Canoeing Minnesota’s Crow River

The Crow River watershed is largely located within the area 100 miles west from the Twin Cities before it detours northeast to dump into the Mississippi and form the border of Hennepin County. While the river stretches upstream for countless unmarked miles and also includes a Middle Fork, only the North Fork beginning at the Lake Koronis outlet and the South Fork at Cosmos have official Minnesota DNR maps. That’s fortunate for us because we found 126 miles on the North Fork plus another 96 on the South Fork plenty. We paddled these combined 222 miles over nine trips. Here’s the details.

The North Fork

4/29/23: Lake Koronis Outlet to Forest City (85.65 feet at Manannah gauge)
Garmin track of our 22 mile paddle from Lake Koronis outlet to Forest City. It took us just over 4 hours with one break. Average river gradient in this stretch is just over 3 feet per mile so we dropped about 70 feet total.

We parked our car on the side of the road at the bridge over the Lake Koronis outlet and dam. There was a small pull-out there. The wind was whipping off the lake but seeing as the forecast had called for rain, we were pleasantly surprised by intermittent sunshine and mostly blue skies. Some ice was piled up on the down-wind shore. The water was chucking over the dam and I noted there were no buoys marking the spillway. At least it was a relatively benign-looking dam.

The first hazard of the trip that was neither marked on the map or discussed in our 1999 guidebook edition, Paddling Minnesota by Greg Breining, was what appeared to be a fish fence just below the dam that we saw on Google Satellite when scoping out if we could indeed park our car by the bridge. We could barely make out the top of what best looked like a metal fish fence from the satellite images and saw the wave going over and knew enough not to paddle over it.

Flooded outlet of the North Fork of the Crow. On the right is the bike bridge (highway bridge next to it) and some of the bigger waves from the dam. On the left, just downstream of the near flooded tree, is the wave from the fish gate.

So we launched our canoe in some flooded farm field and paddled a slightly wide course before gaining the river. Once in the main current there were a series of “ice bergs” and as we entered the first marsh section, saw that the buoys marking the dam had been swept downstream and lodged into the marsh grass.

Looking downstream from where we put-in. We actually put-in just to the left of this as there were some big rocks to the right.

After a brief time in the marsh, the banks got more wooded and soon we were passing through the “ditched” part of the river, although largely we were paddling at the top of the ditch with water on both sides. The map and guidebook both said to be careful of strainers and farm fences in this area but we had no difficulties with either.

Looking downstream in the ditched section.
Paddling the ditched section, me with my rain jacket off since it got sunny, looking back at the surprisingly low Highway 4 bridge.

Eventually, after a couple miles, the ditch section ended and the river made some turns. Here we were able to make a couple cuts through the flooded forest. At mile 121.5 we passed what appeared to be the completely flooded official DNR Manannah Campsite. Near mile 120, the banks got steeper, the river all flowed together, and we had a fun couple miles of corners and fast current and clocked a mile in 8:10. Unfortunately this section was very short-lived and soon we returned to the slower flooded forest.

Entering the high bank section.
Selfie in the high banks section with some grain augers up on shore.

The flooded forest is kinda fun but the water seemingly runs everywhere making it both difficult to stay on the main channel AND tempting to cut off some oxbows through the flooded forest. We resisted the urge to cut everywhere but per our Garmin we definitely made some good cuts.

Example of where we made some good cuts

With three miles to go to the Highway 22 river access, we decided to take a break there. A brief rainstorm came up and fortunately I had decided to put my rainjacket back on at the first drops as it had been more cloudy and I was sure glad I decided to do so because it was a steady rain for a few minutes. Then the sun came back out which was nice.

At the Highway 22 river access we took a 15 minute break, eating some food and walking around the somewhat flooded ramp. There was no outhouse or portapotty. Then we returned to the flooded forest and tried to follow the channel, or sometimes, tried to take some good cuts and got kinda lost but kept following the current (looking at the flooded grasses underwater) and found our way back.

Flooded forest.
We even saw some snow!

All the effort looking for a channel was tedious. The sun would come out and we’d be paddling downwind and it would be hot and then the sun would disappear behind the clouds and we’d head back into the wind and it would get cold again.

Still paddling through the flooded waters.

Of note, there was a bridge at mile 109 marked as low but we had no difficulties with this one. We didn’t have to portage any bridges but there was one that we elected to take on the far outside where the bridge was a bit higher and a couple more that were low and had some moderately fast moving water.

My arms had started hurting 10 miles into the paddle and they were bothering me more and more. After our break I was counting down the miles on my Garmin. When we had about a mile to go we took another cut that seemed like it wasn’t working out so well. Eventually we found the river but then it was so flooded it was hard to stay in the channel and I got really frustrated. That’s when we saw the fences marking the end of our day at Shaw Memorial Park in Forest City.

