Root River: South Branch
Highway 5 to Preston Trailhead Park
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A truly beautiful daytrip whose incredible attributes outweigh its detractions, (nonstop riffles and light rapids in trout stream-clear water past stunning bluffs with exposed rock outcrops vs. many portages around downed trees and ducking under barbed wires) this section of Minnesota’s awesome South Branch of the Root River is more for the adventurous type than the casual paddler.
September 20, 2016
10′ per mile
Lanesboro: ht/ft: 5.5 | cfs: 900
We recommend this level. While it can be run a smidge lower, you’d be scraping quite a bit. However, much higher than this will compromise the clarity of the water.
Highway 5, West of Forestville, Fillmore County, Minnesota
Preston Trailhead Park, Highway 12, Preston, Minnesota
Time: Put in at 11:45a. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 4h 45m
Miles Paddled: 18.75
Wildlife: Turkey, turkey vultures, owls (great horned and barred), raccoon, great blue herons, green herons, frogs, bald eagles, cattle, trout, duck and geese varieties.
The idea for this trip came to us thanks to David Lind’s Canoeing the Driftless, who recommends the Highway 5 to Highway 12 in the blink-you-miss/name-on-a-map township of Carimona section, at 12 miles and change (this is notable because Highway 12 crosses the river several times between Carimona and Preston). Additionally, thanks to Lynne and Robert Diebel’s outstanding Paddling Southern Minnesota, we knew that their South Branch trip begins in Preston. It was a 3.5-hour drive just to arrive at our campsite at the ridiculously pretty Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, so naturally we wondered about the unmentioned segment between Carimona and Preston and thought why not add a little of each for one long day on the river, come what may?
What we liked:
This trip begins at the base of a small cliff with exposed limestone rock walls, riffles and crystal clear water. It doesn’t get much more inviting than that. In the first couple miles you’ll pass through a mix of pleasant pastures and beguiling woodsy bluffs, a pattern that will repeat itself a few times. The constant, however, is the endless riffles and light rapids. The geologic burlesque show begins in earnest as the river bends left around a curvy bluff with rippling layers of exposed sandstone/limestone like a rampart wall on the right (alas, the first strand of barbed wire and the first of many downed tree blockages begin here, too). The landscape gets wilder as well, the closer one approximates the state park boundaries. Big bluffs loom in every direction, many of them with exposed rock walls that are somewhat hidden by tree foliage. For this reason, you may wish to paddle this segment in early spring or late fall, without leaf camouflage, to better appreciate the geology.
After a horse farm on the left and the second set of barbed wires, you’ll paddle past one of the prettiest sweeps of river on any river: a sheer palisade of chalky-white limestone capped with conifers that goes on for a hundred yards or so – call it a geo-cousin of the Upper Iowa River (which, to be fair, is only 20 miles or so due south). And then the river begins to drop for real as it enters the heart of the park; rapids are rocking and rollicking as you pass one limestone cliff after another – on both sides of the river! It’s simply stunning.
All of this is just between the put-in and the first bridge at Maple Road. (A mother of logjams blocks the entire river at the base of the bridge pylons. There’s a low-lying log on the far right that we could easily ride over. Otherwise, portaging here would be muddy, steep, and tricky.) There were no other barbed wires after this point, although there will be several other portages around dangerous strainers where down trees obstruct safe passage. But after Maple Road you’ll begin to enter the park proper. The tall bluffs and exposed rock walls, together with virtually nonstop rapids, continue to engage and indulge the venturesome paddler. Oh, and there are at least three bubbling springs gushing clear out of rocks or tumbling down the bluffs. You feel like you have snuck into a sacred place, like slipping inside a huge circus tent and then marveling at the awesome grandeur of everything surrounding you from both above and below.
You’ll know you’re in the park once you paddle under a series of attractive pedestrian bridges spanning the river. You’ll probably paddle past some anglers as well; there are several access areas for fly-fishing folks, all on river-left. As such, if you were already camping at the state park, you could reasonably take-out at any of these spots (there’s a particularly easy one where an equestrian trail fords the river itself, immediately upstream of the only vehicle bridge in the park). To be clear, you are not allowed to leave a vehicle here, but if you were staying at the park already, you could make a shorter paddling day by taking-out in the park. Another option, though admittedly much trickier in terms of accessing dry land via the river, is the next bridge – formerly a road bridge that leads to the historic Forestville village but now closed to vehicles (but open to pedestrians, bicyclists and horse riders). There is a parking and picnic area just down the road.
The Carimona Highway 12 bridge comes next (after several more light rapids and pretty bluffs, etc). The unofficial access here is on the downstream side of the bridge on river-right. From there it’s a schlep up a steepish hill through brush and tall grass. It’s hardly ideal, but it’s totally doable.
In the final 5+ miles towards Preston you’ll pass a few more pastures and farm fields, even a house or two, but neither the riffly current nor the exposed rocky bluffs abates whatsoever. The setting still feels wild and secretive, just a little less so than upstream. An alternate trip idea is putting-in at the Highway 12 Carimona bridge and taking-out at one of two choices in Preston: the first is at the official canoe launch on Highway 12 at the western edge of downtown; the other is a mile downstream, also at Highway 12, at the parking area for the state trail – both are on the downstream side of the bridges on river-left.
Indeed, some of the best rapids are in the downtown Preston section. On your right will be a tall bluff that eventually reveals a glorious swath of exposed sandstone, whose creamy butterfat-yellow hues pop out of the brown-gray-green background, now calling to mind the Dells of the Wisconsin River. This is immediately followed by a brief but exhilarating series of two-foot-tall standing waves; expect to get wet. It’s a great last encore to what has been a remarkably beautiful, remarkably engaging trip.
As the next bridge comes into view, (yup, Highway 12) look to your left. You’ll see the handsome barn-red Milwaukee Elevator Company grain elevator building pointing to the sky. Back in the day (circa 1900s), farmers from around the area brought wagonloads of grain here, which then was placed on railroad cars for the Twin Cities. There is no official access at this bridge. Furthermore, you’ll have to paddle hard to the left bank in a series of strong riffles to avoid passing by the make-do landing. The appeal is a flat grassy area however and it’s only a short schlep of maybe 70 yards from here to the parking area. The advantage to taking-out here is the really fun, really pretty mile through downtown Preston. Plus there’s water and restrooms located here at Preston Trailhead Park, too. Or you could just take out at the previous Highway 12 bridge. Accessing it via the river also is tricky, as there is an even stronger set of rapids directly beneath the bridge itself. But the landing itself is easy, relatively clean and the parking lot is located right there.
Finally, special mention must go to the town of Preston if only for the sake of bicycling. The town of Preston itself is located on one of two state bike trails that together comprise the Root River & Harmony Preston Valley State Trails. (Incidentally, the trail is free to use!) In addition to the restrooms, there’s even a bicycle maintenance station with what is unquestionably the most elaborate and impressively furnished set of tools and appurtenances we’ve ever seen. Madison has a couple such kiosks, but ours look like Fisher Price sets for kids compared to what Preston has. (Not to mention, the colorful bike racks are in the shape of trout – just try to beat that!)
Also, we’d like to give a shout-out to Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. It’s huge, hard to find (in just the right way of finding anything worth an off-the-beaten-path effort) and drop dead gorgeous. The campsites are really pretty and varied, the hiking trails are extensive and engaging and both the state park staff as well as the campground host was that quintessential “Minnesota nice” that makes Timothy feel a bit embarrassed to be from New Jersey. There are restored buildings in what is called Historic Forestville, which are cool and handsome in their own regard but also fascinating to think that this small hamlet in the middle of rugged hills used to exist and thrive in the first place a hundred years ago. In one or two of those buildings, each night around dusk, hundreds of bats come out and begin their crepuscular snacking – yes, literally hundreds! If you like bats (sorry Barry!), this is a unique phenomenon well worth checking out and returning to your campsite after dark.
The only things not so great about the park are A) the raccoons are notoriously bad and largely undeterred and B) despite the many claims that the park doesn’t have mosquitoes, we found this to be dubious to the point of incredible and crazy. Really? No mosquitoes? Ever? Then what do you call these welts on my skin from last night or, wait, that winged insect on your arm right now drawing blood? But overall, we loved this park and would return anytime.
What we didn’t like:
We got lucky catching this segment with enough water to float a boat. Ordinarily, it runs pretty shallow – this segment even more so than the more popular segment downstream, from Preston to Lanesboro. The area here is gorgeous, but also pretty obscure. Meaning, it’s a long way’s away only to find out that it’s too low to paddle. Make sure it’s high enough before you go. Better still, call the State Park at 507-352-5111 to inquire about water levels.
This is a quintessential trout stream, so expect to see anglers wading in the water. For us, this is always a welcome sight, but that respectful wink-and-nod is not always reciprocated by the person in waders seeing a paddler disturbing his/her Zen serenity on the water. This is a shame, and we had a couple stink eyes given us as we played through. On a certain level, we totally get it. From an angler’s perspective, we’re yahoos who should just as soon be disturbing the peace on some more popular stretch of river that’s too warm for the fickle trout. That would be fine, (well, not really, but I’m trying to play devil’s advocate here) except that the awesome limestone cliffs, jade green/crystal clear water and million riffles and rapids all lie on this segment of the South Branch. So, yeah, we paddlers are going to revel in it, too.
On that note, the put-in is on private land with a public easement that mainly has anglers in mind. We don’t know what the technical name is for this, but the easement is such that the property fence has a short up-and-down ladder that straddles the fence itself, allowing for access. We’ve seen these elsewhere, always on trout streams. A sign there reads “Angler Access Corridor Begins. All other activities require permission. Please stay along stream bank or lakeshore.” It’s not clear from whom one is to seek permission but it’s something a paddler should keep in mind.
All that aside, there were a minimum of 7 portages around downed trees, not to mention two ride-overs at logjams (where paddlers with boats they don’t want all banged up and bothered may wish to portage around as well). In addition, there were three sets of barbed wire, one of which was a little dicey in a fast current. In higher water, all of these would be particularly tricky.
Speaking of which, days after we paddled this, wild storms raked through the area (well, all of the Upper Mississippi River Valley area actually). It stands to reason, then, that there may well be even more deadfall now. On several of the portages you could see well-trod paths where others have walked and dragged their boats, so this segment of river is paddled – as it should be, since it’s gorgeous – but how often it’s maintained is anyone’s guess. We clipped out some easy spots where there had been troublesome strainers, but we didn’t see much evidence of past maintenance.
Finally, there was the bike shuttle. It is to be hoped that you, dear reader, should you decide to do this trip someday (and we hope that you do!), paddle it with a beloved friend… or anyone really who also has another vehicle so as to avoid pedaling from the take-out to the put-in (or vice versa). It’s not so much horrendous as it is just arduous – often uphill, subject to the wind and never with a shoulder to allow for room from passing vehicles.
If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this again, although next time A) without having to do the bike shuttle again and B) in a shorter boat (Timothy’s long-ass 15’ kayak was great for the occasional straightaways but merciless in the many tight twists and riffly meanders).
Furthermore, we’re extremely curious about the segment even further upstream of Highway 5. This section would pass along Mystery Cave itself (and maybe even under it!?!) as well as a second cave aptly named Mystery Cave No. 2. To make a long story short that has everything to do with awful forecasts and probable flash flooding, we did not have the time to scout this section yet. But we’ll return next year, as the State Park itself has much to offer even outside of the paddling realm, including a remote 2-mile hike to Big Spring, a disappearing stream that literally gushes from out of a cave, not to mention a separate hiking loop around sinkholes. This is Driftless Minnesota at its finest features!
17 miles – 17 long, steep miles on a bicycle all on rural highways with no shoulders. Totally doable by bike, just not at all ideal.