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Remember the Red River Valley

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Mother and daughter kayaking on the Red River / Greater Grand Forks Convention & Visitors Bureau

Remember the Red River Valley

By James Riemermann

Memorialized in the once hugely popular cowboy/folk song “Red River Valley,” going back to at least 1879, the slow, gentle river offers hundreds of miles of mostly easy canoeing on a well-mapped Minnesota state water trail. The Red also boasts some of the Midwest’s biggest channel catfish, often coming in at 20 or more pounds, as well as huge walleyes, northern pike and more than 70 species of fish.

The Red River at sunrise in East Grand Forks

A serene scene on the Red River in East Grand Forks

In the state where the great Mississippi River begins, the lesser-known Red River of the North deserves more credit than it gets. It winds north through quiet, incredibly fertile country along the Minnesota-North Dakota border, through a college town with a surprisingly fertile arts scene, and other pleasant small towns.

The Red is the second-longest north-flowing river in the lower 48 states—the longest if you include the portion of the river in Canada. It runs 550 miles from its source in the small Minnesota town of Breckenridge, to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, 318 of those miles in Minnesota.

The tree-lined river flows through rich farmlands on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, producing most of the nation’s sugar beets as well as many other crops. Historically, the Riviere Rouge du Nord was a popular route for French Canadian voyageurs, or fur traders, paddling large canoes filled with bison and beaver hides headed for Europe.

Hjemkomst Viking ship

The Hjemkomst Viking ship once sailed to Norway / Davin Wait, Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County

Moorhead, an Artsy College Town on the Red River

Moorhead is a small town that punches well above its cultural weight with galleries, art and historical museums, well-supported by two liberal arts colleges.

A beautiful and historic former post office in Moorhead houses the Rourke Art Museum. Founded on the succinct mission statement, "to collect the art of our time and place," the Rourke 's permanent collection consists of a small but broad selection of work by modern Midwestern artists, 20th Century masters and global artists from ancient times to present day. From traditional oil paintings, to found-object, sculpture and mixed media, more than half of the museum's 4,000 piece permanent collection was created by Midwestern artists.

The Hjemkomst Center, part of the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County, houses and interprets the Viking ship replica Hjemkomst, imagined, built and sailed to Norway in 1982 by Robert Asp with his four children. The building’s distinctive sail-shaped roof accommodates the ship’s mast. Visitors can see an award-winning documentary about Asp and the historic journey. The center also hosts the annual Scandinavian Hjemkomst & Midwest Viking Festival, featuring dancing, entertainment, food and Viking-age craft demonstrations.

viking park midwest viking fest

Vikings in Viking Park at Midwest Viking Fest / Davin Wait, Courtesy of HCSCC

Also on the museum grounds is a beautiful, full-sized replica of the 12th century Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik, Norway. Nearby is the grand Comstock House, offering tours with insights into the public and family lives of Solomon and Sarah Comstock, important figures in the history of the region and the state.

Buffalo River State Park, about 15 miles east of Moorhead, offers trails winding through one of Minnesota's finest and largest remnant prairies, home to bobolinks, prairie chickens, marbled godwits and upland sandpipers. A picnic area, swimming area and campground are located in the hardwood forest along the Buffalo River.

family camping at red river state recreation area

Family camping at Red River State Recreation Area

Camping and Outdoor Fun at Red River State Recreation Area

North of Moorhead in East Grand Forks, the 1,200-acre Red River State Recreation Area became part of the Minnesota State Park system after a devastating flood in 1997, in a spot where many homes in the flood plain were lost. The park includes more than 20 miles of hiking and biking trails along both sides of the river and through wildflower prairie areas. The park also features picnic areas, boat access and a shore fishing platform, and a large campground with RV hookups.

More than 250 species of migratory birds have been spotted in the area; species include a wide variety of songbirds, hawks, bald eagles and owls, plus Canada geese, great blue herons, as well as raccoons, river otters, gray and red squirrels and white-tailed deer.

Nearby in town is Heritage Village, a reconstructed 1800s-era village with a church, school, general store, barn and more. The biggest event of the year, for both the town and the attraction, is Heritage Days, which includes grain threshing and sawmilling demos, broom-making, blacksmithing and a tractor pull.

James Riemermann

James Riemermann is a retired writer and editor. Raised in St. Paul, he's a city boy who feels more at home in the woods. Sitting by a campfire on the shore of a quiet north woods lake is his idea of paradise.