Kayak rentals on the Baraboo River are something my wife Amy and I have toyed with for a few years and now, finally, in 2017, it’s happening. It’s hard to exaggerate how much fun this little river is within the confines of Baraboo, WI.
In particular, the Baraboo Rapids are a 5 mile stretch of river through downtown Baraboo, WI where water tumbles a total of 50′ down class I rapids and riffles. To put this in perspective, the entire Baraboo River is 120 miles long and falls only 150′ in total. That makes this particular stretch exciting and very unique in southern Wisconsin. Whereas the Wisconsin River is great for long, slow, overnight canoe camping trips, the Baraboo is great for short, fast, exciting kayak trips.
In addition to a ton of riffles and class I rapids, you’ll see historic buildings, bridges, arches, and the extremely unique opportunity to paddle through an active circus museum, complete with music, wagons, and if you’re really lucky, elephants. All of this is packed into a few short miles which means the experience is rarely dull and can be completed in a few hours or less – i.e. a perfectly fun thing to do this summer and only a few minutes away from the Dells, Baraboo, or Devil’s Lake.
What to Expect
Our Baraboo River trip is ~4.5 miles long starting on the west side of Baraboo, WI at Haskins Park and finishing just east of town at the Hwy 113 boat landing. This will generally take about 2 hours but will vary significantly based on current water flows (+/- 30 minutes). Most of this trip takes place in an urban environment as you paddle through the heart of downtown Baraboo until the final mile at which point you’ll finish up with a quiet paddle through trees and prairie grass. When you start your trip, it’ll get pretty exciting pretty fast. The first set of rapids and riffles are only a couple hundred yards downstream from the launch point and you’ll pass through several sets of rapids where small dams have recently been removed. About halfway through you’ll pass Circus World Museum where you’ll see circus trains, almost certainly hear circus music, and, if you’re really lucky, see an elephant.
The river itself is generally a wide, shallow gravel bottom though larger rocks and the occasional deeper channel are not uncommon. For the most part, your paddle will be able to touch bottom on the majority of the river. While water quality is generally high, it tends to be a bit silty (common for most rivers in the Midwest) so don’t be surprised if you find yourself stepping in mud if you manage to fall out of your boat. There are a number of parks along the river and most will have a bathroom if needed. However, given the relatively short trip length and steep river banks, you’ll likely find it easier to stay in your boat throughout the trip. That said, you’ll still get wet as you paddle through waves so make sure to leave a spare set of clothes in the car or wear a swimsuit.
The Day of
You’ll arrive at our shop to check-in. From there, you’ll be directed a mile up the road to park your car at the finish point (Hwy 113 landing) and hop in the shuttle going upriver to the starting point (Haskins Park). This ride takes about 7 minutes and shuttles run on the hour from 10am to 3pm. Once you’re on the river it’ll take ~2-3 hours to paddle back to your vehicle where you’ll leave your boats with our trailer, send us a text message to check out, and be on your way! No need to wait for us at the end. Make sure to wear clothes that can get wet!
This is a typical river system with naturally fluctuating river levels. River levels are measured in Cubic Feet per Second and often referred to as CFS. Normal summer river levels on the Baraboo are around 300-400cfs. These are ideal conditions for paddling. In reality, you really don’t even have to paddle all that much. For the most part you won’t be running aground and the rapids aren’t overwhelming. If water levels aren’t where you’d like, check the forecast. It’s a smallish watershed so the river will drop substantially in a day or two. Likewise, if we get rain, you’ll see a rise in levels shortly afterwards.
- <250 cfs = Lots of bumping and scraping along the bottom. Still doable but less than ideal.
- 250 – 400 = Ideal conditions. Plenty of riffles and enough water to keep you off the bottom.
- 400 – 600 = Water is up 2′ above normal so you’re in for a faster ride with bigger waves.
- 600 – 900 = Honest whitewater. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to get dumped out of your boat.
- 900 – 1300 = You better know what you’re doing. Water levels are now 4′ above normal and moving quick.
- >1300 cfs = We’re at flood stage. Best to try again another day.
This first season on the Baraboo is currently set for weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day (ish) and a few weekdays here and there. Shuttles begin at 10am and run hourly until 3pm. If you’re able to book it above, we’re open! You’ll receive a confirmation email shortly with some helpful information and we’ll send another email reminder a few days before your trip. While reservations are strongly recommended, we are currently accepting walk-ins on Saturday and Sunday as space allows.
Given the relative unpredictability of rapids and experience levels, we recommend all participants be at least 13 years old and/or be physically strong enough to handle paddling a kayak solo. We have a handful of tandem kayaks available on a first come, first serve basis if you’re comfortable taking a smaller child out on the river.
Contact info for our Baraboo location: