Minnesota’s Waterfall Wonderland
By Tom Watson
Think waterfalls in Minnesota and the most famous ones come to mind easily: Minnehaha Falls, the double drop of Minneopa Creek, perhaps even the hidden falls at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Lisa Crayford can spout off those and a dozen more- and that’s her short list. As a master photographer and the author of Waterfalls of Minnesota, a photo-guide to over one hundred waterfall drops and cascades through the state, Crayford combines two loves, waterfalls and hiking, into an outdoor activity she can enjoy from one end of Minnesota to the other.
“I took a North Shore trip to Tettegouche State Park where I fell in love with Two Step Falls,” she recounts. “There’s just something about a waterfall,” she adds. For Crayford, the quest for that certain something had encouraged her to visit nearly every waterfall in the state, from the remote magnificence of Johnson Falls deep within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) to the somewhat elusive Minnemishinona Falls within a few miles of Mankato’s highly popular Minneopa Falls.
Minnesota’s waterfalls and cascades are scattered throughout the state: 19 are found in the southern region from the Twin Cities southward including Redwood Falls, Pipestone and the 60-foot underground waterfall at Niagara Cave. Scores more dot the northern half of the state, 46 in the North Shore region alone. Ten Minnesota state parks feature waterfalls in their list of natural attractions including Banning, Temperance River, Judge C.R.Magney, Tettegouche and, of course, the massive cascading steps in the falls at Gooseberry State Park. The 120-foot drop in the Pigeon River at Grand Portage State Park is Minnesota’s tallest waterfall.
To encourage waterfall seekers to hike and photograph Minnesota’s waterfall wonderland, Crayford offers several tips to finding and photographing these spectacular water displays. “Most of the hikes to falls are pretty short but some are well off the beaten track,” Crayford says. She highly recommends searches for the word waterfalls on both Google and Flickr – two essential tools for learning how to get to remote, out-of-the-way sites. “You don’t’ want to go in blind, especially out in the boondocks,” she warns.
Crayford says spring is “always the best time of year, the first week in March” for “beautiful, crystal clear waterfalls.” Along the North Shore most major rivers are flowing year-round for fantastic winter settings, too.
Photographing the scenery, dramatic rock outcroppings and flowing, raging streams require special techniques to ensure the best images possible.
A steady tripod is necessary whenever shooting at the slow shutter speeds needed to capture the sense of fluid motion of the waterfall. A cable release or timer keeps any shutter release motion to a minimum. Crayford recommends setting a digital camera’s ISO number to 100. “It will yield the greatest detail, sharpness, effects and color accuracy.” Among the other photography tips in her book, she suggests slower shutter speeds of 1/8 second or slower – “to produce a soft quality”.
Lighting is critical for capturing the full essence and grandeur of a waterfall. Because midday or full, bright sun can cause harsh shadowing and bright spots in the image, Crayford recommends heading out early in the morning, late afternoon or on cloudy days for optimum light conditions. “On overcast days you don’t have any hot spots on your waterfall,” she says. It’s also important to frame the waterfall and include some foreground element to give it all perspective.
As far as picture composition goes, Crayford offers this advice: “Shoot from the top, bottom or side of the falls, but always try to keep one side of the image frame parallel to the ground. Basically, treat the waterfall like a piece of architecture.”
Some of Minnesota’s most spectacular waterfalls are also it’s most remote. Finding them and getting there safely may require the services of a backcountry guide. The journey to Johnson Falls in the BWCAW required paddling across three lakes connected by portage and “one hell of a hike,” remembers Crayford. For beginners, she suggests starting out with Gooseberry Falls and Devil’s Kettle along the North Shore or the Hidden Falls at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.
Whether it’s the seven metro waterfalls, those in ten state parks or the scores of breathtaking cascading and plunging rivers roaring above Lake Superior, Crayford stresses that the main thing is to “get out and explore so much beauty.”
This article appeared in the 2017 spring edition of Minnesota Trails Magazine
About the Author
is the author of three books featuring amenities at Minnesota state parks: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Minneapolis, Best Tent Camping-Minnesota, and Minnesota Camper Cabins. He’s a member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) and has been a regular contributor to Minnesota Trails Magazine for many years. Find out more about Tom and get in touch on his website.