Cannon Falls to Welch:
A bluff country paddle full of numerous riffles, gravel bars and island channels that cut through bluffed-valleys 300′ tall along the eastern edge of Minnesota’s Driftless region, this popular section of the Cannon River is an absolutely delightful way to spend an afternoon. Aside from maybe early or late in the paddling season, you may never have this river to yourself, but don’t let that dissuade you.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 25, 2019
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles (Class I)
4.8′ per mile
Welch: ht/ft: 4.55 | cfs: 780
This is a very recommendable level. Using this chart for reference, 300-1,540 are “Medium” levels.
Riverside Park, off Highway 20, Cannon Falls, Minnesota
Welch Mill Canoeing, Tubing & Kayaking, off County 7 Boulevard, Welch, Minnesota
Time: Put in at 1:25. Out at 3:45.
Total Time: 2h 20m
Miles Paddled: 11.75
Turkey vulture, fish, snapping turtles and eagles.
The Cannon Valley Trail is an excellent Waves-To-Trail paddle. In total, it’s about an 11-mile or 55 minute shuttle (or in my case, with ripped shorts and a shitty CannonDud, about 15 minutes longer). It does require a $5 “Wheel Pass” as they call it, but it’s worth it. The Cannon Valley Trail eventually hooks up with the Cannon Falls City Trail which doesn’t require a fee.
Ever since expanding the Miles Paddled footprint to Minnesota back in 2015 where I paddled the Cannon and the Zumbro Rivers, I’ve been itching to return. There’s still just so much to explore and I’ve barely made a dent in Lynne and Robert Diebel’s excellent “Paddling Southern Minnesota”, so I made it a point to return before too much more time passed.
There’s just something about Minnesota driftless rivers that I find so alluring. It’s not only the beauty of these environments, but also the ease of access to these rivers. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources absolutely does right by outdoor enthusiasts, catering to bikers, fisherman and specifically, paddlers. Their user-friendly water gauge is unlike most. Paddling information is maintained and updated with new information as nature dictates, without getting mired in the too technical (nor too vague).
Now sure, all of this comes at a cost but we’re talking a small fee (annual or daily) for bikers, a fishing license, or a boat sticker for paddlers. What this income provides are maintained trails, launches, facilities, programs, and tools instead of being earmarked for other uses in the state. Minnesota carries a certain pride to protecting their natural resources, but also in encouraging outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy those resources. It’s almost enough to make a Wisconsinite jealous.
Before I left Madison for my trip in 2015, I reached out to Lynne Diebel to ask about sections of the Cannon and Zumbro, but my timing was a little off. I emailed her on May 24th, I paddled the Cannon on May 31st, and she replied on June 1st while I was already on the Zumbro. So unfortunately, I didn’t benefit from her recommendations at the time.
“My advice… …though both Cannon trips are beautiful, I would choose Cannon 3 as the bluffs are more striking. A nice plus is that if you’re into bike shuttles, the trail is great. That stretch of river is really busy on warm weekends, so a weekday is best. Take out at Welch if you want a shorter trip, but be sure to ask permission at the canoe rental. Update to the book: Hidden Valley Campground on Cannon 3 is no more. They had a non-compliant wastewater pipe running into the river and the State shut them down.”
Since then, I always had it in the back of my head that when I returned, I’d certainly explore Cannon 3, especially after enjoying my first Cannon adventure. In fact, my plan this week was to start in Cannon Falls and work my way south on a four-day, four-paddle trip (Spoiler: The weather and levels looked good at the outset for such an endeavor, well, until weather did what weather does. It changed. The entire trip was cut to two days.)
I took Lynne’s advice on shortening this specific section for two reasons: One, because 20 miles (the trip she recorded in their guidebook) is far too much to paddle in a day based on my experience, and two, that would also make for an incredibly long bike-shuttle (and I don’t care for bike-shuttling all that much. No, not on my Cannondale/Crappondale).
So that meant taking-out at the Welch Mill access where you can rent tubes, canoes and kayaks. There’s no way to take-out anywhere but that access without paying a fee as all four corners are private. Even rogue-launching is out of the question. I say that because when I pulled in-and-around to scout my options, I noticed I was being tailed by a guy on an ATV (I kid you not). I never stopped long enough to strike up a convo, but he’s definitely the owner since I saw him later working around the resort.
