WI Racine Root River
Root River (Racine County) Canoe Routes
Racine County, Wisconsin
The Root River provides a diverse set of paddling conditions as it winds its way through Racine County to Lake Michigan. Depending upon water levels and sections paddled you can get everything from quiet lake paddling to fast rapids in an environment that ranges from scenic rural woodlands to urban parks and industrial areas.
- Terrain / Scenery: Mix of scenic woodlands and prairies in northern sections with urban parks, residential, and commercial areas in south sections. Mostly slow to moderate moving prairie stream with some sections of short very easy rapids/riffles and one section of fast rapids at high water levels.
- Fees / Permits: None
- Trail Conditions: See Water Level Notes (below). You can post trail reports on Discussion Tab.
- Trail Markings: Unmarked
- Facilities: Depends upon launch site
- Official Web Page: No official page
- Getting There: See launch points.
Overview of All Routes and General Information
The Root River runs approximately 18 Miles (as drawn on my map) through Racine County and then into Lake Michigan. Most of the river is suitable for quiet-water paddling under the right conditions, however, water levels can make a huge difference on this river and at least one section (the section below the dam at high water) is not suitable for quiet-water boats. The northern portion of the river (above Horlick Dam) runs through a mix of private lands and public lands (part of the Root River Parkway ) and is the most popular area for paddlers. The southern section runs through a series of city parks and urban areas.
The R 's on the map represent short very easy sections of rapids/riffles (technically they are all riffles, but in this part of the country we set the bar rather low for rapids). The stretch marked "RAPIDS" is the only section of real whitewater (and only at higher water levels). On this page you will find an overview map showing the entire Racine County portion of the Root River.
This map is also available for download as a High Resolution PDF version of Root River Overview Map.
In addition, I have included a separate map image (further down this page) that is an enlarged version of the popular section from 5 Mile Road to the developed canoe launch above Horlick Dam. .
Water Level Notes
It's important to catch the right water levels when paddling certain sections of the Root River. Though I only occasionally paddle here, I have assembled some notes on water levels. I mainly paddle the northern sections (above Horlick Dam) so I use the gauging station near Franklin, WI for my water level references.
You can check current water levels at the Franklin station through the following link:
Normal levels for the river are generally around 2.0 feet (at the Franklin Gauging Station). This is a somewhat low water level and you will find many shallow sections (less than a foot deep) at this level. The Root River tends to fill up and empty rather quickly so you can often see the levels go up several feet within a few hours of a heavy rain and then drop back to normal (low) levels within a day or two. These significant changes in water levels also provide for some significant changes in characteristics of the river. At normal water levels, you will have many shallower sections with some sections of short shallow very easy rapids/riffles intermixed with quiet sections with almost no noticeable current. At levels below 2 feet, some of these sections may require a little walking. At higher levels (4 to 7 feet) the rocky areas that made up the short easy rapids/riffles are often completely submerged and become faster moving sections with slightly choppy water. At these same levels, sections that had little to no current at low levels can have currents ranging from 2-5 mph (possibly even faster at very high water levels). The section immediately below Horlick Dam is generally too shallow to paddle at normal water levels, but becomes fast whitewater at high water levels (not suitable for quiet-water canoes and kayaks).
The 4-mile section above Horlick Dam and the last mile or so before emptying into Lake Michigan are the only sections that you can assume can be paddled almost anytime (they are not dramatically impacted by changes in water levels).
Note: The developed launch above Horlick Dam is occasionally closed due to high water conditions. When they close it, they close all access to that area (both parking areas and the launch). I don't think they are very consistent at exactly what constitutes high water so it can be a little hit or miss as to whether or not the launch will be closed. I think at levels of 6 feet or below, you can generally expect it to be open, and at levels above 8 or 9 feet it will likely be closed, but at those levels between 6 and 8 feet ???
If paddling below Horlick Dam, you can check water levels at the Racine Gauging station:
Since I don't normally paddle below the dam, I don't have any reference levels for this gauging station.
