Looking for a fun summer adventure? Canoeing (or kayaking) the Kickapoo River is one of the best things to do in Southwest Wisconsin ... and this guide covers everything you need to start planning your trip!
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I grew up in Wisconsin, and even though I don't live there anymore, I always feel like I'm returning home when I visit.
My formative years were spent near Green Bay, but my husband's family is from Southwest Wisconsin. It's the same state, but it has a whole different look and feel, and I've fallen in love with that area, too.
We can't visit his family in summer without canoeing the Kickapoo River. And tackling this winding river is something that should definitely be on your Wisconsin bucket list, too. It's easy enough for beginners, but also holds the interest of more experienced paddlers. And the scenery can't be beat!
Keep reading for all my tips for kayaking or canoeing the Kickapoo River. I'm covering everything from where to rent canoes, kayaks, and tubes to the beautiful scenery you'll see along the way, plus ideas for enjoying this pretty part of Wisconsin once your canoe trip is over!
In a hurry? Jump to the end of the post, where I've gathered all the most crucial information in one spot!
Insider Tip: I personally prefer kayaking the river over canoeing. It's much easier and more relaxed, because you don't need to coordinate paddling with another person. There's also less bottoming out when the water is low.
About the Kickapoo River
The Kickapoo River is located in Wisconsin's Driftless Area. This beautiful part of the state was never touched by glaciers, leaving it with topography ranging from soaring hills to deep valleys. It's absolutely stunning!
If you're looking for a straight river with a fast moving current, the Kickapoo isn't it.
The name Kickapoo comes from an Algonquin name that means "one who goes here, then there", and it's fitting. If you drove from the Kickapoo River's source in Wilton to its mouth in Waukeza, you'd travel just 60 miles. Yet, the crooked Kickapoo is 126 miles long.
I've heard the Kickapoo called the crookedest river in North America, and even the crookedest river in the world! I couldn't find a definitive source to back up either of these claims though, but as far as I can tell, it is the most winding river in Wisconsin.
As you canoe, kayak, or lazily tube your way down the Kickapoo River, you'll pass by an ever changing landscape from flat farm fields to soaring bluffs.
The calm waters have a slow current that's ideal for beginners. But the shallow waters (you may have to portage in a few spots, depending on river levels) and a few small riffles are fun for more experienced paddlers, too.
The best place to put-in is the small village of Ontario, Wisconsin. Here, you'll find everything you need for your journey down the mighty Kickapoo, plus plenty of small town charm, too!
What You'll See While Kayaking the Kickapoo
The slow-flowing Kickapoo River is one of the best places to canoe in Wisconsin. It's perfect for families, as well as large groups with different levels of canoeing experience.
Depending on rainfall, the river's depth varies, but many areas aren't much more than knee deep. Although you will find a few swimming holes along the way, too.
As you cruise down the river, you'll pass under a series of bridges. There are 18 bridges between Ontario and La Farge, and these bridges (along with a number of riverside landings) serve as landmarks as you progress down the river.
Bridge #18 is an old-fashioned covered bridge. I've never made it quite that far, but let me know if you do!
For the most part, Kickapoo River canoeing is a serene way to pass the day. You will get a workout paddling, but the current is slow and the vibe is pretty peaceful.
There are a few riffles along the way to keep things exiting though!
My favorite thing about canoeing the Kickapoo River is the gorgeous, ever-changing landscape you'll pass along the way.
As you glide along the narrow river, you'll pass through plenty of verdant green fields. Turn a corner though, and the river is surrounded by towering limestone bluff and magnificent forests.
It's truly beautiful ...
Need a break? Pull up on the sandy riverbank or a sandbar for a snack and drink.
Pro tip: if you need a break, don't pass by an empty riverbank. The Kickapoo tends to get very crowded (especially on weekends), and the next one may already be taken.
Where to Rent Canoes and Kayaks
I highly recommend starting your day in Ontario. You'll find three companies here (Titanic, Drifty's, and Mr. Duck's) where you can rent canoes, kayaks, and tubes.
Make sure to reserve your ride in advance, especially on busy summer weekends. These companies will help you launch, pick you up when you reach your destination, and they're a great source for information and tips regarding river conditions, too.