Last cuts of the day.

While Erik biked back to get the car, I played on the playground and did a run/walk workout and took some photos.

Photo looking upstream from Forest City. Quite flooded.
And photo looking downstream.
5/14/22: Forest City to Wildlife County Park (2200 cfs at Cokato gauge)
34 miles on the North Fork of the Crow. Average gradient of 3 feet per mile.

We drove to Forest City, dropped me and the canoe off, and then Erik drove with his bike to the take-out and then biked back to the start. Hence we paddled with his bike in the canoe.

After our 2019 paddle of the section downstream of this, we had high expectations. We paddled at approximately the same water levels as 2019 and so expected to cut lots through the flooded forest. That’s just what we did but a bit upstream of Kingston the cuts seemed to be adding more time than taking away as we felt like we were getting lost.


The river all came together for the mile long paddle through the tiny hamlet of Kingston where we had the most fun canoeing through a tennis court.

Paddling on the Kingston tennis court.

Seeing as the day was wearing on, I proposed that we stop canoeing through the forest because we still had lots of miles to make before sundown. But the cuts were just so tempting and so we kept taking them and then the current would fizzle out and we’d be tediously looking at the weeds under the water to make sure we were still traveling downstream. We got particularly lost by where the Big Swan Lake outlet came in.

By the time we got to the Hwy 2 bridge, we finally stopped for a much needed break. I declared that we absolutely just follow the channel from here to the end but within a mile of paddling we simply couldn’t figure out where the main channel was. It was just wide and flooded.

“If I were a river,” I began belting Whitney Houston style, extending the I for several seconds. I was getting loopy though cause soon I was onto the Bob Dylan version, making it sound more like lyrical talking than actually singing.

If I were a river…where would I be?

Eventually we found the channel again and then were pretty much able to follow it.

The 10th Street NW bridge was largely underwater and there was no way we were going to canoe under or over it, so alas we had to portage this one. Then we were closing in on Wildlife County Park, watching the tenths of a mile add up on our Garmin’s. With the sun getting low in the sky, we got to Wildlife County Park and had some difficulty getting out at the “dock” due to the flooded water.

Nearing the end. A bit less flooded forest with some taller banks.
6/2/19: Wildlife County Park to Humphrey – Arends Memorial County Park (2300 cfs at the Cokato gauge)
21 miles in 4 hours; river dropped about 40 feet

This was perhaps, our most favorite trip on the North Fork of the Crow other than that we had a party to get to and so near the end I got stressed out on time. The current was chucking and we made some really good, somewhat dicey, cuts between the trees. It was most awesome when we were able to avoid the numerous strainers (i.e. trees down obstructing the river) by paddling through the surrounding forest.

5/13/18: Humphrey – Arends Memorial County Park to Crow Springs County Park (700 cfs at Cokato Gauge)
9 miles, two hours

We did this very short paddle on Mother’s Day with Erik’s parents, which explains why we only went 9 miles. The river was much lower than when we paddled the sections farther upstream and that was probably a good thing with the ‘rents. On one bend, Erik’s parents taking up the rear, likely hit a hidden stump and tipped their boat. They had to clamber out onto a several foot high bank (the outside bank) which wasn’t exactly easy while Erik and I fetched some runaway gear.

At the take-out Erik completed a relatively short bike shuttle but the roads didn’t quite go through so that added on some miles.

5/6/17: Crow Springs County Park to Rockford (1700 cfs at Rockford gauge)
19 miles; 4 hours and 40 minutes

Together with our friends Brynn and James we paddled this section of the river although we also added the extra loop. We paddled downstream first, then the extra loop on the south side back upstream, then back downstream again to do ALL of the North Fork of the Crow. Water levels were quite reasonable and there were even a couple Class I rapids.

James and Brynn paddling our Jensen 18 with the shark teeth.
Swollen river.
Looking downstream. Kinda wide but not so wide.
Erik paddling. This photo shows the cover we have on our Jensen Mixer.
The occasional dead trees lodged in the river creating some hazards.

The South Fork

6/5/22: Cosmos to Hutchinson (375 cfs at Cosmos gauge)
Garmin track of our 29 mile paddle from Cosmos to Hutchinson. 6 hours and 45 minutes, down 50 feet.

After our trip on the Big Fork River, water levels were still well above average and I wanted to do one more paddle trip before we settled into summer house projects. So we drove to Hutchinson, dropped off Erik’s bike since we were concerned about portaging around logjams and didn’t want the extra weight in the canoe, and then drove to Cosmos where we put-in. The town of Cosmos goes all out on their theme complete with a painted water tower of planets and aptly named streets.

There was even a bike rack in Hutchinson where we left Erik’s bike!

