Root River: South Branch II
Preston Trailhead Park to Heron Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A fantastic day trip on a narrow, often canopied river with plenty of delightful riffles, standing waves, and some very attractive outcrops. When you add it all up, it makes for a wonderful but almost too-short paddle in Minnesota’s driftless country.
August 26, 2019
Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I
5′ per mile
Lanesboro: ht/ft: 2.28 | cfs: 246
We recommend this level. Using this chart for reference, 2-3′ are low, but not scrapeable levels. I wouldn’t run it much lower, but these levels were perfectly fine.
Preston Trailhead Park, Highway 12, Preston, Minnesota
Heron Road, South of the Old Barn Resort
Time: Put in at 12:55a. Out at 2:30p.
Total Time: 1h 35m
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Wildlife: Two Eagles, Two Deer and 1,200 trout breaking the surface of the water.
On my first return to the great state of Minnesota since 2015, my ambitious four-day paddling trip grew smaller and quicker than I anticipated as the weather window changed (isn’t that always the case?). So after a great day on the Cannon River the day before, I knew I had to cut my extended plans short, but I wanted to still fit at least one more paddle in – otherwise, I drove a long way for very little return.
I headed southeast to scout not only the rivers, but the shuttles I had planned for day two through four so I could gauge whether I’d be able to squeeze this paddle in before the giant storm cell that was moving east called off all my plans.
Destination two and three were longer paddles which made me a little nervous knowing my window was small, but then when I drove the shuttles, I knew neither were feasible for a few reasons. One, when you have shitty bike, one does not simply try to make molehills out of mountains. And that’s what I’d be trying to do with either of these two prospects. The bike-shuttles were long, often steep, and many of these country roads aren’t that all that great for bikes that are equipped to travel on dusty and slippery gravel roads.
No, this storm was moving in fast, so I needed something quicker, so I drove further south, to the fourth intended destination of my journey. This section of the Root River was not only the shortest, but also the closest to my route back home so I figured I’d be able to squeeze it in before the storms hit.
Now, I have a manilla folder (Lord I hate that word – what the F is manilla? It only describes a folder!) for each state I want to paddle stacked on top of my paddling books. They’re full of maps I’ve printed throughout the years of places I was going to paddle, but didn’t for one reason or another (weather, water levels, hopes dashed, etc). Basically, they are places I haven’t yet visited but want to someday. I mention this because I’ve been interested in this section after reading it in Lynn and Robert Diebel’s “Paddling Southern Minnesota”, but I also had the printed map that Timothy made for the upstream section he had paddled. So, without thinking much about it or even comparing the two, I chose the put-in where Timothy took-out without questioning whether it aligned with Lynn and Robert’s (or even opening the guide to doublecheck though it was sitting next to me, riding shotgun). It doesn’t. Their put-in was further west but still within the city of Preston.
Now, had I known, I would’ve started at Lynn’s put-in because there’s about three-quarters of a mile of additional rapids and scenery that sound well worth it. Timothy pointed out that “some of the best rapids are in the downtown Preston section” and made mention of a tall sandstone bluff. Now, you’d think I’d do a better job at preparing for these kind of paddles, and maybe even read our own site but that’s the way I roll, for better or for bit. That’s completely on me and my manilla vanilla folders.
Now, there was one more thing on my mind prior to setting out. These were low conditions and I knew it. Of all my considered paddles, this one had read LOW on the DNR’s gauge and I intentionally planned it for my last paddle incase it were indeed too low. I even had my reservations at the put-in but always thought, “if it’s scrape city – I can turn around quickly.” Amazingly, it was fine – all the way through – and I’m very surprised by that. Even in the shallowest of riffles, it was smooth sailing. Even smoother than some high level rivers and creeks I’ve paddled. Go figure. This is one of those cases where I rolled the dice and it paid off.
You can put-in alongside the downstream-left side of the Fillmore Street bridge. I chose to launch beneath the bridge because the water receded far enough to create a couple yards of mud, and I didn’t want to get my Chacos muddy right from the start, you know?
The paddle starts with some small riffles leading around the Park’s curves and then towards a straightaway leading you away from Preston. You’ll encounter another access point right before the Highway 52/Kansas Street bridge (it can be accessed off Fillmore Street) where there are some light riffles alongside some rip-rapped banks.
