Otter Tail River State Water Trail

Paddling the Otter Tail River

The Otter Tail River State Water Trail is 157 river miles of Minnesota’s eighth-longest river. Most of the river is peaceful and slow-moving, but there are also rock rapids, dangerous dams and fast-moving water through culverts with little or no headroom. It is critical for paddlers to carefully review maps and understand hazard locations.

The river begins in Elbow Lake in Becker County, and encounters a number of lakes as it flows westward. At Breckenridge, it joins with the Red River of the North to form the Minnesota-North Dakota boundary. There are no major rapids.

This river is unique because it starts by flowing south, and then flows north after it joins the Bois de Sioux River in Breckenridge.

River locator map


River segments and maps

Get maps and more information for this river's two segments.

  1. Rochert to Phelps Mill
  2. Phelps Mill to Breckenridge


Located in west central Minnesota, the Otter Tail River is unique because it flows through three of the state's four biomes, or areas with similar climate, plants and animals. The river passes first through coniferous forest, then deciduous forest, and finally through prairie grassland. You will notice distinct differences between each biome, particularly in the tree types and water color. Large stately pine, spruce, fir and tamarack typify the coniferous biome, followed by sugar maple, basswood, oak, elm and ironwood in the deciduous forest. The prairie grassland is now extensively farmed, with little of the original prairie remaining. The river's edge in this area will still have trees such as oaks, box elders and willows.

The first hundred miles of the river have minor rapids and a steeper drop. The river flattens out when it reaches the prairie grasslands, and its flow reflects that change. 

Fish and wildlife

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


  • Smallmouth bass
  • Sturgeon


  • Loons
  • Bald eagles
  • Wood ducks


The Otter Tail River gets its name from early French explorers who called it Lac de la Queue de la Outer, which translates as Lake of the Otter's Tail.

Humans have been in the Otter Tail River region for many years. Skeletal remains found near the Pelican River - a tributary of the Otter Tail - are estimated to be over 7,500 years old. It's unknown when the first European explorer saw the Otter Tail, but some suggest it may have been Viking explorers before 1400 A.D.

The quest for furs brought the first trappers to the region of the Otter Tail in the 1600s, but it wasn't until after the great California Gold Rush of 1849 that European settlement of the area began in earnest, driven by the need for lumber to feed a growing nation and facilitated by railroads and steamboats. 

Back to top