooth for they have not been scrubbed by giant sheets of ice.
Differences between the Black River and the Wisconsin River include that the Black is a little farther north, there are more pine trees along the Black as this river marks the beginning of the Wisconsin northwoods, and the Black is also smaller with less channels. Both rivers are equally beautiful in my opinion, but the Wisconsin is a little more majestic.
Arriving at the Black River and canoe plans
After a night camping in Mirror Lake State Park, I drove up the hour and a half to the small town of Black River Falls right off I-94. 15 minutes and miles later I entered the Lost Falls Campground. I was greeted by Rose and the friendly crew at the campground, where I got my things together and was shuttled back to Black River Falls to start my two day adventure.
My plan was to canoe for two days from Black River Falls and stay one night out on the river. I rented a solo Old Town Canoe and loaded it down with the kitchen sink. Since there are no rapids and no portages, weight and space were not a big issue, so I brought a large cooler full of beer and food as well as a big overnight pack.
Camping on the river is free, but the canoe rental cost me $94.00 for two days. At Lost Falls they charge by the duration of the trip, but the shuttle service is included in the fee. They also rent kayaks, tubes, and SUPs.
Black River Wisconsin canoe adventure
The river was up thanks to snow melt and spring rains, but the river was receding. I put a stick out at the sandbar I camped at to mark where the water’s edge. The next morning the water line was 10 feet down the sandbar and had virtually erased the channel between my campground and the island in front of me.
I expected to see hordes of people due to Memorial Day weekend, but I had the river to myself for most of the weekend. I saw only 6 other canoes, and only a handful of people along the shore fishing. There was not one motorboat on this stretch of river.
Canoeing Black River Wisconsin wildlife
I did see plenty of birds: mainly several beautiful bald eagles. I also saw kingfishers, many Baltimore orioles, woodpeckers, and a couple of white-tailed deer. Gnats and mosquitoes were also present, but thankfully no ticks. Wisconsin is infamous for bad insects after the spring rains, but perhaps the cold winter staved off the usual spring tick infestation.
Thumbs up paddling with Lost Falls Campground
Lost Falls provided me with an amazing map. It had the mile markers and several landmarks like canoe put-ins, parks, bluffs, and islands along the way that made navigation easy. My fear when canoeing a new stretch of river is finding the take out.
As much as I love canoeing, when the trip is over, I am ready to get off the river. On this stretch, the only bridge across the river is at Highway 108, which is the take out near Melrose, Wisconsin. Overall, I canoed 24 miles.
This was the first time I have canoed and camped on the Black River since doing the lower stretch into LaCrosse over 10 years ago. It was great to be reunited with a lovely northwoods river that rivals the Wisconsin in beauty. I definitely will be back soon to check out other stretches.
Lost Falls only caters to day trips – Other rental options
Lost Falls Campground rents canoes and operates shuttles on this stretch of the river, but they only do day trips. They allowed me to do an overnight trip as an exception. You can camp at their campground.
I definitely recommend staying with them and paddling with them; however, I also recommend you stay a night on the river. River camping on the Black River is a must.
There are several other canoe livery services that serve the lower stretch of the Black. Melrose Express Canoe rental services the river from Melrose to North Bend. Their number is 608-488-7017.
This river looks beautiful and I must say I’m a bit mystified why it wasn’t busier though a bonus for you.That was one well outfitted canoe – looked like you were going for a week and not a weekend. I’d love to check out this river.
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I think due to the winter and cold spring, a lot of people have hunkered down and used this weekend to catch up with friends and family instead of hitting the great outdoors. When you canoe camp, you need pretty much the same amount of stuff for one night as you do for a week, except for more food and water. Definitely worth checking out if you get this far south.
Judging by these photos, I really like the Black River. That first photo and then the one with the fire is memorizing. I’d let you paddle me around that one for an afternoon.
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It is a very picturesque river and even better later in the year when the water goes down and the sandbars emerge.
I haven’t been on the Black River. I need to spend more time up there in the Northwoods. In fact, I think I’ve been on only the Peshtigo and the Wolf in Wisconsin. And I agree with Leah, your photos are great, especially that second to last one.
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The Peshtigo and Wolf are beautiful northwoods rivers, but you should expand your Wisconsin river acumen to include the Black and the Lower Wisconsin.
Beautiful pictures, Ted! I especially love the campfire one! Can I come on an adventure with you one of these days??
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My adventures are going to seem like walk in the parks after the Mongol rally. If you don’t mind coming down to my level you are always welcome 🙂
I live in the Twin Cities area and our lake, Lake Minnetonka, is so high this year that there is a no-wake zone in effect on the entire lake until mid-July. It’s crazy this year. Last year was one of our lowest water level and this year is one of our highest. Go figure. Great photos. Thanks for sharing them.
First of all there was a crazy amount of snow this year and then some rainstorms. Although I am sorry to hear that lake is flooded, we definitely needed the influx of water. It would be nice if nature could be more moderate, but it does not work that way. Thanks for checking out the photos. I hope you get a chance to check out the Black sometime.