This canoe route begins below Ortonville, although the river's headwaters are near Browns Valley on the Minnesota-South Dakota border. The river enters Big Stone Lake (also on the border), where fishing attracts many boaters. The lake is large, though, and windy days make for rough canoeing. For those who'd like to stay for sailing or boating on the lake, there is a campground at Big Stone Lake State Park, northwest of Ortonville.
About 4 miles below Ortonville and Big Stone Lake, the Minnesota River widens into the reservoir that forms part of the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge and its two downriver neighbors, the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area and Lac qui Parle State Park, form a string of public lands that stretches for more than 40 miles along the upper Minnesota.
Marsh Lake and Lac qui Parle Lake, the two lakes that the Minnesota River flows through in the wildlife management area, are shallow and weedy. The swamps and marshes surrounding the lakes are on a major flyway for migrating birds. Wetland birds such as ducks and herons make their home here, while the Canada goose is a seasonal transient. To protect the waterfowl, part of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area (including the canoe route from the Highway 40 bridge to the dam at river mile 285) is closed to the public from September 20 to December 20.
For canoeists on a flexible schedule, Lac qui Parle State Park (at the lake's lower end) is worth a stay. The Lac qui Parle River joins the Minnesota River in the park, forming miles of twisting channels that fishermen and birdwatchers love to poke into. You'll need a state park vehicle permit to stay in the park's campground.
Below Lac qui Parle Dam, the river widens into a broad flood plain. Exposed granite formations between Granite Falls and North Redwood are some of the continent's oldest rocks, dating back more than 3 billion years. Cedar and oak-covered granite domes, interspersed with prime agricultural land, border the river in this section. The bottomlands are forested with maple, elm, cottonwood and willow.
The only rapids of note on the otherwise easy river is Patterson's Rapids (River Mile 225.9), below Granite Falls. This is a short stretch of white water that rushes over a bed of glacial drift boulders. At low to moderate water levels, the rapids are rated Class I.
Below Highway 4, the Minnesota River meanders so much that it appears confused about which way to turn. The low riverbanks are covered with willow, ash, basswood and other hardwoods while the valley slopes are covered by oak, cedar and maple. The banks are sandy and eroded below Le Sueur, with gravel bars and snags choking the river in low water.
The Minnesota meets the Mississippi (also a canoe route) at Pike Island in Fort Snelling State Park. Zebulon Pike, a young army lieutenant and explorer, bought Pike Island and the surrounding land from the Dakota Indians in 1805.
Canoeists have a close-up view of the great diversity of wildlife in the woods, prairies, farmland and marshes of the Minnesota River Valley. Deer, beaver and muskrats feed along the riverbanks, while pheasants and Hungarian partridge find thick cover for nesting in the bottomlands. In addition to various water birds, you might see hawks and songbirds overhead. The river also supports a large fish population. Many walleyes, northerns and smallmouth bass are caught in the pools below the rapids and dams on the upper river. Carp and other rough fish are common throughout the route. When canoeing or fishing on the lower Minnesota River, watch out for commercial barge traffic.