Minnesota River State Water Trail

kayakers paddle through riffles

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River locator mapThe 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 segments and maps

Segment 1 - Ortonville to Highway 40 (includes the Pomme de Terre River)

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About this segment

The Minnesota River flowing out of Big Stone Lake begins its journey as a fairly narrow and meandering stream that can be tough to paddle due to snags, broken-down bridges and other obstacles. From Ortonville to Granite Falls (segment 2) the terrain varies from marshy lowlands to steep granite bluffs. 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. The river broadens near Marsh Lake. Thousands of birds use this stretch of the river corridor for nesting, breeding and resting during migrations.

The Pomme de Terre River flows through both wooded and prairie areas on its way to the Minnesota River at Marsh Lake Reservoir. Named for the wild turnip (which has a potato-shaped root), the Pomme de Terre is known for Class 1 rapids and fast running water over a sandy bottom. Be on the lookout for trees that have fallen into the river. or fences from nearby farms. There is a fun, man-made rapids as you enter Appleton City Park, just before the water access site.

Recommended day trip

Larson to Appleton: Pomme de Terre River

  • Put-in location: Larson carry-in access, river mile 14.8
  • Take-out location: Appleton carry-in access, river mile 8.8
  • Length: 6 river miles

Kayaker paddles this river segment
Kayaker paddles this river segment.

 

Small rapids provide a fun entry to Appleton City Park
Small rapids provide a fun entry to Appleton City Park.

This stretch has a lot of visual and paddling interest and is great for new paddlers. Meandering through farms, wooded areas, a golf course and eventually, the city of Appleton, visitors can have a wide variety of sights to see in a short stretch of river.

Explore on shore

Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area, river mile 320
At 24,300 acres this is the largest contiguous block of public land in west-central Minnesota and an incredibly popular destination for hunters, bird and wildlife watchers and others.

Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, river mile 314.8
11,586 acres of tallgrass prairie, wetlands, granite outcrops, and river woodlands. Eleven miles of the Minnesota River flow through the refuge.

Local contacts

DNR Region Headquarters, 21371 State Hwy 15, New Ulm, MN 56073-5228
507-233-1200

Lac qui Parle WMA, 14047 20th St. NW, Watson, MN 56295
320-734-4451, [email protected]

Nearest medical facility

Ortonville Area Health Services, 450 Eastvold Ave., Ortonville, MN 56208
320-839-6157

Appleton Area Health Services, 30 South Behl, Appleton, MN 56208
320-289-1580

Segment 2 - Highway 40 to Granite Falls (includes the Chippewa River)

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About this segment

The Minnesota River makes it way through Lac qui Parle Lake, a natural lake formed as a result of the Lac qui Parle River flowing into the Minnesota River. The U.S. Corps of Engineers later built a dam near the confluence of these two rivers. From there, the Minnesota River flows past Montevideo down to Granite Falls over a couple of Class I rapids on fairly mellow current. The landscape cuts between wooded areas, agriculture fields and grasslands, including a number of wildlife management areas.

One of the more popular rivers to paddle in the Upper Minnesota River Basin is the Chippewa as it twists and turns down to Montevideo. The Chippewa is a family-friendly river that cuts through both forested and open grassland areas among a few farmsteads near the riverbanks. There is one large section of snags. The closer it gets to the confluence with the Minnesota River, the steeper the banks and faster the water flows.

Recommended day trip

Chippewa River - Lentz Access to Watson Lion's Park

  • Put-in location: river mile 21.1
  • Take-out location: river mile 12.7
  • Length: 8.4 river miles

Wide channels make for an easy paddle
Wide channels make for an easy paddle.

 

Paddlers on a calm day
Paddlers on a calm day.

A favorite stretch to paddle, the Chippewa River begins to flow a little faster meandering around glacial boulders of all sizes. This route covers a variety of landscapes ranging from agricultural areas to forested sections with a few farmsteads and going under a historic truss bridge

Explore on shore

Lac qui Parle State Park, river mile 273
The lake is a stopover for thousands of migratory Canada geese and other waterfowl. Access, camping (fee) and toilets.

Watson's Lions Park, Chippewa River mile 12.7
Rest area and access surrounded by serene river.

Lagoon Park, Chippewa River mile 1.9
A beautiful spot that highlights the Chippewa River as it twists and turns downward to the Minnesota River. Access, camping (fee) and toilets. 10 campsites, 8 with electrical and water hookups. Available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Local contacts

DNR Region Headquarters, 21371 State Hwy 15, New Ulm, MN 56073-5228
507-233-1200

Lac qui Parle State Park, 14047 20th St. NW, Watson, MN 56295
320-734-4450

Nearest medical facility

Benson Hospital, 1815 Wisconsin Ave., Benson, MN 56215
320-843-4232

CCM Health, 824 North 11th St., Montevideo, MN 56265
320-269-8877

Avera Granite Falls, 345 10th Ave., Granite Falls, MN 56241
320-564-6200

Segment 3 - Granite Falls to Morton (includes the Redwood River)

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About this segment

This stretch of the Minnesota River features a number of challenging sections, including the Class II-IV rapids at Minnesota Falls and Class I rapids both upstream and downstream of the Vicksburg County Park area.

