Big Fork River State Water Trail

Paddling Alert

Paddling is not recommended on some rivers at this time. Many are overflowing their banks, and the water is both cold and very fast. Check river gauges and levels here, and please use great caution when you are out paddling!

Big Fork River

Big Fork River State Water Trail Location

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Itasca and Koochiching counties

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Regional office: 218-328-8980

The Big Fork River flows north to the Rainy River. The low-lying river valley is pastoral in places and wild in others, with excellent fishing for walleye, northern pike and muskie.

River character

  • Mostly easy to canoe, with several areas of Class I rapids.
  • Two spectacular waterfalls must be portaged by all but the most experienced paddlers: Little American Falls (Class III-IV) and Big Falls (Class IV-VI).

Stream flow generally peaks in late April and drops in the summer, when the rapids may become impassable. Heavy summer or autumn rains can raise the river to runnable levels. Some rapids will be too rocky to run if the gauge reading on the State Highway 38 bridge in Bigfork is much less than 4 feet. Use great caution at the two waterfalls!


Scattered small farms break up a forest of pine, spruce, fir, cedar, aspen and birch. The areas of major development are the towns of Bigfork and Big Falls.

The geology is clay, silt and sand deposits—in many places less than five feet thick—overlying Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rocks. Most of the watershed was once covered by glacial Lake Agassiz.

Fish and wildlife

Eating fish from a Minnesota river or lake? Read the MN Department of Health's fish consumption advisory.


  • Walleye
  • Northern pike
  • Muskies


  • Timber wolves
  • Bobcats
  • Lynx
  • Beavers
  • Otters

Big game

  • Moose
  • Black bears
  • White-tailed deer


  • Bald eagles
  • Osprey
  • Ruffed grouse
  • Various ducks


A succession of Woodland Culture Indians occupied the region during the 2,500 years before its settlement by whites. One of the most notable groups was the Laurel. People of this group built Grand Mound, a burial hill 40 feet high and more than 100 feet across at its base. Located near the mouth of the river, the site is part of Grand Mound Center, a Minnesota Historical Society facility.

The Laurel gave way to the Blackduck, who may have been the direct predecessors of the Dakota. The Dakota—or Sioux—inhabited the region until the Ojibwe laid claim to the area.

At the turn of the century, millions of board feet of pine logs were floated down the river to lumber mills in Ontario.