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Day Trip to Little American Falls on the Big Fork River

Updated on August 22, 2012

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.

Big Vic greets visitors to Ranier, MN.
Big Vic greets visitors to Ranier, MN.

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.

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Westward Ho!

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

Jack Pine Savage next to Polkinghorne's
Jack Pine Savage next to Polkinghorne's
Big Falls Minnesota, interscetion of 6/71/31
Big Falls Minnesota, interscetion of 6/71/31

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

Uncle Dan Campbell
Uncle Dan Campbell

Take a Break Here! - click to enlarge and rotate

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Bring your cameralooking upstream toward the bridgelooking upstream from another angleanother viewyet another viewand yes, yet another viewHolt crawler and skidclose upKillifer fire plowUncle Dan Campbell background sign
Bring your camera
Bring your camera
looking upstream toward the bridge
looking upstream toward the bridge
looking upstream from another angle
looking upstream from another angle
another view
another view
yet another view
yet another view
and yes, yet another view
and yes, yet another view
Holt crawler and skid
Holt crawler and skid
close up
close up
Killifer fire plow
Killifer fire plow
Uncle Dan Campbell background sign
Uncle Dan Campbell background sign
Grunwald access
Grunwald access

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 roate

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Highway Sign for Gronwoldt AccessSteep Pathway, there are steps built in to make it easier, it's still a hike directly downhill!Big Fork River directly in front of accessCanoe Access sign at parking areaLooking downstream, Big Fork River at Gronwald access
Highway Sign for Gronwoldt Access
Highway Sign for Gronwoldt Access
Steep Pathway, there are steps built in to make it easier, it's still a hike directly downhill!
Steep Pathway, there are steps built in to make it easier, it's still a hike directly downhill!
Big Fork River directly in front of access
Big Fork River directly in front of access
Canoe Access sign at parking area
Canoe Access sign at parking area
Looking downstream, Big Fork River at Gronwald access
Looking downstream, Big Fork River at Gronwald access
Koochiching County 5 at Minnesota 6
Koochiching County 5 at Minnesota 6

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.

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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.

Little American Falls Campground
Little American Falls Campground

You're there!

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!

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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!

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Little American FallsPicnic AreaEmerald Ash Borer control effort, please do not disturbEmerald Ash Borer detection trapPick up a Koochiching County Recreation Map, there's lot's more to see in this county.
Little American Falls
Little American Falls
Picnic Area
Picnic Area
Emerald Ash Borer control effort, please do not disturb
Emerald Ash Borer control effort, please do not disturb
Emerald Ash Borer detection trap
Emerald Ash Borer detection trap
Pick up a Koochiching County Recreation Map, there's lot's more to see in this county.
Pick up a Koochiching County Recreation Map, there's lot's more to see in this county.

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"

two story outhouse, Effie, MN
two story outhouse, Effie, MN
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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

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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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    • Ardyn25 profile image

      Ardyn25 4 years ago

      Another great journey...thank you!

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      soaringsis 4 years ago

      Yes and thank you for sharing.

    • jadapotata profile image

      jadapotata 4 years ago

      Great article! I'll have to add it to my list of places to visit.

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