90th Street to Zumbro River County Park:
An accessible, beginner-friendly, and beautiful paddling experience in the driftless region of Rochester, Minnesota. This section of the South Fork of the Zumbro River is only a short drive from downtown, but the river is mostly undeveloped and you’ll feel like you’re in the wilderness. Starting in wild surroundings, the river winds its way to the finish at a man-made lake in a county park. Along the way, you’ll see plenty of wildlife and enjoy great fishing, all while still being close to civilization.
By Melissa Danielson
A Miles Paddled contributor | YouTuber/Paddler
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 22, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
≈ 2.5′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Rochester: ht/ft: 3.8 | cfs: 375
Rochester: ht/ft: 2.42 | cfs: 43.7
For beginners, try to paddle when the river is around 3-4 feet. Three feet is lovely for tubing, 4 feet is great if you don’t want to scrape your Kevlar canoe. Above 5 feet, the current is probably too strong for inexperienced paddlers and children.
Time: Put in at 12:40p. Out at 2:25p.
Total Time: 1h 45m
Miles Paddled: 5
Eagles, redtail hawk, deer, weasel, ducks, geese and a woodchuck.
5.8 miles, a lovely drive or bike ride through the countryside over gravel and some pavement (with a generous shoulder for bikers)
Being the only county in the “land of 10,000 lakes” without any (natural) lakes, it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder. However, it seems that very few locals know about the incredible paddling opportunities on the many branches of the Zumbro River. The Zumbro is a tributary of the Mississippi River in the driftless area of southeastern Minnesota. There are three forks to explore totaling over 200 miles: The South Fork Zumbro River, The Middle Fork Zumbro River, and The North Fork Zumbro River. The river is mostly wooded and undeveloped, giving you that ‘far away from home’ feel. Paddlers can start a short distance north of Rochester and paddle north/downstream to Lake Zumbro, a 600-acre reservoir created by a hydroelectric dam on the Zumbro River. There are two public access points on this lake.
The South Fork Zumbro River from Rochester to Lake Zumbro is a section that I’ve paddled more than any other. The river is calm, shallow and sandy. I’ve even seen families walking down the river with young children in inner tubes (when the depth was close to 3 feet). That said, I’ve hardly ever seen another person while paddling this section which is a great section for wildlife spotting! Note that the river widens significantly near the hydroelectric dam and is essentially a “lake.” This section has a few houses on the shore and there are often people fishing in motorboats, creating wakes in the water.
The put-in point is at an abandoned foot bridge (cars cannot cross) on 90th St NE. It’s important that you park on the east side of the bridge, as the west side has a very friendly homeowner’s driveway next to the bridge’s footpath and the homeowner (understandably) doesn’t appreciate when cars are blocking their driveway. The bridge is a fun landmark to speculate about, perhaps it was a covered bridge of yesteryear when horses and buggies crossed the river. Just don’t inspect the bridge’s integrity too closely for safety, as the structure have many rusty iron abutments to admire (or cause concern).
There’s a footpath that leads beneath the bridge on the east bank to a muddy shore but there is a perfectly grown tree root for stepping on, and a natural sandbar protecting the put-in area from the current.
Almost immediately you’ll feel like you’re somewhere farther away from the city, and until you reach Lake Zumbro, there are virtually no houses or signs of civilization. Just huge trees, bluffs, eagles, hawks, deer, cranes, ducks, and the usual small mammals. In the spring, the route is excellent for spotting wildflowers on the forest floor. In the early fall or late spring, without the foliage in the way you can see the classic Driftless Area sandstone cliffs that embank the river.
The river continues feeling wild for about half of your journey, until you reach the lake. A lucky few have humble lakeshore homes on this section of the river, as well as pontoons and small motorboats. Don’t worry! There are still beautifully wooded and undeveloped bluffs around Lake Zumbro. The few houses are not so much an eyesore, but an opportunity to give a friendly hello or wave. Expect to slow your speed down, as there is virtually no current on Lake Zumbro. Count your lucky stars if you have a tailwind.
The takeout is at the well-maintained Lake Zumbro County Park. A new addition this year is a canoe/kayak dock, where you can slide up a convenient ramp on rollers while still sitting in your canoe/kayak.
What we liked:
I love this section for its beauty and accessibility. The river is sandy, calm, and shallow. This is a great route for those who are just getting into kayaking or canoeing, as you can experience a calm river, as well as “lake” paddling.
What we didn’t like:
The 15 mph gusts of headwind on Lake Zumbro. Also, we just got dumped on (2 inches of rain) a few days prior, and the clarity of the water was still terrible. Typically, the water is clear and you can see the sandy bottom.
If we did this trip again:
Nothing! I love this route. It’s doable if you have a couple hours free and great for kids and beginners.