Low Water River Hike

Too low to float doesn’t mean rivers are out!

The best, most isolated, and unmanaged public land isn’t really land at all. At least not for most of the year, until the fall dry season reduces rivers to their base flow to expose sandbars, rocks, and calm ripples that are ripe for the intrepid explorer. 

Swap your shoes for sandals or rubber boots, pack a small backpack, and try to contain your dog’s excitement as you head out for a low water river hike. No leash required!

Annie and Luna sit on a log river side.
Hiking the Watonwan River in Lake Crystal, Minnesota.

Gear Two People

  • Sandals (still warm), knee-high rubber boots (getting cold.)
  • Hiking or tennis shoes to get you down the riverbanks.
  • Backpack, water, and snack (optional.)

Getting There

Nick walks the shore line of the Le Sueur River.
The Le Sueur River while the sun set.

First, choose your river. Stay away from large, channelized rivers under heavy government management and choose a more natural tributary. AKA the smaller rivers that feed the larger ones. 

To be clear, this type of trip isn’t going to work on the Mighty Mississippi. Unless, of course, you live within 100 miles of the headwaters. 

Rivers in Minnesota are generally public, meaning anyone is permitted to wander and explore. When you look at Google Maps, if you see a public water access along your nearest river, this is a sure sign it’s considered public to boats and hikers. In fact, if you’re able to park at the water access, this makes for a great starting point to your low water river hike. 

Luna stands in the water with fall foliage in the background.
Luna loves a river hike!

If you rather hike a bit off-the-path, you can always park near a bridge that crosses the river (shoulder or ditch.) Just check for rocks, logs, and fences before you drive off the road into the grass. You also might need to utilize trees or a deer’s path to hike down to the river’s edge.

Navigating a Dried Up Waterway

Fallen leaves in the river.

Once you leave the car behind and descend to the shore, you have to make a decision about direction. With two options, upstream or downstream, the choice is dichotomous. 

On our last trip, Annie and I wore hiking shoes and carried along Chacos. Since the river is so shallow, we hiked along until we could see the bottom and cross. Your hike might be a series of crossings and recrossing of the river, in order to find the easiest bank to walk along. But since we’ve had a warm couple of days, the water was not a bad temperature to walk through.

Science of the River

You’ll notice that tributary rivers meander, meaning they wind frequently! Considering these are rivers of the plains, as a river twists across the landscape, it erodes side to side in an effort to dissipate energy. Creating the cliffs or steep edges you might find yourself hiking around.

Typically, you’ll hike on the point bar and as the river changes directions you’ll have to cross because the point bar will be on the other side. As you go, watch for riffles in the water as a clue to where the shallow and easy walking spots are.

A Great After Work Hike

Luna sits looking over the water while the sun rises.

If you happen to have 1 of the many Minnesota rivers run through your hometown, a low water river hike is a great way to spend an afternoon. With minimal gear required, it’s easy to load up and go in the middle of the week. Autumn is a beautiful time of year, not only is the water temperature perfect, but the colors of the trees are truly spectacular.

They say that spending time enjoying the outdoors aids mental health and heals the soul. And with all the chronic stress occurring in this society, it’s important to maintain positive mental health and do whatever is needed to boost inner peace. Plus, since boat travel is near impossible on rivers this time of the year, it’s rare that you’ll encounter another person while hiking. You’ll be able to explore in peace, or at least until your dog runs through burdock.

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This post was written by Nick Schmitz, October 2020.

Nick sits in canoe and Luna swims in the water

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