By Jim Umhoefer
Fillmore County. From Highway 16, turn south onto County 5 (about halfway between Spring Valley and Preston) for 4 miles, then turn east onto County 12 for 2 miles to the park entrance. Highway map index: M-21.
Forestville/Mystery Cave is a park for the passionate. The park's unique combination of resources lures visitors who are passionate about trout fishing, horseback riding, hiking, history and exploring caves.
The park is named for Forestville, a once-bustling village established on this site in 1853. The town thrived as a trade center initially, with about a dozen businesses and two stagecoach lines that passed through. Forestville began to fade when the railroad bypassed the town in 1868. The only remaining buildings are the Meighen Dry-Goods Stone (built in 1856), the Meighen home and farm, and the brick house built by Robert Foster in 1867. The sites of other buildings have been marked and are within walking distance.
"Historic Forestville," administered by the Minnesota Historical Society, is a new renovation that represents the village center of Forestville in 1899. Costumed townspeople provide a living history interpretation of Forestville at that time, which had evolved into a company agricultural town (with less than half of its late 1850s population of 100), owned primarily by Thomas Meighen. The current renovation includes the Meighen home, stores and farm, and the Forestville post office. Future additions will be the Luedkte-Meighen Roller Mill and some of the farm buildings.
Though it's fun to experience living history at Forestville/Mystery Cave, the essence of the park is the natural environment. Forestville features over 14 miles of horseback riding trails that climb forested ridges, drop into steep creek and river valleys, and connect to trails in the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest. A large equestrian campground provides hitching rails and rustic campsites. The park records the highest horseback use of any state park in Minnesota. Although autumn rides through the colorful woods are especially scenic, riding is popular here throughout the summer due to the relative lack of insect pests. Hiking is allowed on all horseback trails and on paths designated only for foot travel.
Forestville is noted for its variety of birds (over 170 species) and wildflowers. You may spot wild turkeys during the day and hear the hoot of a barred owl at night. In late April and early May, the woods are filled with spring wildflowers, such as Virginia bluebells and mayflowers. Visitors have seen migrating warblers, eagles and osprey as well as nesting great blue herons, indigo buntings and eastern bluebirds.
Trout anglers, usually tight-lipped about favorite fishing spots, like to return to Forestville's three clear, spring-fed streams inhabited by brown and brook trout (Canfield and Forestville creeks and the South Branch of the Root River). Two parking lots provide easy stream access. Both Canfield and Forestville creeks, which join the South Branch of the Rood River in the park, emerge from caves several miles upstream.
The park has 73 semi-modern campsites (23 electric) split into several camping loops. A large primitive group camp is available by reservation. Visitors can hike from the park into the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest.
The hilly terrain and scenic woods at Forestville provide exciting touring for both snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. The 9 miles of snowmobile trails are concentrated on the west side of the South Branch of the Root River, with connections to trails in the neighboring state forest. The 6.5 miles of cross-country loops are on the east side of the river. They are designed mostly for beginner and intermediate skiers, with some steep sections. All trails are marked and groomed.
There was always a mystery surrounding the South Branch of the Root River where it flows through the rolling hills of western Fillmore County. At a particular bend in the river, in the shadow of a steep limestone bluff, part of the Root vanishes into a hole in the ground. In 1937, a local farmer puzzled by the disappearance of part of the river, discovered the entrance to what is now known as Mystery Cave.
Mystery Cave, the largest in Minnesota (36th largest in the country), is an intricate maze of more than 12 miles of interconnecting passageways. The water that disappears from the river channel flows through the cave in a complex network of stream passages and reappears above ground at springs along the river about 1.5 miles away. Though thousands of visitors enter the cave each year, its system of passages hasn't been fully explored.
You can experience the cave firsthand by participating in an hour-long tour guided by naturalists from nearby Forestville State Park. Park personnel have been managing Mystery Cave since it was purchased by the state in 1988. Tours are operated daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day (call ahead for tour times and information about group tours).
Two separate tours are offered at Mystery Cave. The Historic Entrance, where the commercial tours started before the state took over the cave, has been restored recently to its original topography. New lighting and increased accessibility make this tour popular for a wide range of visitors. The Minnesota Caverns tour is more rustic, requiring visitors to use hand-held lanterns.
The cave remains a constant 47 degrees year-round, so bring along a jacket and gloves. Sturdy walking shoes will provide the most comfort on both tours. In addition to the state park sticker needed for entry to the park, an admission fee is charged for the tours. A picnic area and restrooms are located near the ticket buildings.
On the tours, you'll get a glimpse of a surrealistic underground world. The caverns and formations have colorful names, such as the Garden of the Gods, the Dome Room, Diamond Caverns, Carrot Sticks, Hills of Rome, and Blue Lake. The cave's passageways wind through formations of ancient limestone. The guides will point out the collections of stalactites, stalagmites, flow stone and other unique and delicate formations.
If you'd like to explore more of Minnesota's limestone cave country, Niagara Cave (south of Harmony off of Highway 139 on Niagara Cave Road) is the only other cave open to the public. This cave features a 60-foot waterfall. Ask the Mystery Cave guide for more information. To find out about exploring, studying and conserving caves, contact the Minnesota Speleological Survey (P.O. Box 13436, Dinkytown Station, Minneapolis, MN 55414.