Crystal River: Rural to Shadow Lake Road—Flat Water Paddling

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The Crystal River is just that, crystal clear and it's as charming as the city of Rural that it flows through. It's a Central Wisconsin gem.

Written by

Barry Kalpinski


4.75 miles

Destination Distance From Downtown

86.5 miles


2 of 5 diamonds

The Crystal is perfect for beginners due to it's shallow depth but it can be tricky too for those unfamiliar with awkward approaches due to a couple sets of Class I rapids.

Time To Complete

0 hours


Spring, Summer, and Fall

Dog Friendly


Fees Permits


Land Website



The Crystal River is just that, crystal clear and it's as charming as the city of Rural that it flows through. It's never very deep and you're never far from civilization so it's about as family-friendly of a paddle as you can get.

What Makes It Great

There is a lot to love about the Crystal River and once you've experienced it, it's a given as to why it's a very popular canoe and kayak destination. It has a little bit of everything, including an easy but exciting class I drop, lake paddling, twists, turns and countless riffles.

It’s one of those “rivers” that feels like it should be classified a creek since it’s generally narrow (let's face it, it's a creek). The bottom is mostly sand and rocks with the exception being Junction Lake and the Little Hope Mill Pond where you’ll find weeds and lillypads (and much more of them in the twilight of the season).

There are essentially five sections with different characteristics on this short 4.75 miles. The first, starts in Rural, where you’ll wind your way through this tiny little town that seems to take pride in manicuring itself around the river. Then comes the second part, Junction Lake, which is shallow and pretty (great fish-spotting here). The third is where the river narrows again and you’ll soon find the Class I drop which is easy and fun to paddle through. Then onto the fourth part which was once, in recent history, a slog of a paddle, through the Little Hope Mill Pond. With the recent removal of the dam gates, this river is once again finding itself. Gone is the stagnant water and a mucky bottom and in its place is a river returning to its natural pace. As recent as 2015, you could run the dam opening, which was an exhilarating and splashy ride but word has it, the dam may be removed altogether. The last section is pretty and interesting, starting with the Old Red Mill and covered bridge you’ll soon encounter.

Some people take-out at the dam but it’s recommended to continue down to Shadow Lake road. It extends the journey a bit and taking out at the pond is a little anti-climatic. The dam is fun to run but it also has a pretty easy portage for those inclined to take a pass.

The Crystal is a popular destination and it gets busy on the weekends. Aside from people-watching, you may spot some herons, cranes, turtles and fish.

This is another one of those paddles that makes for a convenient bike shuttle. The shuttle and the paddle are so short that you may consider doing it couple times in one day.

Post-Paddle Diversions: Hartman Creek State Park is one of my favorite State Parks in all of Wisconsin. It’s a hidden gem, albeit with nothing overly dramatic to speak of. It’s just pretty and the campsites are well maintained. It’s also perfectly situated near of a lot of great water to paddle. Another must visit post-paddle destination is Central Waters Brewing Company, brewers of some of the finest beer in Wisconsin. Stop by the tasting room for a Mudpuppy Porter on Nitro or if you’re lucky, they'll have some of their legendary Bourbon Barrel Stout available.

Who is Going to Love It

Creek lovers will love the Crystal River, a river by name only. With a constantly changing environment, from tree-canopied, to open water, to a river which is once again finding itself after a dam removal, to the charming covered red bridge, riffles, easy drops, sandy and rocky bottom - there's just not a more varied and pretty river in the area.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Put-In at Main Street, Rural, Wisconsin: The put-in off Main Street is a unique little start to the journey with a couple of bridges that split the river in two. The put-in at “Ding’s Dock” is located across from the quaint convenience store in middle-rural.

Take-Out at Shadow Lake Road, Little Hope, Wisconsin: The take-out is a traditional bridge exit with easy enough accessibility.

Extended Trips: Once you have become smitten with this popular section and you’re longing for more, we highly recommend the longer section that includes the headwaters of the Crystal which starts at Marl Lake. Marl Lake is a beautiful turquoise-colored lake and you could start your paddle there and make your way through the connecting lakes all the way down to the southern part of Long Lake where the Crystal begins. This extends the trip 3.5 miles with plenty of lake paddling but you'll encounter an upper portion of Crystal that is pretty and riffly.

Related Links:  2012 Trip Report | 2011 Trip Report | 2015 Trip Report (Marl Lake to Shadow Lake Road) | Video (Marl Lake to Shadow Lake Road )

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Crystal River: Rural to Shadow Lake Road

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