Best Management Practices - Rock River Water Trail


Trail Mission Statement

Through public and private partnerships, the Rock River Trail Initiative develops, maintains and promotes the Rock River Water Trail to provide enhanced recreational opportunities for all to enjoy paddling, boating, camping and nature viewing, with connections to other recreation trails and to the natural, scenic, historic and cultural assets of the Rock River Valley in Wisconsin and Illinois.


Recreation Opportunities

An objective of the Rock River Trail Initiative is to promote recreational opportunities and ecotourism throughout the river corridor.

The Rock River Water Trail Plan assessed stream and channel conditions, obstacles and hazards, landscapes, access sites and development along the length of the river. This information was used to categorize the river reaches and segments into the types of water trail experiences that are available to users.

There are 155 access sites on the water trail, 50 of which are designated as accessible to persons with disabilities (over 30 percent accessibility). Access sites are signed with the logo of the Rock River Water Trail.

River miles upstream from the mouth at the Mississippi River and GPS coordinates are shown for each access site, dam and river campsite. Information in data tables and maps are readily accessible by users to plan paddling trips. Sixteen river-access camping facilities are included in the trail inventory, with additional facilities within the river corridor.

There are a total of 48 distinct paddling segments along the 11 sections of the water trail, ranging from Gateway-Urban for a novice paddler traveling short distance in a metropolitan area to Challenge-Wilderness for the experienced paddler going long distance with primitive camping. The set of skill level and environmental type for each water trail segment provides to users an easy way of selecting routes that meet their needs and interest and match their abilities and expectations.

Partner organizations along the river, such as River Action of the Quad Cities and Paddle and Trail of Winnebago County, plus a number of paddling groups and recreation associations offer planned events and trips. Calendars of many events are included on the website and Facebook page of the Rock River Trail. A major event is the Floatzilla Paddlesports Celebration held on the Mississippi River at the Quad Cities, just upstream of the mouth of the Rock River.

The Rock River provides other boating opportunities with diverse public participation such as rowing. A number of colleges and rowing clubs use the river for practice and competition, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison varsity crew. The annual Head of the Rock Regatta sponsored by the YMCA of Rock River Valley attracts over 2,000 rowers from across the nation to the US Rowing-sanctioned event held in Rockford, Illinois.

The Rock River corridor includes other water trails on tributary streams and a number of hiking, biking and equestrian trails. Major trails include the Ice Age National Scenic Trail that crosses the Rock River in Janesville, Wisconsin, the Grand Illinois Trail that crosses the river at Colona-Carbon Cliff and Rockford and the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park at Rock Falls and Rock Island County, Illinois. The Hennepin Canal is on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the river communities have developed riverfront walks and parks with urban paths for pedestrians and bicyclists. These complementary trails, along with the historical and cultural resources and special river-focused events in many of the river’s communities, offer the water trail user an exceptional look at Midwest landscape, culture and history, thereby enhancing the water trail experience.



The Rock River Trail Initiative is guided by objectives including promoting, preserving and educating about our cultural heritage and the natural, recreational and scenic assets of the Rock River Valley. The Initiative provides educational opportunities. For example, representatives of the Council in Hustisford, Wisconsin provide canoe and kayak instruction and paddling tours of the Rock River and Lake Sinissippi. In addition, private business supporters such as Paddle and Trail of Loves Park, Illinois and Beloit, Wisconsin provide canoe and kayak instruction and certification, safety and rescue, paddle craft sale and rental and outdoor excursions. Representatives of the Council presented information on recreation and safety on the Rock River at a jamboree held in Rockford, Illinois by the Blackhawk Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Local, state and federal agencies along the river offer a variety of educational programs. For example, the Rockford Park District, Illinois offers year-round classes in environmental recreation and education such as field science and outdoor living skills, as well as therapeutic recreational services for those with disabilities. In Wisconsin, Rock County Parks Division received a 2010 grant from the National Park & Recreation Association for equipment to support fishing educational programs. The parks division teams with local school districts to offer the program and serves over 2,000 students each year.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at the Horicon Marsh offer nature education, bird watching and paddling and hiking events. The University of Wisconsin-Extension and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources through the Rock River Coalition offer a number of public education programs including a webinar series entitled "Wetlands, Wildlife Habitat and Flood Hazards in the Rock River Basin." Each spring the Illinois Department of Natural Resources offers "Earth Day in the Parks," an event to promote stewardship of natural resources by school children.

The coordinator of the Rock River Trail Initiative met with members of the Theresa Historical Society to develop plans for showcasing local history of the river community, including celebration of the centennial of the Yellowstone Trail, one of the first transcontinental highways in the US, which crossed the Rock River in Theresa, Wisconsin. In 2013 Council representatives will work with community organizers in Dixon, Illinois to help celebrate the centennial of the Lincoln Highway, another pioneering transcontinental highway that passed over the Rock River in Dixon.

The Council is also collaborating with Friends of the Hennepin Canal, Sheffield, Illinois on preservation and public education of the heritage elements of the Rock River, the guard lock gate of the Hennepin Feeder Canal in Rock Falls, Illinois and the Canal. The Hennepin Canal is on the National Register of Historic Places.



