For us, fall hiking is a tradeoff – do we really want to miss a day of football to go hang out in the woods? We are die hard Texas A&M Aggie fans, so often the answer is no. However, last weekend we had a bye week and the only game that we were actually interested in was the Red River Shootout, which we were very confident Texas would lose (… c’mon OU!), so we decided to take what we figured would be our last trip of the year out to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. We had planned this about a month in advance, but got really lucky with some outstanding weather.
The Kickapoo Reserve is a really beautiful protected part of the driftless area of Wisconsin. The driftless area is a geologically unique area within the Midwest – instead of being overpowered by glaciation during the last Ice Age, this region has remained uncovered for at least the last 500,000 years. That makes the region much hillier than the rest of the state, with interesting bluffs and ridges. The Kickapoo Reserve itself has an interesting political history – in the 1960s, the federal government planned to dam the Kickapoo River, which caused flooding downstream. Using eminent domain, 149 families were forced to move out of the flood zone. However, the environmental movement of the 1970s, along with poor economic planning, caused the project to be abandoned by 1979. After a bunch of fighting about what to do with the land (full details here), it was given to the HoChunk Nation and State of Wisconsin as a nature preserve.
We set out on Saturday morning bright and early from Madison on the two hour drive. With the fall foliage on the bluffs and hills, it was beautiful – it felt like we weren’t in the Midwest, but instead in Vermont or upstate New York. We stopped at the visitor center to pay for our permit and drove up to Rockton to hit the trail. We planned to hike about 6 miles on day one and 7 on day two, taking a long scenic route to site F, one of the most remote sites in the park. We would take the Rockton trail to the Old Highway 131 trail to the Little Canada trail and Ice Cave trail on Saturday, and the Hanson Rock Loop to Ma & Pa’s Trail to the Black Hawk Rock trail back to our car on Sunday. We were worried that the campsite would be taken, as there are no reservations at the Kickapoo reserve, even for backcountry sites, but excitedly hit the trail around 10:30 AM.
The trailhead for the Rockton trail is kind of hard to find – you have to park at the boat landing and then walk up the road almost into “town” (aka two bars) to hit the trail. The hike started with a level hike through a cornfield before winding into the woods at the junction to the Indian Creek Trail.
We crossed over a bridge and saw our first horses of the day! The Kickapoo Reserve really seems to cater to equestrians – there were lots of people out riding. This was a new experience for us, and we made sure to talk to the riders and yield to them as they passed. The Old Highway 131 Trail is literally half of the road that used to snake around and over the Kickapoo river. You could still see the faint outline of the old double yellow line in some places! The weather was very pleasant in the mid sixities, and the woolybear caterpillars were out sunning themselves on the warm asphalt. We saw a few that were all black and some that had a very narrow brown stripe – must mean we’re in for a rough winter.
We made great time to our next trailhead, the Little Canada Trail. We’d hiked about 3.5 miles in about an hour and a half, and stopped for a lunch of peanut butter, crackers, and homemade beef jerky. By 12:30, we were off again! The Little Canada Trail connects to the Ice Cave Trail, and they wind through a wooded ridge. After a quick climb, we could see the Kickapoo sometimes to our right and sometimes to our left, as the river is extremely sinuous. The leaves changing made for great scenery.
At times, we were on bluffs a solid 150 feet over the river. It was a really solid hike. At 1:30, we had hiked the 2.5 miles to site F, only to find that it was already taken. Site F is the most remote site in the park, and we were disappointed to see sleeping bags and tents out. Andrew and I were both ready for a break and some water, and luckily there was a springbox just 100 feet down the trail. The springbox was clear, and we filtered a couple of liters of water to get us to the next site and sat around for about a half an hour.
