This State Has 32 Waterways Covering Over 4,400 Miles — and They're the Perfect Place to See Fall Foliage

Fall scene of Mississippi River Valley in the mornig fog from scenic overlook in Great River Bluffs State Park near Winona.

Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota Tourism

Leaf peepers tend to gravitate toward long scenic drives and wooded hiking trails, but one of the best ways to see fall foliage is from the water — the fall colors are mirrored on the surface of the water and the vantage point can shift with the simple tilt of a paddle. 

It’s no surprise that one of the best places to see the fall colors by water is Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes (although the real count is 11,482). The state is also home to more than 6,500 natural rivers and streams — including 32 designated water trails that are maintained by Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources. These 32 waterways make up the oldest water trail system in the nation and cover a whopping 4,400 miles of terrain.

Among the 4,400 miles are quiet, scenic stretches that pass through colorful, tree-covered valleys and steep gorges carved by glaciers. The views from the waterways listed below are unmatched — especially when the leaves begin to turn. And to make your trip planning a little easier, we’ve also noted where you can rent a canoe or kayak and what fall hikes you’ll find nearby. 

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Fall scene of Mississippi River Valley in the mornig fog from scenic overlook in Great River Bluffs State Park near Winona.

Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota Tourism

Did you know that the Mississippi River — the second-longest river in the U.S. and the fourth longest in the world — originates in Minnesota? One of the best ways to access it is via the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a 72-mile stretch of water that passes through quiet (and colorful) forests and valleys. 

You can hop on the watery route from the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metro and there’s a paddle share program that makes it easy to rent a boat and paddle to a destination downriver. Once you’ve had enough time on the water, check out the Winchell Trail, which passes along the bluffs and into forests of colorful maple trees.

Interstate State Park 

Fall canoeing on the St. Croix River at Interstate State Park

Paul Stafford/Explore Minnesota Tourism

In the fall, Interstate State Park puts on one of the state’s most colorful displays. The bright reds, oranges, and golds surround paddlers floating down the scenic St. Croix River, and it’s not uncommon to spot eagles and herons.

For a different vantage point, visitors can tie up their canoe and explore the park by foot. A hike up the cliffs of the St. Croix River Dalles showcases the extent of the park’s rugged beauty, which was carved out by massive glaciers. There are canoe rentals inside the park, as well as an inter-park shuttle service.

William O’Brien State Park 

A Fall view of William O'Brien State Park: Minnesota along the banks of the St. Croix River

Sunny Augustine/Explore Minnesota Tourism

William O’Brien State Park is perched along the beautiful St. Croix River. The stretch of water that passes through the park is ideal for paddlers searching for beautiful sights and wooded areas known for their spectacular fall colors. The park is also a migratory pathway with excellent bird and wildlife spotting.

Canoe rentals are available in the park, and a nice paddle pairs well with a journey up the short Riverside Trail, which passes under 100-year-old pine trees.


St. Croix State Park

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota's largest, spanning over 34,000 acres. A 200-foot gorge and several scenic rock formations mark the giant swath of protected land, which is covered in dense forest. In the fall, the park comes alive with color, turning bright shades of yellow and red. 

The autumn show is stunning when viewed from the calm waters and easy rapids of the St. Croix and Kettle rivers. Canoes and kayaks are available to rent within the park and there is also an extensive trail system, including an easy 1-mile loop from the River's Edge Trail to the River Bluff Trail.

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