mn parks: a quick guide to relative epic-ness

I’ve been in Minnesota over a year now, and spending lots of that time outdoors. As weekends approach, I get antsy. I start planning that week’s miniature adventure. Especially in the first few months – and still now, really – I often wished for a quick and fast guide to the places I could go. Not simply the presence or absence of campgrounds or the length of the trails or the annual special events, but a succinct summing-up of the worthiness, the excitement, the essence of a place. I’ve yet to find a good guide like that, so here’s my own for anyone searching for the same: a guide to eighteen Minnesota parks and trails (and one just across the border.)

SW Minn

Blue Mound State Park |

A small-medium state park nestled in the middle of Minnesota’s once-prairie-land just outside of the small, quiet town of Luverne (which produces decent coffee). This park is home to the state’s only wild bison population (in a state that used to be home to mile after mile of open tallgrass prairie and roaming bison herds) who live in hundreds of fenced-in acres (which sort of makes them not really wild, but it’s a semantics issue.) There is great biodiversity of plants and birds and insects, and little prickly pear cactuses creeping along the ground. The prairie remnants are open and beautiful and very eerie at night, although the dramatic-ness of the view is stifled by the fact that the park is mostly atop an enormous hill and you have a view, from everywhere, of the farmlands and winding roads and pickup trucks that have taken over this ecosystem to produce our food. There’s a trail by the interpretive center that is rough and rocky and leads to an old quarry for Sioux quartzite, a bowl of grass inside massively hewn red rock walls. When I rounded the cliff and found myself in the belly of this bowl, a tiny speck of human surrounded by enormous walls leading up to an empty sky, something opened up inside me. For a moment it felt like I had found religion.

For this mini hike alone, I recommend a stop.

Recommended for: Day trips, short hike

Split Rock Creek State Park |

I might have missed something, but this state park seems like the sort of place you go for a family reunion if you have lots of relatives who can’t get too far from a parking lot, or a location for local high school students to drink and smoke illicitly. There is a lot of open grass, serviceable outhouses, a small dammed lake for swimming or fishing, and the chance to walk a narrow bridge over that dam.

If you live in the vicinity, this is a great local spot in the summer I’m sure, but for non-locals I wouldn’t say it’s worth a detour.

Recommended for: If you move to Ihlen, MN and are desperate

Pipestone National Monument |

A small unit of the National Park Service just outside of the town of Pipestone, which has a diner with incredibly friendly staff and a million buildings made of the omnipresent red Sioux quartzite. (Actually there are obviously nowhere near a million buildings in the town of Pipestone.) There are three enormous glacial erratics when you drive into the park, “the three maidens,” and you follow the road on by to a large parking lot and the Visitor Center. On the day I was there I spoke to a new seasonal interp ranger, who was still monumentally incompetent and nervous, but I have some hopes for him by the end of the season. I was once there myself, after all. Anyway, there is a short self-guided hike through old prairie fragments and past a small waterfall, with one of the best self-guided nature hike booklets I’ve seen. I was into it. The really notable bit is all of the still-active pipestone mine pits. Pipestone is a soft red stone with great cultural significance for the local tribal nations, and there are lots of active pits all over the area, as well as artisans carving pipes and figurines inside the Visitor Center on most days. All in all, I spent a very pleasant hour and a half exploring.

Cultural history is important. So are prairie grasses. This place has an interesting blend of both.

Recommended for: Day trips, short hike, visitor center

Bonus: Palisades State Park in South Dakota |

This park is so close to the border with Minnesota that it seemed worth a mention. It is also way cooler than I expected. It’s super small, but there are some little trails along the part of Split Rock Creek that runs through the park that give access to some pretty incredible stuff: huge boulders and complicated rocky cliffs punctuating the clear creek’s shoreline. There are wide, smooth boulders near the shore for sunbathing or reading, and narrow trails to scramble up and through the views. The area is a good place for climbing, for fishing, for getting in the water, and I also think I could spend a happy couple hours just messing around in the rocks (altough the park is so small, you can’t range far.) They do naturalist programs in the summer and they have a small campground and a group lodge for rental on the creek. You could also check out the nearby Devil’s Gulch Park in Garretson, where Jesse James reportedly jumped a 20-foot ravine on his horse. Garretson has a lot of grain elevators.

Who doesn’t love big rocks by clean water?

Recommended for: One-night camping trips, day trips, wading, climbing

SE MinnWhitewater State Park |

So I think I’ve been to this park. I’ve been to some state park in Southeast Minnesota, which is a nice, quiet region filled with trout streams and big bluffs along the larger rivers and not-quite rivers. Fly fishermen love southeast Minnesota. The state parks are all pretty small, and up on the hills and ridges you get views of the little rural-suburban neighborhoods and winding highways, so you don’t feel terribly away. Still, the bluffs are awesome, the streams are lovely, and I recollect there being some excellent climbing trees.

People get super into southeastern Minnesota. I gotta get back and explore some more. 

Recommended for: fishing, camping, walking

Minneopa State Park

I was only in this state park for about thirty minutes, so take this with a little grain of salt. This is an off-the-highway-for-a-picnic-lunch sort of park. The big waterfall is quite impressive, but it’s criss-crossed with cement bridges and high schoolers holding hands in their letter jackets. I took a mini jog along a paved bike path, and before long I found myself running alongside the expressway. The most exciting looking trail, which skirted the ridge high above the narrow river, was closed for safety reasons (to be fair, the trail did seem to be rapidly becoming less trail and more cliff.) Still, I could have missed whole swaths of this place. Anyone know more about it? They are supposedly going to be introducing bison there soon, so there has to be more wild space somewhere in the park.

There is a big waterfall by the parking lot. 

Recommended for: Quick stops while on a road trip, picnics, holding hands with your highschool sweetheart; maybe more??

Coming soon…

  • The Twin Cities Area
  • The St Croix River Area
  • The North Shore and Northeast

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