Milwaukee has three natural rivers and the massive Lake Michigan to paddle on. The Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers have been vital cultural and economic pathways for centuries.
Paddlers can enjoy paddling through downtown areas or scenic natural areas. Paddling Lake Michigan isn’t challenging and allows paddlers to enjoy beachside paddling.
The three rivers meander through parks as well as downtown. Paddlers will often see wildlife such as herons, egrets, osprey, and eagles. In addition, paddlers might be treated to a more rare sighting of a river otter, mink, coyote, deer, or turtle.
Milwaukee River is the most popular river to kayak on. In the Milwaukee area, the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers are often shallow or inhospitable, so there are fewer places to enjoy these rivers. Kayakers can check out the Kinnickinnic near Minneapolis to enjoy that river.
1. Downtown Milwaulkee Kayaking, WI
Downtown Milwaukee is a fabulous place to kayak. Kayaking the river along downtown’s waterfront will give you a whole new perspective on the city. This paddle offers flat waters in calm weather and is suitable for all ability levels, including beginners.
From the water, kayakers will be impressed by the iconic Daniel Hoan Memorial Bridge. The bridge spans the harbor and is 120 feet tall and 1.9 miles long. Imagine kayaking under the bridge instead of driving over it!
As you paddle, you can also see Riversculpture! On the Riverwalk. This sculpture park features different local and national artists and is especially impressive at night. Don’t miss the Milwaukee River Railroad Bridge, built-in 1915. This bridge hasn’t been used since 2003 but is still a historic and interesting stop.
The Riverfront Boat Launch is convenient for downtown kayak trips. It’s nice and close to the Daniel Hoan Memorial Bridge and is located at 600 S. Water St, Milwaukee, WI 53204. Rentals are available at Milwaukee Kayak Company.
2. Kletzsch Park, Milwaukee River, WI
Kletzsch Park is a great location to launch your own kayak from and check out Milwaukee River. Start downstream after Kletzsch Park Falls and enjoy a quiet rural getaway. Paddlers will travel past Lincoln Park. Beginners should take out at Estabrook Dam and shuttle back to Kletzch Park, or turn around and paddle back upriver.
Intermediate paddlers must still take their kayaks out at Estabrook Dam, but they can enjoy challenging conditions by portaging around the dam and continuing downstream to Riverside Park. This portion of the paddle offers some Class I to II rapids, which intermediate paddles will enjoy.
To get to Kletzsch Park, take Interstate I-43 north to West Silver Spring Drive. Then, take North Milwaukee River Parkway to the park.
3. Lake Michigan, WI
There are over a dozen access points for kayakers wanting to kayak on Lake Michigan. South Shore Park features easy access for kayakers from either the boat ramp or the beach. Once you’ve launched your kayak, you can enjoy the massive Lake Michigan.
This paddle is suitable for all levels; however, paddlers must check the weather before going out. Because Lake Michigan is such a large body of water, it is adversely affected by wind and storms. On a calm day, the waters will be flat and welcoming. Once out on the water, paddlers can enjoy seeing the shoreline from the water. Paddlers are often treated to birdlife.
To get to South Shore Park, take Interstate I-794. The park is located right on the shore of Lake Michigan in downtown Milwaukee.
4. West Bend Milwaukee River, WI
The Washington Street Dam is a great place to launch your kayak and experience the Upper Milwaukee River. Paddlers can choose their own routes here, but this trip will take you 3.9 miles to Quaas Creek Park. You can then catch a ride back to Washington Street Dam. If you tackle the one-way trip, it should take about 90 minutes.
The first mile flows through downtown West Bend which features a trendy riverwalk. As you paddle, you’ll see many iconic downtown West Bend buildings. You’ll encounter a few areas of Class I rapids during the first mile, making this journey suitable for intermediate paddlers.
After passing the old railroad bridge, follow the sign and veer left. Again, the river speeds up and has a current with some Class I rapids. After River Road Bridge, the river slows down. Take out as Quasas Creek Park and shuttle back to Washington Street Dam.
To get to West Bend Dam, take Interstate I-43 north to State Highway 33 and get off onto Veterans Avenue.
5. The Menomonee River, Three Bridges Park, WI
Kayakers can access the Menomonee River at a few different points: Emmber Lane, Three Bridges Park – South or North Bank, and Valley Passage. You can either enjoy the paddle and stay in the river or make a day of it and stop at different hotspots. This paddle is suitable for all levels, including beginners.
You can visit the City Lights Brewing Company, which is right on the riverfront and offers a kayak dock. City Lights Brewing Company is located in a historic 1902 building. Take a tour of the brewery, or just enjoy refreshments before paddling on.
Another fun stop is the Twisted Fisherman. This riverside restaurant offers a dock, so tie off and enjoy lunch or dinner with live music or participate in their famous BBQ on Sundays. Finally, you can paddle up to the Harley-Davidson Museum, which features a collection of classic motorcycles and a bar and restaurant.
