With cottonwoods, river birch and silver maples arcing serenely overhead, a paddle through Mississippi River backwaters can feel like floating through a rustic cathedral. Pause and listen, and it can be appropriately hushed and meditative, too. Unless, of course, migration-gathering sandhill cranes crank up their primordial calls or a passing eagle loudly claims its territory.
“It’s unlike anywhere else in the Midwest,” said Michael Anderson, owner of Wabasha, Minn.-based Broken Paddle Guiding, which takes kayakers on flooded forest tours. He said a person usually would have to be along an ocean — certainly not landlocked — to explore this kind of intricate river delta with expansive backwaters and flood plains where the Chippewa River pours water and sand into the Mississippi near Wabasha. Paddlers have about 10 square miles of flooded backwaters to explore where the Mississippi narrows and sand deposits helped form Lake Pepin.
Recent rain, on top of a sufficiently wet summer, has made more backwaters accessible than usual. Summer rains have also boosted expectations for vibrant fall colors. While flood plain trees tend to be on the muted side, surrounding river bluffs deliver the full spectrum of red maple to bronzed oaks.
“It’s fun to paddle and look at the bluffs when they’re on fire with color,” Anderson said.
Here are more standout places in the metro and greater Minnesota for enjoying fall colors. Check park sites for current trail conditions, and see weekly fall color reports at dnr.state.mn.us/fallcolors.
1. Broken Paddle Guiding Co. offers several tours, including the flood forest tour, a sunset and brewery tour, and a family-friendly raptor tour that includes admission to the National Eagle Center. Kayaks and stand-up paddleboards can also be rented for DIY exploring. (brokenpaddleguiding.com)
2. Savor fall colors with the bonus of the St. Croix River’s dramatic geology near Taylors Falls, Minn., Wild Mountain rents canoes that launch from Interstate State Park. Shuttle back from the landing at Osceola (7 miles) or William O’Brien State Park near Marine on St. Croix. (wildmountain.com)
3. While it’s best known for exhilarating mountain bike trails, you can also paddle across the clear waters of former mining pits with views of colorful hillsides at Cuyuna Country State Recreational Area (dnr.state.mn.us/cuyuna) northeast of Brainerd. Watch for sunfish darting among the branches of underwater trees near the shoreline. Kayaks, canoes and paddleboards can be rented from Cycle Path and Paddle in Crosby. (cyclepathpaddle.com)
4. This is the last weekend of the season for the Mississippi River Paddle Share program (paddleshare.org), which provides rentable kayaks at riverside spots such as Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park. Paddlers can float 7.5 miles to North Mississippi Regional Park in Minneapolis to the kayak-return station. It’s also the last weekend for watercraft rentals at Eden Prairie’s Bryant Lake Regional Park or Carver Park Reserve in Victoria. (threeriversparks.org)
5. For a guided fall-color trip through the Twin Cities’ Mississippi River gorge, Wilderness Inquiry uses 24-foot cedar-strip voyageur canoes that can hold six to nine paddlers. The half-day outings include paddling lessons and are open to all abilities, but they do fill quickly. Tours with openings at press time include the Oct. 5 and Oct. 12 excursions. (wildernessinquiry.org)
1. The Paul Bunyan State Trail lets cyclists log serious miles on the country’s longest continuously paved bike trail. It spools past glittering blue lakes and rivers along with golden tamarack contrasting against white birch and dark-green pines. The trail begins south of Brainerd-Baxter at Crow Wing State Park and meanders north more than 120 miles until it reaches Lake Bemidji State Park. For a short, leisurely stretch, try the 6.2 mile trek from Nisswa to Pequot Lakes and stop for lunch. (dnr.state.mn.us/state_trails)
2. Add elevation and adrenaline with flow trails and roller coasters for mountain bikers at ski resorts. Detroit Mountain (detroitmountain.com) 3 miles east of Detroit Lakes and Giants Ridge (giantsridge.com) near Biwabik on the Iron Range both rent bikes and equipment with lift tickets for a speedy ride that is all downhill.
3. Duluth’s Spirit Mountain (spiritmt.com) also offers lift tickets and the one-way, single-track Happy Camper Trail. Use the lift to access the Duluth Traverse Trail, which follows the city’s ridgeline for some of the state’s most postcard-worthy views of the St. Louis River, Duluth Harbor and Lake Superior. The Traverse Trail links to challenging loops at parks along the way.
4. Catch the 39-mile Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail in Faribault to ride west through woods, lakes and prairie at Sakatah Lake State Park, Waterville and Elysian on the way to Mankato (dnr.state.mn.us/state_trails/sakatah). In Mankato, stretch the ride by hopping onto to the Minnesota River Trail and the Red Jacket Trail. (bit.ly/mankatobike)
5. Enjoy easy family friendly pedaling along Dakota Rail Regional Trail, which stretches 25 ½ miles from Wayzata west to Mayer with plenty of places to stop for burgers or ice cream, including the 1960s Minnetonka Drive-In (threeriversparks.org).
1. The North Shore’s brightest colors can be found slightly inland from Lake Superior with some of the best hikes tucked into the Sawtooth Mountains. The 3-mile Oberg Mountain hike can be reached by turning west off Hwy. 61 onto Onion River Road. Stellar views stretch across vibrant maples, birch and evergreens. Extend the hike with a 3.3-mile LeVeaux Mountain Trail, which starts from the same parking area. (bit.ly/northhike)
2. For sweeping views of the St. Croix River and golden maples, head to Hastings’ Afton State Park, which has a guided autumn walk Oct. 12. The park’s 20 miles of hiking include South River Trail, a 2-mile one-way hike, and the 5.7-mile Trout Brook Loop that crosses through a ravine and up to the bluff. (dnr.state.mn.us/afton)
3. Enjoy the colors of the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Carver while on a guided birding hike from 8 to 10:30 a.m. Meet at the visitors center Oct. 6 and 20 and Oct. 26. BYOB — bring your own binoculars. (fws.gov/refuge/Minnesota_valley)
4. About 90 minutes north of the Twin Cities, get a stair-stepping workout and the reward of orange-and-red treetop views with a climb up the 100-foot former fire observation tower at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. While much of the park offers maple and basswood forest, golden tamarack can be seen on the half-mile Touch the Earth Trail as it heads through a bog. Thirty-five miles of trails traverse the park’s glacial moraines. (dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/).
5. With lush woods that are mostly undeveloped, it’s easy to escape the bustle of the ’burbs on more than 20 miles of trails that weave through Savage’s Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve. National Audubon Society designated its 2,500 acres as an Important Bird Area for songbirds and other species. Visitors can join prairie seed collections Oct. 1 and 12 or look for more than 30 geocaches (threeriversparks.org/locations).
Lisa Meyers McClintick, a Star Tribune contributor since 2001, recently won Travel Journalist of the Year through the Midwest Travel Journalists Association. (lisamcclintick.com)