Best Places To Kayak In Wisconsin

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Are you interested in a weekend where you can explore the natural beauty of Wisconsin while paddling on sparkling, crystal waters? Do you seek the sort of adventure and thrilling reward that only a watersport such as kayaking can offer? Paddling in Wisconsin might be perfect for you.

Wisconsin has more than 15 000 lakes and over 43 000 miles of rivers flowing through the state. With roughly 659 miles of shoreline between the Great Lakes, Wisconsin is the perfect choice for your kayaking trip. With so many waterways available, it is ideal for beginners and skilled kayakers.

Wisconsin is home to so many waterways that it is often called the mecca of kayaking. While it is a fantastic choice for your weekend paddling adventure, there are still many things to consider before starting your kayaking journey.

Do I Need Experience To Kayak In Wisconsin?

Due to Wisconsin having so many waterways, you can go kayaking with little to no previous experience. There are many lakes and even rivers that are calm enough for beginners. If you are unsure which rivers are suitable for your skill levels, just familiarize yourself with the scale below.

The International Scale Of River Difficulty

The American Whitewater Association created a scale that evaluates rivers around the globe and rates them based on their difficulty levels. The scale is significant for watersport activities such as kayaking. It provides vital information such as the technical difficulty and skill required to navigate certain river sections.

Class A: Stillwater, usually on flat lakes. Class A is perfect for novices in kayaking as there are no large waves or obstacles, and it is relatively easy paddling for anyone, including children.

Class I Rapids – This category is characterized by fast-flowing water and has very few riffles or small waves. This category is ideal for beginners or children, as there are no large waves or maneuvering required.

Class II Rapids – This category is for novices. There are small waves with minor obstacles. The rapids are straightforward with moderate difficulty ratings. Children and beginners can still paddle Class II rapids, provided a guide is present.

Class III Rapids – These rapids have moderate, irregular waves, which may be difficult to avoid. There are larger waves accompanied by powerful currents and rocks, and other obstacles. Depending on the river and water levels, a beginner can still paddle these rapids if they kayak with a guide.

Class IV Rapids – These rapids require an intermediate to advanced experience level. This category has intense, powerful rapids that are unpredictable and need precise maneuvering skills. There are large waves and obstacles and small vertical drops in some sections of the river.

Class V Rapids – Only experts in kayaking attempt this category. A great deal of experience and skill is needed. An entire team of kayakers is necessary when attempting Class V Rapids, as they are highly technical and hazardous.

Class VI Rapids – These rapids are incredibly hazardous. They are known for causing injuries and even death to those who attempt them. There are massive drops, huge waves with obstacles, and rocks. Even the most experienced kayakers avoid Class VI Rapids.

Top Kayaking Spots In Wisconsin

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with all the various waterways to choose from in Wisconsin. While it’s true that you can have fun no matter where you are, there are certainly a few places that are rated better than the rest.

The Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands are known to be one of the most popular kayaking destinations in the Midwest. There are so many various places to explore that whether you’ve booked a day or a multi-day adventure, you won’t run out of things to do and see while paddling.

Situated on the world’s largest freshwater lake are the 22 Islands that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The islands are ideal for beginners as guided tours will take you around the islands and show you the area’s sea caves. The rapid classification for the Apostle Islands is Class A: Stillwater.

Mirror Lake

If you find yourself in the Madison-Dells area, you definitely wouldn’t want to miss paddling on Mirror Lake. This lake provides one of the best kayaking experiences in the area due to the breathtaking views of red and white pines, sandstone bluffs, and cliffs that hang over the water.

Mirror Lake has three kayaking options that are known as ‘fingers,’ with the west and north fingers offering the most scenery. The rapid classification for Mirror Lake is Class A: Stillwater. This means that kayaking on Mirror Lake is pretty laid-back and ideal for beginners or families with children.

St. Croix River

The St. Croix River spans 170 miles and is a tributary of the Mississippi River. It is well-known for its beauty, with a particularly scenic stretch of the river flowing from Taylors Falls down to Osceola Landing. This stretch of the river is so memorable because of the views of the magnificent cliffs, which is the reason Wisconsin and Minnesota Interstate Park are so famous.

The St. Croix River has a widely diverse and scenic landscape. As you travel down the meandering river, you can expect to see basalt cliffs and rock gorges formed by glaciers. The Rapid classification for this river is Class I-III, so it is appropriate for beginners and experienced kayakers.

Madeline Island Sea Caves

Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands mentioned earlier. The sea caves make for an exciting exotic kayaking trip and are enjoyed by novice and experienced kayakers alike. Many expert kayakers will recommend trailing the shoreline of the island’s calming waters.

The views of the rock formations combined with the sandstone found within the caves make it one of the best places to go paddling in Wisconsin. From your launching spot, it will take you roughly four to five hours to complete this 3-mile stretch. The rapid classification for the Madeline Island Sea Caves is Class A: Stillwater.

The Mighty Pine River (Richland Center)

Although the name suggests a river with powerful rapids, the Mighty Pine River’s rapid classification is Class I. it offers a peaceful kayaking experience. The best entry spot onto the Mighty Pine would be from the Richland Center at Rockbridge. However, you could also access the river along various country roads.

While paddling down the Mighty Pine, you can expect to see maple forests with diverse wildlife, several farmlands as well as stretches of rocks. Once you have paddled through the wildlife area, you will reach the Wisconsin River.

The Lower Wisconsin River

The Lower Wisconsin River is known as one of the state’s most popular stretches of free-flowing water. It runs 92-miles from the Sauk Prairie to the Mississippi River confluence. This tranquil and scenic river is appropriate for both experienced and novice kayakers.

