Minneopa Jewel of the River Valley

By: Jim Rueda, Free Press Sports Editor

It’s a Friday afternoon in late June. Walking through the campground at Minneopa State Park, there are two things that stick out. The first is the plush, green vegetation surrounding the campsites. The second is the silence and sense of solitude.

John Steenson and Pam Stuemke are slowly breaking camp as they end a five-day stay in the park. The weather has been spotty all week but its obvious they’ve enjoyed their visit. “I think Minneopa is a real sleeper when it comes to state parks,” Steenson said. “There are some very nice hiking trails, we did some bike riding, and the falls are beautiful.” The couple is not alone in its regard for Minneopa. Many who have camped or spent time there have become regular visitors over the years. Steenson and Stuemke live in Lakeville and first learned of Minneopa a few years ago when Steenson told a friend of his in Mankato he was looking to camp some place quiet, yet not too far from home. “She suggested Minneopa, and I’d never heard of it,” Steenson said. “She mentioned the hiking trails and Seppmann Mill and then she said waterfalls. I’m into photography so, as soon as she said that, I knew I had to come down.” He’s been a regular ever since. He came down on his own in May and was back last week with Pam. He’s trying to convert her from the pop-up camper her family used while she grew up to tent camping. “There’s really not much difference,” she said. “You had the refrigerator and the stove in the pop-up, and the beds were a little softer, but otherwise it’s about the same.” Steve Rose, a park ranger and the assistant manager at Minneopa for the last three years, says Minneopa is one of the hidden jewels of the state park system. He’s worked at five different parks and believes Minneopa ranks among the best. “There’s a lot to do here without having to dig too hard,” Rose said. “We haven’t done any official count yet but it seems like reservations have been up. They seem to be a little ahead of last year.” Minneopa is actually two parks. There’s the 61-site campground section that includes hiking trails, panoramic river views and the old Seppmann windmill — one of the first stone grist mills in Minnesota that was completed in 1864. About a half mile to the south, is the Minneopa Falls area. In addition to overlooks of the falls, the section includes more hiking trails, a sheltered picnic area, volleyball court and horseshoe pit. Park visitors are also about 10 minutes away from the 9-hole Minneopa Golf Course. “We’ve been here (for five days) and there’s still a lot we haven’t experienced,” Steenson said. “We wanted to get over to the Red Jacket trail to ride our bikes some more, but the weather never seemed conducive to it. We’ll try to do that next time.” Every campground has its drawbacks and Rose admits mosquitoes can be a deterrent at Minneopa. Depending on the time of year the infestation can be pretty thick but Rose says they haven’t been too bad this spring. Minneopa is in the process of grooming more land for hiking purposes. When that’s completed, the park will increase from about 41⁄2 miles of trails to about six. Two years ago the campground added a dump station for RVs that has been well-used. “We only have six electrical sites so we don’t get a lot of RV traffic,” Rose said. The small number of electrical sites is one of the main reasons the park rarely fills up. Except for holiday weekends, tent campers can usually find a site any day of the week. If Steenson had a vote, it would stay that way. “It’s very peaceful here,” he said. “It’s a great place to wind down and relax.”

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