The Blue Mounds State Park in the far southwest corner of the state can be at once one of the more accessible yet most rewarding of the Minnesota State Parks trails.
The Blue Mounds are so named by the early Minnesota pioneers who were surprised to see the Sioux quartzite rock faces rising out of the prairie in the distance. From a distance, and in a certain light, the generally pinkish quartzite looked to be blue. The Blue Mounds are part of the same quartzite outcropping formations you’ll find at Pipestone National Monument and the Jeffers Petroglyphs site.
The main hike at Blue Mounds is about a three-mile loop that takes you through prairie and over the top of the mounds, where you can get a view of the Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota farmlands stretching out below you.
Although the abundant rock outcroppings and shallow soil prevented much of the land you’ll traverse from being plowed, grazing by domestic livestock before the park was established diminished the native grasses and wildflowers and allowed the introduction of foreign plants. Reintroduction of the original native prairie species is underway.
Part of the reintroduction strategy includes the bison herd that roams in a large fenced area to the west of the Mound Trail. It turns out that bison are an essential element of native North American prairie preservation, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, along with the Minnesota Zoo, have bred a herd of about 150 bison that will help prairie restoration in several locations across the state.
But, part of the bison’s role involves wandering and grazing over a wide area, so if you’re at Blue Mounds or Minneopa State Park, near Mankato, the two parks where bison have been reintroduced, you’ll be lucky if you get close enough to get a good look. On my walk at Blue Mounds, the bison were only dots in the far distance.
To get to the trail head of the Mounds Trails, drive all the way into the park as far as you can where you’ll come to a parking lot. From the parking lot, the head of the Mounds Trail is right in front of you across the road. Or you can walk down the road to your left a bit where you’ll come to the head of the Upper Cliffline Trail, which is part of the three-mile loop on top of the mounds. If you walk down to the Cliffline Trailhead, you can go a little farther to the “Nature Play Area” where there’s a nice picnic area among a semicircular quartzite outcropping. From the play area, you can backtrack a bit to get to the trailhead.
You can start at either the Cliffline or Mound Trailhead to make the loop. (Neither is marked, by the way. You’ll have to look for the mowed path leading into the prairie.) If you’re not up for the entire three mile hike, there are a couple of shortcuts through the prairie that will take you to the other side of the loop and shorten your hike to either one or two miles, depending on which one you take.
Click on this link to view or download a map of the Blue Mounds State Park trails: Blue Mounds State Park trail map.
More info from MNTrips
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