About this Itinerary
Through a beautiful wooded river valley in southern Minnesota, the Cannon Valley Trail follows the former Chicago Great Western Railway line for nearly 20 miles to connect Cannon Falls, Welch and Red Wing. This rail-trail parallels the Cannon River for the entire route and offers a peaceful and fairly remote ride through the rural landscape of the Cannon River Valley. The Cannon Valley Trail (CVT) winds through farmland, wetlands and nature preserves with access to rest areas, toilets, picnic tables and water fountains. The towns of Cannon Falls and Red Wing along with Goodhue County jointly manage the CVT and require trail-users to purchase a Wheel Pass to help pay for this maintenance. This pass is required between April 1 and November 1 for recreationalists 18 years and older; pedestrians and wheelchair users are exempt from this requirement. Passes can be purchased at kiosks at major access points to the trail and at local businesses. Also note that motorized vehicles and pets are not allowed on this trail at any time. The Cannon Valley Trail can be enjoyed as a day trip or as a weekend expedition. There are lodging options, restaurants and points of interests at both ends of the trail and the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport is 50 miles west of Red Wing and 35 miles west of Cannon Falls. Bike rentals are available at either end of the trail. In Cannon Falls, go to Cannon Falls Canoe & Bike Rental (rental price includes trail pass) and in Red Wing, you’ll find rentals available at the St. James Hotel, which also offers a to-go lunch menu for the ride.
The former Chicago Great Western corridor actually extends westward even farther to the city of Mankato and at some point in the future, trail users will be able to travel from Red Wing to Mankato on an uninterrupted series of rail-trails; watch for a connection between the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail (between Mankato and Faribault) and the planned Mill Towns Trail (to fill-in the gap between Faribault and Cannon Falls). For now, keep in mind that the upright concrete posts you may see along the CVT are old railroad indicators of mileage from Mankato.
Cannon Falls has two motels, Caravan Motel and Saratoga Inn & Suites, both of which are located south of downtown. The Cannon Falls Campground is closer to the CVT itself, just 1.5 miles east of the trail terminus (there is also camping at Lake Byllesby Campground, 3.5 miles west of town). Red Wing has four B&B’s within walking or biking distance to downtown and each with its own unique historic charm: Golden Lantern Inn, Pratt-Taber Inn, Candlelight Inn and Moondance Inn. The historical 1875 St. James Hotel is another good choice with two restaurants and a pub on site. There are also several chain motels/hotels off of the highway near Pottery Place.
The western trail terminus is in Cannon Falls at the confluence of the little and big Cannon Rivers. Parking is available at Riverside and Two Rivers Parkwhere you can easily access the Cannon Falls City Trail. Head south on the bike path to cross the river and turn north when the trail intersects N. 3rd Street. The trail will parallel city roads for a half mile and become the Cannon Valley Trail. The Cannon Valley Trail office is right off the trail at 825 Cannon River Avenue and there is also parking just east of the CVT office at the Cannon Falls Softball Fields.
The path quickly enters the rural valley landscape with the Cannon River to the north and farm fields to the south. Moving in and out of wooded corridors, the CVT follows the meandering route of the river as it flows to join the Mississippi River in Red Wing. You’ll catch glimpses of the bluffs and cliffs that line the river’s edge and may see wildlife that live in the river valley, such as deer, beaver, otter, fox, and coyote. The first rest stop (Anderson Rest Area) is at mile 3.6 just before the CVT crosses over Trail Run Creek. The CVT crosses a country road, Sunset Trail, just over a mile beyond the rest area and soon after passes on the southern edge of the River Terrace Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, one of the state’s rare gravel prairie communities.
Between here and the Welch Station Access at mile 9.6, you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate how the railroad and agriculture has shaped this region. Imagine grist mills up and down the valleypowered by the river and establishing the Cannon Valley Mills, by the mid-19th century, as the state’s first flour milling center. Around that same time, the Minnesota Central began construction of a rail line from Waterville to Red Wing, beginning regular rail service by 1883. The Minnesota Central (locally known as the Cannon Valley Line) later became part of the Chicago Great Western (CGW), a “granger” railroad (Midwestern lines which derived a significant proportion of their revenue from agriculture) with an extensive system between Chicago, the Twin Cities, Omaha, and Kansas City.
