A Southeastern Gem: Whitewater State Park

What to expect and how to make the most of the river, prairies, and forests at this weekend oasis
A monarch resting on butterfly milkweed just beyond Eagle Point in Whitewater State Park
A monarch resting on butterfly milkweed just beyond Eagle Point

Ariel Shaver

Lush native prairies gently sway in an occasional breeze that breaks the humid air. Crown vetch, brown-eyed susans, big bluestem, asters, Canada wild rye, the rare Michigan lily—a symphony of petals and grasses meets the eye. These are the treasures that greet a summer hiker exploring the Meadow Trail, one of many paths available to casual explorers and passionate outdoor lovers alike at Whitewater State Park.

About two hours southeast from the Twin Cities (and 30 minutes from Rochester), the 2,700-acre Whitewater State Park provides a refuge for anyone looking for a peaceful weekend jaunt and breathtaking views. Two or three days is the sweet spot to check out most of what the park has to offer. And if your family is picky about what kind of landscapes they want to see (like mine), look no further. Whitewater’s got everything: prairies, forests, moving water, and bluffs.

Six Whitewater Highlights

Thanks to melting glaciers of yore, this region of Minnesota has plenty of bluffs carved by rushing water. At Whitewater State Park, that means a plethora of panoramic overlooks that reward those willing to make the climb.

Inspiration Point is no joke. A few hundred wooden stairs stand between you and sweeping views of rolling hills covered in a dense emerald foliage. Peering through the haze to a nearby ridge, a pool of sunlight surrounds a heavy-branched shade tree, a mysterious scene straight out of Tuck Everlasting. The climb upwards brings you to the top of a bluff home to a restored oak savanna—you’ll pass tangerine blazes of butterfly milkweed on your way out to the rocky point. Dangle your feet over the edge and drink it in.

The challenge of the Dakota Trail provides some much-needed shade along with a fairytale forest complete with mossy boulders and a winding uphill trail. A quick creek crossing (cleverly created with concrete blocks in the shallow water) provides a chance to stick your hand in the icy, rushing water or splash some on your face, like I did.

Eagle Point

Ariel Shaver

Don’t miss Eagle Point along the Dakota Trail: A series of scenic overlooks right at the edge of the forest bluffs provides a sunny spot for a water break or some protein-filled snacks. (For an insider’s recommendation, try Bobo’s oat bars. The chocolate almond butter-filled one is a real winner.)

For a longer day hike such as the Coyote Point Trail, consider bringing lunch so you don’t have to end your exploration out of hunger. A bit of trail cooking isn’t too tough either. Bring a small portable or backpacking stove, fuel, and lighter; a pot; a spoon; a box of easy couscous (like Near East); and a can of veggies in your day pack. As the couscous only needs water and you can simply add in the veggies (corn and green beans are personal favorites), you have a no-hassle hot lunch that you can make while pretending this is your third month on the Appalachian Trail (or something of the like). Bring along teabags, instant coffee, or hot chocolate mix to whip up a hot drink on the spot, or add flavored mixes like Crystal Lite to your waterbottle for something a little less steamy. Just make sure to pack out all of your trash and leave no trace.

If you’re up for a dip, check out the swimming beach along the Whitewater River. Don’t be alarmed by the cloudy-looking water: The “whitewater” in the name of the river refers to the light clay sediment that the water picks up to give a milky appearance, especially in the spring. 

Anglers can find plenty of fishing in the Whitewater River and the aptly named Trout Run Creek. Brown, brook, and rainbow trout abound in the deep pools just past rocky rapids.

A spot at the Minneiska Campground in the shade of black walnut trees

Tony Webster/Flickr

Where to Crash

At Whitewater State Park, there is no shortage of places to lay your head (most of which remain open during the pandemic). The Cedar Hill campground is currently under renovation, but the Minneiska campground provides plenty of spots for RVs or tents. Some sites are electric, and if you end up camping on an almost unbearably hot and humid weekend, do like my family did: Bring an extension cord and small fan, plug everything in, snake the cord through your tent door, and place the fan into the mesh basket that some tents have on the ceiling (or in a similarly placed pocket). You can also try your hand at hammock camping.

The state park also has cart-in sites—a few-hundred-yards walk carrying your gear in a provided cart rewards you with a slightly more secluded place to camp. Three group campsites can host between 25 and 50 people and boast picnic shelters, electricity, and many fire rings and tables. Four year-round camper cabins sleeping five or six people are named after the varieties of trout that call the Whitewater River home, and they are all wheelchair accessible and electric.

Frankly speaking, this place has got some of the best smelling park bathrooms I’ve ever encountered. The larger bathrooms were exceptionally well-equipped (and include showers), and even the vault toilets didn’t make me want to run out.

Asters on the Meadow Trail

Ariel Shaver

Planning Ahead

Be sure to make reservations well ahead of time (and purchasing vehicle permits online beforehand is a good idea, too). Besides the entryways that house maps and visitor guides, state park visitor centers are generally closed due to COVID-19. At this park, there’s a self-guided prairie walk right outside the visitor center. Native plants accompanied by handwritten signs provide an opportunity to learn and enjoy the diversity and color of Minnesota vegetation. (Many of the names were awfully familiar to me after years of family plant identification lectures and lots of “Hey! Check this out!”) You can try the same in your own backyard, too.

Firewood is also available for purchase by cash or card at Whitewater’s park office. Fires make evenings at a campsite all the more enjoyable, but they’re not even necessary for repelling bugs here. Whitewater State Park has an extremely welcome lack of mosquitoes. As for fire cooking, if you’ve got a Dutch oven and are feeling adventurous, buy some canned pizza dough on your way down to the park and attempt a Dutch oven pizza. (Pro tip: Line the bottom of the oven with parchment paper, some oil, and a sprinkle of cornmeal for ultimate ease of removal. And do remember to balance the heat on the top and bottom, or you’ll end up with an extra, extra crispy crust and barely melted cheese like my family did. Still delicious, though—that’s the magic of camping food.)

And as with any outdoors adventure, don’t forget the two essentials. Candy bars, of course, and PMA—the good old positive mental attitude.

The beginning of autumn on the Whitewater River

Tony Webster/Flickr