Places to Kayak in Wisconsin: Best Kayaking Spots in the Badger State

Planning a kayaking trip and looking for somewhere spectacular to go? Give Wisconsin a try and you won’t be disappointed!

The Badger State (or “America’s Dairyland”, as it’s also known) is home to some of the most beautiful natural areas, places where you can spend hours or even days paddling truly spectacular lakes and rivers.

In fact, some of the most exciting paddling adventures can be found kayaking in Wisconsin.

Below, we’ve collected a few of the best spots to go kayaking in Wisconsin. Check them out, and I guarantee you’ll find something that will spark your excitement and make your next paddling trip a heck of a lot more interesting. 

15 Best Places to Go Kayaking in Wisconsin

1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Lake Superior

If you’ve always wanted to try cave kayaking, now’s your chance! This spectacular adventure will last about 2 ½ hours, taking you from the lovely shores of Lake Superior to the many cave waterways of the Apostle Islands. Whether you’re an experienced paddler or a newbie looking for your first thrill paddle, this is the option for you.

Cave waterways of the Apostle Islands

Best of all, if you don’t have any gear, the cost of the tour will cover everything you need. You can just show up ready to paddle and enjoy exploring the gorgeous caves and hidden waterways. It’s a truly one-of-a-kind adventure!

2.  Lower Wisconsin State Riverway

Lower Wisconsin State Riverway
Image: Wisconsin Trail Guide

The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway is a 92-mile stretch of river that connects the Sauk Prairie to the Mississippi River. As one of the longest free-flowing sections of river, it’s a great option for beginners who want to cover some distance without worrying about rapids or whitewater. The trip is calm, the views are gorgeous, and there are few dangers. 

The river will cut through spectacular savannahs, miles of wide-open prairie, towering forests, protruding sandbanks, and past dozens of islands where you can make landfall and enjoy a day of exploring. There are estimated to be more than 250 species of bird living around this section of the river, including bald eagles.

3. Neenah Creek

Neenah Creek
Image: Wisconsin River Trips

Neenah Creek is largely considered to be one of the best spots for kayaking in Wisconsin. The current is gentle enough that newbies will have a blast getting their paddles wet for the first time, but there are a number of tight turns that will make it feel like a true adventure.

Neenah Creek
Image: Wisconsin River Trips

Located north of the city of Madison, it’s a short paddle—roughly 90 minutes at a moderate pace—that you’ll want to do again and again on every visit to Wisconsin. Plus, you get to enjoy the views of gorgeous hardwoods that are home to cranes, geese, and other waterfowl.

4. Flambeau River

Flambeau River

Flambeau River is one of Wisconsin’s best recreational waterways, home to both short day trips and multi-day outings that will test your mettle. The river actually descends 500 feet in elevation, and it splits into two forks that offer various challenges that beginner and intermediate paddlers will find exhilarating.

Bordering the river are countless beautiful trees: white ash, red maple, red oak, yellow birch, and sugar trees. Here, you have the chance to see coyotes, wolves, white-tailed deer, maybe even a black bear or two. Anglers will love to bring their rods and cast out in the hopes of snagging a muskie or smallmouth bass.

ALSO SEE: Best River Fishing Kayak

5. Kinnickinnic River

Kinnickinnic River

Running through the city of Milwaukee on its way to Lake Michigan, the Kinnickinnic River offers an unparalleled view of some of the state’s most famous train bridges. The paddling trip also leads past the University of Wisconsin’s School of Freshwater Sciences, taking you on a journey toward the famous Milwaukee harbor district.

The entire trip is a little over three hours, but there are plenty of places to stop, sightsee, and take pictures along the way. You can make a whole day out of this relaxing, enjoyable paddling route!

6. La Crosse River

For anyone visiting southwestern Wisconsin, the La Crosse River is a destination you can’t miss out on. The river flows past towering bluffs topped with stately trees and wide-open expanses of pristine meadows, with clean, clear water that stays at a good level all year around. If you really want to take the adventure to the next level, you can follow the river all the way to where it empties into the Mississippi, and from there, head south for more excitement.

