Lake Winona summer paddlers and kayakers

6 Wonderful Waterways for Canoeing and Kayaking in Minnesota

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Lake Winona summer paddlers and kayakers  / Visit Winona

6 Wonderful Waterways for Canoeing and Kayaking in Minnesota

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Craving the perfect summer day? Grab a paddle and your watercraft of choice to soak up the warm weather and admire Minnesota's brilliant scenery mirrored across the surface of regional rivers.

Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources maintains 32 designated water trails throughout the state for kayakers, canoeists and stand-up paddleboarders. It’s the oldest water trail system in the nation, having started more than 50 years ago and now covering more than 4,400 miles.

The water trails range from quiet, designated wild and scenic stretches of the Mississippi River to whitewater rafting areas through rocky rapids in northeastern Minnesota. Each waterway rewards paddlers with a distinct personality, and newcomers to the sport or now-and-again adventurers can find outfitters that offer equipment rental, shuttles, fishing advice, guided outings and classes.

Here’s a look at some of Minnesota’s favorite places to paddle:

  1. Mississippi River
    Kayakers at Mississippi Gorge Regional Park in Minneapolis

    Kayakers at Mississippi Gorge Regional Park in Minneapolis / Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

    Mississippi River

    Winding more than 500 miles through the state, America’s most renowned river offers many places to enjoy its scenery. Each section has its own character. The headwaters emerge as a placid, narrow stream in Itasca State Park near Bemidji, then it widens and reaches a designated wild and scenic stretch near St. Cloud’s Beaver Islands, and on to the broad waters of Lake Pepin, with its barges and riverboats and the beauty of southern Minnesota’s Bluff Country

  2. Blue Earth River
    Blue Earth River

    You can find cool, mossy grottos tucked into wooded ravines and naturally occurring springs around Mankato where the Minnesota and Blue Earth rivers converge and carve out buff-colored bluffs.

  3. Lake Superior
    Two kayaks on Lake Superior

    Sea kayaking on Lake Superior at Palisade Head

    Lake Superior

    The world’s largest freshwater lake delivers some of the state’s most dramatic scenery, along with beloved state parks, roaring rivers and water so clear that a calm day can feel like paddling across glass. Resorts and outfitters along this water trail stretching from the St. Louis River near Duluth to the Pigeon River on the Canadian border can help you pick the best segments and safest conditions. If Lake Superior is acting moody or it’s too windy to paddle, inland lakes can offer an alternative.

  4. St. Louis River
    St. Louis River

    If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, this is a favorite with experienced whitewater kayakers who come for the seven miles of rapids as the river flows through Jay Cooke State Park on its way to Lake Superior.

  5. Root River
    Root River

    A great river for beginners and families, this peaceful waterway flows through the bluffs and farmlands of southeastern Minnesota, with historic and charming small towns along the way. Make it a weekend by extending your trip with a bike ride on the scenic, 42-mile Root River State Trail.

  6. St. Croix River
    St. Croix River and surrounding area from Taylors Falls to Stillwater

    The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway encompasses some of the most scenic and least developed country in the Upper Midwest

    St. Croix River

    Enjoy the 200-foot gorge, ice age potholes and scenic rock formations sculpted by the St. Croix along this National Scenic Riverway on Minnesota’s eastern border. Rentals are available in Taylors Falls, and it's an easy 8-mile trip from there to Osceola, with a chance to stop at a sandbar or the shoreline for a picnic, or visit a cafe in nearby river towns.

Lisa Meyers McClintick

Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.