Minnesota River State Water Trail

Minnesota River Water Trail

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Metro area rivers guide

Visitor alert

Due to low water levels, the public water access at Belle Plaine is temporarily closed.

In the Granite Falls to State Highway 4 segment, the North Redwood public water access site is closed for construction until spring of 2021. Boaters and paddlers can still pass beneath the bridge in this section with caution. Check ahead for conditions of alternate accesses, especially during high water.

Updated November 19,2020

The Minnesota River State Water Trail flows 318 miles from Big Stone Lake in Ortonville to its confluence with the Mississippi River State Water Trail near Fort Snelling in St. Paul. It is a gentle, placid river, with some portions designated as a Wild and Scenic River. The valley through which the river flows was carved into the landscape by the glacial river warren between 11,700 and 9,400 years ago. Paddlers will see a diversity of terrain, ranging from steep granite bluffs to marshy lowlands. This river was important during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Water trail sections

Segment 1 - Ortonville to Granite Falls

Maps and local contact

Kettle River location map Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)
Lac qui Parle, Chippewa and Yellow Medicine counties
Contact Parks and Trails southern regional office: 320-359-6067

About this segment

The Minnesota River from Ortonville to Granite Falls is designated as a Wild and Scenic River. It features diverse terrain ranging from steep granite bluffs to marshy lowlands, and flows through a wide valley carved out by the ancient river warren. There are some Class I rapids and dams which need to be portaged.

From the Lac qui Parle dam to Granite Falls, the river flows in a 100- to 150-foot-wide channel through a wide floodplain. Below Montevideo granite outcrops become prevalent. Most of this segment has no rapids until the Granite Falls area, where you will encounter Class I rapids above and below the city. 

Part of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, including Lac qui Parle from the State Highway 40 bridge to the dam (river mile 284), is closed to the public from September 20 to December 1. No canoeing is allowed on that stretch of the river between these dates.

Landscape

A wide variety of vegetation fringes the river, including prickly pear cactus. From Ortonville to Marsh Lake, trees and vines overhang the river and give it a jungle-like appearance; dark woods of soft maple, cottonwood and elm fringe the banks. Snags and broken-down bridges create obstacles. Near Marsh Lake, the river widens and large areas of swamp and marsh extend from the river; willows predominate. Two miles downstream, Marsh Lake and Lac qui Parle are shallow and weedy. At the southeast end of Lac qui Parle, called "talking water" by the Dakota, is Lac qui Parle State Park.

Segment 2 - Granite Falls to State Highway 4

Maps and local contact

River location map Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)
Yellow Medicine, Chippewa, Renville, Redwood, Nicollet and Brown counties
Contact Parks and Trails southern regional office: 320-359-6067

About this segment

This segment of the river is designated as a Wild and Scenic River. It is generally calm, seldom interrupted by rapids. The area has a rich history, with some of the most impressive landscapes in southwestern Minnesota. 

There are two areas which will require portaging, one in Granite Falls and one just southeast from there. There is a class I rapids at Patterson's Rapids near Renville County Park (river mile 225.9). It is a short stretch of white water tumbling over a bed of glacial drift boulders. The rapids fall about five feet in one-third of a mile and are of intermediate difficulty at normal water levels.

Landscape

From Granite Falls to North Redwood, the Minnesota River flows through an area of granite outcrops. These are among the oldest rocks discovered in North America, dating back more than three billion years. The banks along this stretch of river are heavily forested with maple, elm, cottonwood and willow. Away from the river the high granite domes are covered with cedar and oak.

Segment 3 - State Highway 4 to LeSueur

Maps and local contact

River location map Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)
Brown, Nicollet, Blue Earth and Le Sueur counties
Contact Parks and Trails southern regional office 320-359-6067

About this segment

This segment of the river is gentle and does not require special paddling skills. There are no dams or rapids throughout this stretch, allowing for a relaxing day on the water.

Landscape

From State Highway 4 to LeSueur, the river meanders between low banks covered with willow, cottonwood, elm, ash, maple and basswood. Oak, hard maple and cedar cloak the higher hills in the valley.

Segment 4 - LeSueur to Fort Snelling

Maps and local contact

River location map Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)
Le Sueur, Sibley, Scott, Carver, Hennepin and Dakota counties
Contact Parks and Trails central regional office: 651-259-5841

About this segment

The water along this stretch of the Minnesota River is gentle and easy to paddle. There are no dams or rapids to portage or maneuver through, which makes it relaxing for the beginner canoeist. 