The section between Sparta and Rockland is considered the most scenic and enjoyable, and there are a few stretches with some challenges: four moderate ledges and a handful of riffles. Experienced paddlers can tackle them with little difficulty, but they’re a great first exposure to whitewater paddling for newbies.

7.  Madeline Island Sea Caves

Madeline Island Sea Caves

Of all the 22 islands located off the shore of northern Wisconsin, there’s no doubt that Madeline Island offers the best adventures for kayakers coming to Wisconsin. Newbies can hug the island’s shoreline for a sheltered, calmer tour, while more experienced kayakers can tackle the island’s many caves, home to some of the most spectacular natural rock formations in the state.

It’s not a long tour—little more than three hours—but it offers some of the most beautiful cave kayaking in the state. 

8. Namekagon River

Namekagon River
Image: Wisconsin Trail Guide

Anglers, pack your poles, because the Namekagon River is home to some of the best cold water fishing in the state. The lake’s name is an Ojibwe word that means “plenty of sturgeons”—the perfect descriptor for this river. Here, you’ll find some wonderful fishing drifting along the slow-moving river, and you’ll come home with a cooler filled with fresh-caught fish.

There are sections of river that cut through the Wisconsin landscape, both dense forests and rural areas with scenic pastoral views. You’ll wander past small islands and friendly Wisconsin towns, where you can make landfall and explore as desired. Experienced paddlers will love the Class I (and some Class II) rapids available along various stretches of the Namekagon.

9. Upper Dells

Ask any Wisconsin kayakers for one of their best recommendations, and 9 out of 10 will mention the Upper Dells. Located on the Wisconsin River, it’s one of the busiest spots all year-around, so you’ll have to be prepared to paddle in a crowd or plan a time when there are fewer people out on the water.

But it’s worth all the effort and hassle, for sure! The Upper Dells are home to gorgeous rock formations, and you can paddle past towering cliffs with ledges where you can tuck in and bask in the spectacular view. Be warned: this stretch of the river is more suited for seasoned paddlers, as there are tough narrow stretches that will challenge your skills. 

10. Manitowish River

Manitowish River
Image: Manitowish Waters

Prepare for a spectacular day surrounded by wildlife and natural beauty! The Manitowish River cuts through Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest, leading through a number of smaller lakes on its way toward the Flambeau River. It’s the perfect spot for kayak camping, as there are many access points and river-side campsites where you can make landfall and pitch your tent for the night.

The current is calm, the lakes offer spectacular views, and more experienced paddlers will love challenging themselves on the occasional riffles. Prepare to see wild animals in their natural habitats, including minks, deer, herons, eagles, beavers, and mergansers.

11. Mecan River

Mecan River
Image: Wisconsin River Trips

The Mecan River is a great place to pick up tricks from the pros—literally! A lot of kayaking teams come to train on the river, so you can paddle alongside experienced kayakers and learn from the best how it’s done. All the while, you’ll enjoy a delightful trip past sand bars, gorgeous wide-open prairies, and towering rock stacks that channel the six-mile-long river.

It’s a short, fairly easy trip—roughly 3 ½ hours, with no rapids or tricky turns. It’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy a day on the water with your family. Even kids can handle this river! 

12. Bois Brule River

Think you’re ready to tackle some rapids? Get ready for a proper challenge on Bois Brule River, then! On its way to Lake Superior, this river rushes over some tricky ledges and aggressive rapids, proving a challenge even experienced paddlers will relish.

Bois Brule River
Image: Wisconsin Trail Guide

Beginners, there are plenty of options for you, too. Most of the river is flat and calm, running through lakes and pools, carrying you past narrow valleys and iconic pastoral scenes found only in Wisconsin. Keep your eyes peeled and you should be able to spot ospreys, eagles, deer, otters, and beavers. Anglers will find plenty of rainbow trout and brook trout for dinner.

13. Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

During the summer, Mirror Lake is one of the busiest of Wisconsin’s waterways, thanks to the fact that it’s incredibly calm and surrounded by spectacular views of sandstone bluffs and stately white and red pine trees. If you’re lucky enough to have it all to yourself, you’ll find it’s a truly relaxing experience, a lovely day under the sun. Just be prepared to share the lake with motorized watercraft and fishing boats who want to enjoy it alongside you.

