MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Tubing a lazy river

Lolling on water, it's easy to play it cool.

A family tubes on the Apple River.

Wisconsin Tourism

On a river, even the hottest day seems cool.

It’s almost magic, the power of wind and water on a hot day. It's enough to give you goosebumps.

Tubing Minnesota's Rum River on an oppressively hot afternoon, I was amazed to see goose flesh rise on my legs when a breeze sprang up and a cloud crossed the sun. We’d entered a microclimate that seemed to exist only along the river’s surface.

“I don't even feel the heat here,” said my friend Adele. “You'd never guess it was 95.”

The last time Adele and I went tubing on a lazy river, it was February in the Wisconsin Dells' indoor waterparks. This time, it was July in Isanti, just north of the Twin Cities, and we were tired of the heat, not the cold.

So we hopped in the car and headed north on I-35, turning west at North Branch. In Isanti, the Rum River is 32 river miles from its confluence with the Mississippi in Anoka and 113 miles from its start in Lake Mille Lacs.

The Mdewakanton Dakota knew Mille Lacs as Spirit Lake, and their name means “people of Spirit Lake.” They called the river that flowed from it “spirit waters”; it was either a mistranslation or mischief that turned “Spirit” into “Rum.”

Today, the Rum River is designated a state wild and scenic riverway. South of Isanti, its banks are lined with trees and its bottom with sand, so it's perfect for tubing.

On warm weekends, Country Camping Tent & RV Park keeps its two vans going nonstop, shuttling tubes and people to Martin's Landing, from which they make the two-mile float back to the campground. Usually, it takes two or three hours.

When Adele and I arrived at noon on a Friday, all was quiet at the campground, and our driver zipped us to the landing as soon as we were ready.

In early afternoon, we were the only people on the river, which meant we were able to float right up to three great blue herons and get close-up views as each lifted itself into the air and flapped languidly away.

We didn't see any of the bald eagles that nest near the river, or the sandhill cranes that feed in the fields. But the trees were full of songbirds, breaking the silence with their trills.

The only other wildlife we discerned were the deer flies buzzing around our heads and the unseen fish that nibbled the tips of our thumbs, trailing in the water. Since there wasn't much to see, we just lolled on our tubes, chatted and relaxed.

Rafters go over rapids on Wolf River.

Beth Gauper

On the Wolf River in northeast Wisconsin, rafters must negotiate series of rapids.

We did see a knotted swing hanging from a tree, so I took a break from adulthood and used it to swing as far as I could into the river. Too soon, we saw the Stop sign marking the takeout, and I literally dug my heels into the sandy river bottom to slow down.

But we couldn't stand in the river forever, so we got out and treated ourselves to ice-cream bars from the campground store. In Isanti, we treated ourselves to iced lattes, because we needed the caffeine to get ourselves home.

“I feel so relaxed, after all that bobbing along and a few hours in the sun,” Adele said.

Finding a river

The only bad thing about most tubing trips is they don’t last long enough. On a hot summer day, there's almost nothing better.

Weekends bring crowds, many of them drinkers, but usually you can avoid them by heading out first thing in the morning. The best time to go, of course, is on weekdays.

The Apple River in western Wisconsin is most famous for tubing, but not everyone wants to float on a river whose guests are so notorious for bad behavior they have to be watched from security towers. Luckily, there are many other tubing rivers.

On the Root River in southeast Minnesota, it’s easy to have a cooler-than-thou attitude if you’re on a tube, watching the sweaty bicyclists on the Root River State Trail.

In Lanesboro, floaters start downtown on the South Branch, chilled to 48 degrees from passing through Mystery Caverns, and get tossed over a flume-like series of rapids before joining the warmer North Branch.

In Chippewa Falls, floaters can do their beer-drinking before the trip by taking a tour of the Leinenkugel Brewery, which ends with free samples.

Then they can float off the effects on the wide Chippewa River, gliding from the dam downriver from downtown to Loopy’s Grill and Saloon on Wisconsin 29.

In northwest Wisconsin, the clear, spring-fed Namekagon takes flotillas of floaters through a forested north-woods landscape.

When you’re in hot pursuit of something cool, look for a river.

And remember, nearly every river that can be canoed can be tubed.

For more, see 15 great rivers for paddling and other Paddling stories.

Trip Tips: Tubing on rivers

What to bring: When tubing, wear water shoes as well as hats and sunblock. Flotation vests are necessary for small children and a good idea for adults, though most of the rivers are shallow, especially in late summer. 

Tubing on the Cannon River.

Beth Gauper

Tubers on the Cannon River near Welch, Minn., wave at sweaty bicyclists on the Cannon Valley Trail. Many shout, "We're cooler than you are!''

