Parsley Bridge to Lanesboro Access:
A simply stunning escape deep in the heart of the Minnesota Driftless Area that is abound in towering bluffs lush with exquisite limestone outcrops, rolling hills and miles of undeveloped public land. These two combined segments of the river offer lots of riffles as well as several solid Class I rapids, and an almost embarrassing bounty of wildlife. The only real caveat is making sure there’s enough water to avoid the nuisance of scraping, since all but the final mile of this section of the river is upstream of the confluence with the South Branch.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 6-7, 2023
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Class I
≈ 4.5′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Pilot Mound: ht/ft: 2.4 | cfs: 300
Pilot Mound: ht/ft: 7.68 | cfs: 155
We recommend this level. To be blunt, this level is perfect – the ideal range is between 8.25 and 9.25, according to this guidebook. You can also use this handy chart for Minnesota paddling reference.
Time: Put in at 1:15p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 4h 15m
Miles Paddled: 13.25
Time: Put in at 11:45a. Out at 3:45p.
Total Time: 4h
Miles Paddled: 12.75
Deer, turkey vultures, weasel (or mink), softshell and painted turtles, great blue herons, green herons, geese, ducks, literally hundreds of rainbow trout (lots of which were spawning), double that in songbirds, and hands down the most bald eagles we’d ever seen (easily a hundred sightings between the two trips).
Trip 1 is 10 total miles, Trip 2 is nine. Bear in mind the majority of the roads are unpaved dirt-gravel – even the state highways. And, being the Driftless Area, they’re steep. Doable by bike, but a far cry from ideal.
It’s worth mentioning that the shuttles between accesses are none too fun. Steep, winding, unpaved, dizzying, dusty, disorienting, and not always blessed with the benefit of a road sign – it’s certainly worth the experience of being on the water. But if you’re dropping off a vehicle at the take-out and leaving a passenger (or more) at the Zelenskyy, do apprise them that the time forth and back will be a good 40 minutes minimum.
The Root River valley is the southernmost watershed in the Driftless Area of Minnesota – a sizeable chunk of the southeastern part of the state where the glaciers of yesteryear did not scrape down from Canada, leaving the area beautifully bereft of the razing and bulldozing, earthen debris deposits (aka “drift” – silt, sand, clay) or meltwater free-for-all (i.e., the namesake 10,000 lakes) otherwise typical of the upper Midwest landscape.* Instead, it’s a rugged yet fragile-intact landscape of stunning limestone and sandstone cliffs, caves, sinkholes, natural springs, trout streams, and wooded ravines. It’s a spectacular and special place, gorgeous and full of grandeur.
* That is, at least during the last Ice Age (circa 10,000 to 80,000 years ago), when the frigid goon squad of glaciers was very slowly wreaking havoc and running amok in nearby Minnesota neighborhoods. Did the ice bullies do some unwelcome clubbing and landscaping in the southeastern part of the state prior to then? Maybe. Arguably. But can you wrap your head around 80,000 years ago? Me neither; I barely remember what I did last week. And does the area look like it’s never been glaciated? Sure does. Good enough. Let’s move on.
There are three branches comprising the Root – plus a fourth if you throw in the South Fork of the Root River (but this is mostly a trout stream and mentioned nowhere in book or blog as viably paddleable). This post covers two consecutive trips/sections of the North Fork.
Of the three branches, the Middle is seldom paddled. (It’s feted for fishing and is itself the byproduct of three small trout streams that all come together near Fillmore, MN, and create, abracadabra al fresco, the de facto Middle Branch). What is relevant for the casual paddler is the volume of water the Middle Branch adds to the North Branch, enter stage left just before these two trips comprising this post begin. The South Branch is a long vaunted jewel for canoes and kayaks – provided that it has enough water. We first ran a section of that in 2016 and then returned in 2019 to paddle the next leg. A stone’s throw east of downtown Lanesboro is where the North and South branches converge, at which confluence the river sheds its compass points and just is the Root from there on down to the Mississippi a smidge south of La Crescent.
We relied on the good word of Lynne and Bob Diebel, writers of the indispensable Paddling Southern Minnesota, for guidance on logistics and whatnot. For point of reference, they first begin their recommended sections nine miles upstream, at the hamlet of Chatfield. (Coincidence or conspiracy, the official Minnesota DNR Water Trail map also begins in Chatfield.) That segment sounds quaint and perfectly nice, but, driving a few hours from Wisconsin, we wanted to double-down on the best boasts of the North Branch and so began at their second recommended section (sorry, Chatfield; next time, promise). Plus we were drawn to the allure of a century-old, now abandoned powerhouse building viewable only from the river itself. Midwest Goth, baby!
We were not paddle-camping, but one could do that reasonably well and combine these two trips as an overnight. FYI, at the time of this writing, the two campsites at Pilot Mound – in between the bridges at Highway 52 and Highway 11 – were as inaccessible as they were inconspicuous; both were neglected, dilapidated, overgrown with weeds, and showed no indication of use (or maintenance) in years. By contrast, the sites further downstream at Whispering Pines and the Powerhouse (in between Highway 21 and Highway 250) looked more reflective of a state and its department of natural resources where a resident paddler must pay for a boat registration to play on its waters. It’s $29 upfront, but “only” $6 every three years afterward.
As the never-late, always-great philosopher, Flavor Flav, once asked, “You want six dollars for what?”
The Diebels’ description of these two segments is spot-on: “spectacular high wooded bluffs with bold rock outcrops, wildlife and birds,” and that the second segment is much like the first “with the addition of some Class I rapids.” What more could a paddler want, indeed? I feel obliged to mention that Google Maps, for whatever it’s worth, calculated both of these trips as being 1.5 miles shorter than the lengths stated in the guidebook. Not a huge discrepancy, especially since the river is pretty wide (~150′) and has good current (~4.6 feet per mile, average gradient), but one worth pointing out. And since the publication of their book in 2007, there now are perfectly feasible alternate accesses at Highway 11 and Highway 250 for paddlers to begin or end, tailoring entirely different trips altogether.
Access to the water is fantastic at Highway 52, aka “Parsley Bridge.” Just a hair southeast of the bridge itself, there is a large parking area, outhouses, one of those ginormous map placard kiosks, and an easy, level, dry gravel slope to the river itself. At first you’re surrounded by ag country and crop-lined, eroded banks. But soon this will change, with a tall bluff on the right and innumerable limestone outcrops embedded in the hillside, aka “bluff bling.” Limestone-lined banks will continue for seemingly ever, but the beauty and basic coolness of it isn’t something you end up taking for granted or getting used to. For mile after languorous mile the river will bend left and right in huge horseshoe-shaped loops. In other words, the wind won’t be much of an issue since it’ll be both behind and before you at various intervals. Besides, with steep hills as these, you’ll be sheltered most of the time.
Approaching the second huge right-hand loop-bend you’ll see two newish, gorgeous houses set back from the water a ways on the right – one blue, the other red. In between the two you’ll come upon an imposing rock wall like a Mayan handball court. Allegedly, one of the two primitive campsites at Pilot Mound is located here (key words here being “allegedly” and “primitive”). The landscape will flatten out some – for just a breath – but you’ll still pass by undulating banks of eroded sand some 20′ tall. Then the hills and cliffs and studded, embedded outcrops return to the next bridge, at Highway 11 (aka Allen Bridge), where there’s muddy but doable access on the left, upstream side. This approximately marks the halfway point between the Zelenskyy and take-out for trip 1, or 6ish miles.
Steep cliffs pockmarked by grotto-like indents and cedars somehow clinging to scraggly rock await below the bridge. Less loopy than the first half of this first trip, the next segment of the river is broader, but the views of huge hills and steep cliffs are unwavering. Massive blocks of limestone like bombarded castle ruins lying in huge chunks along the banks or quietly biding their time for entropy to make them crumble are scattered continuously. Even on gray days (such as when we paddled – hell, it was raining) the colors pop – lichen-green, sandstone cream, oxidized black.
Before you know it, the next bridge appears 6ish miles later, at Highway 21, aka Moen’s Bridge. (Parsley, Allen, Moen – who are y’all? Yankee farmers from New England with Waspy surnames settling into the less rocky, more fecund soil of the Wisconsin and Minnesota territories?) The access here is, well, nowhere near as nice as at the Zelenskyy. Located on the upstream side of the bridge, river-right, you’ll be forgiven for wondering “um, OK, but where?” as there’s no obvious or convenient spot that isn’t supremely muddy or steep. In fact, it’s all muddy and steep. Pro tip: pack a tarp ahead of time and lay it down to make getting off the water a whole lot less messy. It’s worth noting that the USGS gauge is located at this bridge, so readings correlate perfectly. There’s a much smaller parking area at the top of the hill, room enough still to leave a few vehicles.
It’s a good 11ish miles to the next bridge, so most paddlers would do well to begin or end their trips at this access (such as it is). Spoiler alert: the next section of the Root River is absolutely awesome! At the risk of playing my hand and throwing objectivity out the window, between the two trips – Highway 52 to Highway 21 or Highway 21 to the Highway 16 access – the latter is the better by far. But now I’m getting ahead of myself…
Before just passing under the bridge, take a moment to notice the honeycombed swallow’s nests like a mini Pueblo village. And then feast your peepers on the impossibly steep cliff on the left just down from the bridge and the long façade of rock outcrops. After a mile or so the river will make a long, languid bend to the left followed by an abrupt bend to the right that makes a kind of oxbow. For the next half a dozen miles you will be surrounded by public land. Seriously, how cool is that? Combined with the landscape itself being steep and bold and beautiful, the whole effect feels palpably wild. Lush ferns, scraggly lichen, cedars, deciduous, and other conifers appear in a chorus line seemingly without end. Giant chunks of limestone, rock walls, steep cliffs, and, again, virtually zero development, it’s a very impressive 10ish miles that would challenge most riverine rivals – anywhere, let alone one only some 25 miles southeast of Rochester, the third largest city in Minnesota.
After a long rock wall on the left in a rightward bend that has as little regard for brevity or pause as a paragraph in a Faulkner novel, you’ll come upon two consecutive campsites on the right – these are easily accessible and well-kempt, each comprising a picnic table and fire ring, an outstanding – and free! – camping option for overnight trips. Another long rock wall follows, this one even steeper than the preceding one. Some 7ish miles into this second segment (re: day two), you, dear paddler, are plumb in the Minnesota Driftless, and the full effect is just sublime.
Oh, and did I mention rapids? OK, to be fair, whitewater paddlers would scoff at the indelicate use of the term “rapids” much as geologists might take issue with referring to southeastern Minnesota as free of drift. But the current does gallop, with entirely reputable Class I’s – enough to rock a boat and sponge some of the splash out of the cockpit. By and by, good, clean fun. Generally speaking, the river is so wide that what obstacles there are to avoid in the swift current are next to nonexistent. But trees fall all the time – and if not totally in the water (it is the Root River, after all), then hovering above with stray limbs acting as strainers to clasp an unsuspecting paddler in its clutch. Keep an eye out. But otherwise you’ll just be looking for shallow spots to avoid grounding out on.
At long last, the awaited for century-old powerhouse looms above the water on the right bank. Built in 1915, the building has, in my opinion, more historic than aesthetic interest, but to add a little Latin with the nod to antiquity, De gustibus non est disputandum. Personally, I was more impressed with the natural architecture of the landscape, but it is always cool to see relics from a bygone century. Two more campsites are found downstream, both now on the left (and a little less tidy than the first two – yet still better than the alleged ones in the preceding trip). The environment starts to feel less wild after these, flatter and more agricultural.