5 Mile Road to developed landing above Horlick Dam - 7.50 Miles
It's a bit unusual to start with a route in the middle of a river, but this is the most popular section of the river for paddlers. For some easy scenic quiet-water paddling, you can put in at the developed landing just upriver from Horlick Dam and paddle round trips (upriver and back) to Highway 31 or beyond if you 're more adventurous. I'm going to describe this section as though you are paddling both ways. The put-in above Horlick Dam is a developed boat ramp that makes for a very easy launch. The parking area is just north of Highway 38 off of Rapids Drive and North Green Bay Road. It's a bit of a funky intersection so watch closely for the side road heading down towards the river. I believe there is an alternate put-in about a mile upriver at the River Bend Nature Center, but I haven't tried it. There is also a park (Charles A. Armstrong Park) on the west bank a little over a mile upriver from the main landing that would make for a nice put-in, however this is a private park for the employees of SC Johnson so it's off limits to the rest of us.
At normal water levels, the 3.3-mile stretch between Highway 31 and Horlick Dam has virtually no noticeable current making for some easy paddling upriver. The first mile upriver from the dam is essentially a long lake; there are quite a few houses on this section, but most are set back in the woods on high banks and are not as obtrusive as you might expect. Also, this section of the river is restricted to electric motors only, so you won't be dodging motorboats and personal watercraft here. The section between the lake and Highway 31 will start to develop stronger currents as the water levels rise. At high water levels you can still paddle upriver, but you may have to put a little effort into getting by some of the faster sections.
The 3.1-mile section between Highway 31 and 4 Mile Road becomes faster because of sections of narrower channel and shallower rocky bottom sections. At high water levels, paddling upriver through this section becomes increasingly more difficult. It's actually kind of fun because the current gradually increases as you head west from the Highway 31 bridge so you can challenge yourself by seeing how far you can get upriver against the ever increasing current. Once you get to the point where the speed of the current surpasses your paddling capacity (or you just get tired), you turn around and enjoy a fast ride back to the launch. Since you've already paddled upriver, you essentially already scouted out the fast sections for jambs or other obstacles so you really fly. The reality is, if there were any serious obstacles in any of the fast moving sections, you probably would not have gotten past them going upriver anyway. However, if you are just paddling downriver at high water levels, an unexpected downed tree, low hanging branch, or log jamb in a fast section can become a real hazard here.
At normal water levels, the section between Highway 31 and 4 Mile Road will have several small sets of rapids/riffles separated by slow moving pools. If paddling upstream at these water levels it can be difficult to paddle through the shallow rocky sections, but as a last resort you can just get out and walk these short sections. Heading down river through this section at normal water levels is very easy though you may bump a few boulders or occasionally get hung up on shallow rocky sections. Downed trees or other obstacles are generally not much of a hazard at normal water levels because of the much slower current.
The 1.1-mile section between 4-Mile Road and 5-Mile Road is easier with less current and fewer obstacles.
See the next section for info on the put-in at 5 Mile Road.
Above 5 Mile Road
I've only paddled above 5 Mile Road once and that was at high water (between 5 and 6 feet at the Franklin gauging station) so I'm guessing a little as to how it would be at normal levels.
There is a small county park on 5 Mile Road where you can launch or take out. There is no developed launch area here but there is plenty of river access in the park. The riverbank along the park is the outside of a curve in a prairie section of the river and subsequently is characterized by a short steep drop-off at the river bank (erosion bank). The bank can be up to 3 or 4 feet above the water at normal water levels (less at high water). If you scout the bank, you can find some sections that are easier than others. If you're having problems putting in here, there is a small wooded area at the north end of the park with a short path that leads to a small bay that may be an easier put-in but a longer carry.
I've paddled about 5 miles upriver from the county park at 5 Mile Road (this brought me to a little less than a mile past Nicholson Road). This stretch of the river has some faster sections with small rapids similar to the section between 4 Mile Road and Highway 31 but not quite as fast at high water. The "R's" on my map are in spots where I experienced short faster slightly choppy sections at high water. I'm assuming that at lower water levels you will have short sections of rapids/riffles in these spots.