After the bridge, on river-right, you’ll notice a campground that stretches for quite awhile. Hidden Valley Campground, to be specific, (not to be confused with the Hidden Valley Campground that was shuttered on the Cannon) will flank the right bank for quite sometime. This is an RV kind of campground and I was surprised how lifeless it was with so many RVs parked there.
Soon, on river-left you’ll see some low-cut banks defined by erosion while the right bank grows taller and prettier where some outcrops appear around the bottom of a large sweeping S-curve. It’s also noticeable that the river horizon drops and you’ll experience that wonderful feeling of paddling downhill. Soon a wall of rock appears on river-right through a riffly stretch, followed by another massive wall that was ivy strewn.
A mini-island constricts the river, causing a wet and riffly right turn. As is the case most of the way, these islands make for a choose-your-own-adventure style choice. Most passages were open but some looked more fun and inviting than others, although some could be choked with deadfall – it kind of made it fun to find the right one. These islands become more frequent and add to the enjoyment, but deadfall was never an issue (well, unless you chose the wrong channel, I suppose).
Riffles continue and slabs of random rock appear on the banks fallen from high above the now larger left bank. For a brief second, it feels like a canyon. The horizon/gradient drops and it’s just fun and delightful to paddle through the numerous riffles.
The water was generally an army green hue and I could only see about a foot and a half down, but when it got wider – when it became shallower – the water was clear with only slight cloudiness.
A couple more islands split the river into two paths until you reach one particular setup where the river is split in three. Here, it looked blocked on the left and in the middle. The right path swept my boat along low-cut eroded banks topped with flowered crops and through some swift rocky shoals on both sides. The current was forceful and fun and while swiftly meandering around it, I rolled up on two deer who I spooked by my sudden appearance. Vice versa, really. Close encounters, for sure.
After twisting and turning for a bit, you’ll straighten out and directly ahead, you’ll encounter another rugged, tall and pretty outcrop. This one is exposed but there are more hidden beneath the foliage on the tall right bank.
The river then meanders, offering no specific features, just gentle bends and rocky bars until you reach the first encounter with the Harmony-Preston Valley Trail, where you’ll find an enjoyable approach to the bridge full of splashy standing waves. There’s a little island just after with a tight approach near the right bank where you need to navigate around some deadfall. Here, the current could cause difficulty for unseasoned paddlers – it’d be easy to be swept right into that strainer. You have to approach it, and the S-curve, with caution – trying to steer clear of it by hugging the island on the left without getting hung up in the shallows. It’s tricky, but doable.
Outcrops appear once again along a tall bank on river-left. Then there’s a short straightaway around an island with riffles in both channels and then more handsome slabs can be seen on the left bank. There’s one more riffly straightaway up to the second and last encounter with the Harmony-Preston Valley Trail bridge.
After that, you’ll encounter the best outcrop of the trip. It’s a beautiful wall with a lipped fold at the base. I’ve seen similar formations, specifically on the Grant River, and there’s just something unique and special about the look of them. Unfortunately, not too long after that, comes the take-out on river-right.
There’s a sandy opening just before a very inviting constricted and riffly section that would take you through the heart of a few holes of the Old Barn Resort’s golf course. I totally wanted to keep heading downstream, but alas, that’s where my bike was. I kind of needed it.
With regards to the takeout, when Lynn and Robert wrote about it, they noted that “The resort asks that you park up at the barn and not at the turnaround” which may be the case if they’re busy, but this was a Monday so they were totally fine with me parking there that day. That said, I only left my bike there. Regardless, do ask. I asked for permission and they were beyond nice. They even gave me a bike map and told me how to get back to the put-in.
Also, a sidenote that might only be of interest to me. The bridge from the resort to the access point that spans the Root has been reconstructed and looks nothing like the one on Google Maps, which was apparently of the metal truss variety – the kind of bridge I do love.
Camping is also available at the Old Barn Resort and I did consider it incase the storm crept up on me prematurely, but luckily it held out until I was already on the road home. It’s a little pricey for tent camping but it was an appealing option considering the bar and restaurant they run, but I chose to ride the storm out – or in front of, I guess.
