The long Fourth of July 🇺🇸 weekend finally arrived. Time when lucky people hit the road or take to the skies (while the unlucky get stuck at the airport) or head north to their cabin. Not us this year. Having recently driven 2,000 miles (3,200 km) across five states, our enthusiasm for another road trip was zero. Same with chancing flight cancellations. Conversely, we needed a break from the seemingly Sisyphean home maintenance projects. So we consulted our now venerable 60 Hikes guide and decided on the Cannon River Wilderness Area between Northfield and Faribault (Hike #31) – a hike new to us and not too far away. We downloaded a map from the Friends of the park’s website and set off for the West Trailhead.
Out West, when someone says “wilderness” we think of vast expanses of rugged, remote terrain, designated as such under the 1964 Wilderness Act. There are just three such areas in Minnesota: the world renowned Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the much smaller Agassiz and Tamarac Wilderness Areas administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Today’s 850 acre (344 ha) Cannon Wilderness Park, on the other hand, is not federal and is administered by Rice County. It came into being in 1976 thanks to the efforts of local volunteers, land owners, and county officials. A detailed account of the work involved in this can be found here: Cannon River Wilderness Area. This park preserves remnants of the Big Woods ecosystem from lush lowlands to tree covered uplands. The Cannon River itself is one of six designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Minnesota.
The weather has been vacillating lately between hot and humid, cooler and sultry, and cool and comfortable – often all in the same day. We hit the weather lottery this morning with sunshine, 😎 blue skies, artistic clouds, less humidity, and no thunderstorms. The local swarms of biting insects even cooperated by only trying to bite us when we stopped moving – so we rarely did that.
The trail from the West Trailhead forms two interconnected loops (think link sausages) that stretch along the west side of the Cannon River. There are four primitive campsites along this trail, two near the trailhead and two between the two loops. We found that a trail had been mowed through the thigh- and shoulder-high vegetation for all of the first loop but for only half of the second – so we got to wade through wet veg to the squishy tune of soggy trail shoes. 😒
Not far in from the trailhead, we came to a bridge that spanned the Cannon River to a campsite on its east bank. The guidebook intimates that you could work your way between this bridge and the East Trailhead. If so, that might be an adventure hike better attempted after the impressively thick veg dies back.
A short ways downstream from the bridge, we found an easy access point to the river bank. While idly poking at rocks along the shore, I came across a large (6 inch / 15 cm) freshwater clam shell. It was muddy gray-green on the outside but exhibited (after we cleaned it in the river) a beautiful iridescent nacre on the inside. It seems that in days past there were enough of these clams in this river to support a local button-making industry.
A little farther downstream, we passed a colorful sandstone/limestone/shale cliff that the river had cut into its east bank. This is also where we encountered the only other hiker we saw during our visit (but there were people camped at some of the primitive sites).
We continued on the mowed trail under a powerline that crossed it between the two loops. Shortly thereafter we came to the second loop and started around it counter-clockwise. The mowing stopped not too far into this loop and for the next mile or so we had to make our way through wet veg of varying heights.
We missed the unmowed return route on our first pass and followed a game/use trail up into a draw. This didn’t seem right, so we turned back and were fortunate to spot the veg covered road that would take us back toward the trailhead. The road prism was obvious, and it had been mowed previously, just not this season. So, except for a lot of scratchy plants buried in the greenery, it was moderately easy going. And, before long, we got back to the recently mowed section. 🙂
Although short, this proved to be a surprisingly pleasant and interesting hike in a small, but ecologically diverse, preserve. Our double loop came to 4.2 miles (6.7 km) with a cumulative gain of around 360 feet (110 m). It would be extra interesting if someday there was a trail connection (via another bridge?) between the West and East Trailheads, thus allowing for a point-to-point or shuttle hike.
The weather, which had been great when we started, had gradually worsened while we hiked to the point where rain seemed imminent. It wasn’t but who knew? So we passed on hiking in from the East Trailhead and headed home. This was just the hike we needed for a break during a long weekend holiday. 😁🇺🇸
I suppose you could call any piece of land a “wilderness” but whether or not it has any protections as such depends on how it’s defined legally.
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Interesting! I had no idea they had other types of wilderness areas like that.
Well, it’s not a wilderness in the sense of a federally designated one. Those are the ones that don’t allow power tools, etc. For Cannon River it seems to mean just trying to keep it minimally accessible and not altered anymore. Thus it has minimal facilities (4 primitive campsites and a seasonal toilet) and a few trails that are mowed in the summer months. Compared to the state parks here, it’s really basic.
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A vastly different type of scenery to what I know as wilderness in Oregon! Interesting that they also mow it since typically wilderness means no power tools are allowed (i.e. chainsaws), but looks like it really needs it with the tall grass.
Aside from part of the trail not being mowed, we didn’t encounter any downed trees across it. The park wasn’t as glamorous as some of the state parks around here, but was fine for a hike. It could, however, use a little more signage in a few spots. Then again, when the veg dies back the trail is probably more obvious.
As you noticed, the wilderness park (in my county of Rice) needs work and upkeep. County commissioners, etc have recently discussed park needs in the county. This particular park was in the path of a 2018 tornado which hit our area, resulting in many downed trees, especially along/in the river. Despite everything, I’m glad you enjoyed your visit here.