The lake offers excellent fishing, and paddleboarders love to float on the calm waters. You may have a chance to try some watersports (jet skiing, water skiing, wakeboarding, etc.) if you’re looking for a break from your day of paddling. 

14. Wisconsin River

Wisconsin River
Image: Wisconsin River Trips

I guarantee you’ve never paddled anywhere quite as unique as the Wisconsin River itself. The river runs a course through glacial plains, rolling hills, and towering cliffs carved out by the river’s flow. Beginners will find plenty of flat, calm sections, and experienced paddlers can challenge themselves by tackling the river’s more aggressive sections. Really, there’s something for everyone!

Boaters and paddlers from around the country head to the whitewater park near Wausau to test their mettle, and you may find yourself in town at just the right time to take part in or enjoy watching one of the many competitions held here. Or, if you’re just here to enjoy the views, the calmer sections of water are home to muskrat, beaver, coyotes, foxes, and white-tailed deer. 

15. Kickapoo River

Kickapoo River
Image: Travel Wisconsin

We saved one of the best for last! The Kickapoo River is one of Wisconsin’s most famous kayaking destinations, home to spectacular limestone cliffs and deep valleys that offer stunning views for paddlers enjoying the calm waters. Fall is the best time of year to visit this river—not yet too cold for kayaking, but autumn paints the world around the river a truly awe-inspiring assortment of colors. 

The most famous stretch of the river runs for about 22 miles, and you can explore both Wildcat Mountain State Park and the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. You’ll fall instantly in love with the scenery and the relaxing paddling trip, and you’ll come back again and again. 

Kayaking Tours in Wisconsin

As you’ve seen above, Wisconsin is home to some truly unforgettable paddling destinations. Rivers, lakes, streams, creeks, islands, and caves—there’s something for everyone!

But, as with every other destination, there may be hidden dangers that you’re not aware of. For example, on the Flambeau River, there are two forks: the north fork is calmer and more beginner-friendly, but the south fork is far more aggressive, home to some rapids that could pose a real threat to first-time kayakers.

Or, if you’re exploring the caves of Madeline Island or the Apostle Islands, there are spots where the current can push you up against the rocks if you paddle too close. You risk capsizing, damaging your kayak, or worse!

That’s why it’s a good idea to consider kayaking tours when paddling someplace new for the first time. A tour guide will know what dangers lie ahead and how to safely avoid them.

Plus, seasoned kayakers who live near and spend their days on the waters will always have some handy tricks that will make you a better paddler—not just on this specific river or lake, but overall.

You’ll get a fuller, richer experience when paddling in the company of someone who knows how to find the best views and safest routes. 

Here are a few of the kayaking tours in Wisconsin you can consider:

More great resources to check out for kayaking tours in Wisconsin include:

  • Travel Wisconsin. This website is operated by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism and offers information on a wide range of activities, including canoeing and kayaking.
  • Viator. A TripAdvisor subsidiary, Viator provides information on a wide range of activities narrowed down by the city/area of your choice.
  • Google Maps. All you’ve got to do is input “kayak tours” and the city where you’ll be visiting, and you’ll find plenty of results.  

Tips for Safely Kayaking in Wisconsin

From spectacular caves to meandering rivers to gorgeous lakes, Wisconsin offers a wide range of amazing kayaking destinations. However, it’s important to remember that safety should always be your priority, even if you’re paddling on what should be calm waters. 

Two red kayaks with paddlers sail in a sea cave
Image: Travel Wisconsin

Here are some tips to help you enjoy your Wisconsin kayaking trip and be prepared for anything:

Know Your Gear

When traveling to Wisconsin to paddle, it’s possible you’ll have to rent equipment for the kayaking trip. Make sure that you test and thoroughly get acquainted with your kayak, paddle, PFD, and other gear before you tackle any potentially dangerous challenges. It’s worth spending an hour or two paddling on calm waters to get a feel for your kayak before you take it whitewater paddling or exploring caves. 

Keep an Eye on the Weather

Wisconsin’s climate makes it possible to paddle most months out of the year, though winters will likely be too cold for comfortable kayaking. However, even during the warm summer months, storms can come out of nowhere and make even hot days cold, whipping up lakes and rivers to dangerous currents. 