The river is so large that there are no rapids or dams. It’s rated as Moving Flatwater. While paddling down the river, you can expect to see many dense forests, sandbanks, sloughs, and open prairies. Some multiple islands and sandbars can be explored.

The Flambeau River

The Flambeau River is the perfect place for a scenic kayaking adventure. Along its way to the Chippewa River, the river descends from an altitude of 1570 feet to 1060. It is famous because of its abundant wildlife, the Hemlock Hardwood forests, and many excellent fishing spots.

The river is a famous recreational waterway, with two forks for kayakers to choose from. Beginners and kayakers with little experience should stick to the northern fork, which provides a tranquil, scenic paddle. At the same time, experienced kayakers can choose the southern fork, which includes Class I-V rapids.

The Mecan River

The Mecan River is situated in the Germania Marsh Dam. However, it is not so much a marsh as a flowage. It’s known to be a calm and tranquil paddling route, as long as you stay straight from Eagle Road to Highway J. Bridge.

There are a lot of sandy banks to see, as well as picturesque prairie land to paddle past. There are also a few farmhouses along the river. Stacks of rocks have funneled the channel inwards. You can expect to be paddling for around three and a half hours on this six-mile stretch of river. The rapid classification for the Mecan River is Class I-II.

Rules And Regulations For Kayaking In Wisconsin

Many states in America have different rules and regulations regarding kayaking. To ensure you stay out of unnecessary trouble, you must familiarize yourself with the state’s boating laws before embarking on your kayaking journey.

Do I Need To Register My Kayak In Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, any manually propelled vessels are exempt from registration. However, should your kayak have a trolling motor, you will need to have it registered as all motorized recreational vessels do require a valid Certificate of Number as well as expiration decals.

Wisconsin Vessel Titling

All watercraft that are 16 feet in length or longer require a Certificate of Title. Your vessel can be titled and registered at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Are You Required To Have A Kayaking License In Wisconsin?

For any non-motorized vessels, boater education is not required. However, should your kayak have a motor, you will need to complete a boating safety and education course that is approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Wisconsin Kayaking OUI Laws

Wisconsin OUI (Operating Under the Influence) laws prohibit anyone from operating any kind of vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The punishment is the equivalent of a DUI (Driving Under the Influence), which is established if your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) is 0.08% and over.

Kayak PFD Laws In Wisconsin

All paddleboats, canoes, and kayaks must have one USCG (US Coast Guard) approved wearable PFD (Personal Floatation Device) for each person on board. Any person that is under the age of 13 must wear a correctly sized USCG-approved life jacket while onboard any open vessel on federally controlled waters.

All PFDs need to be in serviceable condition, the appropriate size for the intended user of said PFD, and should be readily accessible in case of emergency. All wearable PFDs in the state of Wisconsin must be either USCG-approved Type I, II, III, or V.

Kayaking Light Laws In Wisconsin

Any unpowered vessel less than 23 feet in length is required to have at least one lantern, flashlight, or bright white light, which can be displayed in time to avoid a collision. While your vessel is anchored or adrift, the white light must be turned on.

For motorized kayaks, a USCG-approved green or red light must be visible from a distance that is at least 2 miles away, as well as an all-around white light that is also visible for a distance of 2 miles.

Kayaking Clubs In Wisconsin

Any watersport enthusiast will agree that there is nothing worse than feeling alone in your passion for adventure. A great way to meet like-minded people who enjoy paddling as much as you do is to join local kayaking clubs!

Mad City Paddlers

Mad City Paddlers is based in Madison, Wisconsin. Their club is devoted to pursuing paddle sports of any kind, so you and your kayak will fit right in. There is a wide variety of organized club trips for whitewater paddling, sea kayaking, and flat-water paddling.

Northeast Wisconsin Paddlers

The Northeast Wisconsin Paddlers club is dedicated to advancing and encouraging paddle sports education and safety. They have various club activities, annual meetings, and planned outings should you wish to become a member. Some of their regular trips involve popular kayaking spots such as the Apostle Islands. They also host the Rock Island Kayak Campout.

The Wisconsin Kayak Fishing Club

The Wisconsin Kayak Fishing Club is open to anyone who enjoys fishing from a kayak or simply would just like to get into the sport itself. They host two kayak bass tournaments a year, which come with amazing prizes. You can join their Facebook group to ask questions, post photos, and even find other members to go kayaking with.

Kayaking In Wisconsin Entry Fees

Many State and National Parks in America and Wildlife Recreation Areas charge an entry fee for either a day pass or a vehicle pass. You must always to prepared to pay a few extra dollars for entrance when kayaking in protected areas.

ParkKayaking SpotEntry Fees
Apostle Islands National LakeshoreApostle IslandsNo Fee
Mirror Lake State ParkMirror Lake$8 – $11/vehicle
St. Croix State ParkSt. Croix River$10/vehicle
Big Bay State ParkMadeline Island Sea Caves$11/vehicle
Richland CountyThe Mighty Pine River (Richland Center)  No Fee
Lower Wisconsin State RiverwayThe Lower Wisconsin RiverNo Fee
Flambeau River State ForestFlambeau River$28 (Annual Vehicle Pass)
Mecan River WisconsinMecan RiverNo Fee


Kayaking in Wisconsin is the perfect way for any watersport enthusiast to spend their weekends or holidays. With an abundance of waterways to choose from, it is an ideal state for beginners and experienced kayakers to get their paddles wet. Don’t forget to research the rapid classifications of the different rivers and check Wisconsin’s boating laws before heading out.