The southwestern corner of Minnesota is often overlooked when it comes to outdoor recreation the state. Admittedly, it can be hard to compete with the pristine remote beauty of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or the waterfalls and rocky lakeshore of Lake Superior along the North Shore. But if you are in the area, the southwest still has some beauty to offer to those looking to grab a pair of hiking shoes, a leash, and their dog.
This past weekend, we loaded up our new travel trailer (well my parent’s travel trailer, really) and drove from Rochester, MN to Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne, MN. We used our campsite at Blue Mounds as our home base for weekend. We hiked the hiking club trail (and the Lower Cliffline Trail) at Blue Mounds, the hiking club trail at Split Rock Creek State Park, and the Circle trail at Pipestone National Monument. On our way back to Rochester, we also stopped at Kilen Woods State Park to hike the hiking club trail there. So I added that as a bonus hiking trail for this blog post.
*Wondering what a hiking club trail is? This post has the answer: The Minnesota Hiking Club: 68 Dog-Friendly Hiking Trails. (I am definitely behind in updating the individual trail reviews in this post, but the beginning of this post has solid information.)
Blue Mounds State Park
Blue Mounds State Park was established in 1961 and protects sheer quartzite cliffs and over 1,500 acres of highly diverse prairie. With 13+ miles of dog-friendly hiking trails, you can definitely spend some time hiking around the park.
The majority of the trails are relatively flat and make for easy hiking through prairie grass and near farm fields. The hiking club trail at this park consists of about 6 miles of hiking through a Minnesota tallgrass prairie. A special feature of this region’s prairie is that you can find prickly pear cactus blooming in June amongst the grass. (I used to think cactus only grew in the desert, but we have some right here in Minnesota!)
The Mound Trail (which is part of the hiking club loop) meanders right along the edge of the park’s fenced-in bison range. So if you are hoping to get a good look at the bison that live at Blue Mounds State Park, don’t skip the Mound Trail.
However, if you are like me and tire of flat prairie walking within a few miles, don’t miss my favorite trails in the park. These trails provide access to a historic quarry area and great views of the quartzite cliffs. You can get one good look at the quarry from the Upper Cliffline trail, but the quarry is best experienced from the Bur Oak and Lower Cliffline trails (and the narrow unofficial trails that meander between them).
These two lower trails have the added benefit of passing through a small forest and offering some shade. The shade is especially nice if you are hiking on a hot and sunny day. A fun added feature of the Lower Cliffline trail is that you may have the opportunity to watch some rock climbers on the quartzite cliffs.
Blue Mounds State Park has enough hiking to keep the average person content for a day. But if you are staying in the area longer, I highly recommend an afternoon trip over to Pipestone National Monument.
Pipestone National Monument
For countless generations, American Indians have quarried the red pipestone found at this site. These grounds are sacred to many people because the pipestone quarried here is carved into pipes used for prayer. Many believe that the pipe’s smoke carries one’s prayer to the Great Spirit. The traditions of quarrying and pipemaking continue here today.https://www.nps.gov/pipe/index.htm
While you can only quarry pipestone at this monument if you are part of a federally recognized tribe, anyone can visit the monument and take a walk along the 3/4 mile Circle Trail. While this trail is short, it is filled with interesting natural and historical features.
Start by stepping into the Exhibit Quarry to see a layer of pipestone below the thick Sioux quartzite that exists under the prairie grasses in this area. The prairie at Pipestone National Monument is also Tallgrass Prairie like the prairie at Blue Mounds. Did you know that this was once the largest contiguous ecosystem in North America, but that due to rural and urban development, only about 2% of the original prairie remains today?
If you continue through the prairie grasses, you will reach some 20 ft tall Sioux Quartzite outcroppings. Shortly after you can climb some steps to view The Oracle (the profile of a face seen in the rocks) and then you will arrive at Winnewissa Falls. Beyond Winnewissa falls are more rock outcroppings with names like Leaping Rock and Old Stone Face. It is a beautiful area and as you return to the visitors center area, you may find yourself wishing the trail was a little bit longer.
Split Rock Creek State Park
Less than 10 miles from Pipestone National Monument, is another Minnesota state park: Split Rock Creek State Park. Split Rock Creek SP protects the only lake in Pipestone County. The lake was formed after a dam was completed in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration. This dam (and the nearby historic stone bridge) were both constructed from the local Sioux quartzite.
The park is relatively small, with only 4.5 miles of hiking. The hiking club trail (which is the trail we hiked at the park) is a 2.5-mile loop trail that takes you to all of the park’s highlights. You will hike from the campground, past a historic water tower on Prairie Hill, along the wooded shores of Split Rock Creek Lake, and even cross the dam before looping back.
We enjoyed our hike at Split Rock Creek, but it was probably our least favorite of the trip. While my father enjoyed the history and rock along the trail at Pipestone National Monument the most, my favorite hiking trail of the trip was our bonus stop at Kilen Woods State Park.
Kilen Woods State Park
While technically still in southwestern Minnesota, Kilen Woods is located about 70 miles east of Blue Mounds State Park, just a few miles off of Interstate 90. There are a total of 5 miles of hiking trails at Kilen Woods that take you along hilly terrain through prairie, oak savanna, and floodplain forest along the Des Moines River.
The hiking club trail is just over 2 miles in length and winds through all of the terrain types mentioned above. I really enjoyed this trail. After a few days in the prairie, it was nice to find myself in a dense forest and along a river for a portion of this hike. So if you are traveling to the Blue Mounds area along Interstate 90, don’t miss the chance to stop at Kilen Woods for a short hike.
With so many hiking trails to choose from in Minnesota, the southwestern corner is often overlooked. But if you find yourself in this region, don’t hesitate to check out these trails. The pups will certainly enjoy them. Just be cautious about hiking in the full sun on a summer day (you should probably bring along water for the dogs – and yourself!). Heatstroke can be a real concern for dogs.
Want to find more hiking trails in Minnesota? Head over to our hiking trails category. Most of our hiking trail overviews are for Minnesota trails.