It’s important to check the weather forecast before you head out, but make sure you also keep an eye on the sky as you’re out and about. Summer storms can be fierce on the Wisconsin River and make paddling dangerous. At the first sign of clouds or storms, consider heading for safety—or, at least, be prepared to go home if conditions turn ugly.

Know River Levels

Always know how high the river levels are. If the water level drops too low, you could run into serious trouble on rocks and rapids that would be safe at higher levels. Or, you might have to carry your kayak because there isn’t enough water to keep paddling.

The National Water Information System has a page dedicated to displaying water levels in Wisconsin. The real-time information will help you to be aware of any potential dangers when heading out on a paddling trip. When in doubt, you can always contact local ranger stations or outfitters. 

Have Enough Safety Equipment

As you’ll see below, the Wisconsin state laws demand that you carry the minimum safety gear—including PFD, a light, and sound-producing device. However, it’s a good idea to carry more than the minimum. A helmet is a must-have when whitewater kayaking, and you may want to wear water shoes or some form of footwear to protect your feet. It may be a good idea to bring a GPS device, long-range radio, and a spare change of clothes just in case. And definitely pack enough water (and some food)!

Paddle to Your Skill Level

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or even expert paddler, there will always be a challenge potentially beyond your capabilities. Trying to take on that challenge without proper preparation, training, and experience could put you in serious danger.

Be smart and paddle to your skill level. Scout any whitewater, rapids, or potential hazards before you paddle through them. It’s worth adding an extra hour or three to your trip to make landfall and walk downstream to get a better look at dangers first. 

Yield Passage

On a lot of the lakes and rivers we’ve listed above, you’ll be sharing the water with larger motorized vehicles. Always be ready to yield passage to larger boats—it’s better to give them a wide berth rather than risk collision.

And if you’re tackling whitewater rapids, make sure to let more experienced kayakers go ahead of you. Not only will this allow you to watch how they approach it, but it will prevent collisions if you get stuck in the rapids.

Be Aware of Obstacles

Strainers are a common obstacle you’ll face on Wisconsin rivers, and there are many spots where overhanging branches droop down low enough to hang in the water. You may also run into dams or spots where the rivers or creek narrow to a dangerous degree.

Before you head out on the water, talk to a local and get the low-down on what sort of dangerous obstacles you will face. Keep a sharp eye, too, and stay on alert to watch for anything that could cause you to capsize or pull you into the water.

Never Paddle Alone

It doesn’t matter how calm the river or lake looks—it’s always safest to travel in pairs or groups when kayaking, especially when traveling long distances.

RELATED: 11 Best Tandem Kayaks: Reviews and Buying Guide 

Create a Paddling Plan

Whether you’re kayaking for a few hours to explore one of the lake islands or on a multi-day trip downriver, make sure to plan your route so you know where to stop, rest, replace supplies, and make camp. Leave that paddling plan with someone, so they can call emergency services in case anything happens to you. Also check our interactive map of places to go paddling while planning your next kayaking trip.

Depart Smart

Don’t depart on your paddling trip late in the day, when you have just a few hours of sunlight. Unless you’re traveling with an experienced night kayaker (or night kayak tour), it’s always best to set off early in the morning. That way, you have plenty of daylight to see the way ahead. If you encounter any delays, you’ll have ample time to deal with it. And if you reach the end of the trip or your destination early in the day, you can always use the extra daylight hours to explore or sightsee around Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin Kayaking Laws

Flag of Wisconsin

It’s not always “fun” to talk about the rules and regulations, but it’s a necessary part of preparing for your kayaking trip to Wisconsin. You’ve got to make sure you’re obeying the laws to make your trip safe and fun.

Here’s what you need to know:

Kayaks are non-motor powered vessels

In Wisconsin, kayaks (and canoes) are considered “manually propelled watercraft”. Thus, you neither need to obtain a license to operate your kayak on any waterways in the state, nor is it necessary to register the kayak. 

(Note: If you operate your kayak with a trolling motor, you will need to register it.) 

There is no minimum age for operating a kayak 

There is an age restriction for motorized vessels: you have to be 15 or older to operate a motorized boat with 10 hp or more. Anyone younger than 15 has to be accompanied by an adult with a valid boating safety certificate, or will need to obtain their own. This goes for any kayak with a trolling motor attached.