We had a few choices to make – we could either walk towards where we had planned to go on Sunday over the hills and bluffs of the reserve, or we could return back to where we had split off for the Little Canada trail. If we continued on the Harrison Rock Trail, it would be at least 3 miles to campsites that were car accessible (which we didn’t have a permit for), and if they were full, we’d have to walk an additional 4 miles total to get back to our car. We were a bit worried about losing the light in that case and didn’t want to break any Reserve rules, so we decided to backtrack to site H. If that was full, we’d try E, and then G, and then walk back to the car if they were full too.
Andrew in particular hates backtracking, and I don’t much care for it either, but it was the right choice. We walked back over the ridge and got to site H, which thankfully was empty, around 3. We quickly set up camp, inflated our air mattresses, and started to read on our Kindles. We’d hiked 9 miles, further than we expected, and were tired of walking.
From what we saw of Site F, it was pretty well situated, with a great water source in the spring, and off the more regularly used trails. Site H was actually great too – it was right on the Kickapoo River just off the Old 131 trail. There are a bunch of sites at the Kickapoo Reserve that would make great first backpacking trips – you can be as close as a mile away from your car, and you can walk on a paved road the whole way if you want. Site H was set back a few hundred yards from the trail and was shaded and private with a fire ring.
It started getting a bit darker out around 5:30, so we quickly cooked up some dinner and lit a small fire. The last people had tried to burn a giant log unsuccessfully, so we pulled it away and used it as a seat. Dinner was one of our backcountry favorites – Trader Joe’s pesto tortellini with a healthy squirt of olive oil for each of us. We talked about it and will definitely be eating this more than once while on the JMT.
Being October, it got dark very early. The sun was setting around 6:30, and I couldn’t even read in front of the fire by 6:45. I’d remembered to pack some battery operated Christmas lights similar to these and had wrapped them around our tent pole for some ambiance and some reading light. I’m not going to lie, I was very inspired by Big Agnes’s MTNglo line. I decided to spend $10 on lights instead of the string lights Big Agnes sells. It gave off just enough light to read by in the tent, and looked really cool. I read for a bit and went to sleep around 8 PM – super early, but when it’s already been dark for a few hours, it’s time for bed.
We woke up to a beautiful morning, and it was going to be 80 degrees. Andrew and I lounged around in the morning and decided to grab a Clif bar for breakfast instead of cooking. This is a dangerous game for Andrew, who occasionally gets wicked caffeine headaches, but we had decided to hike a very short distance instead of taking a longer trip back to the car so we could get home and take care of some errands that afternoon. We planned to go back solely on the paved Old 131 trail, which we thought would take about an hour.
We left our campsite at 10:00 and took pretty much exactly an hour to hike the 3.5 miles back to our car. Once again, we saw lots of wollybears and some really beautiful fall foliage. We also saw a bald eagle circling overhead! Bald eagles are a staple of the dirftless area, but I will never not be excited to see one. Unfortunately, the GoPro isn’t great at capturing wildlife that’s far away, so I wasn’t able to grab any pictures. We got back to our car at 11:00 and made quick work of the drive home – even including a well deserved Culver’s stop.
This was a great overnight trip for us. The weather was amazing, and the views were great. I would definitely come back and canoe the Kickapoo sometime, though I’m not quite sure I’d come back to backpack. I think that there’s enough for a solid 2 night trip, but there’s not a great way to reserve your itinerary. It would be nice to car camp in the area and do day hiking instead. The Kickapoo Reserve is, though, an fairly unique hiking experience in the area. There are a few stream crossings, which I may come back and practice on for the John Muir Trail.
- Kickapoo Reserve Website
- Campsite Descriptions and Map
- We passed by F, H, I, L, and M. H, F and M seemed to be the best bets of these five – H was where we stayed. F is the most remote. M, while close to a canoe launch, is on a beautiful stretch of river. L was extremely close to the Old 131 Trail and wasn’t protected, and while site I wasn’t as exposed, it was still visible from the well traveled Old 131 Trail.
- Permits/Fees: $4/person/day + $10 camping spot (not vehicle accessible) or $15 camping spot (vehicle accessible). Payable at the Visitor’s Center or at self-registration points throughout the park.