Mississippi River State Water Trail

Mississippi River Trail

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Metro area rivers guide | Mississippi River Guide

The Mississippi River is the fourth longest river in the world, flowing 2,350 miles from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. In Minnesota, the river flows through valleys, bluffs, prairies and woodlands in a variety of flow rates and widths. Portions of the river have been designated as a Wild and Scenic river. There are ten mapped segments of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, beginning at the source and ending on the Minnesota/Iowa border.

River segment maps and descriptions

Segment 1 - Lake Itasca to Cass Lake

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Parks and Trails northwest regional office: 218-308-2700

About this segment

The Mississippi River State Water Trail begins its 2,552-mile journey in Itasca State Park. Its first 50 miles are narrow, sometimes just five to 10 feet wide, and have few signs of development. You will pass white and red pine, oaks, maples, birch and aspen that support diverse wildlife. You may also notice the past effects of glaciers, where deposited rock and sand formed hills, or melting ice flattened plains. As you travel toward Bemidji the river’s banks become more defined, and you’ll begin to notice farms and homes. Wetlands throughout this stretch have dense, maze-like vegetation, which may lead you astray or prove to be an obstacle. In most cases, follow the downstream flow to stay on the main channel.The river falls an average of four feet per mile. You will find riffles and Class I rapids throughout this stretch. Class I rapids are usually small waves with few obstructions. Hazards include dense vegetation, log jams and large, open water, which can produce powerful waves.

Recommended day trip

Lake Itasca to Coffee Pot Landing
Put-in location: Mississippi Headwaters River mile 1,341.6
Take-out location: Coffee Pot Landing River mile 1,326.2
Length: 15.4 river miles

This stretch starts off wooded and intimate. Expect to lift the watercraft over beaver dams during lower water levels, or around road culverts during high water levels. To take a break, pull over at Wanagan. The stretch between Vekin’s Dam and Co. Road 2 has Class I rapids, which can be challenging for new paddlers.

Segment 2 - Cass Lake to Vermillion River

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Parks and Trails northwest regional office: 218-308-2700

About this segment

This section of the Mississippi River connects Cass Lake and Winnibigoshish Lake. These lakes have always been important to the Ojibwe of northern Minnesota, and today lie within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. These extensive public lands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service as the Chippewa National Forest. This portion of the river is gentle enough for beginner paddlers. You’ll find forested shorelines, pine-covered islands and eagles soaring overhead. The river’s channel deepens below the Leech Lake River confluence and you’ll see broad marshes on either side. Watch for oxbows once carved by the river and now filling with plant life. Hazards in this section include dams and large, open water on Cass and Winnibigoshish lakes which can produce powerful waves. Paddling across these lakes is not recommended.

Recommended day trip

Cass Lake to Lake Winnibigoshish
Put-in location: Knutson Dam Recreation Area River mile 1,258.2
Take-out location: West Winnie Campground River mile 1,246.4
Length: 11.8 river miles

Follow the river’s meandering path between the two big lakes. Halfway through your trip, the river broadens at the Mississippi Meadows. Watch for migrating waterfowl in the spring and fall. Paddle along a short section of the Lake Winnibigoshish shore to reach the takeout.

Segment 3 - Vermillion River to Jacobson

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Parks and Trails northeast regional office: 218-328-8780

About this segment

This section of the river is one of transition, from the wetlands and forests of the Chippewa National Forest, through the town of Grand Rapids, to the lowland hardwood forest of Aitkin County. Along the way you will pass hills that were once piles of glacial debris. The city of Grand Rapids lies at the center of these hills. South of Grand Rapids, the river enters an ancient glacial lake bed where it twists back and forth through the soft soil. Look for white and red pines, oaks, maples, birches and aspens that create a home for diverse wildlife. This portion of the Mississippi River is flat and slow moving, offering easy paddling with no major rapids. As you approach the town of Grand Rapids, you will need to watch for two dams about three river miles apart. One dam controls the level of Lake Pokegama, and the other provides hydropower to the Blandin Paper Company. Both must be portaged. Make sure you know what side of the dam to portage.

Recommended day trip

Steamboat Access to Blackberry Bridge Access
Put-in location: River mile 1,178.9
Take-out location: River mile 1,170.9
Length: 8 river miles

Paddle past farmland and wooded river banks. Just downstream of the Prairie River, watch for swallows nesting in the sandy banks. This trip offers easy paddling with no significant rapids. You will find small sections of riffles when the water is low. Stop for a great picnic spot at Sucher’s Campsite if it is unoccupied.

Segment 4 - Jacobson to Aitkin

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Parks and Trails northeast regional office: 218-328-8780

About this segment

This section of the Mississippi River is influenced by glacial lakes Upham and Aitkin, which once covered most of the area. You’ll find a flat landscape with meandering streams and many oxbows (u-shaped sections of abandoned river channel). The still waters of the oxbows are excellent for fish and other wildlife. You will also pass floodplain forests that offer food, shelter and habitat for muskrat, beaver, otters, turtles, herons, hawks, osprey, eagles and more. Much of the shoreline is privately managed for forest or agriculture, with few houses due to the river’s tendency to flood. Hazards include snags, downed trees and a diversion channel dam. At the Rice River confluence, a diversion channel carries water around the town of Aitkin during high flow. There is no portage route around this diversion channel dam.

