The Kickapoo is a fun river to canoe. It is narrow, winding and very scenic
I have made several trips to Vernon County in the last year and have found that the county offers many activities to fill a long weekend. I started my most recent trip, by canoeing on the Kickapoo River and ended it with some amazing trout fishing. Vernon county also has many places to stop on the highways and byways to eat and to shop. Also, if big water adventures are your forte, the Mississippi River forms the Western boundary of Vernon County.
The Kickapoo river is rightfully one of Wisconsin’s most famous canoeing rivers. The upstream beginning of the canoeable portion of the Kickapoo is the village of Ontario. I will admit when I first saw the river I thought, this is a famous canoeing river? The Kickapoo is a narrow muddy meandering stream coming out of Ontario. I wondered if there was enough water in the river to float a canoe. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by the river. I canoed the stretch between bridges 4 and 5 which meanders through Wildcat Mountain State Park, and it is a beautiful section of river. Being this is the driftless area, there are lots of rock out cropping’s and bluffs to enhance the scenic beauty of the trip. It is crooked enough to keep the canoeist busy guiding the canoe around the bends, the trees, and sand bars in the river. It is not a difficult river to paddle, but the river demands that you pay attention to it. It only took a few prys and draws to get around most of the obstacles in the river. Given the steep terrain that dominates the Kickapoo watershed, the river is vulnerable to flash floods so paying attention to the weather is important. Canoeing after the spring melt or heavy rains is not advised. Since the river is narrow and heavily wooded, many trees fall in or across the Kickapoo. There is a task force of riverine lumberjacks that cut up the trees that obstruct the river in the section that I floated. I would speculate that the canoe outfitters in Ontario are the organizing force for the river lumberjacks.
If you do not have a canoe or kayak and want to canoe the river, there are three outfitters in Ontario that cater to Kickapoo river travelers. They all have a very large livery of rental canoes and kayaks. Rumors are the outfitters can put up to 500 canoes on the river in a single day. Hence, it can get really crowded. My float occurred early on a Friday morning and there were only a few other canoeists out. But by late morning, when I loaded up the canoe, it was beginning to get busy. If canoeing without crowds is important, plan the trips for mornings during the week. Having the outfitters there also means, that if you do not have a canoe and want to canoe or kayak the river, it is simple to rent one. For information on canoeing the Kickapoo see this link
Wildcat Mountain State Park and the Kickapoo Reserve create a big block of public land for canoeing, hiking, and camping. The campground and picnic area at Wildcat Mountain are literally on top of a big ridge. (Calling it a mountain is a bit of a stretch). The road to the park entrance from Ontario is one of the crookedest roads I have traveled on. Wildcat has a nice, but small campground. Many of the campsites are cramped due to the limited space on top of the ridge. There is an extensive 21-mile trail system that can be used for hiking, horseback riding, skiing and snowshoeing.
The Kickapoo Reserve is an 8600, acre parcel of public land which is owned by the HoChunk Nation and the State of Wisconsin. It is governed by its own Board. It is a unique land in terms of management and ecology. The Kickapoo river runs through the middle of the Reserve and provides some very scenic canoeing. The reserve also has campsites near the river for the adventurous canoeist. But they are located a ways away from the river to reduce the danger from flash floods. meaning it is an uphill haul to get the gear and canoes from the river to the campsite. Additionally, there are hiking and carrying campsites along the trails of the Reserve.
Bringing a bicycle along with the canoe is important. The Kickapoo Reserve has an extensive trails system some of which is dedicated to mountain bikes and some of which is mixed use trails. Vernon county has lots of rural roads to ride on. The roads run through lots of hills and valleys, so the ride is steep and winding making for fun riding. The nature of the roads also creates some safety hazards so consulting the WI DOT bike map is a good idea when planning a route. Wilton, which is near the halfway point of the Elroy Sparta Bike trail, is only a 10-minute drive north of Ontario.
A small waterfall tucked away at the end of the Ice Cave Trail
If riding a horse is preferable to riding a bike, Wildcat Mountain and the Kickapoo Reserve a have a combined 55 miles of equestrian trails. Fifteen miles of the trails are in the park and forty miles in the Reserve. Horse Camp is located in Wildcat Mountain and is one of the nicer and most complete horse camps I have seen.
Some of the best trout fishing I have ever experience occurred on this trip. I fished a stream in the northern part of the county and caught many nice sized trout. One was a little too big as it busted my 4 lbs. line on my ultra-light spinning rod and made off with my favorite trout spinner while making a spectacular jump. I kept just enough trout to have a nice fish fry for supper. Many of the trout streams are Class 1 or 2 streams. Wisconsin classifies its trout streams as 1 (the best) 2 (really good) and 3 (OK). A quick glance at the trout stream maps shows that there are more miles of Class 1 and 2 streams than Class 3. There are numerous DNR fishing properties, easements, and other accesses points to the trout streams so accessing that secret trout fishing spot is relatively easy. The DNR, local conservations clubs and groups like Trout Unlimited have been working for decades to restore and improve the trout streams in the Driftless Region. As a result of all this hard work, the Driftless Area is now one of the premier trout fishing regions in the US.
A nice trout supper thanks to the efforts of many people and groups to improve the trout streams in the Driftless Area
A good night’s sleep and good food is vital to any great trip. Vernon County is a small rural place, so the lodging is small and rural. Wildcat Mountain is the biggest camping spot. Additionally, many of the small towns in the area have campgrounds and there are several private campgrounds scattered around the county. Small resorts with a few cabins and bed and breakfasts are scattered throughout the county. Local restaurants are abundant, and they usually feature a good Wisconsin fish fry on Friday nights.
Vernon has a plethora of actives for the outdoor enthusiasts. It is a good place to head for an activity filled weekend or for a longer vacation