The Des Moines River rises from Lake Shetek in southwestern Minnesota and flows 525 miles to join the Mississippi River near Keokuk, Iowa. The river ranges from 50 to 200 feet wide as it passes a mix of agricultural land and wooded bluffs. From Talcot Lake Dam to Windom, you'll experience flat farmland with few trees. From Windom to Kilen Woods State Park, you'll enter a valley bounded by low hills and more vegetation. Willow, green ash, slippery elm and various grasses line the banks. From the park to Jackson, you'll pass increasingly taller hills and bluffs. Thick woodlands screen cultivated land and farm buildings from view.
This is a great river for beginner paddlers when river levels are normal; however, heavy rains can cause the river to flood and flow quickly. Stream flow usually peaks in early to mid-April. The river level is usually enough for canoeing.
Hazards include dams; be aware of portage locations. Watch for snags (fallen trees) in the river that may tip an unwary paddler. The river also has several Class I rapids. From the Talcot Lake Dam to the Iowa line, the river drops 135 feet, an average of 1.98 feet per mile. The watershed covers 1220 square miles.
Recommended day trip
Mayflower Park to Christianna Bridge
- Put-in location: Mayflower Park carry-in access, river mile 36.1
- Take-out location: Christianna Bridge trailer access, river mile 29.1
- Length: 7 river miles
Enter the river just below the city of Windom. You'll pass a mix of open farm fields and wooded shoreline. A watercraft campsite offers a chance to stretch your legs during your trip.
Explore on shore
Kilen Woods State Park
Hike trails along the tranquil Des Moines River. You'll find pleasant surprises as you explore small creeks, prairie grasslands and oak savannas.
Talcot Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA)
This large WMA has over 5,200 acres to explore. Watch for deer, small game, pheasants and waterfowl.
Parks and Trails Windom office: 175 County Road 26, Windom, MN 56101-1868
Nearest medical facility
Windom Emergency Services, 2150 Hospital Drive, Windom, MN 56101
Sanford Health-Jackson, 1430 North Highway, Jackson, MN 56143
The Des Moines River in early autumn.
Spring rains raise river levels.
Fish and wildlife
Eating fish from a Minnesota river or lake? Read the MN Department of Health's fish consumption advisory.
- Northern pike
- Channel catfish
- Yellow perch
- Black bullheads
- White-tailed deer
- Various ducks
- Bank swallows
- Baltimore orioles
- Blue herons
The Des Moines River rises from Lake Shetek in southwestern Minnesota near Pipestone, and flows 525 miles (845 km) in a southeasterly direction to join the Mississippi River two miles southwest of Keokuk, Iowa. The largest river flowing across the state of Iowa, it passes from the glacial plains into the unglaciated hills through the capital city of Des Moines, Iowa, which is named after the river. The Des Moines River flows through a flat iron shaped plateau, called the "Coteau de Prairies" by early French explorers. The bedrock is similar to that of the Red River Valley of the North, with generally sedimentary rocks covered by typical glacial deposits.
Until the close of the American Civil War, the Des Moines River was the main artery of commerce for central Iowa. A decline in river traffic came with the development of railroads staring in the 1860s. Although none survive, 80 mills for grinding grain were built along its banks between 1840 and 1890. The several dams along the river are utilized for power and flood control.