Minneopa State Park: Southern Minnesota's Hidden Gem
As far as scenery goes, much of southern Minnesota predominantly consists of agricultural fields as far as the eye can see. Many native Minnesotans, like myself, head north, past the Twin Cities, or to the Mississippi River bluffs, on the southeastern side of the state, for a more visually stimulating nature experience.
However, just three miles south of Mankato, Minnesota, is a little creek called Minneopa that feeds the southern part of the state's largest, most scenic waterfalls.
It is located on Gadwell Road just off of Highway 169, quietly tucked away in the middle of the corn and beans.
I recently discovered this little gem of a waterfall and the small state park that governs it, while traveling back and forth to visit my granddaughter in the west-central part of the state.
I happened upon it while searching for a more scenic route than the flat corn and bean fields; I chose the Minnesota river back roads path and was pleasantly surprised to discover this beauty along the way.
The surprising part of the discovery is that I have lived within an hour of this region all my life, often venturing to and through Mankato, yet I had no idea that it was even there.
Minneopa—Water Falling Twice
The name Minneopa comes from the Dakota Indian language, which means water falling twice, and is a visible description of this particular falls. The upper falls, over which the Minneopa Creek takes a 10-foot drop.
There are a lovely pavilion and picnic area that sits right next to the creek and upper falls. This part of the park also hosts a mini historical museum that shares a bit of the history of the early settlements, both Native American and European, that inhabited the area before it became a state park in the early 1900s. An incident involving Jesse James is said to have also occurred in this area.
The Lower Falls
The lower falls, take a 40-foot drop over an approximately 8-foot ledge and is the most impressive of the two views.
The first set of photos features the upper falls, and the second set of images is of the lower falls.
The flora surrounding the area compliments and highlights the beauty and character of both lower and upper views. Fauna might include white-tailed deer, beaver, turkey, hawks, and eagles, none of which I encountered, I did, however, run into a decent-sized snapping turtle on its way to the river.
My first visit to Minneopa was in the Fall when the foliage was bursting with autumn colors. I thought for sure I had witnessed its fullest potential for beauty, but a winter visit made me reconsider. The photo below, with a heart in the upper falls, along with a unique snow and ice formations, presented some stiff competition for my Fall visit. The snow and frozen falls gave the whole park a different flavor and feel.
Winter Visit Notes
A few side notes about Minnesota State Parks; in the winter, they are, for the most part, closed as it concerns the on-site offices, modern bathroom facilities, and groomed walking trails. They are, however, open to snowshoeing and cross country skiing, and some of the parks do provide primitive outdoor bathroom facilities.
A beautiful thing about this particular park, as far as winter visits go, is that if you can get into the parking area, it is not a far walk to the upper part of the waterfalls.
The stairs down to the lower view are not shoveled, and you can slip and slide your way down them at your own risk. I have done it a few times, but getting back up them is a bit more challenging in this condition.
Access to the Creek level of the Lower Falls
This particular park is family-friendly in terms of safety. The steep edges are heavily fenced, and there is a wide and sturdy limestone stairway that hugs the Jordan Sandstone walls. (more on Jordan sandstone later) These stairs will lead you down to the river level.
To get right up next to the lower falls or in front of them, you can use the two little foot trails on either side of the river. These trails are ungroomed, but they are not long or challenging. You might have to grab a sapling or two or use tree roots for some leverage and traction in a couple of spots along the way.
A little bridge, as seen in the above photo, crosses the creek and gives access to a trail that leads to the most up close and personal view of the lower falls. Simply turn right after crossing the bridge. It also leads to some further hiking opportunities to the left. The trail on the side of the stairs puts you directly across from the falls with a full frontal view. Either side makes for some great photo opportunities, and you will more than likely see many others partaking of the spectacular captures that can be discovered here.
It may be tempting just to jump in and experience all that compelling, beautiful flowing water. However, swimming is not recommended here because of bacterial chloroform that is known to be present in the water.
This particular area is made up of Jordan Sandstone, as mentioned earlier, This leads to an interesting phenomenon, in that, the waterfalls are moving upstream.
