Day Trip to Little American Falls on the Big Fork River
There's a lot to see touring through Koochiching County to Little American Falls.
Directions and tips on things to look for in a driving tour that will include scenic and historic sites as well as some interesting roadside artwork. This trip is best in the spring when the water will be rushing over the rapids and falls you'll drive past, however, it is also great in the fall because of the fall colors. But really, the visit is worth it any time of year. Be sure to bring insect repellant in the summer and a camera at any time of the year.
A couple of rivers run through it.
Koochiching county that is.
The Little Fork and Big Fork Rivers are popular canoe routes that flow north through Koochiching County to the Rainy River and the Canadian border. Along the way, there are some rapids and some mandatory portages. You can see several of the falls and whitewater areas driving some rural roads.
We're going to start this trip from the little village of Ranier, two miles east of International Falls. This is where Rainy Lake flows out into the Rainy River through the Ranier Rapids. The entire Rainy Lake watershed flows out at this point heading for Hudson's Bay. The water power is tremendous, with the volume of the Rainy equal to that of the Mississippi at Minneapolis. There are a couple small parks in Ranier where you can get a good view of this rapids, and the old iron railroad bridge which is still in use. Ranier is the busiest rail port in the U.S.
The photo shows Big Vic, a 30 foot tall Voyageur that greets visitors, and a great photo opportunity.
From Ranier, head west on Highway 11 and stay with it to Pelland Junction, where your option is to continue west on 11, or turn south on US 71, and you will want to follow Highway 71 south. When you cross the Little Fork River, you have the option to turn into Littlefork for a break, or continue south on 71 to Big Falls. If you stop at Littlefork, check out the Jack Pine Savage, their town mascot.
Jack Pine Savage next to Polkinghorne's
Next Stop Big Falls
When you reach Big Falls, you need a break! There's quite a bit to see. The historic display at the intersection where you will head south on Minnesota 6 has a nice history display that includes a chainsaw carving of Uncle Dan Campbell, an old Holt crawler and skid used to haul huge loads of timber out of the forest and Killifer fire plow used to hold forest fires in check and protect our resources.
Most importantly, you can hike around the cascades on the Big Fork River, there are trails and walkways on either side of the bridge, and a nice city park where you will find public toilets and water. (as if water would be needed here?)
Uncle Dan Campbell
Take a Break Here! - click to enlarge and rotateClick thumbnail to view full-size
Head South on Minnesota 6
You can zero your trip odometer here and watch the miles for easier directions. You will follow highway 6 south for 7.3 miles and look for a gravel road on your left. This will be the Gronwoldt, or Grunwald (The state can't decide how to spell this) carry-in access for the Big Fork River, it is a nice view of the river, if a little steep and difficult to carry a canoe.
Gronwoldt or Grunwald Access - click to enlarge and roateClick thumbnail to view full-size
Next turn, Koochiching County 5
From Gronwald access turn left, or south. You will cross the Big Fork again at the Bill Counter Landing, stop for photos and a break if you wish. About 12 miles south from Gronwald, you will see Koochiching County 5 on your left. Turn here and you're on your way to Little American Falls. There are some rural farms and recreation cabins. The Big Fork River is now on your right.
You are getting close
Once you turn on County 5, the access road to Little American will be about 7.5 miles and you will know you are getting close when you see this fire number. Take the next decent looking gravel road to the right.
Less than a mile down the road, you will come to a parking area. This is also a county park campground so you will also find campsites, a pit toilet and picnic areas. There are safety walkways constructed to help you get a view of the falls, but as of this writing, the last set of stairs have been damaged. There are still great views to be had from the safety of the walkways. Otherwise, explore, you will find hiking trails all around that offer different views, or will take you to the river level. Be careful!
Little American Falls
This is a mandatory portage on the Big Fork River Canoe Route. The video link below will give you a better idea of why that is!
From the River Level
Some Still Shots!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Roadside Art-Political Statement!
As the video above indicated, the falls is near to Effie, where you can spot the interesting edifice shown below! If it's a little difficult to read, the top sign says "Politicians" and the bottom sign reads "Taxpayers"
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
When you leave Little American Falls, continue south on Koochiching County 5, which will take you to the little burg of Craigville where you again cross the Big Fork River and have an option for more photos. There is no wayside, so you will have to park on the shoulder. After Craigville, you enter Itasca County and come to Effie, where you will find a great roadside sculpture of a bucking bronco. Effie is home to the North Star Stampede, the biggest rodeo event in Northern Minnesota.
At Effie, you can go south on Minnesota 38, also known as the Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway, and there is a kiosk there with info on things to see and do. Or, you can go either East or West on Minnesota 1. Going east is your best option right now, as the road is being rebuilt to the west. Minnesota 1 is a very scenic stretch through this area, you will come to a small park alongside yet another bridge over the Big Fork River just outside of Effie. When you reach the junction with Minnesota 65, head north to Littlefork for your return to International Falls
St. Peter and St. Paul Russian Orthodox Church
When you head north on Mn 65, just after the Koochiching County Line, you will come to the ornate church shown above, this Church was built around the turn of the century and is still in use for special occasions. The Lucachick Family donated the land and helped build the church and descendants still operate the farm next door. If there is someone about, they are usually very willing to open the doors of the church so you can see the equally ornate decorations and icons. It's worth it, but you do have to hope someone is available to ask. Stop at the Church anyway and read the historic marker.
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