The Inkpaduta Canoe Trail

By John Chalstrom

“I would say the river is too low to have an enjoyable float.” These were the disappointing words spoken to me by Cherokee County Naturalist and Assistant Director Laura Jones. Having planned a canoe trip on the Little Sioux River through Clay, O’Brien, Cherokee, and Woodbury counties in early May, I was dismayed primarily because this is one of Iowa’s most scenic and perhaps most underutilized canoe trails.

The Little Sioux River meanders through northwest Iowa beginning in the Great Lakes basin before emptying in the Missouri River near the town of Little Sioux. Thanks to the conservation boards of many counties, an outstanding canoe pathway has emerged that provides ample access points, camping opportunities, and endless beauty. The canoe route is referred to as the “Inkpaduta” Trail, named after the infamous renegade Sioux chief who, in 1857, staged a series of raids along the Little Sioux beginning in Smithland and culminated in the killing of nearly forty settlers on the shores of Okoboji in what would become known as the Spirit Lake Massacre, a seminal event in Iowa history. Its deeply forested banks also allegedly hid Jesse James and his gang after the foiled Northfield, Minnesota raid. And for those who have taken a canoe or kayak along this path, it does not take long to feel as if one has been transported back to a time prior to development as one paddles through rolling hills and deeply wooded terrain.

Having canoed the Little Sioux in the past, I have been amazed at its beauty and solitude. A great beginning spot is at Waterman Creek in O’Brien County. The confluence of the creek with the Little Sioux highlights the lush prairie with wildlife that highlights the influence of its glacial past. The nearby O’Brien Prairie Heritage Center is a must for learning about the geography, topography, and history of the Little Sioux River. Outside the nature center, one can gaze at bison roaming through native prairie and in the process, catch a glimpse of what Iowa in the age before settlement looked like.

Continuing downstream and passing Peterson, a paddler will be overwhelmed by the never ending panorama of oak savannahs and abundant wildlife. Bald eagles soar overhead and whitetail deer are seemingly at every bend of the river. As the river flows on its southwesterly course, it will flow into Cherokee County and perhaps, the most beautiful stretch along the river. Consider either staying or beginning a trip at Martin’s Access in northern Cherokee County near the small town of Larabee. Understanding the beauty and allure of the Little Sioux, the Cherokee County Conservation Board has invested in building comfortable cabins and campsites that are welcoming to the arriving or departing paddler. Continuing the journey from Martin’s access, the river runs its course through the heart of Cherokee County and truly wild terrain. Here, sandbars give respite and provide an exceptional opportunity to stop for a pleasurable lunch and a chance to cast for walleye and catfish, both of which are quite plentiful.

Perhaps my favorite stretch on the Little Sioux is north of the town of Cherokee on the confluence of Mill Creek and the river. This was an area of long-time settlement of Native Americans dating back to the last ice age. Paddlers would be well-advised to scout the area for arrowheads and other artifacts that can be found on the sandy shores. In an area in which elk and bison were once abundant, searching for signs of a distant past are readily available given a keen eye and patience. This is truly a gem in Iowa lore as prehistoric villages were established for centuries in the area.

The river’s wildness is interrupted by the beautiful town of Cherokee which the Little Sioux bisects. Again, canoe accesses in the community abound as well as camping facilities at Koser Spring Lake Park. The town of Cherokee would be an ideal location to either end or begin a trip on the Little Sioux. Providing camping, lodging, and wonderful eating establishments, it is the ideal departed or demarcation point. Continuing from Cherokee, the river winds southward passing along more access points at Red Tail Ridge and Silver Sioux Recreation Area. Silver Sioux is an ideal overnight stop as ample camping spots are available next to the river.

Leaving Cherokee County, the Little Sioux continues its flow through Woodbury County. Again, with the vision of its County Conservation Board, a beautiful park complete with cabins is located near the town of Correctionville. In many ways, this is the perfect ending point for a canoe trip along the river. Ideally located on US Highway 20, the park provides ample hiking trails, hunting and fishing opportunities, and is easily accessible.

Truly the Inkapaduta Canoe Trail is one of Iowa’s most scenic and wild waterways. Yet, it can be a fickle river. Prone to spring flooding in normal years, the best time to typically paddle the river is in June and July. Flows are usually ideal for a canoer or kayaker to take a leisurely float. On most days a paddler will have the river largely to themselves as pressure is relatively light. As with most rivers, the amount of time it takes to navigate between access points is dependent upon river flow. With average cfm, it would take two to three days to leisurely paddle from Waterman Creek in O’Brien County to Correctionville in Woodbury County. Keep in mind, the Little Sioux is legally a non-meandering stream meaning, camping on sandbars or shoreline is not permitted. Again, given the abundance of access points and wonderful city and county campsites along the trail, this would not be necessary. Unfortunately, drought has had a tremendous impact on the Little Sioux. A year of abnormal precipitation has impacted river recreation. Yet the mystery of the Little Sioux is that its banks can rise quickly and with ample rainfall, render itself to exceptional paddling opportunities.

Having spent most of my life in northwest Iowa, I truly believe the Little Sioux River valley provides some of the most exceptional outdoor recreational opportunities in the state of Iowa. Whether it is paddling, camping, hiking, fishing, hunting for deer, pheasant, or waterfowl, the river provides it all. And the foresight of the county conservation boards along its banks have responded in kind by providing wonderful access points and camping facilities. If looking for a canoe/kayak trail that promises spectacular beauty, adventure, and a glimpse into our pioneer and native past, look no further than the Little Sioux River. And while paddling stop and listen. You may well hear the war cries of Inkpaduta and the hoof beats of the James gang around the next bend.