From Granite Falls to North Redwood, the river flows through an area of gneiss outcrops. Some outcrops are 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.

At the area around Redwood Falls, paddlers will encounter thick forest and high ridges that tower above the Minnesota River. Bordering the river is the recently created Whispering Ridge Aquatic Management Area, part of the effort of the Green Corridor Project to provide a trail system from Upper Sioux Agency State Park to Fort Ridgely State Park. You will also find a rock ledge that was once dynamited to allow steamboats upstream.

Recommended day trip

Kinney Access to Skalbekken County Park

  • Put-in location: river mile 233.8
  • Take-out location: river mile 224.6
  • Length: 9.2 river miles

Pockets of rapids can be found along this stretch
Pockets of rapids along this stretch.

 

Paddlers stop to admire the bluff
Paddlers stop to admire the bluff.

This is a great stretch of river for beginners! The paddle from Kinney Landing through Upper Sioux Agency State Park to Skalbekken County Park has no rapids to speak of. The river twists and turns for the first few miles before straightening out and offering a mixture of forested and open areas. Both Upper Sioux Agency State Park and Skalbekken County Park offer overnight camping.

Explore on shore

Upper Sioux Agency State Park, river mile 236
The park offers many amenities. The landscape in the park is diverse with grasslands, wetlands, woods, rivers, open prairie knolls, old fields and meadows.

Skalbekken County Park, river mile 224.5
Park amenities include shelters, restrooms, water, picnic areas and rustic camping area.

Vicksburg County Park, river mile 210
This lovely park offers a concrete boat ramp that makes it easy to get in and out of the water. This is one of the more popular sections of the Minnesota River for both paddling and fishing.

Local contacts

DNR Region Headquarters, 21371 State Hwy 15, New Ulm, MN 56073-5228
507-233-1200

Upper Sioux Agency State Park, 5908 Hwy 67, Granite Falls, MN 56241
320-564-4777

Nearest medical facility

Avera Granite Falls, 345 10th Ave., Granite Falls, MN 56241
320-564-6200

Carris Health, 100 Fallwood Rd., Redwood Falls, MN 56283
507-637-4500

Avera Marshall, 300 So. Bruce St., Marshall, MN 56258
507-532-9661

Segment 4 - Morton to Cambria (includes the Cottonwood River)

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About this segment

The Minnesota River begins to widen as it continues a southeastern path through the tallgrass prairie as the channel changes direction before reversing itself once again. On this stretch covered by floodplain trees and grassy areas, paddlers will find some gneiss outcroppings and little development except a few bridges and some farmsteads. Check out some of the smaller tributaries flowing into the Minnesota River, like Birch Coulee Creek and Fort Ridgely Creek.

The canoeable portion of the Cottonwood River begins in the city of Springfield and ends 58 river miles later when it empties into the Minnesota River near New Ulm. Carved out some 10,000 years ago, the steep slopes are now saturated with maple, basswood and hackberry trees, with oak and red cedar on the sunny side.  There are no major rapids, which makes this a good river for beginning paddlers. Near the confluence with the Minnesota, the river flows through Flandrau State Park, which offers some great hiking and overnight stay opportunities.

Recommended day trip

Franklin City Park to Mack Lake Park

  • Put-in location: river mile 179.7
  • Take-out location: river mile 169.6
  • Length: 10.1 river miles 

Morning fog lifts off the river
Morning fog lifts off the river.

 

Railroad bridge at Morton
Railroad bridge at Morton.

This stretch is an easy, winding bit of river, surrounded by trees and nearly uninterrupted by roads or other man-made obstructions. Franklin City Park has free primitive campsites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Mack Lake County Park is managed by Renville County and has great facilities for an overnight stay. Reservations required.

Explore on shore

Fort Ridgely State Park, river mile 164.7
Camping (fee), a historic site, a mix of rolling hills, forests and prairies.

Flandrau State Park, Cottonwood River mile 6
Beautiful, treed campsites (fee), hiking trails and a sand-bottomed pool.

Mack Lake Park, river mile 169.7
Camping (fee), toilet, drinking water, fishing pier, shelter, hiking trails and historic site.

