For Minnesota it’s really been quite the mild winter. If you’re one who doesn’t like winter (I often fall into this category) we shouldn’t complain TOO much this winter (complaining a little bit is perfectly normal and healthy) about the weather and cold temperatures. In case this coming week’s mini cold snap has you singing the winter blues and dreaming about when you can once again don your bathing suit and get your tan on later this spring you might want to consider doing a little bit of research and thinking about places you can go hiking in this beautiful land of 10,000 lakes we call home. A book that has been very useful for me when I’m trying to figure out what state park or parts of the state that I want to explore is Hiking Minnesota: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures (Second Edition) by Mary Jo and Kristine Mosher. The Falcon Guide book is currently selling on barnesandnoble.com for $16.45 which I think is an excellent value. A three or four page description per hike can lead to countless hours of fun on the trail. In case you don’t have as much time to devote to traveling the state (there’s just never enough time) or you’d like to check out great places to walk and hike in and near the Twin Cities metro area I would recommend getting The Best Hikes of the Twin Cities by Kate Havelin. Amazon is selling the book for $8.95, which is truly a bargain. This is the book where I found out about the nature trail in the woods below the bike path that runs alongside the West River Road in South Minneapolis. More interestingly, I found out that this 2 miile section of the river that runs from approximately just south of the University of Minnesota Campus near the Franklin Avenue bridge to approximately the 46th Street/Ford Parkway bridge is the only river gorge on the entire length of the mighty Mississippi River. If you ever want to hike the proverbial hike that feels like you’re a thousand miles away from home but you’re literally right in your own backyard this is the hike to do. It’s pretty much the definition of an urban oasis.
There are several other notable hikes in the Twin Cities area. Of course, there’s the trails on Pike’s Island at Fort Snelling State Park where the Minnesota River meets the Mississippi River at their confluence (the trails are generally closed during times of flooding). Lebanon Hills in Eagan has an array of easy to moderate hiking trails that lie between a chain of lakes that you can also portage between in a canoe or kayak (beware of frogs jumping all over the place at the portage landings if you choose the water route). My favorite walk at Lebanon Hills is walking on the gentle trail around the small lake on the north side of the Schulze Lake parking lot. It’s a great way to stay close by but to still get away from the crowds and noise of the Schulze Lake beach on hot summer days. The western end of the small lake has a well maintained fishing pier that is rarely busy. I like walking along the ridgeline above the eastern end of the lake where the forest opens up to a large savanna with mainly pine trees interspersed throught the grassy meadow. If you don’t have a chance to travel to North or South Dakota or points farther west any time soon (like me) this portion of the trail will feel a little bit like being in the western United States right in southern Eagan. This is why I always save this part of the trail for the end of the walk. I think it’s the best part. Perhaps my favorite hiking area in the southeast metro is at Spring Lake County Park. I’m a little biased because I took up archery a few years ago and there’s a wonderful outdoor archery range at lower Spring Lake Park with 28 trail and six practice targets. The trail that leads to the river at the lower park leads to a view of the Mississippi River that Kate Havelin describes as “like being in the boundary waters.” Not bad for 1/3 of a mile hike one way. It might take all of 15 minutes if you really take your time walking downhill towards the river. The great thing about Dakota County parks (Lebanon Hills is also a Dakota County Park) is they are free to use (you do need to pay to rent kayaks or canoes at the Lebanon Hills Vistitor Center at Schulze Lake).
If walking on blacktop is more your thing you can’t go wrong by taking a walk around any of the small chain of lakes in the city of lakes (Minneapolis) or the two just as walkable lakes in Saint Paul (Lake Como and Lake Phalen). My parents practically take a walk around Lake Harriet every day in the warmer months but every so often they venture the mile northwest to Lake Calhoun so they can stop to grab lunch at the iconic Tin Fish. I’ve never been there but I know many urban and near urban dwellers love the place. I really should stop by there at some point this summer.
