“Take a little trip…take a little trip…take a little trip with meeeee….*”
So you want to get out and recreate but you’re short on time and shorter on gas. I have good news. Wisconsin has some gorgeous gems that the Illinois folks drive right past on their way to Door County to buy enough fudge to require adding air to their tires.
So I chose a few of my favorite short trips within an hour of Madison, in no particular order. I’ve assigned each river a Kid-Friendliness Factor (K-FF), so if you think you’re taking your kids with you, pay attention. Grab your boat and get out there!
Trip One: The Sugar River from Attica to Albany
This is a no-brainer. Put in at Brooklyn-Albany Road and Highway X, and float about seven miles downstream to Albany Lake. It’s a twisty-turny river reminiscent of the Kickapoo a few hours to the west. Best of all it’s only about a half hour from Madison. For an extended trip take a poke up the Little Sugar River, on the right just as things start to open up into the Lake. There are tales of caves and hidden treasure around here. The only thing I’ve ever found is peace and quiet. There’s nothing dramatic about the Sugar, just a nice leisurely paddle. K-FF: Very Good.
Trip Two: The Crawfish River from Milford to Jefferson
The Crawfish will never be on anyone’s list of hard-core Mountain-Dew-swilling adventure-class rivers. It’s basically a wide river (averaging about 80 or 90 feet) that moves along grassy wetlands, where you’ll find tons of muskrats and waterfowl. Very safe for families and novices, so long as you keep your wits about you and look out for the occasional deadfall across the river. Put in at the corner of County Roads A and Q near Milford, and take out where the Crawfish meets the Rock. Or keep paddling until you hit the Mississippi. Your call. K-FF: Excellent.
Trip Three: Galena River from New Diggings to the Illinois Border
This is a remote, sleepy little river south of Dodgeville a ways (a little farther from Madison, granted, but nice anyway), and it has some delightful little surprises on it (like an abandoned railroad tunnel, wildflowers, etc. It’s quite isolated from major population centers, but you can find good food (especially pie) in a number of the small towns in the area. K-FF: Very Good
Trip Four: The Wisconsin River from Arena to Spring Green
This is probably the most traveled of the trips I’ve listed here, and for good reason. You can get to Arena in about 30 minutes from the west side of Madison (take 14 West to the bar and turn right), run a shuttle to Spring Green, paddle it, and be home by 3:00 to mow the lawn. It’s a pretty stretch of the river, with lots of sandbars and small islands to delight the kids or the kid in all of us. Early in the morning you’ll find the water lower, exposing hard wet sand that is perfect for spotting animal tracks. As it warms up you’ll see hundreds of turtles basking on fallen cottonwoods and I’ve never paddled it without seeing at least two or three Great Blue Heron. You can take out at the 14 bridge (easy to find) or turn on C and drop the car at the 23 bridge, which has a nicer takeout.
Now don’t write me and tell me that the Wisconsin is a dangerous river. It is not at all dangerous if you keep your brain unsaturated with alcohol, wear a PFD, and keep your wits about you. The folks who drown in the river do so because they panic, are drunk, or are behaving improperly. Hint: Paddle it during the weekdays and you won’t see a lot of traffic, even in peak season. I’ve paddled it in the middle of July and seen one other boat. K-FF: Outstanding
Trip Five: The Yahara River from Cherokee Marsh upstream.
Since Rutabaga installed a canoe dock at Cherokee Marsh, it’s been easier than ever to get out there. Right in Madison, it’s a quick drive from anywhere in the city and easily accessible from locations outside Madison. Early morning is quiet there, with the exception of the occasional red-eye airliner off to Minneapolis. When it’s cool in the morning and the water is warm, it’s like paddling on a lake full of dry ice. Quick and easy. K-FF: Not bad, if you get them out of bed.
Trip Six: The Military Ridge Bike Trail
This is NOT a paddling trip, but you should do it anyway. The Military Ridge Trail runs from Verona to Dodgeville, but my favorite section is from Mt. Horeb back to Riley. Easy, flat, and beautiful. K-FF: Great if you have a tandem or a bike trailer.
*You know, the lyrics to “Low Rider” by that famous iconic group of the 70s, War?