Rates vary depending on company and time of year, but they're around $30 - $40 / canoe, $25 - $30 / kayak, and $15 - $20 / tube. The fee includes the canoe (or kayak or tube), life vests, and pick up.
Want to put-in somewhere other than Ontario? You'll find rentals in Readstown, Rockton, and Wilton, too.
Have Your Own Canoe or Kayak?
If you're planning to bring your own canoe or kayak, you can launch it from one of the river's public landings.
Self-registration is required to park at these landings. There is no registration fee to park at bridge 1 (Ontario) or 20 (La Farge).
Need someone to pick you up at the end of the day? Arrange transportation (for a fee) from one of the rental companies before you begin your trip.
A Kickapoo River kayak trip can last anywhere from a few hours to couple days. If you're inexperienced, I'd highly recommend taking a shorter trip before embarking on an overnight expedition. The distances may seem short, but due to the slow current and winding nature of the river, it's can be slow going.
Here are some sample day trips. Times are approximate and based on leisurely paddling:
- From Ontario to Wildcat Mountain State Park: 2 ½ hours (this is the trip we usually do)
- From Ontario to Landing 5: 3 hours
- From Ontario to Landing 7: 4 hours
- From Ontario to Landing 10: 5 hours
- From Ontario to Landing 12: 6 hours
- From Ontario to Landing 12: 6 hours
- From Ontario to Landing 14: 8 hours
- From Ontario to Landing 20: 11 hours
If you're more experienced you can probably shave a few minutes off these times.
When to Canoe the Kickapoo
The Kickapoo River is an extremely popular destination in Southwest Wisconsin. Summer weekends are going to be busy, especially around the holidays. There's also a lot of drinking on the river, so not only is the river crowded, but the large groups you come across will probably be a little boisterous. You've been warned!
If you want to escape the crowds, start earlier in the day or go during the week.
Tubing? Don't start first thing in the morning. Give the weather a chance to warm up at bit.
Another thing to be aware of is that river levels vary depending on how wet the weather has been. You may have to do some portaging if it's been a dry season (or due to fallen trees). River levels can also change rapidly in bad weather, and the Kickapoo Valley is prone to flooding. Make a back up plan in case of stormy weather, because you don't want to be caught in a dangerous situation.
Everything You Need to Know Before Your Trip
I've hope you've enjoyed reading this Kickapoo River guide! Start planning your trip with these tips:
Where to Rent Canoes / Kayaks / Tubes: The best place to begin your Kickapoo journey is in the small village of Ontario, Wisconsin, where you'll find four Kickapoo River canoe rental options. Make sure to reserve your canoes ahead of time, especially on busy summer weekends.
- Titanic Canoe Rental (We used Titanic on our last couple trips.)
- Drifty's Canoe Rental
- Mr. Duck's Canoe Rental
- Kickapoo Wild Adventures (located one mile north of Ontario)
- Starting from somewhere else? You can also rent canoes from Crooked Creek (Readstown), Kickapoo Yacht Club (Rockton), and Flasher's Canoe Camping Trips (Wilton).
Rates vary depending on company and time of year, but are generally $30 - $40 / canoe, $25 - $30 / kayak, and $15 - $20 / tube. The fee includes your canoe, kayak, or tube, a life jacket, and pick up.
Have your own canoe? If you need someone to bring you back to your vehicle when you're finished, contact one of the canoe rental companies above to set up transportation.
Kickapoo River Map - The Kickapoo Valley Reserve has a detailed map of the Kickapoo River from Ontario to La Farge. It shows bridge / landing locations, paddle distances and times, and locations of self-registration stations.
What to Wear: Keep it simple and wear a swimsuit or other clothes you don't mind getting wet or getting dirty. Cover your head with a hat to avoid sunburn. The banks of the Kickapoo can be very muddy, so wear shoes (like flip flops or water shoes) that are easy to clean.
What to Bring: You don't need to pack a lot! You'll want to bring sunscreen, bug spray, and enough food and drinks (and a cooler to pack it in) to last you through your trip. There's no glass allowed. I'd recommend packing anything you need to keep dry in a zip lock. Planning to take photos on your trip? Don't be like my husband and drop your phone in the river (true story) ... get a waterpoof pouch for your phone or purchase a waterproof disposable camera. And make sure to bring an extra bag for your garbage, too.