However, for a kayak with no motor, there are no age restrictions. 

Kayakers must have one lifejacket on board per person 

PFD must be USCG-approved. Anyone over 13 can keep the PFD on their kayak but don’t have to wear it. It does have to be readily accessible and in serviceable condition. However, children under 13 years old must wear the PFD when out on the water. 

Kayakers must carry lights between sunrise and sunset

Any vessel shorter than 23 feet (including kayaks) must carry at least one white light (flashlight, lantern, etc.). When adrift or at anchor, the light must always be on display. 

Green and red lights aren’t mandatory for non-powered vessels, but are encouraged.

Kayakers must carry a sound-producing device

Any vessel shorter than 39.4 feet (including kayaks) must carry at least one sound-producing device—whistle, air horn, etc. 

Kayaks must carry visual distress signals (VDS)

During the day, manually propelled vessels (like kayaks) don’t need to carry any VDS. Between sunset and sunrise, though, there must be at least one VDS (including flares (smoke, meteor, and handheld) and distress lights) on board. 

Kayakers absolutely can get a BWI

“Boating While Intoxicated” is the kayaker’s equivalent of a DUI. Even though your vessel isn’t motorized, you are still required to avoid alcohol, drugs, or any other sort of influence while paddling. 

If your breath or blood alcohol level is above 0.08% (typically after 1-2 drinks, depending on your size), you can get a BWI ticket. 

 The penalties for a BWI are:

  • $150 to $300 fine on the first offense
  • $300 to $1000 fine plus 5 to 180 days in jail on the second offense, 
  • $600 to $2,000 fine plus 30 to 365 days in jail on the third offense
  • If the BWI results in injury to someone else, the fine is $300 to $2,000 and carries 30 to 365 days in jail.

All offenders will also be required to complete mandatory boating safety courses every time. The judge may also order BWI offenders to be assessed for/comply with substance abuse treatment, on a case by case basis.

Kayaking in Wisconsin FAQs

Wisconsin Dells

Do you need a permit to kayak in WI?

According to Wisconsin law, as long as your kayak doesn’t include a trolling motor, you don’t need a permit or registration in order to kayak. 

If your kayak has a trolling motor mounted, consider removing it before leaving on your trip. Otherwise, you will be required to register your vessel and get a permit even if you don’t plan to use the motor. 

Do you need a life jacket for a kayak in Wisconsin?

You ABSOLUTELY need a lifejacket for a kayak in Wisconsin! Adults don’t need to wear the lifejacket, merely have it easily accessible and within reach should you need to put it on in case of an emergency. Children under the age of 13 will need to wear it at all times when out on the water. 

Do you have to wear a life jacket on a paddle board in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin law treats paddleboards the same as kayaks and canoes, as does the U.S. Coast Guard law. This means that, yes, you need to have PFD on board your SUP at all times—or, if you’re bringing a child under 13 with you, they will need to wear the jacket as long as they’re out on the water. 

Can you paddle the entire Wisconsin River?

The Wisconsin River runs for roughly 430 miles, originating in the forests of North Woods Lake District and flowing through central and southern Wisconsin before spilling into the Mississippi River near the city of Prairie du Chien. 

As a “navigable river of the United States”, the Wisconsin river is home to a number of dams and hydropower facilities. This makes certain parts of the river impassible to and unsafe for kayaks and other small vessels.

However, the Lower Wisconsin River State Riverway is a state-funded project that maintains a 93-mile stretch of river from Sauk City to the Mississippi fully safe for paddlers and small watercraft. This area is a popular kayak/canoe camping destination because, in addition to the long stretch of easily navigable water, there are also myriad spots where you can make camp without the need for a permit.

Andrew Peloquin

Andrew is a sports enthusiast, fitness nut, and avid kayaker and paddleboarder who loves nothing more than spending his free time out on the water. He spends his winters snowshoeing, snowboarding, and dreaming of summer days when he can take his beloved 14-footer fishing kayak out to explore the 1,000+ lakes and rivers within driving distance of his home in central British Columbia, Canada.

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