What we liked:
Though I had my hesitations about paddling this due to the water levels, they were perfectly fine and I’m so glad because I loved everything about this trip! It’s exactly what I hope to discover when seeking out smaller rivers. I was fulfilled by every aspect – from the “fun” kind of riffly/rapid enjoyment to the visual gratification of the surroundings and outcrops.
Also, the folks at the Old Barn Resort were just so accommodating that it kind of took me off guard – again, even giving me directions and then a map for the shuttle (the trails intertwine here and you want to be on the right one). In general, people were much more pleasant in this neck of the woods, specifically the bike ride (versus yesterday’s ride on the Cannon Valley Trail), but I did also try a new tactic to make friends. Basically, I waved obnoxiously as soon as I saw somebody. Like for minutes – just to make sure they saw I was friendly. It’s my “new wave” technique, no matter how awkward it is.
Lastly, I rekindled a love of Phish this trip. There’s something summer-y about Phish and I guess I was smitten again – reliving some perfectly spun jamband “oldies” on Sirius XM. It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to Phish – I used to be really into them (I almost got a Phish tattoo on my 18th birthday – true story). I haven’t listened to them in over two(?) decades but was stoked to hear a song like Maze again. How does someone forget about a song like that? But, anyway, I was glad to hear it in the driftless of Minnesota because it was just so fitting.
Oh, and… I beat the storms! They were literally in my rearview on the way home on Highway 90. It did suck to cut my 4-day Minne trip to two, but it allowed for some house projects that needed tending. Exciting, right?
What we didn’t like:
It’s too lovely to be this short! It’s one of those paddles you want to redo as soon as you take out. I was honestly shocked when I hit the take-out because I wasn’t ready. I thought, is this really it? But, six-plus miles of this is still pretty awesome. And if I had put-in at the access point upstream, it would’ve taken that edge off a bit, I suspect. It will, however, leave you longing for a few more miles.
This is totally minor, but it was kind of a first. There was literally nowhere to lock up my kayak at the take-out at the Old Barn Resort landing. Usually there’s a sign or a fencepost or tree – but there was nothing. So, I laid it on a pile of rocks and took off on my bike knowing it was a short shuttle. I usually live by “if it’s meant to be (stolen), then it’s meant to be” mentality, and luckily it was still there when I got back. Thankfully too, I’m quite smitten with that particular boat.
Completely unrelated to the paddle (because there’s always “one of those” stories)…. While traveling through southeastern Minnesota, I couldn’t help but notice how much wild-cucumber there was. Like everywhere. This agressive plant/vine is starting to take over western Wisconsin like Kudzu in the south (aka the “Plant That Ate the South” which is charming to some – but a devastating species that was introduced for ornamental purposes and (literally) grew worse when farmers were encouraged to plant it to stem erosion).
I only knew about wild cucumber about a year ago from the least likeliest of folks – the co-founder one of America’s favorite restaurants – true story. While working on a project we were talking about this plant we’ve seen flowering everywhere. When he told me what it was I looked into it. Sure enough – wild cucumber (not the kind that can be eaten, by the way). Now I can’t unsee it. It’s just like Kudzu but it’s taking over the North (although Kudzu creeping up this way too).
Lastly, had I read the following about the Harmony Preston trail, you damn well better believe I would’ve Uber’d my way back to the put-in: “Wildlife is abundant along the trail, and sightings of wild turkey, deer, hawks and turkey vultures are common. Rattlesnakes can occasionally be found on rock outcrops, along the river bottoms, or sunning themselves on the trail. They are a state threatened and protected species, and should be left alone.”
If we did this trip again:
I’d return in a heartbeat but I’d put-in at the Preston access and not the Harmony-Preston Trailhead. And even though it slows down after where I took-out, I’d be up for paddling it to Lanesboro just to see a few more outcrops.
Though my four-day paddling trip got cut to two, I’m glad this paddle was the way I exited Minnesota. New paddles are almost always special because they’re new – all of it’s new, but this one is pretty special, and I’ll gladly return to re-paddle it.
This is a short 6-mile, 33-minute shuttle, which is a perfect length if your bike sucks, like mine does. It’s an excellent Waves-to-Trails shuttle with an easy ride through mostly tree-covered canopy on a relatively flat grade.
Also, Timothy shared this on his previous report on the adjoining upper-section, and I completely agree with it: “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.”
Miles Paddled Video: