★ ★ ★ ★

Root River

Lanesboro Access to Peterson Access:
A gorgeous journey through the heart of the Minnesota Driftless Area featuring towering bluffs with exquisite limestone outcrops, rolling hills, reputable current (including a few solid Class I rapids) and bountiful wildlife, this scenic paddle conveniently coincides with a superb bike-shuttle along a dedicated state trail to make for an all-in-one adventure.

Root River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 5, 2022

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty:
 Class I

≈ 3.5′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Lanesboro: ht/ft: 2.4 | cfs: 300

Current Levels:

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. It was low, but there was plenty of water still to avoid the shallows – providing for some basic river-reading know-how. Use this handy chart for Minnesota paddling reference.

Highway 16/Lanesboro Access, Lanesboro, Minnesota
GPS: 43.7368, -91.9468
Highway 16/ Peterson Access, Peterson, Minnesota
GPS: 43.78648, -91.82735

Time: Put in at 12:45p. Out at 5:00p.
Total Time: 4h 15m
Miles Paddled: 13.5

Bald eagles, osprey, deer, turkey vultures, wood ducks, and great blue herons.

Shuttle Information:
By bike, it’s 11.5 miles all along a dedicated state trail – which is free, essentially flat, paved and very pretty. By vehicle, it’s basically the same distance, but not nearly as fun or the same experience.

I hadn’t been back to Lanesboro since I was flooded out of there in September 2016 – which is to say one week shy of exactly six years ago to the day of this return trip. Back then, my agenda was to paddle all the stretches of South, Middle, and North branches of the Root River. But after only two days I was advised in no uncertain terms to high-tail it outta the area, as it was forecast to receive a foot of rain in 24 hours. So, I made it only as far as Lanesboro. Thus, it made sense to try-try again and begin where I’d left off. Why did it take six years to come back to the area? Who cares, but that’s a whole nuther story…

The Root River valley is the southernmost watershed of paddleable streams in the Driftless Area of Minnesota – a sizeable chunk of the southeastern part of the state where the glaciers did not scrape down from Canada, leaving the area neither razed nor bulldozed nor deposited still with earthen debris (aka “drift”) or meltwater (i.e., the namesake 10,000 lakes). Instead, it’s a fragile intact landscape of stunning limestone and sandstone cliffs, caves, sinkholes, and wooded ravines. There are three branches comprising the river – plus a fourth if you throw in the South Fork of the Root River (mostly a trout stream). Why these are derivative branches and not individually named independent of the Root proper is one of those questions we’ve wondered about for a long, long time…

(Spoiler alert: there’s neither rhyme nor reason to why streams are called rivers or creeks, much less tributaries being branches or forks of one thing as opposed to being named their own thing altogether.)

Of the three branches, the Middle (itself the byproduct of three small trout streams that all come together near Fillmore, MN), is the least paddled, likely for its lack of account in what few paddling guidebooks there are out there, not to mention its benign neglect vis a vis the Minnesota DNR. But it flows into the North Branch downstream from Chatfield, which incidentally is where the conventional wisdom of paddling trips on the North Fork begins. Likewise, the conventional wisdom for the South Fork argues that canoes and kayaks have no business upstream of Preston (which is 100% understandable for the sake of practicality, but also 100% willful forfeiture of some spectacularly pretty stretches).

We chose to begin our trip as close to but still away from Lanesboro as possible. Why? Because to begin below the dam in Lanesboro would have added 3.5 miles to this already not-insignificant trip (at 13.5 miles). There’s really nowhere to get out in between Whalan and Peterson, so we sided with 13.5 miles instead of 17 (especially in light of the bike shuttle and a 3.5-hour drive home to Madison later that day/night). As such, this trip lies just after the confluence of the North and South branches, thus making it the Root River proper – and also blesses the riverbed with twice the volume of water, making it a more reliable paddle option than either branch above the confluence. With superb dedicated accesses, we kept it simple and followed the DNR’s advised and advertised landings, which are in between Lanesboro and Whalan, and in Peterson, both right off Highway 16.

Access is excellent at the Highway 16 landing, located west of Whalan and east of Lanesboro. Swift riffles await right off the bat! As does a languorous stretch of ginormous limestone bluffs along the left bank as the river makes a full horseshoe-shaped meander north, east, and south around it. Indeed, it is the most dramatic display of geology on this trip. It’s brief, so don’t rush past it. For better and worse, there’s a private campground on river-right at the base of this beautiful bend. Regardless, it’s a heluva first mile.

Here and there – and, really, for the entirety of this trip – are strainers ensnared along the banks, as well as constantly shifting shoals and shallows to watch for to avoid running into. But a basic grasp of boat control and river reading should ensure a safe float.