An important objective of the Rock River Trail Initiative is to enhance the river ecosystem through natural resources conservation, stewardship and environmental planning and design.

The Council has teamed with Living Lands & Waters of Moline, Illinois to distribute 20,000 oak trees to the 11 counties along the Rock River. The trees are provided free-of-charge to municipalities, conservation organizations and civic groups with the only request that the trees be planted within sight of the Rock River.

One of the members of the Council and supporter of the water trail is in the Lake Sinissippi Improvement District, a Wisconsin inland lake protection and rehabilitation district. The lake district conducts water sampling programs to assess ambient and recreational quality of the lake and river and provides the information to the public. The programs are run in conjunction with Dodge County Public Health Unit and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources and Health Services.

Council representatives are working with public school districts in Winnebago and Rock Counties to establish water quality monitoring stations and sampling field events on the Rock River as part of the biology and environmental science curricula.

The Rock River Coalition, a member of the Council, is active in public education of natural resources and conservation within the Rock River Basin in Wisconsin. The Coalition is part of an implementation team for the Rock River Recovery Project, a multi-agency effort to meet TMDL water quality standards in the Rock River Basin as established by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and US Environmental Protection Agency under authority of the federal Clean Water Act.

It is estimated that 10 - 15 % of the river shoreline is owned by municipal park departments, park districts, county forest preserves and state and federal land management agencies. The largest contiguous river corridor in public ownership (about 20 river miles) is the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin - 30,000 acres of wildlife area of which two-thirds is owned and managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and one-third by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Local, state and federal authorities cooperate through a number of watershed improvement programs to restore and enhance the quality of the river and corridor lands.

The Rock River Sweep of Oregon, Illinois, is a not-for-profit organization that conducts river cleanups in cooperation with river community groups in both states. The Sweep is an annual event. Council members also participated in the 2012 river cleanup at the mouth of the Rock River sponsored by River Action Inc., at Rock Island, Illinois.

A Council representative was recently invited to participate in the City of Janesville Comprehensive Brownfields Program to help evaluate and monitor impacts of brownfields in the north riverfront area on the community's overall health. The program goal is to protect public health and the environment, remove blight and cleanup sites for reuse for economic and community purposes.


Community Support

During the planning process each of the counties, municipalities, park districts and park and recreation departments along the river was contacted by a representative of the Rock River Trail Initiative Council and provided with information on the trail initiative and water trail. In a number of cases formal presentations were made to county park and planning committees, city councils and village boards. In addition, presentations were made to community organizations with interests in public health, resource conservation, public recreation, tourism and economic development.

The Council received more than 100 letters and resolutions of support from local government and non-governmental organizations and from owners of private boat launches and camping sites along the river in Illinois and Wisconsin. Individual public comment was sought to provide input to the planning process. Public information meetings were announced in local news media and held in Hustisford, Jefferson and Janesville, Wisconsin and Rockford, Sterling-Rock Falls and Rock Island, Illinois. The Council also hosted two public Rock River Trail Conferences in Rockford, Illinois. Local news media provide information coverage of the trail initiative and the water trail.

Examples of community support include the work by water trail partner Rockford Park District to construct new river campsites in several locations; efforts by Friends of Riverside Park to install a new floating dock for paddle craft at Riverside Park in Janesville, Wisconsin; a joint project by Dodge County Land Resources & Parks and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to clear river blockages within a few miles of Harnischfeger Park; and work by the Town of Lebanon, Dodge County, to clear river blockages along 10 miles of the river within the township.

An important example of joint state-local support is the November 2011 award by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism of a $40,000 joint effort marketing grant to the Jefferson County Economic Development Consortium for tourism brand development. The Rock River Trail Initiative was cited as one of two important county tourism initiatives that led to the grant award. This is clear testimony of the degree of local and state support and advocacy for the water trail and trail initiative.

Council members maintain contact with local government and NGOs to counsel and advocate for ongoing maintenance and stewardship of the water trail.


Public Information

Developing the Rock River Water Trail as a brand is a process to define and communicate the idea and attributes of the water trail based on its purpose, vision and mission. The Rock River Trail Initiative Council promotes the water trail as an idea and anticipation of a safe, pleasurable and memorable experience while recreating on the Rock River. The water trail is all about healthy, nature-based recreational activities for residents and visitors.

Issuing press releases, encouraging reporters to write articles on water trail activities, social networking on Facebook, updates on the Rock River Trail website, speaking engagements, event sponsoring, literature, marketing alliances with other organizations, wayfinding and information signage and water trail maps are promotional tools that are being used by the Council to provide trail information to diverse user groups and audiences. Examples of signage, speaking engagements, maps and literature are shown in the attachments.

The water trail maps, narratives and tables of access site information, dam portages and hazards are available on the website and can be downloaded and printed for each of the eleven river sections. The trail information is also available in hard copy on water-proof paper for use in the field. The water trail plan and maps are also available on websites of local government, such as for the Lake Sinissippi Improvement District and for the Rock County Parks Division.

Real-time information on water levels of the river is given on the Rock River Trail website with links to the US Army Corps of Engineers-Rock Island District and the US Geological Survey site - USGS Current Water Data for the Nation. The Village of Hustisford, Dodge County, provides on its website current and historic water flow data for the Horicon Dam, the Hustisford Dam and the Upper Watertown Dam.

The Council advocates for development of uniform dam portages for all dams on the river and has produced dam hazard signage for several of the large hydroelectric dams in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Council works with community convention and visitors bureaus and tourism associations on scheduling paddling events and local promotions. In addition, the Council will be working with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism and the Illinois Office of Tourism on enhanced communications and marketing plans.

Lastly, the Council looks at the National Water Trail designation not only to commemorate this beautiful river as one of the jewels of Midwestern waterways, but also to the enhance public awareness, use and stewardship of the Rock River. National designation is helping build brand identity with a national audience and aid in marketing and promotion activities.


Trail Maintenance

In order to assure the long-term success of the water trail, a commitment is necessary for routine maintenance and operation of trail facilities. This includes maintenance and upkeep of boat launches, carry-in access sites, dam portages and site amenities. These activities are typically the responsibility of the state, county or municipality in the case of publicly-owned facilities or individual owners of private launch facilities and campgrounds. Over 95 percent of the access sites and camping sites along the water trail are owned and operated by state and local government, which are responsible for facility maintenance. State and federal licenses for dam operation require the owner/operator and municipality to maintain safe conditions. Certain maintenance activities such as clearing of tree blockages and debris require participation by individuals and private organizations.

The Rock River Trail Initiative Council has found that formal agreements are not a necessary part of trail maintenance due to support demonstrated by public and private partners. Instead, the Council works with project partners to assure minimal facility standards are identified and applied. Council members in each county are responsible to visit access sites and dams at least once during the summer season to check conditions of the facility and signage and to report findings to the appropriate partner. The Council is working with county partners, local paddling groups, the Rock River Sweep and River Action Inc., on water trail maintenance and river cleanup.

The Council has recommended enhancements to several access sites and construction of new sites on lengthy river segments. The Council consults with local authorities in planning new launches and enhancements of existing sites. Where feasible, new access sites will incorporate sustainability principles and universal launch design based on specifications included in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Over 30 percent of the 155 access sites on the water trail are currently accessible to persons with disabilities.



The Rock River Trail Initiative Council, in conjunction with partner organizations, developed the "Rock River Water Trail Inventory, Analysis and Plan." The water trail plan describes a vision for the water trail and unifies under the registered service mark of ROCK RIVER WATER TRAIL a framework for identifying suitable carry-in access sites and boat launches, parks, campsites and cultural facilities that enhance the water trail experience. The plan addresses water trail management and corridor needs, dam safety, opportunities for connecting with other regional trail systems, public education, restoration and community support and approaches to marketing and promoting the water trail.

The water trail is complete; however, improvements are needed in certain river sections. These improvements are part of plans for future work to establish additional access venues to shorten distances between sites, more visible dam safety signage and more accessible and convenient portage pathways. Plans also include additional signage and kiosks for displaying cultural, historical and wayfinding information; in general, to better connect community resources with water trail users.

As part of ongoing planning efforts the Council will prepare project updates to include a trail and corridor management report and a trail promotion and public information report. Best practices will focus on an adaptive learning process to foster improvement.

"Minnesota Canoe and Kayak Study," a 2005 report by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Trails and Waterways Division, lists seven priority topics for the state's canoers and kayakers. The seven topics in order of priority are, first, Access to Water Trail, Maps, River Level Reporting, Shuttling Back Upstream, Camping (availability and guarantee of site), Conflict with Motorboats and Website Information. The Council has found these seven topics are also priorities for the Rock River Water Trail as well as an eighth topic, namely safe portage infrastructure and wayfinding at the dams.

The plan recognizes the Rock River Water Trail as a recreation resource for many users in addition to those with paddle craft. The water trail will be sustainable by satisfactorily addressing three competing demands: environmental, economic and social. Ongoing consultations with local officials, resource managers, state and federal planners and water trail users and public engagement will result in better stewardship and improvements to strengthen best management practices of the water trail.

The water trail plan can also be accessed at


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This website provides access to the National Recreation Trail (NRT) database, a collection of information on the various trails which have been designated as NRT's. These trails are located throughout the United States and U.S. territories. The amount of information may vary from trail to trail. If you need more information than is available on this site, please use the contact(s) listed for that trail. (If no contacts, are listed, you may request help from American Trails at

Application instructions can be found on the NWTS site, which provides information and documents required for new applications. You may use this as a checklist to gather data for the online application. Basic information is entered on the application website, and supporting materials (maps, photos, etc.) can be uploaded but must be in standard electronic formats.

This application process is for trails on state, local, or private land, OR on federal land (outside the US Department of Agriculture). If your water trail is on National Forest, National Grassland, or other land managed by the Department of Agriculture, you should contact the US Forest Service National Recreation Trails Program.

This online application and the NRT database are hosted and maintained by American Trails.