Further upriver the current is not quite as fast though you will still find some swift sections at high water. The S-curve in the river just of County Line Road seems to accumulate downed trees and other debris. The time I paddled this section there was a rather significant accumulation here that took some doing to work my way through. There was another similar section of downed trees and debris about a half mile west of Nicholson Road. I didn't go much further than this upriver, but the trend seemed to be more frequent downed trees and jambs.
There is a potential put-in spot at County Line Road just east of Nicholson Road. The river runs right along County Line Road briefly and there is a small section of wider shoulder just west of the curve in the road where you should be able to park and access the river. I didn't put-in here, but I got out here and scouted around a bit. There is also a kind of undeveloped mudhole of a dirt road that comes off of Nicholson Road southwest of the bridge that would make for a good put-in spot but there is a "no motorized vehicles" sign there. I believe this is public land, so maybe they will eventually put in a developed launch there.
Below Horlick Dam
I don't believe there is an easy portage around Horlick Dam (see photo above), but even if there were I'm not sure it would get a lot of use. Most of the time (normal water levels), the section immediately below the dam is too shallow to paddle. At higher water levels, the section immediately below the dam is too rough (see 2nd photo above)for the touring canoes and kayaks that are generally used to paddle the quiet-water areas above the dam. In fact, under the right conditions (rare very high water levels) this short section (less than a half mile) turns into some serious whitewater. If you're interested in doing some whitewater kayaking here I suggest you check out the following web sites where you can get stream flow recommendations and see some pictures most people from this area would not believe were taken in Racine.
You can scout out this section of the river from some trails in Quarry Lake Park. You may be able to paddle this section in a quiet-water canoe or kayak at the right water levels, but catching the right water levels is a challenge in itself.
There is still plenty more quiet-water paddling further downriver, although it's pretty much all urban paddling. About 2 miles downriver from Horlick Dam there is a canoe launch located just above the Root River Steelhead Facility Dam in Lincoln Park. This is used as a takeout for whitewater paddlers or can be used as a put-in if you want to try paddling upriver here. Once again, it can be tricky finding the right water levels for paddling this section upriver. You could optionally put-in or take out just a little further upriver in Colonial Park off of West High Street.
The Steelhead Facility Dam (see photo on right) just below this put-in requires a portage, so if you plan on paddling downriver you're actually better off just putting in a little further downriver. There is a string of city parks located along this section of the river and you can scout out a variety of places to put in. There is another developed put-in in a small city park (I believe the sign by the park says Clayton Park, but it's listed as Cedar Bend Park on one of the Racine Maps) a little less than 2 miles downriver from the Steelhead Facility. The section of river between this put-in and the steelhead facility is also tricky to catch the right water levels. At normal to low levels there are some shallow rocky sections, while at high levels there are a several pedestrian bridges (not shown on my map) and other obstacles that can be potentially hazardous. About a half mile below the steelhead facility, the channel splits creating a large island (Island Park). The main channel passes along the east side of this island. The channel on the west side of the island is much narrower and has more obstacles. There are quite a few bridges over each channel in this area. When the two channels merge back together, the river widens significantly but is still rather shallow. Because of the wider channel, you don't really need to worry about low or downed trees blocking the channel from this point on. The river gradually deepens over the next mile or so and basically turns into a long harbor. The last mile is lined with boat slips and has no noticeable current. Not exactly a paddlers dream. I've never paddled this last section because I don't particularly like urban or harbor paddling.
If you're interested in paddling the sections from Colonial Park through Island Park I suggest you take a walk or bike ride along the Root River Pathway first to check out the conditions. There is a map of the Root River Pathway available at the City of Racine Website. The map also shows the parks along the river.
Be aware that the river below Horlick Dam (from Horlick Dam all the way to Lake Michigan) is popular with fisherman. This is especially true in the fall when the salmon are running. During this time, the banks and some sections of the river itself can be very crowded with fisherman.
City of Racine Website Map of Root River Pathway (bike trail) available for download.
This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki