Paddle Your Way through Autumn

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Fall canoeing on the Mississippi River near Clearwater
Fall canoeing on the Mississippi River near Clearwater / Micah Kvidt

Craving the perfect fall day? Grab a paddle and your watercraft of choice to soak up the last of the warm weather and admire autumn’s brilliant colors 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.

They range from quiet, designated wild and scenic stretches of the Mississippi River to whitewater rafting 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:

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. Fall paddlers can enjoy the colorful bluffs and also watch for birds that gather in the backwaters as they prepare to migrate south.

Lake Superior

lake superior canoe ride
Paddling the world's largest freshwater lake is always the right decision / Alyssa Hei

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 – and possibly brighter fall foliage.

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.

St. Croix River

Fall canoeing on the St. Croix River at Interstate State Park
Fall canoeing on the St. Croix River at Interstate State Park

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. It’s an easy eight-mile trip from Taylors Falls to Osceola, with a chance to stop at a sandbar or the shoreline for a picnic, or visit a cafe in nearby river towns.

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.

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.

For information on more Minnesota water trails plus current river reports (including water levels, log jams or hazards), check with the Minnesota DNR before heading out. You can also find trip outfitters, watercraft rentals, and sign up for fall color reports from Explore Minnesota.