A tour of the Minnesota River

The Minnesota National Wildlife Refuge.


This is the second in a series of urban canoeing adventures in the Twin Cities.

We began with the Great River — misi-ziibi from the Ojibwe (May 19 edition). The Minnesota is the largest of the upper Mississippi’s tributaries — 318 miles of placid current from Fort Snelling to Big Stone Lake in far western Minnesota. But you don’t have to go far west at all to get a surprisingly rural feel to your paddling. Its dredged channel sits low, obscuring houses and other metropolitana. Your journey will often include the occasional fishermen, and perhaps a party barge, but also heron rookeries, eagle sightings, and perhaps even a kingfisher.

You can put in at the Minnesota River Bottoms Trailhead, at the Bloomington Ferry pedestrian crossing of the Minnesota River. Be prepared for a steep descent to the shore. Set off upstream toward Shakopee. After passing under the noisy Highway 169 bridge, you’ll find the unassuming mouth of Purgatory Creek. Around a bend, several fishermen and a bounding black lab appeared. The dog’s occasional exploits from boat to shore and back couldn’t have done much for the quality of the fishing. The banks on both sides upriver from here are clearly muddy dredge, so don’t expect to land unless you have plans to extricate your entire lower body from the mud.

The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge owns most of the land on both banks, and mountain bikers appreciate the (drier) River Bottoms trail east of Bloomington Ferry. Several refuge-bound lakes are just out of view to the south, and host many waterfowl on historic flyways. You can continue on past a rollicking Valleyfair Amusement Park, and the former Port Bunge grain elevators to the Landing–Minnesota River Heritage Park in east Shakopee. The park hosts annual reenactments, portraits of early river life, and features grist mills and fur posts. The north bank features the mouths of Eden-Prairie-bound Riley and Bluff Creeks.

A bit further up the river, there’s a channel that leads directly to Shakopee’s Memorial Park, a great place to stop for a shore lunch. An easy trip back downstream awaits. If you have the whole day, float downstream through Bloomington, past the Black Dog power plant (recently converted from coal to natural gas, and burning much cleaner these days), and on toward the confluence with the Mississippi at Fort Snelling and Pike Island. It’s a bit noisier directly below the flight path of MSP airport, but the towering Mendota Bridge and nearby town of Mendota and the Sibley Historic Site brings enough vista to make up for the noise. They also make for a great landing spot east of the bustle.

Planning your trip

The well-hidden Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge connects Shakopee and Bloomington via the Ferry Pedestrian bridge off Auto Club Road. Be sure to bring water as there is no water on site. You can find a variety of resources at dnr.state.mn.us/watertrails/minnesotariver/four.html. Take a virtual tour before you head out, learn the history, check the river level, and even add your own photos of a great day on the water.

Christopher Kasic is a Twin-Cities based freelance writer.