To get to Three Bridges Park, take Interstate I-94 to Bridges Street.
6. Fox River, WI
The Fox River represents a delightful change of scene from busy downtown Milwaukee. In addition, the Fox River offers wildlife watching opportunities. Paddlers often see turtles, fish, swans, cranes, and birds flying overhead.
Paddlers can see the diverse riverbank, which features different views. You’ll see wide-open areas, banks with cattails, and forested areas. Pack a picnic and stop at one of the picnic tables along the banks of the river.
This kayak trail is suitable for all levels, including beginners. It’s a great way to spend the day with your family.
The views are beautiful, and paddlers enjoy the peace and quiet. If you are a kayak fisherman, throw out your lines. Paddlers often catch bass on this trip.
Rentals are available with Fox River Canoe Adventures & Kayaks.
Paddlers will be launched at the Big Bend Villiage Boat Launch and picked up at Tichigan Boat Launch. This trip takes about four hours. To get to Fox River Canoe Adventures & Kayaks, take Interstate I-94 west to Interstate I-41 south. Then take I-43 southbound to WI State Route 164.
7. Pewaukee Lake, WI
Pewaukee Lake is the largest lake in Waukesha County. Pewaukee Lake is five miles long and one mile wide and offers a scenic paddle. The lake features great fishing, and many fishermen seek out the large 50-plus inch Muskies. Bass, bluegill, walleye, and yellow birch are also found in the lake. Pewaukee Lake is five miles long and one mile wide.
Kayakers can enjoy the challenge of circumnavigating the lake or just meander for a few hours.
Pewaukee Lake is suitable for all skill levels and is a great spot for families to enjoy. It’s also a great stop for swimming and enjoy lake-side activities. The lake can get busy with pontoon boats and sailing boats on hot summer weekends. During these times, the party vibe makes for a fun and vibrant atmosphere.
Kayak rentals are available at Beachside Boat & Bait. To get there, take Interstate I-94 westbound to WI State Route 190 west. Then take WI-16 west to Exit 187.
8. Bark River, WI
This perfect tour gives you a taste of everything Wisconsin paddling has to offer. Begin at the Lower Nemahbin launch in Lower Nemahbin Lake. The kayak tour is just under three miles long and should take about three hours. Paddlers can enjoy the lake’s shoreline before entering Bark River. The entrance to Bark River is narrow and accessed through a break in the cattails.
As you paddle, watch for wildlife such as herons, ducks, geese, cranes, turtles, and fish. On shore, you might see foxes, deer, beavers, or muskrats.
When you arrive at the Swayer Road Bridge, you can either portage your boat around the dam or enjoy the thrill of the swift drop as you paddle over it. If you are a beginner, we recommend portaging. Going over the dam is suitable for intermediate paddlers.
As you continue to paddle, you’ll reach Crooked Lake. Finally, you’ll arrive at Genesee Lake Road Bridge. You can rent kayaks or arrange for a shuttle back with PRS Watersports.
To get to the Lower Nemahbin launch, take Interstate I-94 westbound.
9. Upper Dells, Wisconsin River, WI
This kayak trip offers something completely different: the breathtaking Dells. The Dells are a 15 mile long Wisconsin River gorge. The gorge is lined with canyons and impressive sandstone outcroppings.
The Dells are also frequented by powerboats, which sometimes move quite fast through the river. To avoid power boaters, stay close to shore, avoid busy weekends, get an early start, or paddle in the spring or fall.
Paddlers can explore winding through impressive side canyons. On this trip, you’ll paddle through The Narrows and visit Black Hawk Island.
As you paddle, you’ll see fascinating sandstone cliffs, private beaches, and caves and inlets. Keep your eyes peeled for owls and bald eagles.
You can launch your own kayak at 57 Illinois Ave, Wisconsin Dells, or you can rent a kayak. Rentals, tours, and shuttles are available at Vertical Illusions.
To get there, take Interstate I-94 west to I-90 west. Then, take Exit 87 for State Highway 13 north.
10. Little Cedar Lake, WI
Little Cedar Lake features clear water and a small island. The island is surrounded by large rocks, adding to the area’s appeal. The lake is an average of 12 feet deep, and you can see the bottom. A lake circumnavigation is about four miles of paddling. As you paddle, you’ll notice a sandy swim beach. This is a great spot to cool off and enjoy a lake swim.
In the southern section of the lake, paddlers enjoy a marshy area. Cattails grow on the lake’s edges, and this portion of the lake is often filled with lily pads.
Kayak rentals are available with Silent Wake. Or you can bring your own kayak and launch on the lake’s edge.
To get there, take Interstate I-94 westbound to I-41 north. Take WI State Route 60 east to Hillside Road. Take Hillside Road to Wickert Drive.