Visiting Three Minnesota State Parks
One of my goals is to visit all of the state parks in Minnesota. There are 67 of them and my New Year’s Resolution was to see three new ones in 2019. My total since I started this challenge is about 24. Suffice to stay, with a minimum of three a year, it will take me some time to see all of them. This goal has helped me to appreciate the diversity of Minnesota’s landscapes, but also how large the state feels once I’ve hit the nearby parks. This summer, I visited Forestville Mystery Cave State Park, Father Hennepin State Park, and Schoolcraft State Park. Here is a review of each:
Forestville Mystery Cave State Park:
I was most excited to see the Forestville Mystery Cave State Park. The park is located about four hours drive south of Duluth near the Iowa border, so going there is a commitment in itself. But, the park promised the longest cave in Minnesota, as well as a restored town from the 1800s. The idea of exploring the longest cave in the state lured me to the driftless area of Minnesota, which is a bluff region which only experienced two of the last four glaciations on the last million years. I had really built up the cave in my head and this park has spent a long time on my bucket list. But, as the journey wore on, further and further into sparsely populated and agricultural area…I began to wonder if it was worth the visit (Dan accompanied me and I also worried that he might not have fun). The cave itself is located a few miles away from the main park office at a separate location. The cave has its own park office, so visitors can go directly to the cave rather than stopping at the park (as we did). Once there, visitors can enjoy the artifacts and informational displays at the visitor center and sign up for one of several types of tours offered by the park. The tours include a basic scenic tour, lantern tour, geology tour, photography tour, and wild caving tour. I went on the basic scenic tour (and had thought about going on a second tour such as the lantern tour, but never did).
The basic scenic tour attracted a crowd of several families. It lasts about an hour and costs $15. The tour provides a basic overview of the geological formations and history of the cave. The finale is the Turquoise Lake, which was smaller than I imagined, but still pretty. Another point of interest in the cave were fossils, one of which was a nautiloid affixed to the ceiling. Other fossils found in the cave or cave environs include trilobites, tube worms, sponges, bryozoa (a phylum of small filter feeders that I am not really familiar with), snails, etc. The fossils attest the cave’s early history as a sea bed 450 million years ago. Ocean debris and mud slowly built up and compressed to form the sandstone and limestone of the cave (which itself was carved/dissolved by water over time). Another unique feature of the cave are iron oxide cored speleothems (a fancy word for cave formations), which are very rare. I probably should have taken notes, or perhaps gone on the more in depth geology theme tour. Instead, I scurried along at the end of the group taking photos. As a whole, the tour seemed short, and after four hours in a car, my attention was disrupted by road weariness. I would recommend a more in depth or adventurous tour than the basic scenic tour, which I found a little too easy. I would also recommend time to unwind if traveling across the state. I honestly felt a little disappointed by the tour, as in my head I had built the cave up to be something more fantastic. It was not the most interesting cave I had ever visited, but perhaps an additional tour would have added some more depth to the experience.
Forestville Mystery Cave State Park also features a recreated 1800s village of Forestville, complete with costumed reenactors. By the time the cave tour was over, the day was already getting late. The town was closing for the day by the time we arrived. The town of Forestville floundered after it was bypassed by railways in 1868. Today it is restored and operated as a living museum by the Minnesota Historical Society. After wandering around the buildings and peeking inside a few, the remainder of the evening was spent hiking in the park. It was June and the gnats were terrible. I ended up with many welts on my shoulder and neck from gnat bites. This put a damper on enjoyable hiking, but under better conditions it seems like there is diverse nature to explore as the park is situated between prairie and deciduous biomes. As for camping, we stayed at the nearby Maple Springs campground. The campground is conveniently located outside of the park’s main entrance (so even though the state park campground was full, it was a nearby alternative.). A campsite without water and electricity is $25 per night, so comparable to the state park’s prices.
Overall, I think I built up the park a bit too much in my imagination. It was certainly interesting and offered a variety of activities (cave tours, historical town, hiking, etc.) but the gnats soured my mood and ability to experience the park. Later that week, I learned that the gnats were at their worst over that particular weekend, as many had just hatched and there was a larger population this year due to heavier rains (they like moving water). Thus, the menacing gnat clouds that seemed intent on getting stuck in my hair may have been worse than other times. The park is definitely worth the visit, but the cave, while unique to Minnesota and full of unique characteristics in its own right, it not the biggest or most interesting that I’ve been to. So, perhaps with more modest or realistic expectations it would not disappoint. To be fair, I did not really explore the cave or the park to the fullest.
