One of southern Minnesota’s greatest assets is its scenery. However, despite the prospect of seeing the majestic combination of water, bluffs, wildlife, and greenery, I was slightly skeptical when my roommate suggested hiking at Whitewater State Park. See, I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself the “athletic” type, so I figured spending the day treading through the bluffs might be more painful than it was enjoyable.
I was wrong. Not only are there different paths catered to all levels of athleticism, but there is so much more to do than just hike (and the beautiful views I expected didn’t hurt either).
Whitewater State Park is located in Altura, about 2.5 hours southeast of the Twin Cities. The area received its name from the Dakota Indians after they saw how clay deposits turned the river a milky white color in the spring. Decades later, a state park was established to protect that part of the land.
These days, the 2,700-acre park sees nearly 300,000 visitors annually. With six scenic overlooks and approximately 10 miles of hiking trails, you’re able to walk by the river along the bottom of the land before getting to bluff and valley overlooks. If you’re in the mood for a leisurely stroll, I’d suggest the trout run creek, meadow, or chimney rock trails. The first two offer excellent views of wooded areas, while the other is a bluff-top climb. For more of a challenge, try the coyote point or Dakota trails, which range from 2.7 to 4.2 miles and will take you to the top of the 250-foot bluffs on the west side of the park.
While on your hike, it’s likely you’ll glimpse many of the 50 species of mammals or 250 types of birds that live in the area. If you head over to the spring-fed streams or fishing pier, you’re certain to see rainbow, brown, or brook trout swimming along the creek. And if you’d rather be in the water than look at it, then be sure to check out the park’s sandy swimming beach.
When you’re ready to settle down for a meal, there are two picnic areas (main and south), both equipped with tables, fire rings, and grills. The main picnic area also features a sheltered area, electrical outlets and lights, and is available on a first-come, first-served basis or by reservation. If you’re at the south picnic area, there’s even a volleyball court set up (rental equipment is available).
In addition to exploring the land, you can also learn about it. Every weekday, Memorial Day through Labor Day, a naturalist guides hands-on nature activities. At the Whitewater Valley Visitor Center, you will find a trail center, auditorium, and interpretive exhibits, including one on land use in the valley, and a watershed exhibit.
If you’re looking to spend more than a day at the park, there are a number of camping options available, ranging from open and grassy to wooded and secluded. If pitching a tent is roughing it too much, there is an eight-cabin group center, which can accommodate up to 132 people and comes equipped with showers, a kitchen, dining hall, and is available year-round. For smaller groups, there are camper cabins that sleep five and are available April through November.
While you’re in the area, I would suggest making a stop in St. Charles, which is known as the “gateway to Whitewater Valley” and located just about seven miles away from the park. You can grab a bite to eat at a local café, browse through antique and specialty shops, hit the range at St. Charles Golf Club, cool off at the Aquatic Center, or hang out in any of the five city parks.
Whether you have a day or a week to spend, there are plenty of fun ways to enjoy the area, and you’ll see why I believe it’s one of the best ways to experience the impressive beauty that southeastern Minnesota has to offer.