Paddling Minnesota

Falcon Publishing, 1999
© 1999 by Falcon Publishing


Character: With medium to high water, this stretch fills with waves, souse holes and many play spots; it is suitable only for experienced paddlers. If you paddle an open canoe, stuff it with plenty of flotation to make it easier to fish from the river. 


4.5 miles

Average run time:

Four to six hours. You could paddle straight through in much less time, but you'll want to scout rapids and explore play spots.

Class: II-III (low to medium flow), IIÐIV (high flow)

Skill level:


Optimal flow:

2 to 5 feet on the gauge on the Minnesota Highway 23 bridge in Banning State Park. It is runnable (but very rocky) down to about 1 foot (about 500 cfs on the USGS gauge below Sandstone—check the USGS website). Above 5 feet, the explosive waves get downright spooky. Average gradient: 11 feet per mile. The first 1.5 miles is much steeper.


Sandstone cliffs have been severely undercut by the river. Several inexperienced paddlers, not realizing the dangers, have died on this stretch.



The paddling:

Whoever designed the Kettle River never heard of saving the best for last. No sooner do you push off from the state park landing than you plunge into the toughest, most complex rapids the river offers, Blueberry Slide (class II in low water; class IV in very high water, when large waves form). Scout on river right before you launch, or, for a better view, paddle across to the island at the head of the rapids and scout from river left. The river slides over a long, gnarly slab of sandstone, sending up a dandy surfing wave. Run this rapids toward the left, where you find the deepest water, and then follow the dancing waves, moving to the right to drop over a couple more ledges about 100 yards downstream. A sandstone ramp on far river right may tempt you, but don't give in. The shallow water will slow you down and the hole at the bottom will suck you back and spit you out (though at low to medium levels, its a fun place to play). If the water is over 3 feet, you can run the small channel on the backside of the island and drop over a 4-foot falls. But don't do it if logs have jammed in the drop. 

Next is Mother's Delight, a bouldery, wavy class II pitch run down the middle. Then comes Dragon's Tooth (class IIÐIV), where cliffs pinch the river down to about 50 feet wide. Portage and scout on river left. The Tooth, a large boulder near the bottom of this short, powerful rapids, forms a souse hole at most levels and an explosive wave at high levels. Start your run on river left and then move decisively toward the middle, threading your way between the jutting cliff on the left and the tooth on the right. Yes, at low and medium levels you can run the skinny channel to the right of the tooth, but it's a tight fit and the cliffs are badly undercut.

Take a deep breath and relax. The Little Banning Rapids (class II) are pure enjoyment, a swift, bouncy chain of waves. Get out on river right to explore the remains of the old town site of Banning. Built on the riverside in the late 1800s, Banning once had a population of about 300. Twenty million tons of sandstone were quarried from the nearby cliffs. But the industry collapsed in the early 1900s. By 1918 Banning stood deserted. Today the remnants of an old road follow the river. The walls of two old quarry buildings stand next to the rapids. Trees grow inside the roofless powerhouse, forming a decrepit and joyless kind of Japanese garden.

For several hundred yards, the river runs dark and quiet through a picturesque gorge. On river right, note the potholes, formed when glacial meltwater spun stones and boulders in the soft sandstone. It was for these features that the Kettle was named. (Misnamed, actually. In geological parlance, a "kettle" is something altogether different, a lake formed by a huge ice block buried and left behind by a glacier.) Suddenly, the slick water gathers speed. Soon it erupts into 100-yard-long chain of 2- to 3-foot waves that lead to a passageway of tall sandstone bluffs on either side of the river. This is Hell's Gate (class IIÐIII). Portage left. Despite its name and formidable first impression, it's a clear shot down the middle. Get ready for the peaking waves and turbulence at the bottom.

Flat water follows Hell's Gate. On river right at the next bend, Wolf Creek enters the Kettle. Hike back into the woods 100 feet to find a pretty 10-foot waterfall.

About .3 miles downstream from Wolf Creek, a cave lies in the sandstone bluffs on the right. The remains of several quarries are found along the bluff downstream to Robinson Park.

Just before Robinson Park the river drops over Quarry Rapids (class IÐII). Portage right. Despite its benign appearance, a tricky cross current has flipped many a canoe and kayak. Large waves form in high water. In low water, watch out for jagged boulders and spikes from an old log dam. 

Many paddlers end their trip at Robinson Park. Otherwise, continue downstream 1 mile to Big Spring Falls, an 8-foot falls that splits around a pine-crowned island. Big Spring Falls had remained hidden beneath the placid waters of a small reservoir for nearly a century, revealed only when the Sandstone Dam was dismantled in 1995. Scout from the island at the top of the drop. Portage on the right. The right side (class IIIÐIV) plunges over a steep drop with a big sucky hole at the bottom. The left side (class IIIÐIV) slides down a slope of sandstone and scours an undercut cliff; work from eddy to eddy and avoid the deceptively strong hole at the bottom of the drop. At extremely high water, a runnable chute (class III) begins to flow on the extreme far right. 

On the series of low ledges where the dam once stood is Sandstone Rapids (class II), which kick up good surfing waves at medium to high water levels. The take-out lies next to the rapids on the right. Portage right. 


Banning State Park put-in: Exit Interstate 35 at Minnesota Highway 23 east, drive 0.5 mile to the park entrance. Follow park road to river. A state park vehicle permit is required. A parking lot is available nearby. Old Dam Site take-out: From city of Sandstone, drive east on Minnesota Highway 123. Right before the Kettle River bridge, turn south and follow Pine Avenue (which turns to dirt) about 2 miles to dead end. Park on the edge of dirt road. 

Alternate MN 23 put-in: Exit I-35 on State Route 23 east, drive 1.5 miles across Kettle River bridge and turn left to access. Alternate Robinson Park access: From Sandstone, drive east on State Route 123. Right before the Kettle River bridge, turn north into park. Good parking at both sites. 


8 miles one way. About 30 minutes. 



Auto camping at Banning State Park

Food, gas, and lodging:

Hinckley, Sandstone, Banning Junction. 

For more information:

MDNR Information Center. 

All excerpts are protected by copyright and must not be reproduced or distributed without the written permission of Greg Breining.