Where to Eat: Looking for somewhere to eat before or after your canoeing trip? There are plenty of places to eat in Ontario and beyond:
- River's End (Ontario) - Their pizza is delish, plus they sell everything from burgers to ribs.
- Kickapoo Paddle Inn - I've only ever had ice cream here, but they have some pretty basic food, too.
- Wildcat Bar & Grill (Ontario) - I've only had drinks here, but the food is supposed to be tasty. You'll find live music here some nights.
- Milk Jug Cafe (Ontario) - Another place in Ontario I've never been (we tend to go to River's End for pizza!).
- Fast Trip (Ontario) - This is a gas station with a convenience shop that's an easy place to stock up on snacks and drinks before heading out on your canoe trip.
- Badger Crossing (Cashton) - This is a great option if you're looking for something a little "nicer". They've even got a few vegetarian options on their menu, which is rare in this area!
- Rockton Bar (La Farge) - They are known for their BBQ chicken (my family calls it Rockton Chicken), but they have other stuff, too.
- Sparta Family Restaurant (Sparta) - Their breakfast is yummy, and they're open all day.
- Kickapoo Coffee (Viroqua) - A hipster coffee shop is a rare thing to find in this area of Wisconsin!
- Viroqua Food Co-op (Viroqua) - This is a great place to stock up on healthier groceries, and they've got a deli, too. Cranberry Country Market in Tomah is another good grocery option.
Where to Stay: You'll find everything from campgrounds to hotels to hang your hat at the end of the day. Make your reservations as far in advance as possible, because pickings can be slim (especially during holiday weekends).
- Driftwood Inn Motel - This is the only motel in Ontario. It's pretty bare bones, but a decent place to crash after a long day of canoeing.
- Hotels - For a variety of (mostly chain hotels), check out nearby Sparta and Tomah, two of the area's larger towns.
- Rental Homes - You'll find many rentals in Ontario and the surrounding area. Check out Airbnb for lots of options.
- Camping - Pitch a tent at one of the 72 campsites at the beautiful Wildcat Mountain State Park or one of 25 first-come, first-served primitive sites in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Find more camping options here.
Other Things to Do in the Kickapoo Valley
The Kickapoo River is located in a truly picturesque area of Wisconsin ... there's no better place to enjoy a weekend drive.
Here are some other things to do in the Kickapoo Valley when you're all canoed out:
- Ontario, Wisconsin - There's not a whole lot to do in Ontario, but you'll find a few parks, including a little community garden and a cute welcome center / history walk, a few playgrounds, a baseball field, and a number of places to eat. There was even a new cupcake shop when we visited a couple weeks ago!
- Kickapoo Valley Reserve - Stop into the welcome center to learn more about the Kickapoo Valley and other recreation activities in the area.
- Explore Vernon County's Quaint Small Towns - As you drive around the Kickapoo Valley, you'll pass through a number of small towns. Many aren't much larger than a postage stamp, but each one is unique. I especially like Westby, a Norwegian community, and Viroqua, which has lots of little shops and restaurants worth checking out.
- Round Barns - Vernon County is home to the largest concentration of round bars in the world. Step back in time and track some of them down! We spotted the one below just outside of Ontario on Lower Ridge Road (which is part of Rustic Road 56).
- Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail - This popular trail was the first Rails to Trails Project in America. As you bike along the 32.5 mile route, you'll pass through three rock tunnels and five small towns.
- Amish Community - Vernon Country is home to a large Amish community, and many of them operate their own businesses. Near Ontario, you'll find everything from bakeries to furniture to the "Amish Walmart", which sells odds and ends / junk. Follow Highway 33 west out of Ontario, and you'll run across a few places (0r ask a local for more detailed directions).
- Wildcat Mountain State Park - This beautiful park is a must see. It's located just outside of Ontario, and it features expansive views of the Kickapoo River Valley, campsites, a playground, and miles of hiking and horseback riding trails.
I hope you enjoyed reading about this fun Wisconsin weekend destination. Let me know if you visit ... I'd love to hear about your trip!
Where is your favorite Wisconsin summer activity?