Otter Tail River State Water Trail

Otter Tail River

Most of the Otter Tail is a slow-moving, easily navigable river. The river begins in Elbow Lake in Becker County, and encounters a number of lakes as it flows westward. At Breckenridge, the river joins with the Red River of the North, and together they form the Minnesota-North Dakota boundary. There are no major rapids. The water in the Otter Tail River is unique because it starts by flowing south, but when it joins the Bois de Sioux River in Breckenridge it starts flowing north! 

Local contact and map

River location mapMap - geoPDF map - (What is a geoPDF?)
Becker, Otter Tail and Wilkin counties
Contact Parks and Trails northwest regional office: 218-308-2372

River character

The Otter Tail River is a quiet, peaceful slow-moving river but it’s also a river with rock rapids, dangerous dams, and fast-moving water through culverts with little or no headroom. Careful reading of the route description before an outing is a necessary step in planning a safe and fun trip. Flow rates change throughout the year with faster flow rates usually occurring earlier in the year. During higher flow rates, adventurous paddlers can enjoy dodging rocks, but that same stretch during low flow rates may require walking alongside the canoe or kayak. With proper preparation, the Otter Tail is an ideal river for both family canoeing and those that want a little more adventure. 

Landscape

The Otter Tail River State Water Trail is 157 river miles of Minnesota’s eighth-longest river. The Otter Tail River, located in west central Minnesota, is unique because it flows through three of four biomes in the state. Biomes, also known as ecosystems, are areas on the earth with similar climate, plants, and animals. The Otter Tail moves southerly and then westerly, first through the Coniferous Forest, then the Deciduous Forest and finally the Prairie Grassland biome. Paddlers enjoying this river will be able to see distinct differences between the biomes, 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 of the deciduous forest. The prairie grassland is now extensively farmed with little of the original prairie remaining, but the rivers edge will still have trees such as oaks, box elders, and willows.

The first 100 miles of the river have minor rapids and a steeper drop, but when it reaches the prairie grasslands, the river flattens out 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.

Fish

  • Smallmouth bass
  • Sturgeon

Birds

  • Loons
  • Bald eagles
  • Wood ducks

History

The Otter Tail River gets its name from early French explorers who called it ‘Lac de la Queue de la Outer,’ or '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 was still some time 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, the final wave of settlement began.