14 Incredible Places To Canoe & Kayak Near Minneapolis
By Paddling Magazine
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Here's one thing you may not know about Minneapolis: It's an outdoor adventurer’s paradise, boasting some of the best kayaking and canoeing in the country. There are nearly 1,400 lakes in the greater metro area to choose from, alongside three major rivers — the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix — making Minneapolis the ultimate all-ability paddling destination.
Only have a day to spend? Here are 14 incredibly beautiful, not to mention accessible, places to launch your SUP, canoe or kayak near Minneapolis — and the outfitters that will help you do it.
Within City Limits
Chain of Lakes
What to expect:One of the most popular outdoor destinations in the Twin Cities is the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Regional Park. A 13-mile stretch of interconnected lakes, it includes Bde Maka Ska (formerly known as Lake Calhoun; this is the largest and deepest at 419 acres and 82 feet), Lake Harriet, Lake of the Isles, Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake. It only takes about four hours to do the full circuit, which takes you under city bridges, alongside protected wildlife refuges and near amazing cityscape views. Beaches can also be found at Lake Harriet and Bde Maka Ska.
Skill level: Paddling here is suitable for families and beginners.
Best access point: You’ll find free parking around all the lakes, with canoe launches at Brownie Lake, Cedar Lake’s northwest corner, Bde Maka Ska and Lake of the Isles.
Outfitters/tour operators: Kayak, canoe and SUP rentals are available from Wheel Fun Rentals at Bde Maka Ska and Lake Harriet.
What to expect: Considered one of the best canoe getaways you can have without even leaving the city, Lake Nokomis is also one of Minneapolis’ three sailing lakes. It has a canoe launch, beach and many amenities nearby, including restaurants and concessions near the main beach. Don’t worry about motor boaters, either; power boats aren’t allowed on any of the Minneapolis city lakes.
Skill level: This beginner-friendly space is typically flatwater, although it can be more challenging on windy days.
Best access point: The main beach on the lake’s northwest side.
Outfitters/tour operators: Kayak, canoe and SUP rentals are available from Wheel Fun Rentals at Lake Nokomis.
Lebanon Hills Regional Park
What to expect: One of the few places in the Twin Cities area with a developed portaging system, this one-way route is short and sweet at 2.6 miles in total, but it allows you to connect seven different lakes.
Skill level: This route is best suited to those who want to practice their portaging skills.
Best access point: The Lebanon Hills Visitor Center in Eagan, where you can put in at Schulze Lake.
What to expect: One of the prettiest urban waterways imaginable, this flatwater system of wetlands and marshes stretches from Lake Minnetonka to Minnehaha Falls for 22 miles, running through woodland and urban environments. Yet, it’s unlikely to be crowded, so there’s a chance you’ll get the whole place to yourself. The entire route takes a full day to complete, with a few compulsory portages and low-hanging tree limbs to watch out for along the way.
The best time to visit is during the spring run-off — but check water levels before you depart to ensure they’re between 75 and 150 cubic feet per second. Any lower and you might not be able to launch your boat. Any higher, and you won’t be able to get under the city bridges.
Skill level: With small rapids, fast-moving water and some obstacles to navigate, this one is best for novice canoeists and kayakers.
Best access point: There are various access points all the way along the creek. Many paddlers choose to begin their paddle at Gray’s Bay Dam and continue to Longfellow Lagoon.
What to expect: Located in Silverwood Park, this 49-acre lake is surrounded by a trail, a mature oak savanna and a restored prairie environment. You can also find a small island in the middle of it, complete with a picnic area. Round out your day with a walk around the lake or a visit to the park’s small café.
Skill level: Its diminutive size makes this lake best reserved for standup paddleboarders, families, and beginner canoeists and kayakers.
Best access point: The Silver Lake Beach Park typically has plenty of parking.
Outfitters/tour operators: The Three Rivers Park District system allows you to reserve a canoe or kayak up to seven days in advance during the spring and summer months.
What to expect: The 15-mile Rice Creek Water Trail flows through five lakes, eventually reaching Long Lake. Its level of difficulty depends on the time of year (like Minnehaha Creek, it’s best paddled in springtime when water levels are high) and the section you’re tackling. The first seven miles are beginner friendly. But after Baldwin Lake, the water speed increases, with the added obstacles of culverts, rocks and fallen trees; this section is suited to those with more experience.
Skill level: Beginners and novice canoeists and kayakers.
Best access point: This depends on your skill level, but the creek’s official start is at the Peltier Lake Public Boat Launch. If you do the full trail and end at Long Lake, budget enough time to explore Long Lake Regional Park.
What to expect: There’s no question — from on the water is one of the best ways to see the downtown Minneapolis skyline. With countless launch sites along the 2,350-mile Mississippi River State Water Trail (which runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico), this is a choose-your-own-length adventure, with options for beginners to advanced paddlers. The backwaters are best suited to beginners, while novices and more advanced paddlers who are comfortable sharing waters with massive barges and navigating lock systems will have even more routes to choose from.
Skill level: From beginner to advanced-level paddlers.
Best access points: The best bet for beginners is from the south metro down past Red Wing, where waters are calmer. More advanced paddlers might choose to launch from the Mississippi River Flats (near the University of Minnesota boathouse) and paddle south through the lock and dam system to St. Paul, or try paddling from Anoka to Fort Snelling. Other favorite spots include Lilydale Regional Park and the Mississippi River at Harriet Island.