Once past the Welch rest area, you can take a 0.5-mile detour into the Welch township by heading north, over the river, on County Road 7 Boulevard north. Here you can rent tubes, canoes or kayaks at Welch Mill Canoeing & Tubing and have a meal, or just an ice cream cone, at the Trout Stream Café. Back on the trail, the CVT crosses Belle Creek (mile 11.1) and enters another scientific area, the Cannon River Turtle Preserve SNA. This preserve, a floodplain forest of silver maple and cottonwood, was protected largely to secure habitat for the state-threatened wood turtle. At mile 15, the CVT passes under US Highway 61 and shortly crosses Cannon Bottom Road. At this intersection, you can take the road north to access a 0.5-mile hiking path in the wetland area or continue east into Red Wing.
Access to Red Wing’s Anderson Park, also a trail parking area, is 1.5 miles before the western trail terminus of the CVT. You’ll see the trail split with a branch heading south to the park just before the rail-trail crosses Spring Creek. The Cannon Valley Trail ends at a parking lot off of Old W. Main Street. Anticipate road crossings and increased vehicle traffic as you enter town. The trail also parallels an active rail line for its final stretch. Rail enthusiasts may want to bike to Levee Park to see the Red Wingdepot(circa 1904) that is still in use today by Amtrak and the Red Wing Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Spend some time exploring the historical downtown of Cannon Falls with its museums, antique shops and restaurants all predominately situated in buildings constructed in a period from 1880-1915. Each building has a story and history enthusiasts can stop in at the Chamber of Commerce to pick-up a self-guided historic walking tour booklet with map. The Cannon Falls Museum is also a good place to see old photographs and memorabilia from the region. The valleys surrounding Cannon Falls have a strong agricultural heritage, of which you’ll see evidence along the CVT. Right in downtown Cannon Falls you can taste the bounty of a local vineyard at the Cannon River Winery taste room or you can visit Cannon Falls during the annual Cannon Falls Wine & Art Festival and enjoy sipping wine while browsing local artwork.
The Ferndale Market is a must-see for anyone interested in local food and farms. (It is just minutes away from the Saratoga Inn and Caravan Motel.) Meats, produce, dairy, baked goods, specialty items: you name it, this market has it and all come from area farms and producers. And while on the topic of food, you can find coffee and sweet treats at Hi-Quality Bakery and lunch or dinner repast at Dudley’s Pizza and Sandwich Shop, Nick’s Downtown Diner and Mill Street Tavern (all within a block of each other in the downtown district).
Sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River, Red Wing is a relatively small city with big-time charm. It was Minnesota’s first town listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of Distinctive Destinations and draws visitors and tourists throughout the year. Fall is particularly busy with autumnal colors attracting appreciative leaf peepers and you may need to make lodging reservations well in advance if you come at this time; there are fairly regularly scheduled events and attractions that draw crowds, however, so keep this in mind when planning your trip to Red Wing. Just a hint of the town’s major activities: the annual July music Red Wing Roots Festival, Red Wing’s largest summer festival, River City Days; the juried art festival each October, Fall Festival of the Arts; and, for pottery collectors, the Red Wing Collectors Society Convention.
Be sure to stop at Red Wing’s Historic Pottery Place, where eateries, shops and residences meet up in one outlet-type mall. The Pottery Museum is here as well, honoring the Red Wing pottery industry (beginning in 1877) which flourished here thanks to abundant local clay deposits. In addition to the crocks and jugs of Red Wing Stoneware, this town is also known for its sturdy work boots. The Red Wing Shoe Company has been making shoes since 1905 and is still going strong today; you can visit their store and museum on Main Street to see the world’s largest boot, size 638 ½ D.
While in Red Wing, make sure to enjoy time along the Mississippi River, whether you want to fish, swim, boat, walk or sit and watch the busy river activity. Levee and Bay Point parks are good options in town; Bay Point Park is particularly scenic with its historical Boat House Village and old-fashioned gin poles. You may also want to take a river excursion with Rusty’s Red Wing River Rides, a fun way to view the bald eagles that nest along the river banks (according to Rusty’s website, there are currently 21 active nests within five miles of their dock at Levee Park). They offer tours April through October.
For all the wandering and exploring you will want to do, keep your energy up with a meal at one of Red Wing’s many culinary options. Starting at the Pottery Mall, the Wisteria Twig is a popular lunch spot that also serves homemade scones, lemon curd and English tea. One-half mile farther is Red Wing Brewery, opened in 1951 as the first brewery in town. Just a block or two off of Main Street in the historic district is the Staghead Gastropub, a full-service restaurant, several restaurants at St. James Hotel and Red Wing’s oldest restaurant, Bev’s Café.
In the evening, take in a performance at the Sheldon Performing Arts Theatre, enjoy live music on a Friday night at Jimmy’s Pub, or set yourself down on the lawn at Central Park Bandshell for the free Wednesday evening summer series, Concerts in the Park.