Recommended day trip

Sandy Lake Recreation Area to Wold’s Ferry Crossing
Put-in location: River mile 1,105.5
Take-out location: River mile 1,096
Length: 9.5 river miles

A fee is required to launch from the Sandy Lake Recreation Area. You'll paddle approximately a mile from the launch to reach the Mississippi River. This is an easy section to paddle, with riffles during low water. Fish for catfish, walleye and smallmouth. Stop for a picnic at Scott’s Rapid Campsite if it is unoccupied.

Segment 5 - Aitkin to Brainerd

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Parks and Trails northeast regional office: 218-328-8780

About this segment

This section of the river offers easy paddling, great fishing and many places to stop. The Mississippi River above Brainerd is often used by pleasure boaters and high-powered fishing boats. The good water quality supports game fish such as walleye, northern, muskie, bass and panfish. Near Brainerd, the river enters a defined valley. You’ll notice a change from lowland hardwoods and tamaracks to red pine and mixed hardwood. The river also passes through French Rapids, a narrow channel with 100-foot banks. Just below this you’ll find Rice Lake, an impoundment created by the Potlach Dam. Hazards include dams. Be aware of their locations and know which side to portage.

Recommended day trip

Highway 6 to Trommald
Put-in location: River mile 1,030
Take-out location: River mile 1,018.3
Length: 11.7 river miles

Wind through hardwood forests on this wide section of the Mississippi River. The Pine River State Water Trail will intersect the Mississippi midway through your paddle. This is an easy route with no rapids, though the current can be quite strong after a rain event. This trip typically takes about four hours of paddling. Boat ramps and ample parking can be found at both the put-in and take-out locations, which are 9 miles apart by road.

Segment 6 - Brainerd to Little Falls

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Parks and Trails northeast regional office: 218-328-8780

About this segment

In this section, the Mississippi River flows out of forest and wetlands and into a narrow valley surrounded by sandplains. Below the confluence with the Nokasippi River, the Mississippi flows through a flat valley bordered by hills. You’ll see vegetation along the shoreline and farmland beyond. Riffles are present at Pipe Island and downriver to the State Highway 115 bridge. These riffles are made by rock bars that create small standing waves. Navigating the riffles is difficult for even the smallest boat’s motor. On the west side of the river, the Camp Ripley Military Reservation extends 18 miles downstream of the Crow Wing River confluence. The land is owned by the State of Minnesota and managed by the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs. Islands along the river corridor owned by Camp Ripley are open to public recreational use. Access to the Camp Ripley Training Center is not allowed from any point along the Mississippi or Crow Wing rivers. Hazards include dams. Be aware of their locations and know where to portage.

Recommended day trip

Fort Ripley to Fletcher Creek
Put-in location: River mile 982.3
Take-out location: River mile 972.7
Length: 9.6 river miles

Paddle past numerous islands and wooded shoreline with farmland beyond. This easy paddle also offers scenic backwaters as you paddle between islands and the shore. River levels can be fairly shallow, especially late in the summer. Anglers, be sure to pack a fishing pole!

Segment 7 - Little Falls to St. Cloud

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Sauk Rapids office: 320-223-7878

About this segment

This section of the Mississippi River connects Minnesota’s forests to its prairies. Shorelands are covered in mixed hardwood forest and nearby grassland prairie supports wildflowers. Watch for deer, muskrat, otter, fox, red-tailed hawks, eagles, kingfishers and turtles along your trip. Water quality here is very good and boasts a premier fishery for walleye, muskie, northern pike and smallmouth bass. Expect more motorized boat traffic north of the Sartell Dam to the Highway 2 Bridge. The Mississippi River drops six and a half feet for every river mile between Little Falls and Royalton. Two dams operated by Minnesota Power obscure the falls today. You’ll see less development along this section of the river due to local and state protections. Downstream of the Highway 23 Bridge, the river is designated as a State Wild and Scenic River. Hazards include rapids (near Sauk Rapids) and several dams. All dams must be portaged.

Recommended day trip

Royalton Sportsman’s Club to Stearns County Park
Put-in location: River mile 953.6
Take-out location: River mile 942.2
Length: 11.4 river miles

Launch from the Royalton Sportsman’s Club (fee required). You’ll pass numerous islands (some on private land) and shorelines with a mix of forest and farmland. Stop at the Seven Islands Campsite to camp for the night or for a quick picnic (if unoccupied). A private campground is located halfway through this trip. You’ll paddle past undeveloped shoreline along the Michaelson Farm Wildlife Management Area. Anglers will want to pack a fishing pole for this trip. Watch for rocky riffles during low water levels.

