Outdoor enthusiasts and wilderness newcomers can explore a wide variety of landscapes in southeastern Minnesota. From mysterious caves to lush forests, delicate wildflowers to a vast array of birds and plentiful trout streams, your summer journey begins in one of the many state parks in southeastern Minnesota. You can experience four parks all with diverse landscapes and natural wonders, all about 50 miles from Rochester.
The first hidden gem is Frontenac State Park located about 10 miles from Lake City near Lake Pepin. There are a variety of hiking trails ranging from very easy to extremely difficult. Many of the trails are stroller and wheelchair accessible. Nadine Meyer, Assistant Park Manager, says, “There are tons of flowers along the trail systems. You’ll see thistles, cardinal flowers, golden rods, shrubs and a variety of grasses.” After your hike, indulge in an afternoon picnic in a designated area along the bluffs with panoramic views of Lake Pepin, or head back to your campsite and relax before dinner.
Because of its location along the Mississippi River, its diverse habitats create a birdwatchers paradise. There are blufflands, prairies, and hardwood forests. The soil is fertile and able to grow a variety of vegetation that creates a home for about 260 species of birds. Meyer says, “You don’t have to be an expert to bird watch. We have bird ID books and binoculars for our guests to check out. There are Hooded Warblers, Bald eagles, Peregrine falcons, Sandhill cranes and a lesser known bird called the Hooded Merganser.” She says the park has a newer phenomenon that has sparked lots of attention. “Usually in the spring or fall there are large flocks of pelicans found near the water.”
When you’ve had your fill of feathers, get out your fly rods and fishing poles and head southeast to Whitewater State Park. Interpretive Naturalist at Whitewater State Park Sara Holger says, “The Middle Branch of the Whitewater River is listed on Trout Unlimited’s Top 100 Trout Streams. Trout fishing draws people to the park all year round. Also, because the river is spring fed and has cold, moving waters, we have a noticeable lack of mosquitoes that is also a big draw for folks.”
Holger says you need a valid license and a trout stamp to fish which can be purchased at the gas station located in Elba, a few miles from the park office. Or, you can attend a Trout Fishing program offered from 10:30-noon each Sunday throughout the summer.
Whitewater not only boasts excellent trout fishing, it also has 13 miles of hiking trails. If you are looking for family friendly trails, check out the Chimney Rock Trail or the Meadow Trail. Holger says, “Both trails can be hiked in less than an hour.”
Throughout the summer you can expect to see many different native plant communities along the trail systems. There are hardwood and floodplain forests, goat prairies, wet meadows and unique algific talus slopes. Holger says some of her favorite flowers are bergamot, also known as bee balm, that gives an herbal fragrance to the meadows in late summer.
Whitewater State Park is sprawled across more than 2,700 acres and hosts more than 255,000 visitors each year. Campsites are plentiful as well with more than 100 sites available.
If you’re looking for a place more quiet and serene, Carley State Park in Plainview is the place to visit. There are about 20 campsites on this 200 acre park. There’s trout fishing, six miles of hiking trails, birdwatching and wildflowers galore.
Carley State Park is home to the annual Bluebell Festival held in early spring. If you missed viewing the wildflowers at their peak, check out the park in late summer when the Indian Pipe blooms. Holger says, “Indian Pipe, known as the ghost plant, is a pale flower that doesn’t produce chlorophyll and is not dependent upon light. It can thrive in the shadiest of places.” She says to look for it growing along the hiking club trail on the ridge overlooking the picnic area.
Another hidden nugget located in Forestville, approximately 38 miles south of Rochester, is one of the longest caves in Minnesota, spanning over 13 miles. The park offers seven different cave tour options. The scenic cave tour is the most popular, and takes about an hour. There is a paved path and handrail along with dramatic lighting so you can explore the natural wonders under the earth. Park Naturalists teach you the difference between stalactites and stalagmites and other unusual formations.
Andy Wendt, Interpretive Naturalist at Forestville, says, “The hike through the cave is relatively easy and is family friendly. But, if you’re looking for something a little more intense, you can select the Wild Caving Tour where you suit up with protective gear and shimmy through tight spaces.” Both options are a great way to beat the summer heat. It’s about 48 degrees in the cave during the summer months, so you may want to bring a sweater.
Forestville also has about 70 camp sites. There are hiking trails weaving through more than 3,500 acres. Some of the trails are suitable for horses while others are paved and perfect for biking. Wildlife is also prevalent in the park. You can expect to see dozens of furry critters like beaver, mink and woodchucks or rare glacial snails and timber rattlesnakes.