Shortly after putting in we paddled through a ditched section.

Swollen ditched paddling.
Entering ditched area with more trees.

After a few miles the ditched section was over and we entered the forest. And then the logjams started. And so we portaged and portaged and portaged. OK, there really weren’t that many, only six or eight or so. We lost count but by the time we got to the County Road 35 bridge, we were out of the logjams.

Lots of overhanging trees. No logjams here.
Logjam behind us!

The remainder of the paddle went well enough, slightly slow but the river wasn’t flooded and the current descent until we got to Campbell Lake and the backed up waters from the dam in Hutchinson.

Erik peddled his bike back to Cosmos while I surveyed the new rock dam in Hutchinson, trying to figure out if there was any decent line to take over the many steps. I couldn’t find any without hitting lots of rocks.

5/6/23-5/7/23: Hutchinson to Watertown (Lester Prairie Gauge 39.25 feet)

We saved this last section of the South Fork of the Crow for last as the map was less than inspiring and included 30 miles of frequent logjams. Given we weren’t in great paddling shape and wanted to give ourselves some cushion with navigating the logjams, we turned this into an overnight trip even though there were no designated campsites.

Photo of the less than inspiring 52 miles from Hutchinson to Watertown. No boat launches noted!

The forecast called for mild temperature (mostly 60s with lows dipping into the upper 50s and Sunday’s high well into the 70s) but a threat of rain around 5 pm on Saturday. We decided to go for it anyway, especially seeing as we had lined Erik’s parents up to help us with a shuttle.

After I attended a brief early morning conference, we drove to Erik’s parents in the west metro to exchange keys and eat some yummy lunch. By the time we were putting in, it was nearly 2 pm. We parked off Adams street on the northeast side of town where there is a parking lot for the Luce Line Trail. From here we portaged a brief ways upstream, deciding along the way just how many of the sub-dams to shoot. Below the main rock dam in Hutchinson is a series of successively smaller drops. From far away these didn’t look too bad but as we got closer they looked bigger and bigger so in the end we put-in just above the pedestrian bridge and only shot the last visible dam (there may have been more but water levels were high).

The next few miles were heavily developed as we paddled past houses, ball fields, the big 3M plant, and finally the wastewater treatment facility. Many miles later we’d pass the garbage dump:) Otherwise it was largely wooded with good current. About six miles downstream of Hutchinson we entered the section of map marked with logjams. Not long after we had to get out and portage around one. We hadn’t gone very far when we found the County 4 Bridge completed obstructed by down trees. We had to get out here and portage, too, over a quaint gravel road intersection.

Hutchinson Wastewater Treatment Plant

Perhaps we got lucky at the next few logjams that we were able to bash through, all this often involved ferrying back upstream, choosing a different line, pushing, heaving, and sometimes stabbing ourselves on logs and the occasional still-alive tree.

Passing a big rock onshore.
Fortunately this bridge was only partly obstructed by logs.

The County Road 71 bridge was quite low and laying back in my seat I watched the concrete go by only a foot above my head at over 3 mph.

As we neared 5 pm, the hour of the supposed rain storms, the sun started to poke out more and more, although we heard some thunder to our north. There were fewer logjams than we anticipated. Erik was getting hungry for dinner and so we stopped at the County Road 11 bridge which came up soon enough. There was even a sandy spot to land just downstream on the left. After a 15 minute stop, we got back on the water.

Looking downstream from our sandy dinner location at the County Road 11 bridge.

The next section of river was surprisingly wonderful with almost no tree obstructions and we were able to paddle and talk.

Some high sandy banks and the good part of the river from about mile 50 (County Road 11) to 38 (County Road 84).

Around 7 pm we canoed under the County Road 15 bridge and entered a brief area called the WMA 40. This was some public land and hence Erik had spotted it for camping. We stopped on a muddy low patch of land and debated paddling for another hour versus setting up camp. I wanted to paddle another hour to set us up better for the next day and when we saw a couple people across the river, Erik agreed to keep going.

Initial spot Erik wanted to camp (note, he had actually picked out some slightly higher ground that I didn’t take a photo of).

As it got increasingly darker, I began looking for places to camp. We passed up some potentials, then went under the County Road 84 bridge. Here the river divided into a bunch of channels. We went left, couldn’t get through and decided to paddle back upstream and go right, which we did but it necessitated a brief portage by some cows (they were fenced in). We went around an oxbow and passed a nice house, then the streams seemed to come back together, we were in a large area of low forest and were slowly picking out way through some downed trees and I proposed we camped on the lowland on the left.

“But there’s houses all around!” Erik declared.

“Yes, but they are largely obstructed by trees and we have water all around us,” I countered.