The soft sandstone, beneath the hard shelf rock ledge that the water spills over, erodes and causes the shelf above it to break off occasionally. These broken shelves can be seen below the falls and along the banks of the creek.
This type of sandstone is so soft and porous that you can rub it off the walls. It makes an excellent medium for graffiti, which is prominently displayed on just about every exposed surface of this area.
Jordan Minnesota, from which this sandstone gets its name, contains the same material and is just 50 miles northeast of this area.
If you like geology, these unique little places can be fascinating pockets of interest.
Just a hop skip and a jump and around the corner are some other unique features of Minneopa State Park, one of these being Bison. You can find these beautiful beasts by taking a right at the park exit and then a quick left, next, turn left again onto Highway 68. The very next right leads to the campground area that shares Park perimeters with the Bison range.
The bluffs and river view, change rapidly into a flat prairie area, littered with large boulders in this region. These boulders are unique to the landscape and are supposedly drop-offs from the glacial period of its history. The DNR is presently working to restore this area to its original savannah type terrain.
The visibility of the Bison herd is random. I have seen them very up close, and other times they are grazing far out in the field. The Bison move around a lot, so take your time and enjoy the views. The drive is closed for winter visits.
You might want to keep in mind that Bison are not the friendliest of creatures, and they can sprint three times faster than you can. It is, therefore, recommended that you do not get out of your vehicle during this drive-through experience.
The historic Seppman Mill can only be accessed within the Bison drive. There is a gate with a cattle grate, at the opposite end of the entrance that you have to drive over to make the loop up into the hill where the Mill is located. This area is outside the fencing of the Buffalo range so you can get out and explore a bit yet, it still overlooks the Bison range. Parking is just beyond the Mill and trail up to it.
Remnants of an Ancient Lake
From this vantage point, you can look across the prairie that is said to have been, at one time, the basin of an ancient lake.
During my spring visit, I was treated to a beautiful display of a wide variety of wildflowers, backdropped by the verdant valley, blue skies, and a herd of happy grazing Bison. The framing photos of this section are a snip-it of that particular visit.
The Mill, itself, was built in the mid-1860s by Louis Seppman, a German immigrant. It met with a series of disasters ranging from fire to tornado and finally deserted for financial reasons.
Another nearby feature of this area, south of Mankato, is a ski area called "Mount Kato." Jimmy Chin, a famous mountain climber, and a photographer had his beginnings and broke his leg, at this very ski spot. "National Geographic" includes and expounds on these details of Jimmy's Minnesota childhood experiences, in an August 10th, 2015 article titled "Why Jimmy Chin Takes Pictures While Climbing and Skiing Mountains."
Mount Kato isn't classified as a mountain, but it is more accurately, a large hill that gives the flatlanders of this area an excellent opportunity to taste the sport.
I hope you have enjoyed the tour of this little Minnesota gem, that bursts with diversity. I hope you also discover, as I have, that many times it pays to dawdle, enjoy the journey, and stop and smell the flowers.
*all photos are mine and edited on Instagram or Google+
(Bonus) Minnemishinona Falls
A bonus, recently discovered waterfall (newly found to me) not too far from Minneopa is Minnemishinona falls. This waterfall isn't as well known because it used to be on private property, until 2007. Nicollet County eventually purchased the waterfall area, to make it accessible to the public and opened as a roadside park in 2007.
There is nothing for trail walking at this park, but the visual experience is well worth the visit.
The park is located on the Judson Bottom Road that follows along the north side of the Minnesota river, on the outskirts of North Mankato. It can be accessed from the Bison drive by turning right, at the exit/entrance, onto 68 going west. Drive for about 8 miles, turn right into Judson, then just outside of Judson, you will want to turn right on to the Judson Bottom road. Minnemishinona is about 10 minutes straight ahead. There are a sign and parking area.
Keep in mind that the surrounding and adjacent properties are privately owned, so please be respectful and remain within the designated park area.
A couple more offerings that run through this area are the scenic bike trails that meander throughout the river valleys and bluffs in this region. Maps are available at state park offices or online.
© 2016 Tamarajo