Safety: The biggest danger comes from the root balls of fallen trees, which can entangle people and puncture tubes. In general, trips are faster in spring and slower in late summer.

Self-shuttles: It’s easiest to go through an outfitter, but it's also possible to buy your own tube and do a self-shuttle on other rivers if public landings and parking areas are available.

Since most floats are only a few miles long, leave bicycles at the take-out point and, after floating, use them to ride back to the car.

Here are some good bicycle-tube possibilities. In Wisconsin, the Oconto River State Trail north of Green Bay makes a return by bike easy.

In the western part of the state, the Red Cedar State Trail follows the Red Cedar River, the 400 Trail follows the Baraboo River and the Old Abe State Trail follows the Chippewa River.

For more, see and Wisconsin's bike trails: a guide.

In Minnesota, the Root River State Trail follows the Root River and the Cannon Valley Trail follows the Cannon River.

For more, see Bicycling Minnesota.


Self-shuttles also are easy for two or more people with two cars.

Reservations: They're usually not necessary, except for large groups, but it's a good idea to call ahead on weekdays to make sure a shuttle will be available.

The rivers below are popular for tubing and may get crowded and/or rowdy on weekends. But nearly any river can be tubed, as long as you can find a put-in and take-out point. For river maps, contact your local Department of Natural Resources.

Minnesota

For more ideas, check Explore Minnesota's water-sports directory.

For do-it-yourself tubing, download free maps for Minnesota’s designated water trails. If you're not sure a river is appropriate for tubing, call the DNR and ask.

Rum River, Isanti: In central Minnesota, Country Camping Tent & RV Park takes people upriver for the two-mile, two-hour float back to the campground, $10. It’s one of the less-known tubing rivers, so it’s quiet on weekdays; weekends are crowded.

Tanger Outlet Center in North Branch is right on the way and makes a nice side trip on the way back. 763-444-9626.

Tubes on the Root River.

Beth Gauper

People cool off on the Root River near Lanesboro, Minn.

Root River, Lanesboro: in the southeast corner of Minnesota, the chilly South Branch of the Root River carves a shady one-mile loop around downtown Lanesboro that takes 30 to 45 minutes on a tube.

People can get into the river right below Root River Outfitters, ride the rapids to the County Road 250 bridge and walk back with their tubes on the Root River State Trail to do it again.

A longer trip takes tubes past the confluence with the warmer North Branch to the Minnesota 16 access, three to four hours. The short trip is $8, and the longer trip with pickup is $12. 507-467-3400.

In Lanesboro, Little River General Store and Eagle Cliff Campground also rent tubes on the Root River, as do Gator Greens Mini Golf in Whalan and Geneva’s in Peterson. For more, see Languid in Lanesboro.

Cannon River, Welch: It pays to get to Welch Mill Outfitters early, because it’s only 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities and very popular. On weekdays, it opens at 10 a.m. and on weekdays at 8 a.m.; floaters are taken toward Cannon Falls and left to float 3 to 4 hours back to Welch.

There's also a one-hour trip. Tubes are $10 with shuttle, 800-657-6760.

Zumbro River, Zumbro Falls: The seven-mile stretch from Zumbro Falls to Hammond in southeast Minnesota bluff country is very scenic, with limestone cliffs and steep hillsides.

People who show up by 9 a.m. at Zumbro Valley Canoe & Tube Rental are most likely to see the many bald eagles that nest in the area, plus herons and turkeys.

When water is low, the trip takes five to six hours; last tube trip leaves at 2 p.m. The outfitter is in Sportsmen’s Park, across the river from downtown Zumbro Falls, 507-753-2568.

Wisconsin

For more ideas, check Travel Wisconsin's directory of tubing and rafting outfitters.

It also recommends other rivers: the Black from Black River Falls; the Grant from Potosi; the Sugar from Brodhead; and the Upper Wisconsin from Manitowish Waters.

Chippewa River, Chippewa Falls: From Loopy’s Grill and Saloon on Wisconsin Business 29 just west of Chippewa Falls, floaters are taken upriver and allowed to float back, a trip that usually is 2 hours.

Tubing on the Wisconsin River in Spring Green.

Beth Gauper

Tubers lounge on the Wisconsin River just off the Wisconsin Riverside Resort in Spring Green.

Loopy's hosts what it calls the world's largest one-day tubing event, the Frenchtown Annual Tube Float and Regatta, FATFAR, on the third Sunday in June. Check for coupons on the web site. 

Lower Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac to Spring Green. Below the dam in Prairie du Sac, there's little development on this wide river, and it's very scenic.

It's popular for paddling, so there are many landings and launches. When it's low, which is frequently, the river has many sandbars.

Outfitters that rent tubes include Wisconsin River Outings in Sauk City and the Wisconsin Riverside Resort in Spring Green.

