Sugar River - Illinois

Date: May 2, 2021; Length: 9.5 miles; Duration: 3 hours

Put In: Colored Sands Forest Preserve

Big parking lot with a restroom and short trail leading to the river. Here there is an open but muddy area to access the water.

Takeout: N Meridian Rd Bridge (Pecatonica)

A private campground has several landings just before the bridge on the left. I wasn't sure if I could use theirs so I took out at a somewhat clear area on the right just before the bridge.

Paddling Experience = 4/5

For a flat water section of river this was a nice paddling experience. The river had a decent current to it and didn't get too wide or have flooded out areas. It did wind a good amount and had occasional downed trees to avoid but with relative ease. But with my takeout a solid mile or more down the Pecatonica (where the Sugar ended) I got a feel for a very different paddling experience in a more monotonous wide and straight stretch of water.

Natural Scenery = 4/5

The natural scenery on this section of the Sugar was pleasant. Trees lined both banks most of the way thanks to surrounding areas of forest preserves. A few larger sand banks occurred early on as well. A couple campgrounds were passed, with one lined with RVs or campers as a break in the naturalness. Towards the end of this trip open grass banks became more common while houses were few and far in between until coming to the Pecatonica.

Accessibility = 4/5

This 10-mile stretch of the Sugar is fairly accessible but not overly that it becomes too popular and overdeveloped. Besides this trip's put in and takeout, there are four solid access points in between. A few have landings and parking areas while the others are more of the side of the road parking and carry in type but very doable.

Gradient & Water Level

Gradient: ~1 foot per mile. It was basically flat water but with a decent current.
Experience Paddling at this Water Level: 
The water level was high enough to avoid ever bottoming out but a slightly higher CFS couldn't hurt.

Gauge Information

Here is information on stream gauge readings around the date of this paddle (Note: Gauge located near Brodhead, about 25 up river of this trip's put in.):

  • USGS Number = 05436500
  • Discharge Rate = 438 CFS
  • Gauge Height = 1.52 ft

Overall Experience

The Sugar is a river in southern Wisconsin that flows south, crossing into Illinois before merging with the Pecatonica river.  A year ago I paddled a 14-mile section that ended just before coming to Illinois.  The section that I planned to do this time around covered much of the Illinois portion.  Mike Svob’s Paddling Illinois was my source here, with a 9.5-mile trip from Colored Sands Forest Preserve to North Meridian road on the Pecatonica outlined.

When the day came, his intended takeout of the campground off on the left just before the bridge seemed questionable in whether a non camper could park their car there and use a landing, so I parked just off the North Meridian bridge instead.  My new takeout would be a challenging one, with a somewhat shallow mud bank the best option to get off the water and up to the grass leading back up to the road.  But before I could face that, I had to hike to the put in at Colored Sands Forest Preserve.  After a couple hours I arrived at a parking lot for the preserve and followed the signs for water access, which took me down a short trail following the parking lot.  The trail ended with an area with big wood beams on each side to put in, but I chose to use a spot just next to it due to how muddy it seemed.

Once on the river I saw a guy fishing with waders just up river from me.  He wouldn’t be the last of the fishermen though as I passed three other groups at different times later on too.  And thanks to the warm Spring weekend day, I also came by other paddlers from one canoe early on to a big group of canoes and a kayak around the middle of this trip.  It’s a popular section of river for a reason too with forest preserves surrounding you on both sides for several miles.  But even after passing the preserves, trees were still a common sight, with some open grass banks mixed in there as well.  Three pretty evenly spaced out bridges also occurred between this put in and takeout, the last of which was where the Sugar officially ended and flowed into the Pecatonica river.  Houses became more common around this time, while they were seldom seen before that point.  But where bridges and houses were limited, two campgrounds produced plenty of activity on their own.  The first was smaller, with a handful of people fishing off the grass bank, while the second came after North St bridge and was a long line of RVs and campers just off the river.  This second campground was well stocked but had less people out and about than the first when I passed by.  Wildlife encounters on the other hand were limited but still produced some variety.  I spotted the more typical ducks, geese, and hawks flying, but also spooked a frog at my put in and saw a snake swimming in the water not far from me later on.  The river itself was brown but with good clarity, showing off its sandy bottom much of the way.  The Sugar’s width was typically moderately narrow, especially where it really winded a lot, but widened out some here and there.  The current was decent and the water level high enough to not have any scraping concerns or serious flooding.  Small bays were more of the norm.  Some islands occurred in this stretch of river as well as a few downed trees to squeeze past.  After about two and a half hours I came to Harrison bridge, where the Sugar ends.  Knowing how unorthodox my takeout was going to be at the next bridge, the takeout possibilities around Harrison seemed much more doable.  But I was already set up to take out by North Meridian on the Pecatonica so I continued on another half hour before reaching my takeout just before the bridge.

It wasn’t an easy one and I wouldn’t recommend it, but I managed and got off the water and on the mud bank and then up to the grass and back to my vehicle up by the road.  Looking back this was a cool and smooth trip aside from that takeout, which I would have just changed to the Harrison bridge if I were to do it again.  I’m glad to have paddled a second portion of this river and look forward to connecting those two trips next year with a third trip, making one long connected portion from three river trips on the Sugar.