Father Hennepin State Park:
Father Hennepin State Park is a small state park located by Isle, MN on Mille Lacs Lake. I visited this park on a solo day trip. Even though I didn’t spend the night, I felt that my day trip was an adequate amount of time to explore the park. The park entrance was near an osprey nest, which I briefly observed before heading to the main parking lot. The lot is located near a beach, which was active with families enjoying the summery weather. My interest was exploring the trails, so I set off exploring. Unfortunately, the park does not have an extensive trail network. In all, it has under five miles of trails, which form a loop around the park (with two long ends). The trails are easy to stroll along and feature a view of Mille Lacs Lake and an observation point for watching Common terns. Common terns nest on two small islands on Mille Lacs Lake, which are one of only four breeding colonies in Minnesota. I didn’t see any common terns as the islands were beyond the reach of my binoculars, so bringing a spotting scope would be a good idea for a visitor who has one. The observation point is only about .5 miles from the parking lot.
In addition to missing out on the terns, I didn’t see any of the park’s albino deer. However, I did see a woodchuck climb a tree and saw/heard several species of flycatchers. There is also a nice collection of interpretive signs along the trails and at the beach. The park is named after Father Hennepin, who was a French priest and explorer who visited the region in 1680. At the time, the area was home to Mdewakanton Dakota. His exploratory accounts are believed to be exaggerated (for instance, one account spoke of being captured by Native Americans and traversing thousands of miles by canoe in just a month) and did not portray Native Americans favorably. It would be great if the park’s name was changed to something else, perhaps something that recognizes Native American history instead. I am not aware of any effort to change the park’s name, but did learn that the Ojibwe word for Mille Lacs Lake is Misi-zaaga’igan. It is a small, but pleasant and pretty park that is easy to explore. It is only 20 minutes away from Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, which is a much larger park with more trails. The two could easily be combined if a person wanted to camp by the lake (at Father Hennepin) then spend some more time hiking (at Mille Lacs Kathio).
Schoolcraft State Park:
The third park that I visited this summer was Schoolcraft State Park, which is located about two hours west of Duluth near Grand Rapids, MN at the confluence of the Mississippi and Vermilion rivers. Like Father Hennepin State Park, the visit was a solo day trip rather than an overnight camping excursion. Of all the state parks that I have visited thus far, this one was the smallest and emptiest! The park did not have visible staff or a park office. Instead, there was a self-serve kiosk for purchasing firewood, camping fees, or a park pass. The park did not even have a large sign, like most parks often have. On the plus side, I had the park almost entirely to myself. So, in that sense, it felt pretty remote! The main objective of the visit was to see a 300 year old white pine and to do some hiking. The hiking was not an extensive adventure because the park only has two miles of trails! The park is probably a better destination for people who wish to canoe or fish. I followed the Hiking Club Trail, which looped around the park. I even backtracked and detoured a bit to hit various segments of trail that cut across the loop. I didn’t see many birds, but I did see quite a few butterflies during the hike. In all, it is very easy to explore the whole park within a few hours.
The main attraction of the park is the 300 year old white pine. The pine was spared by loggers because it was too crooked. Thus, it stands along the Mississippi river; its arboreal cohort is long gone. The tree doesn’t have a sign or, to my knowledge, a name. But, it is distinctive enough to identify as the old one, since it is large, forked into three, and located right in front of the main parking lot along the river. I took photos of the tree, then set off walking. Along the short loop of a trail are some interpretive signs- which in the absence of a larger park or extensive trail network, offer a visitor something to do or find. The signs discuss the nature and history of the park. Like Father Hennepin state park, Schoolcraft State Park is named after a white explorer. In this case, Henry Schoolcraft was part of an 1832 US expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and later became a Superintendent of Indian Affairs (through which he obtained millions of acres of land for the U.S. government through treaties and sought to acculturate Native Americans into a farming). He married an Ojibwe and Scottish writer named Jane Johnston, who taught him about Ojibwe language and culture. She is believed to be the first female Native American writer and poet, though I don’t recall information about her on the interpretive signs. Perhaps the park should be named after her. After she passed away, Schoolcraft married a pro-slavery writer named Mary Howard. It would be great to rename this park as well. PFather Hennepin State Park, Schoolcraft State Park, and especially Sibley State Park (Sibley fought against the Dakota Uprising in 1862, which culminated in the largest mass hanging in US history when 38 Dakota prisoners were executed) could all use a name change. Changing the name does not undo U.S. history of genocide or even promise better treatment of Native Americans today, but at least it doesn’t celebrate or honor colonization.
I enjoy visiting state parks and would certainly recommend all three. Schoolcraft State Park is small enough that I probably wouldn’t suggest spending a long time there (multiple days) or a recommend long distance travel that only entails that park (perhaps it could be visited along with another state park in the area). Father Hennepin State Park is another small park, but the location is pretty enough that staying longer might be worthwhile for the opportunity to relax and enjoy the lake. Finally, Forestville Mystery Cave State Park is large enough that it could be visited over multiple days as it has many things to do and see. It is a bit more remote than the other two, but also much more popular. In the case of the two smaller parks that I visited, it prompted me to think a bit more about the ways in which state parks commemorate colonial history. This is a topic that I should spend some time looking into a bit more. It is great to enjoy fossils and 300 year old trees, but these spaces are largely white and middle class and some of the names signal who belongs and matters and who does not.