Local contacts

DNR Region Headquarters, 21371 State Hwy 15, New Ulm, MN 56073-5228
507-233-1200

Fort Ridgely State Park, 72158 County Rd. 30, Fairfax, MN 55332
507-426-7840

Flandrau State Park, 1300 Summit Ave., New Ulm, MN 56073
507-233-1260

Nearest medical facility

New Ulm Medical Center, 1324 5th St. N, New Ulm, MN 56073
507-217-5000

Sleepy Eye Medical Center, 400 4th Ave. NW, Sleepy Eye, MN 56085
507-794-3571

Segment 5 - Cambria to Henderson

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About this segment

The Minnesota River almost doubles in size when it takes a fairly sharp turn to the northeast as the Blue Earth River flows into it at Land of Memories Park in Mankato. The river begins to widen significantly exposing many sandbars at medium and low water levels. The vegetation found along the floodplain, silver maple, willow, cottonwood and ash, is a pleasing contrast to the upland bluffs of red cedar and pockets of prairie grasses.

Paddlers will find mostly forested areas along the riverbank and numerous city parks in the two larger cities of Mankato and New Ulm along with the popular Minneopa State Park and Seven Mile Creek County Park. The river also flows past the Traverse de Sioux Historical Site, north of St. Peter.

There are a number of easy stretches to paddle along this section, including from Mankato to Seven Mile Creek, covering just over seven miles or from Le Sueur to Henderson, paddling past the Rush River outlet.

Recommended day trip

Judson Access to Land of Memories Park

  • Put-in location: river mile 116.2
  • Take-out location: river mile 105.1
  • Length: 11.1 river miles

One of the many sandbars along this river segment
This segment has many sandbars.

 

The widened river flows gently in this section
The widened river flows gently in this section.

This stretch passes along Minneopa State Park, which has an assortment of fun activities for the family, including a large, bison enclosure, naturalist programs and a waterfall.

Located near the confluence with the Blue Earth River, Land of Memories Park, a Mankato city park, has hiking/biking trails, sports fields, disc golf and a pavilion.

Explore on shore

Minneopa State Park, river mile 108.4
Camping (fee), toilets, drinking water and picnic areas.

Land of Memories Park, river mile 105.1
Camping (fee), toilets, drinking water and picnic areas as well as a trailer access.

Seven Mile Creek County Park, river mile 94.9
Shelters, picnic areas, nine miles of hiking trails and a trailer access.

Local contacts

DNR Region Headquarters, 21371 State Hwy 15, New Ulm, MN 56073-5228
507-233-1200

Minneopa State Park, 54497 Gadwall Rd., Mankato, MN 56001
507-386-3910

Nearest medical facility

Immanuel St. Joseph, 1025 Marsh St., Mankato, MN 56001
507-625-4031

River's Edge Hospital, 1900 N. Sunrise Dr., St. Peter, MN 56082
507-931-2200

Segment 6 - Henderson to the Mississippi River

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Metro area rivers guide

About this segment

This section of the Minnesota River becomes more urban, passing through many larger cities until it reaches the confluence with the Mississippi River. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which covers a large portion of this river section, was established to provide habitat for a large number of migratory waterfowl, fish, and other wildlife species threatened by commercial and industrial development.

The Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area also preserves part of the Minnesota River Valley. The landscapes along the Recreation area include wetlands, floodplain forest and blufftop oak savanna. Both the refuge and recreation area are well-known for bird watching. Annual migrations funnel hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors through the valley.

Another major feature along the river is Fort Snelling State Park. The park offers extensive hiking, bike, snowshoe, and ski trails that link to an extensive regional trail system.

Recommended day trip

Thompson Ferry Access to Carver Riverfront Park

  • Put-in location: river mile 40.2
  • Take-out location: river mile 32.1
  • Legnth: 8.1 river miles

Calm river, viewed through the trees
Calm river, viewed through the trees.

 

Many sandy banks line the river
Many sandy banks line this segment.

This stretch takes you in an area that feels remote, even though it is close to the Twin Cities Metro Area. Lots of sandbars to stop and hang out at in lower water levels.

Explore on shore

Fort Snelling State Park, river mile 7 - 0.0
Located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, the park has a wide variety of activities for an interesting visit. Hiking, historic sites, fishing, interpretive displays and more.

Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area and Minnesota Valley State Trail, river mile 65 - 25
The state recreation area and state trail provide opportunities for recreation along a large stretch of the Minnesota in this area. The Lawrence and Carver Rapids Units offer historic sites and multi-use trails.

Local contacts

DNR Region Headquarters, 1200 Warner Rd., St. Paul, MN 55106
651-259-5800

Fort Snelling State Park, 101 Snelling Lake Rd., St. Paul, MN 55111
612-279-3550

Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area, 19825 Park Blvd., Jordan, MN 55352
651-259-5774

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, 3815 American Blvd. East, Bloomington, MN 55425
952-854-5900

Nearest medical facility

Two Twelve Medical Center, 111 Hundertmark Rd., Chaska, MN 55318
952-361-2447

St. Francis Medical Center, 1455 St. Francis Ave., Shakopee, MN 55379
952-428-2200

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