Landscape

The Minnesota River meanders to its conjunction with the Mississippi River through a wide valley carved out by the glacial river warren. Willow, cottonwood, elm, ash, maple and basswood line the banks; oak and cedar are found on the higher hills in the valley. Below LeSueur, the riverbanks are sandy and eroded, and vines and roots try to cling to the banks with little success. The current sweeps a constant supply of snag trees and sandbars into the river. Gravel bars formed by tributary streams pinch the river at low water.

Fish and wildlife

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

The Minnesota River is a haven for bird life. Several species of waterfowl and wetland birds use the river corridor for nesting, breeding and resting during migration. Pheasants and Hungarian partridge find thick cover in the river valley for nesting and for protection from harsh winter storms.

Fishing

  • Black crappie
  • Bluegill
  • Carp
  • Channel catfish > 10 pounds
  • Flathead catfish** > 40 pounds
  • Northern pike
  • Sauger
  • Shovelnose sturgeon
  • Smallmouth bass
  • Various rough fish
  • Walleye
  • White bass

Birds

  • Bitterns
  • Canada goose
  • Hawks
  • Herons
  • Hungarian partridge
  • Owls
  • Pheasants
  • Shorebirds
  • Song birds
  • Various waterfowl
  • Wood ducks

Wildlife

  • Beaver
  • Muskrats
  • White-tailed deer

**If you catch a tagged flathead catfish, please report it to the Hutchinson area fisheries.

History

First known as the "river of cloud-tinted water" (Watapa Minnesota) by the Dakota, the Minnesota was christened Riviere St. Pierre by French fur traders who came upon it in the late 1600s. The Dakota used the bluish-green earth along the river as a pigment. At river mile 116, a trader named Pierre Charles LeSueur found what he believed to be a vein of copper ore near the mouth of the Blue Earth River. LeSueur took a sample of the "copper" to Paris, and secured the royal commission to mine the ore. He returned in 1700, diligently worked the mine, and with two choice tons of ore, left for France. Nothing more was heard of Le Sueur's copper ore. Presumably his disappointment was great when he learned the blue earth was, after all, only...blue earth.

The Minnesota and Mississippi rivers meet at the northeast tip of Pike Island in Fort Snelling State Park. The island and surrounding land were purchased from the Indians in 1805 by explorer Zebulon Pike for a U.S. military post. In 1819 Fort Snelling was established on a high bluff overlooking the junction of the two rivers. Today Pike Island is a wildlife refuge, and the restored fort is a popular historical attraction.

The city of Mankato, established in 1858 near the mouth of the Blue Earth, takes its name from Makata Osa Watapa, the Dakota name for that river.

Patterson's Rapids were named for Charles Patterson, an early trader with a bearskin hat who established a trading post at the rapids in 1783. The bear was sacred to the Dakota, and they called him the Sacred Hat Man, which eventually became Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart Creek and the nearby town of Sacred Heart are both named for Patterson. The area near Patterson's Rapids was the site of a short-lived gold rush in the 1890s. Discovered in 1894, the gold vein was soon depleted and the boom town of Springville became a ghost town.

By the mid-19th century the Minnesota River Valley had been all but trapped out. Both game and fur animals were scarce; the buffalo had been driven to the plains of the upper Missouri and the Red River Valley. People to the east were clamoring for the river valley to be opened to settlement. Glowing reports of the fertile valley brought back by explorers and traders and the enthusiastic public relations work performed by James Goodhue, St. Paul's first newspaper editor, paved the way for white settlement along the river. Under the terms of the 1851 Traverse Des Sioux treaty, the Dakota signed away almost 24 million acres of land, and the immigration rush was on. The river became a highway to settlement, bringing passengers and goods to growing towns and cities, and floating logs and powering sawmills during the late 1800s.

Before the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, the Upper Sioux Agency (river mile 240) was one of the dispersal points where the U.S. government distributed food, supplies and annual payments to the Dakota, who were by then confined by treaties to reservations along the river. Upper Sioux Agency was also an educational center where Indians were taught farming, carpentry and other skills valued by white civilization.

In the summer of 1862 the Dakota faced starvation when their government annuities were delayed by bureaucratic red tape. During the resultant U.S.-Dakota War, the Indians attacked settlements throughout the river valley and prepared to overrun the small garrison at Fort Ridgely. Valley settlers, some escaping the Dakota by means of the Redwood Ferry (river mile 198.8), flocked to the fort for protection. The fort area is now preserved in Fort Ridgely State Park. During the uprising, white settlers abandoned the agency and the Dakota burned it to the ground. This area is now preserved in Upper Sioux Agency State Park.