When the Diebels wrote their guidebook, they described the next bridge, at Highway 250 (interestingly no aka nickname here), as a “lovely old-fashioned truss bridge.” Alas, fashion trends come and go, and this one went – replaced today by a perfectly average, arguably more practical modern concrete bridge. On the plus side, there’s a very good access on the upstream side of the bridge, river-right, with a small parking spot and actually graded stairs to the water. Why this unofficial access is way better than the official access at Highway 21 is anybody’s guess.
It’s only another 2ish miles to the takeout, most of it generally banal and residential – Lanesboro is nearby at this point. But the still-steady Class I rapids keeps one’s interest piqued, as does the impressive wood-and-metal truss bridge that is the Root River State Trail, on the downstream side of which, on river-right, the South Branch of the Root River converges with the North and now becomes THE Root River, doubling in volume if not width. The river will take a sharp bend to the right and run parallel to Highway 16 all the way to the takeout. Class I rapids continue, so the ear- if not eyesore of the road right there is barely noticeable. Power lines above precede the Highway 16 access on the right bank. Note, there is no bridge here, but it’s a designated wayside that is easy to see and access, and there’s a lot of room for vehicles, plus an outhouse.
What we liked:
Welcome to scruffy Minnesota Bluff Country! We loved these two trips. From the miles of rugged, undulating bluffs and their coquettish outcrops to the reckless displays of wildlife antics, the general lack of development (only four bridges in 26 river miles) and the lapping Class I rapids – these trips always presented the eye with pleasures to behold and be a part of. One funny surprise: I’d thought that the sight of the beautiful ruins of the old powerhouse would knock our socks off, but it felt somewhat subdued by the more powerful grandeur of the natural landscape. It was/is certainly cool and aesthetically impressive, don’t get me wrong. But that’s how gorgeous the geology of the Root River is. (And to this day, when the nights are thin and feint, they say one can still hear the eerie cry of the ghosts of engineers long gone…)
Paddling this in early spring will reward you with eye-candy dividends by way of lush displays of wildflowers (bluebells?) blooming on the forest floor, while above dazzling rock outcrops will be all the better to behold before the leaves flush out and change the whole landscape to fluffy green, leaving but hints of ironside limestone yon and hither.
I didn’t mention this in the description because wildlife sightings are so circumstantial and mercurial, but there were more bald eagles on display during our two days of paddling than we’ve ever seen. I mean it got to a point of comical how often we’d see them. Always awesome, never meh. Same with the spawning trout; wrestling and writhing fins of red fringe in the gravelly shallows.
What we didn’t like:
The access at Moen’s Bridge is, well, craptastic. I’m glad it exists and that there’s parking for a few vehicles off the road, but that’s about the most I can say. It’s steep and muddy and would make me wonder what in the world my $35 boat registration goes to for an official access such as this… (I think the world of you otherwise, Minnesota, and have had a crush on you for 20+ years – up to and including looking into moving to you once. But this business just leaves me baffled and beside myself.)
Otherwise, these two trips were legendary.
If we did this trip again:
There is almost nothing I enjoy more than canoe-camping. Sure, kittens playing, puppies sleeping; melt-in-your-mouth brisket; Bourbon County-barrel aged beer; the teenage memories of my first Phish shows, when everything was amazing and anything was possible; my girlfriend’s eyes and smile. (Note: not in order of importance.) But damn do I love canoe-camping! It’s, well – who cares why? I can wax poetic about that elsewhere… But if I did this trip again, I’d camp along the way. Otherwise, this 26-mile segment of the Root’s North Branch offers two magnificent trips. Have time for only one? Do the second segment – Highway 21 to the Highway 16 access. It’s a dream come true in and of itself, but has a more wild and rugged feel than the first and features some fun rapids, due to its steeper gradient.