Red Cedar River, Menomonie: Just south of Menomonie, the Red Cedar River is beloved for its easy access and scenery, including canyonlike walls of gold sand and abundant wildlife.

People can bring their own tubes and leave bikes in Irvington, floating from Menomonie's Riverside Park and riding back on the Red Cedar State Trail.

For more on canoeing and bicycling, see Red Cedar ride 'n' glide.

Namekagon River, Trego: From the village of Trego, just north of Spooner at the junction of U.S. 53 and U.S. 63 in northwest Wisconsin, two outfitters take people up the cool, spring-fed Namekagon and let them float back.

Log Cabin Resort & Campground has a sandy beach, showers and splash park, 715-635-2959. Jack’s Canoe Rental also rents tubes, 715-635-3300.

Crystal River, Waupaca: This isn’t a tube trip, but it has the feel of one. In this central Wisconsin lakes area, Ding’s Dock offers trips on the narrow, twisting Crystal River in specially made small canoes.

The 11-mile trip takes about three hours and takes canoeists on a shady route past historic homes, gardens, scenic foot bridges and the village of Rural, a historic district.

For more, see Waupaca's Chain O' Lakes.

Apple River, Somerset: This river in western Wisconsin, not far from the Twin Cities, is the best-known tubing river in the region — though more for drinking, partying and partial nudity than for tubing.

If you're not looking for a "Girls Gone Wild'' atmosphere, go early in the day or during the week.

Tubing in Ludington State Park.

Beth Gauper

In Ludington State Park, families tube a short stretch of the Sable River to its mouth on Lake Michigan.

Wolf River, White Lake: Northeast Wisconsin is known for its whitewater, so here people bump over the rocks on rafts,  not tubes. There's a list of outfitters on the Wolf River Territory web site.

For more about whitewater kayaking, see Whitewater 101.

Michigan

Sable River, Ludington State Park, Ludington: This short, placid stretch of river between Hamlin Lake and Lake Michigan is shallow and a favorite of families, especially those lucky enough to be camping in this very popular park.

Bring your own tube or buy one at the park; a nice one-man raft is $16.99, and a swim ring is $12.99. Float to the lake, then return on the pleasant riverside path.

Platte River, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Empire: This warm, gentle river between Frankfort and Empire is only two or three feet deep and also perfect for families.

Bring your own tube and float the mile from El Dorado Landing to Platte River Point near the river's mouth on Lake Michigan, where there's a grassy picnic area and small dunes that children love to scale and then run back down into the river. It's an easy walk back.

If you don't have tubes and don't mind paying, Riverside Canoe Trips rents them.

Paw Paw River in Watervliet: In southwest Michigan, Paw Paw River Campgrounds offers all-day tubing for $5.

Iowa

Upper Iowa River, Bluffton: This stretch of river just north of Decorah, in the northeast corner of the state, looks more like Utah than Iowa, with its steep bluffs and free-standing rock chimneys. 

Canoeists paddle at the foot of cliffs on the Upper Iowa.

Beth Gauper

The Upper Iowa near Decorah is lined by limestone palisades.

One of the most picturesque stretches, the five river miles between Bridge 5 in Chimney Rock Park and Bridge 7 in Bluffton, is a good candidate for a self-shuttle because it forms two loops separated by little more than two miles of County Road W20, just west of U.S. 52.

However, there are many outfitters, including Chimney Rock Campground and Hruska’s Canoe Livery.

Iowa River, Eldora: In this north-central Iowa town, between I-35 and Waterloo, Rock-N-Row Adventures offers three- to -four-hour floats on the shallow Iowa River past Fallen Rock Preserve and Pine Lake State Park, which includes four stone-and-timber cabins and a lodge.

The outfitter also operates a campground, with a beer garden and Saturday-night bands. Only people who tube can camp.

Iowa River, Marshalltown: On the edge of this central Iowa town, Tubers Edge provides tube equipment and shuttles for a four- to five-hour float and camping on both ends. In Marshalltown, hotels and restaurants are nearby.

Three launch times help tubers have the experience they want: a 10 a.m. Family Launch, 11:30 a.m. Party Launch and 1 p.m. Moderate Launch. Reserve in advance.

Illinois and Indiana

Middle Fork of the Vermillion River near Oakwood, Ill. The outfitter in Kickapoo State Park, east of Champaign-Urbana, offers a two-mile tube trip that costs $6 per person and takes about an hour.

Tippecanoe River in Winamac, Ind. Riverside Rentals runs a 1-mile trip that takes about two hours, and tubers can do it twice for the same price. In the same area, Tippy-Canoe Rentals offers a three- to four-hour trip.

Both tube trips are about two hours from Chicago. For more, see Tubing trip within two hours of Chicago.



Last updated on July 18, 2013
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