Paddling The Upper Dells

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Paddling The Upper Dells

There is a lot to be said about the independence of paddling your own canoe or kayak when exploring the Upper Dells. In your own boat you have the opportunity to set your own schedual, dip into small caves and inlets that can’t be reached by tour boat and, if you time it right, see a lot more wildlife on the water.  That said, you have to treat the Wisconsin River with some respect. It’s big, strong and ever changing. Be sure you are aware of the river conditions before you head out for a paddle on the Wisconsin.

Access to the Wisconsin River in Wisconsin Dells can be limited. You have to hunt for launching and landing areas. The safe bet for the upper Dells area would be to go downtown then run left on River Road, then left again on Illinois Ave. There you’ll find parking along the road right on the river bank with an easy launch for paddlers. This spot also keeps paddlers far enough away from the Dam to cause much worry. You do however, have to keep your eyes out for power and tour boats which pose the most risk to paddlers on the Upper Wisconsin Dells.

Our favorite trip is simple. Just launch from Illinois Ave and head north (up river) until we feel like turning back. Round trip to the popular Witches Gulch (through the narrows) is about 7.5 miles. Paddling against the current is no big deal unless the river is high. If so, paddling through the Narrows section of the river can be challenging if not impossible. This trip will take you through the best of the Wisconsin Dells. You’ll see high cliffs, amazing formations, and find ledges you can tuck your canoe or kayak under simply for fun. You’ll also find a nice number of little side canyons to explore. There are spots where you can stop off for a picnic lunch, but watch for private land postings along the way.

Summer Boat Traffic

One thing we must deal with when paddling on the Upper Dells is the boat traffic. During peak season it is nothing less than insane. Boats of all sizes are jammed in the river. What’s more recreational boaters often are ignorant of paddlers and not only come close to hitting you, but will throw up some big wakes that will challenging to less skilled boaters. Be sure to watch traffic carefully through the Narrows as well. We recommend peak season paddlers hit the water during the week and early in the morning to avoid the most summer traffic. Better yet paddle in spring and fall when the fair weather boaters are still indoors.


2 mile paddle – Beginning at the same spot you can make a 2 mile round trip day simply by paddling up to the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River natural area. It’s east to find. As you paddle north the river will open up, stay to the right hand bank. High sandstone gates will mark the opening into the proper “Upper Dells”. Right at that gateway you will see a beach to your right. This is the Natural area. Stop on the beach, then when you are ready just follow the current back to your starting point at Crandalls Bay.

8 mile paddle – Another option is to cross the river paddling the left bank north. Then staying left you will paddle around Blackhawk Island. From there you can again cross the river and head up the right-hand bank to Witches Gulch. On the return trip follow the river directly south through the Narrows area and then back to your launch.

Google Map – The blue canoe icons indicate paddling notes.

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