I stopped at the main rental shack, where I found out it was only $5 to take-out there, which I was completely fine with. The ladies inside were super-friendly and gave me a wristband so they (and ATV-security guy, I’m assuming) knew I was on the up-and-up upon my return. It seemed to be a family affair and would be kind of a cool gig, as far as seasonal work goes. The $5, in hindsight, is money well spent for this access point – even taking-out amongst dozens of tubers.
The put-in at Riverside Park in Cannon Falls is top-notch, with plenty of parking and facilities. You’ll find a clearly-marked launch point and beach-y little landing area just across the city bike path (which connects to the Cannon Valley trail).
The paddle starts with some splashy riffles on the approach to the 3rd Street bridge, followed by another fun riffly curve around an island where I was swept towards the left bank due to a surprisingly forceful current. Things soon settle down with intermittent riffle beds, and wider straightaways with low pebble-strewn banks on each wing.
At one point, there’s a unique and lengthy tree-lined bend on river-left, and a massive rocky peninsula on the right. This is followed by some low-cut sandy banks that transition to the first rocky outcrops/cuts of the day. They’re small, but offer the perfect locale to rope swing, if you care to (rope swing, included).
Soon you’ll encounter a steep incline on river-left. If you look real hard, you’ll find some outcrops hidden in the trees (the boulder slabs at the base of the bank are your giveaway). More riffles and standing waves begin through a straightaway around another sweeping curve. Here, it became evident that the horizon downstream was much lower, which always makes for a cool effect. That’s a very common sight on the Cannon and though the obvious visual decline doesn’t result in more riffles and rapids (all the time), it’s an appealing feeling – that you’re actually moving down river.
Suddenly, a rather dramatic outcrop appears straight ahead – the only one on the trip that’s totally naked/unobscured by foliage. It’s modest but pretty. The left bank grows taller and holds a few more of these secrets to eyeball if you look real hard between the brush. Islands become more frequent, splitting the river and creating more channels and usually more riffles. There’s one particularly unique island that looks more like a peninsula made up of thousands (millions? googles?) of stones. The narrow passageway is rather unique in that it feels like a natural canal.
By this time in the paddle on a normal summer Sunday, you’ll have encountered at least two dozen canoers, kayakers and even rafters. And fishermen and fisherwomen. They were all over the place. I alluded to it earlier, but this section is heavily recreated on, and by the time I took-out (and I’m not even joking) I easily passed 200 people if I include the tubing-contingent, which I would soon encounter in full force.
Rocky banks continue to alternate from shore to shore, and every so often you’ll see that horizon drop a little bit more in the distance as you wind around various islands. This continues for a stretch and is quite pleasant, but there’s less outcrops, less riffles and the river gets a little wider – which means, it’s also gotten shallower. But it never got too shallow as to get hung up on anything (well, except for those who didn’t/couldn’t read the current).
When things settle down in a paddle, my mind usually wanders (and wonders) and is always on the lookout for some sort of stimulation. I’m usually looking for wildlife, but there was little to be seen, which was no surprise considering the amount of traffic on the river. The water wasn’t very clear (nor was it on my first visit either) and I could only see about a foot below the surface, so though I spotted a few fish, the cloudiness made that more of a bonus, than an expectation. There was, however, some artificial stimulation from the bikers riding the trail that parallels most of this section on the bank above – their colored bike helmets “blinking” between openings in the woods often caught my eye.
Once you encounter the Miesville Ravine Park Reserve, you’ll soon have even more company, because this is where (most of) the tubers put-in. There’s a bend in the road where they access the river, and it’s identifiable not only because of the busses that may be unloading, but because of the large powerlines directly overhead that also lead downstream. Those lines also direct their way to some fun riffles just beyond and around a rocky stretch. This becomes more common past Miesville. There’s none of the outcrops of upstream but there’s more fun islands/channels and light riffles to be had.
Now, tubers rarely bother me (unless they’re really obnoxious) but I probably bothered them since I’m one of those oddball kayakers who has a camera mounted to my deck – it’s hard not to notice. And, who wants to get recorded by some random stranger solo-paddling in his kayak? (Who knows where that video may show up?) Most people, I imagine. Anyway, the one person who did say something along the trip, yelled “are you live-streaming your paddle?!”, which I actually thought was kinda funny.
Further past Miesville, modest riffles continue but nothing dramatic is observed except for a giant sandbar party I came upon. Clearly, there had been some planning with this one as there were at least fifty people with tents and grills, cooking burgers, brats, etc. I’ll admit, the smell of those charcoaled meats made me hungry. The party place was also at a unique point in the river where one could choose an alternate path which looked fun and riffly, but alas, this river-right offshoot from the main stem was blocked by these party people. However, the straight-ahead option was just as appealing where another island splits the river and both channels are swift and splashy.
The river eventually straightens, the right bank rises, and after another short straightaway, there’s more splashy riffles along a rocky left-banked bend. Things quiet down with some light riffles and soon the County Road 7 bridge can be seen as well as the take-out at Welch Mill on river-left. Here, you could continue down another seven to eight miles to the public access point, but as Lynn’s writeup suggests, it eventually slows and flattens out. She also mentions “the landing is eroded, overgrown and hard to find”. That may or may not be the case anymore (I didn’t scout it).
I was waved in by a friendly young man who must have seen my wristband, because he directed me to a specific place on the beach alongside some fisherman exiting their canoes. I assume it was because I had some tubers coming up behind me and chances were good that they probably weren’t in any condition to steer their tubes accurately to the landing after all that Buschhhhhh.
After 12-plus miles, the convenience of this access point with bathrooms, changing rooms, parking and a roaring fire so tubers as well this random kayaker could warm up, far outweighed the $5 price of admission. It was quite welcome.
Once I warmed up, I set off to bike-shuttle back to Cannon Falls via the Cannon Valley Trail, which does require a wheel pass for $5/day (or $24 annually which is quite the deal). The trail is paved, maintained, and offers many convenient amenities along the way like scenic stops overlooking the river, bike maintenance stations, restrooms and even a free little library. The path is generally even and flat despite the gradient of the river below (it is a former train track of course, so it can’t be too uneven).
I find Waves-to-Trails (again, did we TM that yet?) shuttles that abut rivers really interesting, because I love reliving these paddles in reverse – especially when you can still see others paddling downstream late in the day like I did. This one often offers a bird’s-eye which is even more interesting. Also, Lynn mentioned in her email that the sprawling Hidden Valley Campground referenced in her book is no longer. Indeed, they fought for years to stay open but eventually lost their permit in 2015 for a variety of reasons. From the trail, you can see the former (and sprawling) campground. It reminded me of the book “World Without Us” come to fruition – where Mother Nature starts taking back what’s hers. There’s a basketball hoop sticking out of some tall marsh grass that gave me the creeps.
Speaking of camping, I camped at Lake Byllesby Regional Park, situated at (of course) Lake Billaby, which is an artificial lake created by a dam on the Cannon.
It was closest to the paddle and if there was something more rugged, I would’ve preferred that but beggars are not choosers. I rolled up late, and by chance met the friendly campground host who was locking up for the evening. He let me grab some firewood, gave me the lay of the open spaces (not many – I was surprised for being a Sunday night) and he didn’t even require payment until the morning for either. A gentlemen’s agreement? You sir, I love.
What we liked:
This section of the Cannon River was far more fun than the previous section I paddled, but the amazing sheer-cut walls on that trip take the edge on overall aesthetics. But despite it not being as dramatic or photogenic as the first, it’s far more playful. You could say that Cannon River I is all-business, while II is the Cannon letting loose on the weekend.
And that’s part of why it’s so popular, well, and that there’s a tubing business on this section. But, add in the delight of the take-out at Welch Mill where I enjoyed that communal (beer?) buzz of a fun and interesting day on the Cannon, before an equally interesting bike shuttle from put-in to take-out, this made for another solid Minnesota paddle.
You really do have to appreciate the Minnesota DNR for clearing, cleaning, building and maintaining these access points and keeping us updated on obstructions (or clearing thereafter) on their user-friendly website. Hats, way the hell off.
Lastly, I wanted to touch on the drive from Madison to Cannon Falls, which I really enjoy. It’s so historic, attractive and scenic that sometimes it’s hard to keep the car in the lane. Along the hardest working river in the U.S., this river is indeed hard at work with barges and tugboats towing this-and-that along run-down mills and rustic/rusty plants. But it’s not “charm”, because that’s kind of an insult. These towns are still running and we’re still moving commodities by way of water which is fascinating (I saw no signs of an Amazon 2-day barge, but it’s only a matter of time). There’s something about this rustic industrial setting that immediately makes me feel at home – though I did come from a papermill town.
Normally, I catch the road heading up to Cannon Falls at Red Wing, but due to construction, I crossed at LaCrosse and drove up through Winona and Lake City along Lake Pepin. I couldn’t help but notice that Lake City was called “the birthplace of water skiing”. I laughed because I always find it interesting when cities hang their hat on something so normal to me (but then again, I do come from the host of Wisconsin’s State Water Ski Show). But, as it turns out, the inventor of water skiing was Ralph Saumelson and he introduced this activity in 1922 on Lake Pepin. Lake Pepin itself is also interesting since the “lake” is still part of the Mississippi River (a lake within a river?), but once you travel north of Lake City, the surroundings change. It’s less rugged and rundown and suddenly it becomes the Lake Geneva or Door County of Minnesota. It’s suddenly pristine and manicured.
What we didn’t like:
I have no complaints about the paddle itself – it’s a great daytrip. Most people would prefer less company and tubers on the river, but I didn’t mind it because I totally expected it, especially being a beautiful summer Sunday.
There are things I didn’t much care for unrelated to the trip. Things outside of my control, except for maybe, dieting?
First, upon setting out on the bike-shuttle – like, as soon as I lifted my leg over my bike – I heard the recognizable sound of a “ripppppp!” It was a, “oh shit, what was that?” kind of rip. Turns out, it was the crotch of my new shorts. As soon as it happened, I was concerned, but I didn’t think it’d be a big deal. I mean, I only had to bike ten miles back to my car (it’s not like I keep a spare pair of shorts on hand in my kayak hatch). But while readjusting my rig (no pun intended) for the shuttle, they just kept splitting. Like, to the point I thought they might rip in two!
Now, of course I wasn’t going commando, but at this point, the split was too large to discreetly hide everything. But, I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal – I’d just self-register at the trail and hightail-it to the put-in while covering myself should I pass anybody on the trail.
But wouldn’t you know? There was no self-registration on this trail. No, there was an actual human in a booth (similar to Charlie Brown and Lucy’s psychiatric booth). So not only did I have to get off my bike and awkwardly cover myself up while walking up to pay the $5 fee (and of course, ripping my shorts further getting on and off my bike again), but I had to interact with said human while trying to play it cool. And then I had to bike those ten miles past incoming traffic while trying to hide my new “extra-breathable” shorts. I couldn’t wait to get back to the car.
Second, my Cannondale (circa 1994) is well-documented as a shitty bike. Though I put up with normal idiosyncrosies with this bike, suddenly, I had to manually change gears (like, lift the chain into different positions) numerous times throughout this relatively flat bike-shuttle. This was a new quirk I wasn’t aware of. So while my hand is covered in grease, I tried to keep my shorts closed while passing other bikers – all the while cursing at my bike – I’m sure that even the wildlife shook their heads at me.
Lastly, nobody on this trip was all that friendly, which kind of surprised me. I made some small talk with some kayakers and asked the fishermen how the fishing was, but nobody really wanted to chat it up, let alone make eye contact. The tubers were probably suspect of my camera as mentioned, which I understand. But on the bike trail – there was no eye contact or a friendly wave which was kind of weird. I would go out of my way to say “Hi” since we’re sharing a trail that very few others are on – but nothing. Then again, maybe they noticed I was basically biking in my underwear. Maybe that’s why nobody wanted to be friendly?
If we did this trip again:
I’d absolutely do this again, but I’d want to continue past the take-out at Welch and ride the inviting Class I rapids below the bridge created by the remnants of the former dam. Per Lynn’s writeup, had I asked for permission, I might’ve been able to take-out further downstream on (Welch Mill’s) private property, river-left. I would’ve inquired, but since I didn’t re-read Lynn’s writeup before doing this section (we’ve recently had this discussion about reading trip reports beforehand- do you want to know what you’re in for or do you want to be surprised? Ironic, right?) Instead, I missed out on a little more, albeit brief, fun.
But next time, for sure.
Cannon River I: Faribault to Dundas
Camp: Lake Byllesby Campground
General: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Guide: Paddling Southern Minnesota
Wikipedia: Cannon River
Miles Paddled Video: