By Jim Umhoefer Trails Reporter
Blue Earth County. 3 miles west of Mankato on Highway 68. Highway map index: H-19.
The trademark of Minneopa State Park is a lovely set of two waterfalls that plunge a total of 45 feet in the rocky gorge of Minneopa Creek. The park's other landmark is the graceful Seppman Windmill, built of pasture stone and wood from surrounding groves.
The word Minneopa means "water falling twice" in the Dakota Indian language. The double waterfalls were formed as Minneopa Creek cut into and eroded layers of sandstone at different rates.
For a good view of both falls, take the trail that starts from the large picnic area and crosses the creek between the falls on a footbridge. A short distance down from the bridge, an opening in the trees reveals a vista of the 15-foot upper falls and the 30-foot lower falls. The trail then drops into the deep gorge until it reaches stream level. You may either continue following the creek or cross over another bridge and circle back up to the picnic ground. There are many steps on this circular route, however, and the climb may be too strenuous for some.
The main body of Minneopa State Park is across Highway 68 from the waterfalls area. This is a large prairie area that the Dakota people called "Tinta-inya-ota" (prairie with many rocks). The big boulders (known as glacial erratics) were transported from a hundred miles away and deposited here by glaciers some 15,000 years ago. Some of these boulders, scattered around the park's grassland, are split in two, possibly from seasonal cycles of freeze and thaw. The land surrounding the campground is being restored to native prairie by periodic controlled burning and replanting. Before becoming a state park, the prairie was used as a sheep pasture, which destroyed the natural grasses.
Since Minneopa State Park is primarily a day-use center, visitors usually will have no difficulty in selecting a campsite. The Red Fox campground offers over 60 semi-modern campsites spread over a mixture of open and wooded land. The park also has a primitive group camp.
You can hike 2.5 miles on gravel road through oak savanna to Seppman's Windmill. The handsome structure, built in the European style by Louis Seppman and a neighbor in 1864 was one of Minnesota's first gristmills. Farmers hauled their grist as far as 20 miles by wagon and sometimes stayed overnight in the granary (which is still standing) until their grain could be milled. After lightning struck in 1873, the two arms (sailstock) were replaced. But when a tornado destroyed them again in 1880, it was no longer profitable to operate windmills, and the arms were not replaced. Today you can walk up to each of the windmill's three levels. Preserved mill pieces and interpretive signs are on the ground level (a flashlight will be handy).
Birdwatchers visit Minneopa State Park in the winter to observe the year-round residents as they hunt for food in the river valley. Beginning cross-country skiers can practice on 4 miles of easy valley trails.