By Jim Umhoefer
Nicollet and Renville counties. 6 miles south of Fairfax along Highway 4; park entrance is off County 29. Highway map index: G-18.
Fort Ridgely was built in 1853 as a garrison on the Minnesota frontier, as pioneers were settling lands purchased by the government from the Dakota Indians. In 1862, some of the Dakota, frustrated by government injustices, a crop failure and late payment for their land, waged war in a futile attempt to drive the settlers out of their traditional lands. One of the major battles of this six-week war was fought at Fort Ridgely.
You can trace the events of the fierce battle at Fort Ridgely by following a self-guided trail that connects the exposed foundations of the original garrison buildings. In the restored commissary, a scale model shows how the fort looked in 1862, and video explains the causes and effects of the U.S. Dakota Conflict. Both the interpretive center (in the commissary) and the trail are administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Though the historic site is an important part of the park, most visitors linger because it's fun to be outdoors here. Fort Ridgely has a good mix of scenery: prairie bluffs, forested ravines, and small snatches of native prairie. Prairie and oak savanna restoration is under way in some sections of the park. Hikers can meander through the prairie and wooded slopes on more than 11 miles of trails. Horseback riders explore the park on a 7-mile trail network. Hikers who climb to the crest of Airplane Hill will be rewarded with a view of Fort Ridgely Creek and the Minnesota River Valley. There is no direct access to the Minnesota River in the park, and therefore no fishing or water sports.
Despite the lack of water recreation, the campgrounds can be busy on weekends and holidays. The park maintains two drive-in camping areas (39 total sites; 8 electric), a primitive group camp, four backpack sites and a horse camp. The shady picnic grounds next to the fort site feature horseshoe courts, a volleyball court and a playground. The Chalet Picnic Area surrounds an enclosed, heated shelter building that may be reserved for private groups throughout the year. If you'd like more solitude, enjoy a picnic next to peaceful Fort Ridgely Creek, across from the campground.
Fort Ridgely has the distinction of being the only Minnesota state park that operates its own golf course. The 9-hole course (artificial grass greens) begins by the chalet in a scenic valley near Fort Ridgely Creek. Most of the holes are on the open land surrounding the old fort site. Golf club and cart rental is available.
The annual Fort Ridgely Historical Festival and Rendezvous, held the last weekend in June, is a memorable occasion to visit the park. The festival includes music and dance, foods, folk art demonstrations, wagon rides, and much more. At the same time, costumed "fur traders" from around the state gather for the rendezvous, where you can see them in their 1840s-style encampment, living in tipis and cooking over open fires.
The park grooms about 7 miles of snowmobile trails and about 3 miles of beginner and intermediate loops for cross-country skiers. Most of these trails twist through the golf course, but it's also fun to take in the view from the snowy hillside woods across Fort Ridgely Creek.