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.

Randy Runtsch
Apr 19 · 5 min read

“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.

View of one of 15 pools in Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. Photo by the author.

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.

Canada goose lands on a muskrat push-up. Photo by the author.

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.

Pairs of trumpeter swans occupy the valley year-round. Many more birds pass through during their spring and fall migrations. Photo by the author.

Geology

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.

Painted turtle. Photo by the author.

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.

Birds

  • American white pelican
  • Bald eagle
  • Blue-winged teal duck
  • Canada goose
  • Eastern meadowlark
  • Great blue heron
  • Great egret
  • Greater yellowlegs
  • Killdeer
  • 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
Eastern meadowlark.
Eastern meadowlark.
Eastern meadowlark. Photo by the author.

Mammals

  • Beaver
  • Muskrat
  • Whitetail deer
Muskrat. Photo by the author.

Reptiles

  • Eastern hognose snake
  • Garter snake
  • Painted turtle
Eastern hog snake.
Eastern hognose snake. Photo by the author.

Amphibians

  • American bullfrog
  • American toad
  • Green frog
  • Leopard frog
American toad. Photo by the author.

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.

Greater yellowlegs. Photo by the author.

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.

Baby bird.
Baby bird. Photo by the author.

Area Communities

Towns in and around the Whitewater River Valley feature gasoline, food, and other services.

Altura

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.

Elba

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 Nicholas Marnach House, near the Whitewater River north of Elba, Minnesota, was built by a Luxembourgian family of pioneers between 1857 and 1860. Photo by the author.

St. Charles

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.

Weaver

Settlers platted the small unincorporated community of Weaver, near the mouth of the Whitewater River, in 1871. No services are available.

View of the Whitewater River Valley in early spring from an overlook near Weaver, Minnesota. Photo by the author.

Summary

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.

Randy Runtsch is a writer, photographer, data engineer, and computer programmer. He and his wife live in southeastern Minnesota, not far from the Whitewater River Valley.

You can view more of Randy’s photos at shootproof.com and shutterstock.com.

Wildlife Trekker

Wildlife Trekker writers illuminate wildlife through words and images.

Randy Runtsch

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Writer | Photographer | Adventurer | Data Engineer | Data Analyst | Programmer

Wildlife Trekker

Stories and images of wildlife worldwide. Articles also cover gear, travel, and other topics related to wildlife watching and photography.

Randy Runtsch

Written by

Writer | Photographer | Adventurer | Data Engineer | Data Analyst | Programmer

Wildlife Trekker

Stories and images of wildlife worldwide. Articles also cover gear, travel, and other topics related to wildlife watching and photography.

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