In the end we decided to stay and I was glad we did as we had just enough time to set up camp and brush our teeth before it got dark. Erik checked the radar and noted a thunderstorm moving through Hutchinson and sure enough I started hearing the rumbling and the flashing lights and 15 minutes later there was a downpour. We stayed dry inside our seven year old Triplex Zpacks tent but I was a bit worried all the rain would raise the water levels and flood us out. Fortunately it didn’t.

My Garmin track from the first day of this trip: 28 miles from Hutchinson to about Lester Prairie. It took us just over 6 hours and we dropped 60 feet.
Our low-lying tent site where the river mostly came together just below where it had divided into a bunch of channels.
This photo shows all the log debris at the head of our little island that probably helped form this bit of land.
Sunrise from our camp.

We began stirring around dawn but didn’t get up until sunrise. It was relatively warm and bug-free for getting up which made eating breakfast and packing up go a bit quicker than usual and we were on the water just before 7 am. From the beginning, the river demanded all of our attention. Constantly we were avoiding parts of trees hanging over or fallen into the river. Frequently we had to back up and take a new line at logjams, using some flood stage help as we paddled around in the forest. We’d grab our “beater” paddles and shove our way over logs. Yet we only had to get out twice – once we waded in some flood water and the other time we had to clamor out on a tree in the middle of the river.

Trying to do justice on a logjam photo but not really doing a good job. In the moment, when we’re trying to get through the logjams and keep the boat afloat in the current, dealing with the challenge at hand, I don’t even think about taking a photo.
Typical South Fork of the Crow scenery – mostly wooded but passed a few houses and farms.

Eventually though we were through the section of down trees, passed under Highway 7, and then we only had a couple struggles – one log jam and another time when we rounded a right bend and all the water was shoving us into the canopy of a down tree parallel to the current. We almost tipped and it got my heart racing but fortunately after years of paddling, we know how to keep our weight and force going in the vectors that keep the canoe upright.

A farm along the river.
River getting wide and out of the log jams except for a couple downstream of Hwy 7.

Soon enough we were paddling under the highway 25 bridge and then in Watertown proper as we paddled under the ridiculous looking Luce Line Trail bridge and then over the low head dam in Watertown which we had ran previously when we paddled from Watertown to Rockford.

It was pleasant weather and we were lucky that the only thunderstorm came after we’d gotten the tent all sent up. It was nice that Erik’s parents met us in Watertown, having picked up our car in Hutchinson. While this section would provide a nice bike shuttle entirely on the Luce Line, it would still be 28 miles of biking which would take a decent while.

My Garmin track of our second day from approximately Lester Prairie to Watertown. 23 miles, 50 feet of elevation loss. 4 hours, 46 minutes.
5/10/14: Watertown to Rockford (2,390 cfs at Delano gauge)
Zoom-in of the map from Watertown to Rockford.

This trip predated the use of our Garmin’s, back in the day when the battery life wasn’t terribly good. My records indicate it took us 3 hours to paddle this 15 mile stretch of river so there was decent current. Erik’s parents joined us and we had some high water. While Erik’s parents stuck to the main stream, Erik and I had fun canoeing through the flooded forest. There weren’t many oxbows to cut off, mostly we just canoes parallel to the river in the flooded forest.

All Together Now

In Rockford the North and South forks of the Crow join together and travel another 26 miles to the Mississippi River, passing by Crow Hassan Park Reserve along the way.

5/7/16: Rockford to the Mississippi River (1,580 cfs at Rockford gauge)
Map of the final miles of Minnesota’s Crow.

We also paddled this section of river with our friend Brynn with a solo kayak and our Jensen 18. The weather was splendid and the current helped us a long. We tried a different mount for Erik’s “commuter” tri bike and found it quite tippy with the higher center of gravity. This was the only time we did something so foolish.

Erik took this photo from his kayak.
Always searching for maximum efficiency, to cut down on driving, we paddled with Erik’s bike in the canoe which he used for the shuttle. Looks a lot like one of my dad’s contraptions – see my photos tab.

There were no obstructions or rapids in this section of the river and we were able to cruise. It was fun having some different company and someone to wait with while Erik did the shuttle.

222 miles is a lot of paddling, especially at an average of 4-5 miles per hour. Erik and I always like the more intimate rivers, when they’re smaller. Thus, we found the best section of river to be the North Fork between Wildlife County Park and Humphrey-Arends Memorial County Park. This section does have it’s challenges with logjams, strainers, and many bends, all made more dangerous (and arguably more fun) under high water. We got lost many times paddling through flooded forest upstream of Wildlife County Park which was frustrating at times. Meanwhile the South Fork was logjam laden, almost the entire way to Watertown. Despite being wider, we did enjoy our paddles from Watertown to the Mississippi as there were mostly just enough bends for ever changing scenery and the current moved along.

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