Big Fork River State Water Trail

Big Fork River

River locator mapEstablished in 1963 as a state water trail, the Big Fork River takes its name from the fact that it is the larger of two tributary streams to the Rainy River. The Big Fork was originally known by the Ojibwe as Bowstring River, from its source in the large Bowstring Lake.

Water trail segments and maps

Segment 1 - Dora Lake to Highway 6

River locator map

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About this segment

The Big Fork River flows north to the Rainy River. Along its path, scattered small farms break up a forest of pine, spruce, fir, cedar, aspen and birch. The towns of Bigfork and Big Falls are the only areas where you will encounter more development. Anglers will find excellent fishing for walleye, northern pike and muskie.

Most of the watershed was once covered by glacial Lake Agassiz and is quite flat. The river's water level usually peaks in late April and falls during the summer when the rapids may be impassable. Heavy summer or autumn rains can raise the river to runnable levels. Some rapids will be too rocky to run if the gauge at the Highway 38 bridge in Bigfork is below four feet.

Most of the rapids on the Big Fork River are Class I-II. Two stretches are more difficult and require great caution: Little American Falls (Class III-IV) and Big Falls (Class IV-VI). These falls must be portaged by all but the most experienced paddlers. All rapids can be bypassed, though brush may make some portages difficult.

Recommended day trip

Highway 6 (S) to Highway 6 (N)

  • Put-in location: Highway 6 (S) carry-in access, river mile 147.3
  • Take-out location: Highway 6 (N) carry-in access, river mile 138
  • Length: 15.7 river miles

This route can be done as a long day trip or a more leisurely overnight camping trip. The river winds past thickly wooded shoreline in the remote Koochiching State Forest. You'll find a watercraft campsite (first-come, first-served) about halfway through your trip.

Explore on shore

Minnesota state forests
The river travels through Pine Island, Koochiching and Big Fork state forests. You'll find beautiful scenery and many opportunities for recreation.

Chippewa National Forest
Explore a wide variety of recreational opportunities including fishing, camping and numerous trails.

Scenic State Park
This park is almost ten miles from the river and offers a peaceful, serene setting for hiking, camping, fishing and lake paddling.

Big Fork River
The Big Fork River.

 

Rapids
Know the location of the rapids along your route.

Local contacts

DNR Northeast Headquarters, 1201 East Highway 2, Grand Rapids, MN 55744
218-328-8780

Chippewa National Forest, 200 Ash Avenue NW, Cass Lake, MN 56633
218-335-8600

Nearest medical facility

Bigfork Valley Hospital, 258 Pine Tree Drive, Bigfork, MN 56628
218-743-3177

Segment 2 - Highway 6 to Rainy River

River locator map

Download map - order map

Download GEO map - what is a geoPDF?

 

About this segment

The Big Fork River flows north to the Rainy River. Along its path, scattered small farms break up a forest of pine, spruce, fir, cedar, aspen and birch. The towns of Bigfork and Big Falls are the only areas where you will encounter more development. Anglers will find excellent fishing for walleye, northern pike and muskie.

Most of the watershed was once covered by glacial Lake Agassiz. While most of the landscape is flat, the Big Fork drops 243 feet (1.5 feet per mile) from Dora Lake to the Rainy River. The river's water level usually peaks in late April and falls during the summer when the rapids may be impassable. Heavy summer or autumn rains can raise the river to runnable levels. Some rapids will be too rocky to run if the gauge at the Highway 38 bridge in Bigfork is below four feet.

Most of the rapids on the Big Fork River are Class I-II. Two stretches are more difficult and require great caution: Little American Falls (Class III-IV) and Big Falls (Class IV-VI). These falls must be portaged by all but the most experienced paddlers. All rapids can be bypassed, though brush may make some portages difficult.

Recommended day trip

Johnson Landing to the City of Big Falls

  • Put-in location: Johnson Landing (carry-in), river mile 67.5
  • Take-out location: Big Falls East Landing (trailer), river mile 53.0
  • Length: 14.5 river miles

Follow the river's lazy twists and turns past wooded shoreline. You'll see a few farms and houses as you get closer to the city. Watch for bald eagles, herons and cranes along the way. The take-out is on river left before the Big Falls.

Plan for a full day's trip and expect to be on the river about eight hours. For a shorter route, start or end at the Grunwald Landing.

Explore on shore

Pine Island and Koochiching State Forests
Massive stands of old-growth pine grow in these forests. Pine Island is the largest of Minnesota's 59 state forests. You’ll find opportunities for boating, camping, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing and much more.

Myrtle Lake Peatland Scientific and Natural Area (SNA)
Established in 1991, this pristine SNA is also a National Natural Landmark. Bird watching, hiking and snowshoeing are allowed within this unique landscape.

Big Fork River segment
Big Fork River segment.

 

Rapids along this river segment
Know the location of the rapids along your route.

Local contacts

DNR Northeast Headquarters, 1201 East Highway 2, Grand Rapids, MN 55744
218-328-8780

Nearest medical facility

Rainy Lake Medical Center, 1400 U.S. 71, International Falls, MN 56649
218-283-4481

Bigfork Valley Hospital, 258 Pine Tree Drive, Bigfork, MN 56628
218-743-3177

Landscape

Scattered small farms break up a forest of pine, spruce, fir, cedar, aspen and birch. 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.

History

The area has been a traditional homeland to native peoples for thousands of years. 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 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.