I grew up in Duluth and I gained an appreciation for the great outdoors during my adolescent years being active in my Boy Scout troop and, for a shorter period of time, an Explorer post. It’s hard to imagine a better gateway into nature than Duluth, Minnesota. There are many nature preserves in the city itself, all of which offer beautiful scenery to gaze upon throughout any walk, hike, or bike ride through the parks. Duluth marks the beginning of Minneosta’s North Shore (which is technically the western shore of Lake Superior). Once again I’m biased because I grew up in Duluth along the shores of the largest freshwater lake on planet Earth but I honestly do not believe there is a more beautiful region anywhere else in the world. There might be places just as beautiful, but none that are more beautiful. I realize that judging natural beauty is highly subjective and we often grow sentimental when we think of our homeland so I know that not everyone will agree with me but I challenge anyone to spend just four days along the North Shore by truly experiencing the lake and its environs and not to walk away at least a little inspired. I always long to visit the North Shore and I never make it there enough. It is quite literally a hiker’s paradise but be warned: the Superior Hiking Trail, the state park trails, and the other nature trails in the region are not for the faint of heart. Most of the hikes can be classified as strenous and can be quite challenging if you’re not willing to work a little. The rewards are priceless, as anyone can attest who has hiked to any of the peaks in the ancient Sawtooth Mountain Range (though not technically mountains many of the trails rise at a much steeper incline than the 45 degrees of most mountain switchback trails out west) but you can’t just wish your ways to the views. You need to move and exert some energy. A great place to start is Gooseberry Falls State Park. Once you’ve mastered those trails head ten miles or so up the road to the wayside parking area next to the Split Rock River and hike the Superior Hiking Trail on the west bank of the river until you cross the bridge to hike back east along the east bank of the river. You might need to take a few breaks but so what? There are many places worth taking a break for. Just about any state park or any trail in the summertime along the North Shore is a great bet. Some personal favorites are hiking out to Shovel Point that rises 100 feet straight above the chilly waters of Lake Superior and then hiking in the opposite direction to the inland lakes at Tetteguche State Park, one of which features an old logging camp. I enjoy just walking out to the lighthouse maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and the rocks along Artist’s Point in Grand Marais and then walking out to the lookout on the Superior Hiking Trail above the enchanting northern town. This activity is, however, definitely much more fun on a nice warm day than a foggy, cold, and drizzling day. I believe that every Minnesotan who’s able to should venture 15 miles north of Grand Marais to Judge C.R. Magney State Park at least once in their life and walk the relatively short one mile hike upriver to the famed geological rock formation known as Devil’s Kettle (just be sure to take you’re time: there is a stairwell with over 550 steps leading to the lower falls below the kettle). Here the visible waterfall empties into a pool in the Brule River but nobody to this day quite knows for sure where the waterfall empties that goes into the kettle that then flows underground. At least nobody has lived to talk about it who has possibly foolishly attempted to find out. The leading theory is the water empties out into the Lake Superior basin somewhere but, as I said before, the exact path the water follows is still a mystery even in 2015. Geologists of the future, here is a chance to make a brand new discovery!
Last summer I had the pleasure of spending part of the day at Banning State Park, just a little more than halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Growing up my relatives all lived in the Twin Cities or Rush City which is about an hour north of the Twin Cities. I had been driving past an absolute natural gem within Minnesota for more than three decades when driving from Duluth to the Twin Cities or vice versa. The landscape is much more varied and rocky in many parts that I thought it would be and the portion of the Kettle River that runs through the park is about as scenic as any river I’ve ever hiked along. I really didn’t know anything about the history of the area either. Within the current park’s boundary there resided an active sandstone quarry, where the town of Sandstone just a few miles south of the park gets its namesake from. During the late 1800s and early 1900s the quarry was a bustling place where hundreds of workers made their living hauling, chipping, refining, and eventually transporting the plentiful sandstone to points all across the country and even the world. It was dangerous work and more than a few workers lost their limbs and/or lives while earning a living by mining and shaping the stone. The town was eventually deserted due to the emergence of steel as the dominant building material for commercial buildings as it became stronger and much cheaper to manufacture than sandstone was to quarry. Walking the entire length of the Quarry Loop Trail is a must if visiting the park. If you’re up to a bit of a challenge I would highly recommend walking the 1/2 mile or so trail on the south end of the Quarry Loop Trail that ends up near Hell’s Gate along the Kettle River. This is the only trail in the park where you can get up close and personal to the wild and scenic Kettle River. It rained a lot last June so Wolf Creek Falls was flowing pretty good when I visited but if you visit during a dry time or are short on time I wouldn’t bother walking the 2.5 mile hike to the secluded falls. If the water is flowing it’s pretty enough but the hike is rather strenuos for a mediocre destination. I would highly recommend spending as much time as possible looking at the quarry ruins and spending time along the Kettle River. In my opinion these areas are truly the best parts of the park. I have Hiking Minnesota to thank for deciding to make this halfway point my destination for a day last summer. It would definitely be wothwhile to visit again this summer.
There are a few more state park and other natural area highlights in Minnesota that I have enjoyed visiting. Frontenac State Park south of Red Wing has a great picnic area that overlooks the northern end of Lake Pepin but its Hiking Club trail gets largely lost under the canopy within the bluff. Farther south, just north of La Crosse, Wisconsin is Great River Bluffs State Park which has two short trails that lead to the northern and southern overlooks where you can gaze upon the dammed and wide Mississippi in that particular stretch of the river. On a clear day you can see many miles of the meandering river and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin along its banks. The state parks in the east central and southern part of the state tend to be less crowded then in the central lakes and northern part of the state during the summer but that can actually be quite refreshing. Isn’t the point of being in nature to get away from the hustle and bustle of the urban and suburban areas so you can ultimately quiet your mind with just the solitude of nature to keep you company? I think I saw one other person hiking over six miles of trails I hiked two summers ago at Sakatah Lake State Park, located 15 miles west of Fairbault. That basically meant I had the entire lakeshore to myself. You’ll never have a nice summer day up north-even along the Superior Hiking Trail-where you won’t run into several other hiking parties, unless, of course, you travel deep into the backwoods, and even then you’d probably come across other backpacking parties. So here’s one tip: if you want to beat the crowds and spend less money on gas try out some of the parks and hiking areas in the southern third of the state. The lakes are often only good for bass but at least bass will bite most of the time!
The final destination that merits mention in this review is perhaps the most spiritually invigorating ground that I have ever set foot upon. On first look Pipestone National Monument just to the west of the town of Pipestone in far southwestern Minnesota (about four hours from the Twin Cities) doesn’t look very impressive. It’s a few rocks with a small stand of native bluestem prarie surrounded by a town on one end and large commercial farms on the other. Once you step inside the visitor center, however, look around a little, watch the video (which is a must), and then immerse yourself in your surroundings that many Native Americans consider to be the most sacred place on Earth. Don’t be surprised if you become at least a little transformed from the person you were before arriving at the monument. This small remote corner of southwestern Minneosta is the only spot on Planet Earth where the dark reddish stone exists. Only Native Americans are allowed to quarry and carve this pipestone by hand as long as they obtain a special permit that gives them rights to quarry for a limited time. The loop trail outside the visitor center is barely a mile around but it is a very peaceful and surprisingly pretty locale. This is one of the relatively few places where I say purchasing a souvenir made out of the sacred pipestone is a must. We bought a buffalo carving when we went because I love the iconic beast of the Great Plains but there are so many different types of carvings to choose from it would be difficult to imagine not being able to find something that appeals to your taste. Keep in mind that when you purchase a pipestone carving you are obtaining a carving made out of a sacred rock from a sacred place within the sacred Earth. You would be hard pressed to find a more profound spiritual symbol after a, hopefully, equally spiritual experience next to a bed of rocks in the middle of western Minnesota cornfields. I know it might not make a whole lot of sense but that’s the beauty of Pipestone.
Whatever your plans this summer try and get outside to walk, hike, jog, or bike. I prefer to walk and hike because I’m a) lazy in my free time and b) I like to see things. The great thing about walking is it still counts as exercise! Summer is too short to spend all of it in front of our devices and our LED televisions. You only have to wait three and a half more months for possibly decent spring hiking. I for one can hardly wait! If you get bored in the meantime, brave the colder temperatures and go enjoy winter.
Top Photo: Hell’s Gate, Banning State Park. Courtesy of http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/virtual_tour/banning/dialup.html