What to expect: Designated as a wild and scenic river, this 100-mile-long river has a moderate current and a handful of class I rapids. It’s known for its unique geology, including sedimentary rock outcroppings and a deep gorge where limestone bluffs tower 300 feet above. Pack a picnic; there are also plenty of sandbars to rest on and opportunities for busting out your bathing suit along the Cannon River State Water Trail. However, all these factors added up make it a popular destination for tubers, who you’ll likely see floating along. If you’re looking for a quieter and more intimate nature experience in a similar setting, opt for the Root River instead.
Skill level: Best for beginner and novice canoeists and kayakers.
Best access point: For a four- to six-hour excursion, launch from Lake Byllesby or Riverside Park in Cannon Falls, about an hour south of the Twin Cities. This smooth 12-mile route will take you through the Cannon Falls Gorge and end in Welch. If you have less time to spare, try the 6.9-mile route from Cannon Falls and end your paddle at Miesville Ravine Park Reserve.
What to expect: With a significant current and rocky beds along the way, the Rum River State Water Trail is less than an hour drive north of Minneapolis. While its full 145 miles can be tackled as a multiday trip (with first-come, first-served campsites along the way) we recommend paddling its final 11 miles, which is one of the only places to catch class I and II rapids in the metro area and takes about four to five hours to complete. If you have more time, though, the glacial Mille Lacs Lake near the river’s mouth is home to Ojibwe and Dakota burial mounds, tools, and other culturally and historically important finds.
Skill level: Novice to more advanced paddlers.
Best access point: Try launching from Martin’s Landing Public Water Access and kayaking to Rum River North County Park.
Outfitters/tour operators:Country Camping rents canoes, kayaks and paddleboards from their location in Isanti.
St. Croix River
What to expect: A favorite of families and outdoor enthusiasts alike, the St. Croix River was one of the first wild rivers protected by the U.S. Congress. It lives up to its nickname of the “the day tripper” by providing plenty of calm waters, marshes and inlets to explore, all only an hour’s drive northeast of the Twin Cities on the Wisconsin border. With that being said, the many free watercraft campsites alongside the St. Croix State Water Trail turn it into a weekend destination.
Skill level: Beginner to advanced paddlers.
Best access point: Most local paddlers will recommend putting in at Interstate Park. From there, it’s 6.6 miles to Osceola, and along the way you’ll have views of basaltic cliffs and the St. Croix Dalles, a river gorge. You can extend your journey by paddling another eight miles to William O' Brien State Park Landing. The full journey takes between five and seven hours.
What to expect: Originally called Kanabec (Ojibwe for “snake”), the Snake River has routes for intermediate to advanced paddlers with three distinct sections. The lower and upper portions of the Snake River State Water Trail have challenging class II to IV rapids, running through dense forests of elm and maple trees. In contrast, the middle section — which runs from Mora to Pine City — has a gentle current running through sandstone bluffs. This area is best for novices, although it could be tackled by beginners with some experience.
Skill level: Novice to advanced paddlers.
Best access point: This all depends on your skill level, with many people starting at Cross Lake or the Snake River Landing in Pine City.
What to expect: At 85 miles in length and with a flow that ranges from gentle to moderate, the Root River is best for families who are looking for flatwater paddling. With that being said, the southern portion of the Root River State Water Trail offers some rocky pools and portages for novices who are looking for more of a challenge. Expect to see massive limestone bluffs, which are home to over 40 species of birds and endemic species (like the timber rattlesnake) that can only be found here. The unique landscape is a result of the fact that this is the only area of Minnesota that escaped glaciation, so you’re essentially seeing what the Earth looked like before the last Ice Age. But the real highlight here is the eight historic towns that line the river’s shores, known as the “Root River” towns.
Skill level: Beginner to novice canoeists and kayakers.
Best access point: You can launch anywhere along the river, but the Root’s epicenter is Lanesboro. Considered a destination in itself, it’s located about two hours southeast of Minneapolis.
What to expect: Located below the Rochester Power Dam, the Zumbro runs through a deep gorge, with scenic limestone bluffs along the way/ With a lively current and the occasional obstacle (like big boulders), the Zumbro is the perfect river for those who want to brush up on their skills—it’s easy to navigate and not particularly deep if things go awry.
Skill level: This waterway best suits novices to more advanced canoeists and kayakers.
Best access point: There are two popular routes. The first is the seven-mile journey from Zumbro Falls to Hammond, which runs through wooded forests. For more advanced paddlers, the 12-mile route from Theilman to Kruger Park is another good option, with the opportunity to paddle through the Zumbro Bottoms Management Unit at the end. Be sure to check water levels and map your route before setting out.
What to expect: Amber waters, rocky bluffs and black spruce forests provide the backdrop to this remote adventure along the Kettle River State Water Trail. For seven miles through St. Croix State Park, you’ll find mostly class I and II rapids. But if you are looking for more of a challenge, the Banning State Park (which runs for roughly 16 miles) is considered one of the best places to go whitewater kayaking and rafting in the area, with its class II, III and IV rapids. The most challenging of all is the aptly named “Hell’s Gate.”
Skill level: Best for more advanced kayakers and whitewater rafters.
Best access point: This depends on your skill level, but you can launch anywhere along the river.
Outfitters/tour operators: Hard Water Sports has everything you might need for a one-day or extended adventure, including kayak and canoe rentals. It also offers guided whitewater rafting trips.
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