Go with the Flow on Minnesota’s Rivers

By C. B. Bylander

Boating on the St. Louis River
Boating on the St. Louis River

Seeking summer fun? Then go with the flow. Minnesota has thousands of miles of rivers that are perfect for canoeing, kayaking and fishing. In fact, about 4,500 miles are part of a state water trail system, making them easy to find and navigate.

The Mississippi and St. Croix rivers are arguably the most well-known destinations. The latter, a national Wild and Scenic River, is especially stunning from the launch site at Interstate State Park near Taylors Falls to William O’Brien State Park, a distance of about 15 miles.

Yet bigger isn’t always better. Dozens of smaller rivers crisscross the state, too, and are perfect for putting in here, taking out there, and fishing in between.

Ready to explore? Try any of these regional waterways.   

Red Lake River

The Red Lake River flows through Thief River Falls, Red Lake Falls, Crookston and East Grand Forks, where it empties into the Red River of the North. Scenery ranges from marshy wilderness to towering eroded cliffs with steep wooded banks.

Many paddlers begin their trips near Crookston. This affords a scenic half-day trip from Red Lake Falls to Huot, or a trip of similar length on slow meandering water from Huot to Crookston. Strong and seasoned paddlers can go from Crookston to Fisher or Fisher to East Grand Forks in a long day. Canoe rentals are available in Crookston.

This river is known for excellent smallmouth bass fishing in the upstream stretches and outstanding channel catfish fishing downstream. Walleye fishing is good throughout the river. Dams at Crookston and Red Lake Falls are popular and productive fishing sites.

St. Louis River

The scenic St. Louis River flows through the Superior National Forest before spilling into Lake Superior at Duluth. This river frequently changes character: Rapids are rare from Floodwood to Cloquet, turning wild below Cloquet where rocks and rapids increase in frequency and intensity.

This intensity increases even more below the Thompson Dam and through much of Jay Cooke State Park, where it plunges through a series of rocky channels. Canoeists should not attempt this stretch. The river widens and slows below the park as it enters the sprawling Lake Superior estuary.

Fishing is very good in the Lower St. Louis River, with solid numbers of smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, channel catfish and muskellunge. There are a number kayak and canoe outfitters in the Carlton, Cloquet and Duluth areas.  

Otter Tail River

Fall Canoeing on Otter Tail River, Glendalough State Park_Jeff Wiersma
Otter Tail River, Glendalough State Park / Photo by Jeff Wiersma

The Otter Tail River begins 40 miles southwest of Bemidji and flows through pine forests, deciduous forests and prairie grasslands before ending at the Red River of the North in Wahpeton, N.D. Fergus Falls is a good place to start a trip. A popular half-day trip or less begins at a public access just east of the city off Highway 210. Paddlers can take out at either East Mount Faith or Veteran’s Memorial Park in Fergus Falls.  

The Otter Tail is a fine fishing river. Anglers do particularly well below the Orwell dam southwest of Fergus Falls. This area is known for smallmouth bass and walleye, and even the occasional 40-inch or longer lake sturgeon.

Cannon River

The Cannon River is a state-designated Wild and Scenic River that flows through southern Dakota and northern Goodhue counties. This family-friendly waterway has few rapids and an abundance of wildlife, including bald eagles. The stretch below Cannon Falls is particularly pretty as it flows through a broad gorge flanked by 300-foot-tall bluffs. Fishing here is good.

A popular trip is to launch at Riverside Park in Cannon Falls, then paddle roughly 7 miles to Meisville Ravine County Park. This takes two to three hours for the average paddler. A longer option is to paddle another 5 miles to the bridge at County Road 7 in the town of Welch. Canoe and tube rentals are available locally.

Minnesota River

The Minnesota River downstream from Granite Falls is a great southwestern paddling destination. Another Wild and Scenic River, it passes through some of southwest Minnesota’s most impressive landscapes.

Many paddlers bypass the rapids at Granite Falls and begin their trip downstream at Kinney Landing. This affords a leisurely paddle of 6 to 8 miles to exit points at Upper Sioux Agency State Park, whose office rents canvas tepees for a unique form of camping. Those who want to paddle the rapids can launch in town or slightly downstream at Memorial Park.

This river is known for flathead catfish up to 40 pounds and channel catfish up to 10 pounds, plus walleye, sauger and white bass.

Find maps, reference materials and outfitter information at mndnr.gov/watertrails.