Segment 8 - St. Cloud to Elk River

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Sauk Rapids office: 320-223-7878

About this segment

Between St. Cloud and Anoka, the Mississippi River flows through a broad valley with tall bluffs and diverse plant communities. You’ll discover over 100 islands varying in size from sandbars to mile-long islands. Although this portion of the river borders one of the fastest growing areas in the state, much of the natural character of the river corridor remains. This section of the river was designated and protected as a Minnesota Wild and Scenic River in 1973. Small boats can maneuver this entire stretch, although shallow areas may be difficult during low river levels. Paddlers will find mild rapids and a moderate current perfect for a family trip. Anglers may enjoy fishing for smallmouth bass, walleye and northern pike. Nearby outfitters offer shuttling. Hazards include Class I-III rapids (near Sauk Rapids) and dams, be sure to know which side to portage on.

Day trips include: St. Cloud to Clearwater, Clearwater to Monticello, and Monticello to Elk River. Plan a weekend trip by combining stretches. You’ll encounter many rest stops, camping areas and access points.

Recommended day trip

Beaver Island Trail Access to Clearwater
Put-in location: River mile 925.8
Take-out location: River mile 913.7
Length: 12.1 river miles

Paddle narrow channels through the Beaver Islands at the start of your trip. The islands are a mix of public and private land. The river then widens through a mostly undeveloped landscape with bluffs. You’ll find several public boat launches and campsites perfect for a picnic lunch stop or to stretch your legs along the way. Expect some riffles when the river levels are low and fast moving water when they are high. Local outfitters offer shuttling services in this section.

Segment 9 - Elk River to Minneapolis

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Central regional office: 651-259-5748

About this segment

This stretch begins with rolling farmland that transitions to buildings and bridges as you near downtown Minneapolis. Many of the city’s buildings are set high on bluffs with a natural strip of land along the river. Long ago, a series of seas helped form layers of limestone, sandstone and shale that the river flows through today. See these layers in the gorge from St. Anthony Falls to Fort Snelling. Hazards include snags, sweeps, boulders, small rapids and dams. Know which side to portage or lock through. Stay close to shore as you prepare to get out or enter a lock. Do not cross the river directly above dams. Watch for two locks at St. Anthony Falls and one at the Ford Dam above Fort Snelling. The current in this segment can be deceptively swift. Use caution when approaching shore. Motorboats and barges create large wakes that can swamp unsuspecting paddlers. The river is silty and, in places, contaminated. The water is undrinkable unless treated. Eating fish caught in this area of the river is not advised. Check with the Minnesota Department of Health Advisory for current recommendations.

Recommended day trip

Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park to Riverfront Regional Park
Put-in location: River mile 866.4
Take-out location: River mile 860.3
Length: 6.1 river miles

Below the Coon Rapids Dam, the Mississippi River corridor allows you to experience nature inside the city. Pass scenic islands and look for wildlife. Great-blue herons, bald eagles and white-tail deer are commonly seen. The river is wide and the current is swift in this stretch, take extra care when paddling. This route takes the average paddler about 2-3 hours.

Segment 10 - Minneapolis to Hastings

Maps and local contact

Map - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)

Central regional office: 651-259-5748

About this segment

This stretch of the river begins in the heart of the Twin Cities. The valley widens where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi. Spectacular bluffs line both sides of the river and sometimes rise more than 150 feet above it. The river’s width ranges from one-tenth mile below Fort Snelling to two miles at Spring Lake. During fall and spring, the river is used by numerous migrating birds. Amid barge traffic and development, Pig’s Eye Lake supports rookeries of egrets, great blue herons and black-crowned night herons. These birds can often be spotted in the shallow water or perched in trees. Hazards include dams, snags, sweeps and boulders. Know which side to portage or lock through. Stay close to shore as you prepare to get out or enter a lock. Do not cross the river directly above dams. The current in this segment can be deceptively swift. Use caution when approaching shore. Motorboats and barges create large wakes that can swamp unsuspecting paddlers. The water is undrinkable due to sewage and industrial pollution. Eating fish caught along this section of the river is not recommended.

Recommended day trip

Hidden Falls to Harriet Island
Put-in location: 846.6
Take-out location: 840.1
Length: 6.5 river miles

View the Ford Dam as you look upriver from the Hidden Falls put-in site. You’ll paddle past the Highway 5 Bridge with Historic Fort Snelling in the distance. This segment will also take you along Fort Snelling State Park. See the changing water color as you pass by the confluence of the Mississippi River and Minnesota River. Downtown St. Paul will come into view before your takeout at Harriet Island.

Hastings to Iowa

Local contact

For maps, download the Mississippi River Guide (2011) 

Dakota County to Washington County: central regional office, 651-259-5748
Goodhue County to Houston County: Rochester office, 507-206-2847

About this segment

This segment of the river opens up to spectacular bluffs and a whole new paddling experience. You will need some paddling skills to avoid snags and downed trees, especially in the backwaters. Although the river is wide in this area, the current can be deceptively swift. Approach the shore with caution. Wakes from large boat traffic should not be taken broadside. Watch for dams, and know on which side to portage or lock. Do not cross the river directly above dams. There are no major rapids.