The trail links the southeast Minnesota communities of Red Wing, Welch, and Cannon Falls along a path that follows the former route of the Chicago Great Western Railway line that once ran through this river valley. In addition to offering stunning views of the Cannon River, the trail meanders under lush canopies of hardwoods, along steep slopes with exposed rock ridges, and along bucolic country roads.
The cities of Cannon Falls and Red Wing and Goodhue County have jointly managed the trail since 1986. Although the trail has a drop of 115 feet between the cities at each end, the rail-turned-trail slope is gradual throughout its route, which winds through a striking mix of wetlands, river bluffs, several large lakes, and rolling farmland.
The trail was dedicated on May 31, 1986, with the towns of Cannon Falls and Red Wing, in addition to Goodhue County, agreeing to jointly manage the trail. The former Chicago Great Western corridor actually extends westward even farther to the city of Mankato. Between that city and Faribault, the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail is open on the former rail line for recreational use. The planned Mill Towns Trail will fill the gap on the corridor between Faribault and Cannon Falls; when completed, trail users will be able to travel from Red Wing to Mankato on nearly 100 miles of uninterrupted rail-trails.
To help pay for maintenance of the Cannon Valley Trail, trail users age 18 and older require a Wheel Pass when using the trail April 1–November 1. Passes can be purchased at kiosks at major access points to the trail and at local businesses; pedestrians and wheelchair users are exempt. In Red Wing, a city trail beginning several blocks east of the trailhead will take you south for about 2 miles to the northern trailhead of the Goodhue Pioneer State Trail.
Using the Welch Station trailhead as the midpoint-loop starting point, the 7-mile sections provide an out-and-back option west toward Cannon Falls and east to Anderson Park in Red Wing. These sections are among the most scenic of the valley and also avoid most urban development at each end.
Restrooms are available in Cannon Falls, Anderson Memorial Rest Area, Welch Station, Old West Main Street access, and Bay Point Park in Red Wing.
To begin in Cannon Falls, from I-35, take Exit 76. Head east on County Road 2/Deuce Road, and go 0.8 mile. Turn right onto CR 46/Pillsbury Ave., and go 1.8 miles. Turn left onto CR 86/280th St. E., and go 16.8 miles. Make a slight left onto Rochester Blvd., and cross US 52. Go 2.6 miles, as the road changes to CR 29 and then MN 20. Turn left onto Dakota St. W., and take the first right onto N. Third St. In 0.2 mile, after crossing Cannon River, turn left onto Water St. In 0.1 mile turn left onto Stoughton St. E. and then onto Cannon River Ave. After 0.5 mile, turn right to go behind the city wastewater treatment facility to the city softball fields. Parking will be on the left.
To reach the trailhead in Welch, from I-35, take Exit 86. Head east on 162nd St. W./CR 46, and go 19.6 miles. Continue straight on CR 47/Vermillion Road 2.1 miles. Turn right onto Vermillion St., and in 0.4 mile, turn left onto MN 316 S./Red Wing Blvd. Go 9.8 miles. Turn left onto US 61 S. and go 2 miles. Turn right onto County 7 Blvd., and go 2.7 miles. Turn right onto Mt. Hill Road and go 0.1 mile. Turn left into the parking area.
To reach the eastern trailhead in Red Wing, take I-494 to Exit 63B. Continue straight on Hastings Blvd. S./US 61, and go 2.4 miles. Turn left onto MN 316 S./Red Wing Blvd., and travel 9.8 miles. Turn left onto US 61 S. and go 11 miles. Turn left at the McDonald’s, and then turn right onto N. Service Drive. In 0.4 mile parking will be on the left.