The Main Street bridge in Whalan comes next, the first and only bridge you’ll paddle under this whole trip (not counting a very cool-looking and iconic iron truss bridge that’s closed off to vehicular traffic and captures that classic Driftless ethos of feeling lost in time). Whalan is a little hamlet that must have come into existence for a specific purpose back in the 19th Century but today seems to have just one raison d’etre: pie. Yup, pie. See below for more on that…

For the next twelve miles or so you can expect the following: rolling wooded bluffs, occasional rock outcrops, a boulder or two strewn yon and hither, riffly gravel bars, a random Class I rapid now and again, a couple broad plains and terraces, steep sandbanks, a view or two of the corresponding bike trail on the left, and the frequent din-reminder that Highway 16 is on the right. That’s pretty much it for mile after beautiful mile. That’s a big part of the trip’s charm, but also something to keep in mind when planning: bridges/ accesses are truly few and far between. There is an excellent access at Whalan (river-left) off evocatively named Deep River Road (yum!). The only notable advantage to using this access is twofold:

  1. Starting here to go down to Peterson and bike-shuttling to avoid 2 miles of on-the-road pedaling from Whalan to the Highway 16 landing (although in doing so you’d skip the magnificent limestone bluff in the beginning); or
  2. Ending here but having started in Lanesboro for a neat and tidy 6.5-mile trip teaming up perfectly with a point-to-point bike shuttle along the trail.

The river doesn’t lie directly along Highway 16 for the whole trip per se, but it does for the majority. While that’s not exactly welcome news for the paddler seeking escape from the everyday world, the terrain is typically steeper and more interesting where the two are parallel; where the river diverts from the highway it generally flows through low-lying valleys and agricultural sweeps. Towards the end of this trip the river does both – flow through some plains and broad terraces away from “the grid” and then back to the main thick of things approaching Peterson. There are some really pretty rock outcrops and fun Class I rapids in the final mile, so this trip is plenty good to the very end. The take-out is on river-right just before the bridge at Mill St. A short path leads to a parking area and signage.

What we liked:
A trip like this is why paddlers will drive a few hours out of the way to be on a new river – or return to one of their faves. It’s one of those rivers where your eyes are continually treated to tasty views of buxom bluffs, wooded ravines, and exposed limestone outcrops. But the river itself is positively beguiling as well! Especially at low water levels, the color is clear and exposes a sand and gravel bottom that sure is pretty. Look for fossils and cool rocks along gravel bars. The swift flow and frequent riffles only add to the overall enjoyment.

There’s this, too, for nuance: the novelty of paddling east to the Mississippi. That may sound a little funny, but consider this: the wind is usually from the west, so odds are good it will be at your back while paddling. Also, the sun won’t be blinding in your eyes – especially in the late afternoon. When you live in Wisconsin as we do, you get used to going west and south, as most of our water ends up in the Mississippi River by and by. As such, you expect some wind and definitely the sun in your eyes. So, paddling in Minnesota (or Iowa) in a landscape that has all the Driftless features as Wisconsin (and a sliver of Illinois) and goes to the same destination but from the opposite direction is a fun and welcome novelty.

To combine a bike-pedal shuttle along a safe and beautiful and wonderfully convenient dedicated trail after several hours of paddling is not unlike the irresistible a la mode option of ice cream accompanying your otherworldly pie at the Aroma Pie Shoppe, in Whalan, which you’ll pass along the way (and will want to stop at)! I’m not even a pie person, but the pie here is to die for – or, as Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks famously said, “This must be where pies go when they die.” For real. I don’t want to tell you what to do, much less what to eat, but it would be a pity to pass this place up. Nestled in the middle of nowhere, this is the kind of place you want to exist. It’s like the best barbeque coming out of some guy’s garage behind a gas station in some unincorporated town. The odds of it existing at all are next to nothing, and so the fact that it does is almost too good to be true. But it is true, thank goodness.

What we didn’t like:
This trip is a real jewel. The only quibble I feel obliged to mention is the, um, monogamy of the highway alongside the river. While this makes for an efficient car shuttle to and fro, it disabuses the dreamy imagination of being aloft and far off from the everyday world. The river and surrounding area are plenty pretty in their own right, but the sights and sounds of passing vehicles on river-right for most of this trip prevents me from rating it a five-star matter.

Also, fans of the site will know by now that this section of a trip review doesn’t always specifically address the paddling experience of the trip itself, but rather an adjunct matter that is admittedly A) unrelated to the water and B) a grandiose indulgence on the part of us Miles Paddlers. Mea culpa. This sketched kvetch is no exception…

While Lanesboro is as cute as any proverbial button can get – and not just cute, but genuinely pretty awesome actually – holy cow does it die at night. At least on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. And perhaps like, well, damn near Everywhere, USA, finding and funding full-time staff in the service sector (re: food) has been an existential challenge. But by 8pm downtown Lanesboro (and there’s only a downtown) was entirely buttoned-up and shuttered. The only place to find a bite to eat – asserted universally by all in what few establishments were still occupied by human beings, albeit employees closing up shop – was the VFW bar and their (apparently always available) frozen pizza. A meal to remember it was not. An option better than nothing it was. (And the bartender was totally cool.) But one of the things we love about paddling distant rivers is also visiting new/unknown villas. After all, if you’re going to drive more than an hour away to recreate, you might as well sit down a spell and sip in the scene, no? Lanesboro après-paddle was a bit of a bummer in this regard. Maybe it was the holiday weekend; but wouldn’t you anticipate an end-of-season/ last hurrah rush on the holiday weekend, and then lay back the business hours afterward?

If we did this trip again:
Being the slightly OCD completists we are, next time we’d start on the downstream side of the Lanesboro dam to connect our trips on the Root River’s South Branch to this. Otherwise, we’d do this exactly as-is again, since it’s a gem!

Related Information:
General: Minnesota DNR
Root River

Photo Gallery:

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Richard Hannah
    November 8, 2022 at 1:57 pm

    Excellent write-up. Like being there…again. Gotta get back.

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