ROCK COUNTY, Minn. -- Getting lost in the woods while on a walk is a common problem in fairy tales, and in renowned horror stories like “The Blair Witch Project.” Even if you leave bread crumbs behind, in the style of Hansel and Gretel, if you venture off the trail, all of the rocks and trees start to look the same, eventually.
Minnesota is renowned for its big woods hiking, even though roughly one-third of Minnesota is tallgrass prairie, not forests, that dominate the landscape. And when hiking there, one quickly realizes that superlative hiking in Minnesota is not dependent on tree trunks surrounding you and a canopy of leaves or needles overhead.
‘Scuse me while I Touch the Sky
Much of the swath in the middle of the country collectively known as the Great Plains was covered with a sea of tall grass two centuries ago, before the first Europeans arrived. One of the most onerous tasks the first prairie pioneers faced was breaking up those vast oceans of grass (and their underlying root systems) with their plows so they could grow crops for sustenance and to establish the American agrarian economy.
Like the vast forests of virgin timber that once covered all of northern Minnesota, before the loggers arrived, the uncut tallgrass prairie is all gone. Almost.
Nearly two decades ago, the foundation started by renowned photographer Jim Brandenburg and his wife, Judy, purchased more than 350 acres of uncut land, just a mile from where Brandenburg was born northwest of Luverne. It's called Touch the Sky Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the tract of preserved prairie has now grown to over 500 acres, with a trio of hiking trails for visitors to experience.
There is a piercing silence, save for the incessant wind, when walking along this grass-covered ridge of quartzite, with red and gray rocks protruding from the land all over. Some are worn smooth, from centuries of bison that roamed wild on the land rubbing themselves on the stone. On a clear day, one can see up to 20 miles under a massive canopy of blue sky, hence the name of the reserve.
The trails are primarily out-and-back, and each are about a mile, making for a hike of two-plus miles by the time you return to your car. On the highest ridge, there are no trees, but the not-distant wind towers and the swaying of the 120 species of grasses and wildflowers provide a constant reminder of which way the breezes blow.
Quiet near the quarry
For a glimpse of the pre-European settlement life in Minnesota, a short drive north of Pipestone reveals the quarry of soft rock for which the community is named. One of just two national monuments in Minnesota (Grand Portage, in the extreme northeast corner of the state, is the other), Pipestone National Monument preserves an area that has been held sacred by the region’s American Indians for countless generations.
While the visitor center is currently closed due to the pandemic, it is the outdoors that draw people back to this site again and again. The historic sites and nearby rock outcroppings can be accessed by a paved loop trail that is a little less than a mile. On the walk, visitors will not only see the quarries that are still in use today (a federal permit is required) but a waterfall, a prairie stream, native birds, wildflowers and several named outcroppings along the rock ridge that lines the property’s northeast border.
With the visitor center closed, admission fees are currently waived by the National Park Service as well, making the timing perfect for a quiet, self-guided, socially distant visit.
A hidden forest
Driving past Camden State Park on Highway 23, just south of Marshall, if there was not a sign noting the entrance, you might never know the park is there. The seemingly unbroken prairie appears to stretch on forever to the west. But that vista hides the Redwood River valley, and an oasis of forest.
If you are missing trees on your visit to the prairie lands, this is the place to be. Just past the ranger station, the road drops down into a wooded valley with narrow bridges crossing the railroad line that bisects the park, and the river that winds throughout. Along with a campground and picnic areas, the park features three hiking trails of between a half mile and 2.5 miles, and the Camden Regional Trail, which is a paved biking path from Marshall, some 10 miles away.
Because this is Minnesota, there is fishing on-site, with trout often biting in the river, and canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and pedal boats can be rented for use on the small lake on the south end of the park. If you are determined to get lost in the woods, it is a mission one can accomplish even in the midst of the tallgrass prairie.
Where to stay
A replica of the front page from the Aug. 1, 1934 issue of the Marshall Daily Messenger sits on an end table inside Redwood Lodge at the north end of Camden State Park, just steps from the river. The headline announces that Lynd Woods (the area that is now the state park) would be getting an Emergency Conservation Work Camp, which was one of the initiatives put in place during the Great Depression to get folks back on the job.
The lodge was built that year to house the park custodians, and later used for storage and other purposes until October 2019, when conversion of the lodge into a guest house was completed and opened for rentals.
“We restored the outside and restored the inside as good as we could back to the original things, and put some furniture in there,” said Bill Dinesen, who is the park manager. “It’s been a goal of mine in the 23 years I’ve been here to get it so folks can use it.”
With three bedrooms (one of them with double bunk beds) the lodge sleeps up to eight with a full kitchen, a period-decorated living room with a fireplace (and air conditioning for the summer months), a screened-in porch and a fire pit in the backyard.
Dinesen said the goal was to recreate the feel of a visit to the park in the 1940s, and the lack of internet or cell phone service helps in that regard. It rents for around $225 a night, and guests must bring their own toiletries, bedding, pillows and towels for the kitchen and bathroom. Due to the pandemic, Minnesota State Parks facilities are implementing a 24-hour empty period between rentals.
Where to eat
The folks at Lange’s Cafe & Bakery in Pipestone once famously buried the keys to the front door in wet concrete decades ago, on purpose, signaling their commitment to being open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That changed in 2018, when they reduced their hours to a more reasonable 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule, but it remains a well-known place in the region where you can get breakfast all day, along with a slice of homemade pie.
And oh, the pie. A travel site search for Lange’s shows nationwide acclaim for its sour cream raisin pie and other baked goods. Washed down with a cup of coffee, it is a perfect capper to a hearty meal of classic American diner fare. In this part of the state where pastureland is prominent, beef is a specialty, in the form of both burgers and the hot beef sandwich (with mashed potatoes and smothered in brown gravy) that warms the belly on a fall day with the chilly prairie winds blowing.
Just trust us: save room for pie.