Minnesota State Park Adventuring

Throughout most of the fall I’ve been spending weekends heading out to Minnesota’s state parks.

Nature With the Kids

It started after a summer vacation I took with the kids to South Dakota, Colorado, and Kansas. We took in lots of nature: the Badlands, the Black Hills, and Rocky Mountain National Park.

But watching over two kids by myself (until Colorado when I joined my parents), I didn’t have a lot of time to enjoy the nature. There wasn’t a lot of quiet. Or patience.  Or peace.

At one point in Colorado, after climbing across rocks in the river rapids with my kids, I sat down in a chair along the shore and put my feet up.

A moment later, Milo fell into the river.

That pretty much sums up my attempts to enjoy nature in Colorado. Both kids were sick at some point along the trip. Lexi had altitude sickness and our trip to the top was short lived and ill advised.

I make it sound like a terrible trip, but it really wasn’t. It was just a different kind of trip. We still had fun. We still saw amazing things:

  • The strange wonder of the Badlands, complete with deer and big horn sheep.
  • The Iron Mountain Road in South Dakota, with its pig-tail bridges and tunnels framing Mount Rushmore.
  • The vastly changing landscape of Wyoming, which we simply drove through, but really surprised me.
  • The beauty of the Adam’s Falls trail, which is a family favorite, and the bull moose that crossed the trail maybe 40 feet in front of us.
  • The plentiful elk on our twilight drives.
  • And of course the solar eclipse.

But regardless, I returned home feeling like I’d missed that quiet tug of nature. I yearned to be in nature, enjoying the quiet, hiking, taking it in.

Minnesota State Parks

So nearly every weekend after my vacation, I headed out “adventuring.” A few times other people came with me, but mostly I went alone.

And I loved it.

I mostly ventured to Minnesota State Parks, with a few worthy exceptions. Here’s the rundown:

  • Sept. 2
    • Willow River State Park (Wisconsin) – Pretty great waterfall and stunning views (if you’re willing to climb the steps).

      Willow River Falls
      Willow River Falls in Willow River State Park, Wis.
    • Cascade Falls (Osceola, Wis.) – Another impressive waterfall, a short walk if you can manage the steps.

      Cascade Falls in Osceola, Wis.
      Cascade Falls in Osceola, Wis.
    • Interstate State Park (Wisconsin) – Incredible views, rock formations, potholes and more. There’s more to do on the Wisconsin side, but I think the climbing is better on the Minnesota side.

      Interstate State Park, Wis.
      This felt like a piece of Middle Earth in Wisconsin.
    • Interstate State Park (Minnesota) – I actually visited this park more than a decade ago with my mom and did the short hike along the bluff. Somehow we missed the concentrated section of potholes and cliffs that makes this park amazing.

      Interstate State Park
      The St. Croix River in Interstate State Park.
  • Sept. 4
    • Nerstrand Big Woods State Park – A quiet little park with a small waterfall. The water was really low, so I was able to walk down the river bank for a good half mile or so.

      Nerstrand Big Woods State Park
      Hidden Falls
  • Sept. 9
    • Fort Snelling State Park – Busy weekend, so I couldn’t go far. But hiking all the way around Pike Island was a nice respite.
  • Sept. 12
    • Fort Snelling State Park – I took a mid-day break to do a quick hike on a trail on the east end of Fort Snelling State Park (the Mendota side).

      Grasshopper in Fort Snelling State Park
      Grasshopper on a fall flower.
  • Sept. 16 (the kids came with me this weekend)
    • Banning State Park – Some really great views of the Kettle River rapids and some rocky bluffs, though the kids weren’t up for much hiking, so we didn’t see as much of this park as we should have. The waterfall south of the park (you have to actually leave the park and go somewhere else to access it) was pretty cool and worth the trip.

      Big Spring Falls
      Big Spring Falls at Bannon State Park.
    • Moose Lake State Park – The agate museum was kind of cool for a quick stop, but there wasn’t much here. We really only stopped because it was close.
    • St. Croix State Park – A long time ago Abby and I camped here, and it was pretty great. This time around the mosquitos were pretty intense around the St. Croix River, so we didn’t stay long. We did drive out to the fire tower, which was a pretty drive and a great view.

      View from the fire tower in St. Croix State Park
      View from the fire tower in St. Croix State Park.
  • Sept. 17 (took a quick Sunday afternoon trip to Hastings)
    • Vermillion Falls Park – A fairly impressive waterfall, though the views aren’t great, the mill across the river kind of ruins the nature, and there’s not a single sign anywhere explaining anything. If you can find one of the paths down to the river, you can get a much closer to the falls, though it’s still hard to find a panoramic view.

      Vermillion Falls in Hastings
      Vermillion Falls in Hastings, Minn.
    • Old Mill Park – These mill ruins were pretty impressive. I’m shocked no one has a done a better job of preserving these ruins and making them more of an attraction.

      Old Mill Ruins
      Old Mill Park ruins
    • Levee Park – A nice little park at the Hastings waterfront along the Mississippi.
  • Sept. 23 (whole family trip)
    • Minneopa State Park – The water was low, so the Minneopa waterfall wasn’t quite as impressive, but it’s still pretty cool and easy to get to. The mosquitos were out down by the river, so we didn’t do as much exploring. Checking out the bison was fun.

      Minneopa Falls
      Minneopa Falls
    • Minnemishinona Falls – Also near Mankato, this waterfall is worth a look. Except the water was extremely low, so it was barely a trickle. It’s a huge drop though, so it’s still pretty cool.
  • Sept. 30
    • Mille Lacs Kathio State Park – Some nice trails here and a great view from the fire tower.

      Mille Lacs Kathio State Park
      Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.
    • Father Hennepin State Park – A short trail along Mille Lacs Lake, but otherwise there wasn’t a lot here.
    • Banning State Park – I returned without the kids to hike some more and really enjoyed the rock formations.

      Banning State Park
      Kettle River in Banning State Park.
  • Oct. 7-8 (took a solo, overnight trip to the North Shore for the fall colors)
    • Jay Cooke State Park – It’s hard to resist stopping at this park on the way to Duluth. The water was raging (as it usually is) and it was just a wonder. Plus, the road east had finally opened so I could take a more scenic drive.

      Jay Cooke State Park
      St. Louis River at Jay Cooke State Park
    • Gooseberry Falls State Park – I stopped here briefly (hard to resist), but parking was crazy so I skipped the falls and just had a picnic on the lake shore.
    • Tettegouche State Park – I camped here for the night, and also checked out the falls quickly. I made a stop at Ilgen Falls just in time to see a kayaker go over the falls. I also visited the High Falls (saw them back in May with the kids) and Middle Falls, which were totally worth it (and much quicker to access from the campsite).

      High Falls at Tettegouche State Park
      View from the top of High Falls.
    • George Crosby Manitou State Park – It’s a beautiful drive out to this secluded park (which included lots of yellow-orange Tamarack pines—yes, the rare conifer with needles that change color and fall off), but there’s not much there. Not even a ranger station. You’re pretty much on your own. It was a decent hike to the Cascade Falls on the Manitou River. It’s hard to get a good view of the falls, but it was very secluded and quiet.
      Cascade Falls on the Manitou River
      Cascade Falls on the Manitou River

      The Tamarack Pine, a Deciduous Conifer
      The Tamarack Pine, a deciduous conifer.
    • Cascade River State Park – The Cascade Falls (apparently we need more unique names for waterfalls) are an incredible sight to see, and easy to get to. The rock formations and gorges are like something in Colorado. I did the series of falls and then hiked further, down a series of steps to the river and could have followed that for hours. I ended up looping back to cut my trip short and move on, though I did cross 61 to get a snack at the picnic area on the lake shore. I also did the math, and realized how close I was to Judge C.R. Magney and Grand Portage State Parks. Why not?

      Cascade River State Park
      Cascade Falls at Cascade River State Park
    • Judge C.R. Magney State Park – There’s not a lot at this park. A campsite and a mile and a half trail to the Devil’s Kettle waterfall. The science behind these falls is bizarre—part of the waterfall disappears into a kettle and doesn’t resurface. However, the water was so high it was hard to get a sense for this geological phenomena (so much water splashed out of the kettle you couldn’t really tell that much of it was disappearing). It’s also hard to get a good look at these falls. It was a one-way trip and seemed pretty long, but it was also popular.

      Devil's Kettle Falls
      Devil’s Kettle Falls (hard to tell, but the water on the left disappears down a pothole)
    • Grand Portage Monument – Just shy of the actual Grand Portage falls, the National Historic Monument is a partnership between the National Park Service and the Grand Portage Ojibwe, marking the 8.5-mile portage around High Falls on the Pigeon River to Lake Superior. I didn’t spend much time here (I mistook it for the state park), but it’d be worth taking a tour and checking out the visitor’s center (the birchbark teepee was pretty cool).
    • Grand Portage State Park – A flat, half-mile trail leads to the incredible High Falls (again, can we come up with more unique names?). There’s a worthwhile detour trail that goes down to the Pigeon River where you can scamper around on the rocks and look across (and up) to the Canadian side. The falls themselves are amazing.

      Grand Portage Falls
      High Falls on the Pigeon River.
    • Tettegouche State Park – With the fall colors, I couldn’t resist stopping at Palisade Head on the way home for the view. It’s a twisty drive up there, and recent news about someone falling over the edge kept me well back, but it’s an incredible view up there.

      Palisade Head
      The view from Palisade Head.
    • Gooseberry Falls State Park – And I had to stop for a few minutes at Gooseberry. The crowds aren’t nearly as heavy late Sunday afternoon, so I could run in for a quick stop to stretch my legs and take in the falls before the long drive home.

      Gooseberry Falls State Park
      How do you resist stopping to take in this view?
  • Oct. 15
    • Afton State Park – A quick afternoon hike, trying to get in some more adventuring before the weather turns cold. You could feel it starting to turn that day.

      Afton State Park
      Gotta love the fall colors.
  • Oct. 19
    • Interstate State Park – But we still had some great fall weather in store, including these nearly summer-like days. I took my mom, nieces, and the kids to Interstate State Park to wander among the potholes and cliffs (yeah, that part is a little stressful with four kids in tow).
    • Cascade Falls (Osceola, Wis.) – We also took a quick detour to visit the waterfall.
  • Oct. 20
    • Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge – A quick hike to enjoy the warm weather.
  • Nov. 24
    • Carly State Park – The day after Thanksgiving was reasonably warm, so I headed out to catch a few parks, my last trip of the year. Carly State Park is a quiet and secluded river and gorge. It’s Southern Minnesota, so it’s more rolling hills gorge, but it was a quiet, pretty walk. Lots of beaver activity.
    • Whitewater State Park – This park is really a gem. Lots of river, some bluffs and cliffs, rolling hills. I hiked a few trails and felt like I was scratching the surface.

      Chimney Rock at White Water State Park
      Chimney Rock at Whitewater State Park
    • John Latsch State Park – I’m not sure how this counts as a park. It’s basically a trail consisting of 600 steps to an incredible view of the Mississippi River. It’s a hell of a hike. Worth doing once. But only once.

      John Latsch State Park
      The view from 600 steps at John Latsch State Park.

Enjoying Nature

We’ve got some beautiful country around here. It’s nice to spend some time in it.

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