Explore the Wildlife and Scenery of the Whitewater River Valley
A state park and a wildlife refuge within Minnesota’s Whitewater River Valley offer many recreational opportunities. For me, it’s a favorite place to photograph birds and other wildlife.
“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.”
— Leo Tolstoy
Over millions of years, where the current U.S. states of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin meet, the Mississippi River and its tributaries have cut deeply into bedrock. Locals call this area of rugged terrain bluff country, coulee country, or the driftless area. Much of the valley of one of the big river’s tributaries, the Whitewater River, in southeastern Minnesota, is managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to preserve natural habitats, protect wildlife, and provide recreational opportunities.
Sometimes in spring, water runoff erodes clay deposits into the river, making it milk-white. The Dakota named the river for this springtime color.
Today, Whitewater State Park and Whitewater State Wildlife Management Area occupy much of the Whitewater River Valley. Many species of birds and animals spend all or part of each year in the area.
I visit the Whitewater River Valley almost weekly to view and photograph the scenery, birds, and other wildlife as the seasons change. It has become one of my favorite places. Read on to learn why so many Minnesotans appreciate the area.
The Whitewater River
The Whitewater River flows for 16.6 miles. The North Branch Whitewater River and Middle Branch Whitewater River meet near the town of Elba to form the main river channel. The South Branch Whitewater River flows into it downstream of Elba. The river empties into the Mississippi at its mouth near the village of Weaver.
The river is spring-fed. Trout, including brook, brown, and rainbow, live in its cool upper reaches.
Slow-moving glaciers of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, covered large parts of present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. While they left lakes and landscapes in their paths, they mostly bypassed bluff country. Instead, their meltwaters fed the Mississippi and its tributaries. The power of the water as it flowed downstream carved through layers of sandstone, shale, dolomite, and limestone to form the valleys we see today.
You can read more about the formation of the Whitewater River Valley in The Geology of Whitewater State Park. Anthony C. Runkel wrote the paper while at the University of Minnesota.
Birds and Wildlife
According to the Minnesota DNR, some 50 animal species and 250 bird species live in or pass through the Whitewater River Valley each year. Following are lists of some of the birds and other animals that I have observed and photographed in the valley in recent years.
- American white pelican
- Bald eagle
- Blue-winged teal duck
- Canada goose
- Eastern meadowlark
- Great blue heron
- Great egret
- Greater yellowlegs
- Northern cardinal
- Northern shoveler duck
- Northern shrike
- Red-tailed hawk
- Ring-necked pheasant
- Sandhill crane
- Song sparrow
- Trumpeter swan
- Turkey vulture
- Wild turkey
- Wood duck
- Whitetail deer
- Eastern hognose snake
- Garter snake
- Painted turtle
- American bullfrog
- American toad
- Green frog
- Leopard frog
Whitewater State Park
The Middle Branch Whitewater River and Trout Run Creek meander through the picturesque bluff lands of Whitewater State Park. Anglers seek brook, brown, and rainbow trout in the cold spring-fed waters. Within the park’s 2,700 acres, visitors enjoy camping, picnicking, hiking, swimming, bird and animal watching, and cross country skiing. The park features two drive-in campgrounds, a cart-in campground, group campsites, ten miles of hiking trails, a sandy swimming beach, a visitor center, and picnic grounds with shelters.
Whitewater Wildlife Management Area
According to Minnesota DNR, about 500,000 hunters, fisherman, and wildlife watchers visit the 28,000 acre Whitewater Wildlife Management Area (WMA) each year. Mixed hardwood forests of oak, hickory, maple, basswood, and walnut trees cover its bluffs and hillsides. Bluff prairies, also called goat prairies, cover some south-facing slopes. In addition to the Whitewater River that passes through, WMA features fifteen water impoundments that are home or migration stopover points for many birds.
Towns in and around the Whitewater River Valley feature gasoline, food, and other services.
The city of Altura, population 493, is located five miles east of the Whitewater River. The town features a gas station, several churches, two bars and restaurants, and several other services.
The tiny town of Elba, population 152, lies roughly in the middle of the Whitewater River Valley. It was founded in 1856 by settlers who named it after the island of Elba. The town features a gas station with a convenience store that sells live fishing bait, a church, and several restaurants and bars.
The city of St. Charles, with a population of 3,735, promotes itself as the gateway to Whitewater State Park, located 6 miles to the north. Founded in 1854, St. Charles features various gas stations with convenience stores, restaurants, bars, churches, a grocery store, and other services.
Settlers platted the small unincorporated community of Weaver, near the mouth of the Whitewater River, in 1871. No services are available.
The Whitewater River Valley is a rewarding place to spend a few hours, a day, or a week. With its scenery, recreational opportunities, and variety of wildlife, it attracts visitors year-round.