By Jim Umhoefer
Hennepin and Dakota counties. Junction of Highway 5 and Post Road. Take the Fort Snelling exits from Highway 5 or 55.
Highway map index: J-17.
It's not every day that you can walk up to a stranger and ask him about the hardships at a frontier fort in the 1820s. But the costumed guides at historic Fort Snelling will be happy to answer your questions. Although the park offers much more for family day visits besides the historic site, the fort is the main attraction in a park that is full of surprises. Historically, Fort Snelling has been a gateway for soldiers, explorers and settlers into the upper Mississippi River Valley. Today this area is still a major gateway, as you'll discover when you hear the roar of jets from the nearby international airport and the rumble of traffic on Minneapolis-St. Paul freeways. Ignore the background noise as you walk through the front gate, and pretend you've just pulled off the dusty trail for a break. Built on a strategic bluff above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the early 1820s, Fort Snelling was the last U.S. outpost in the northwestern wilderness. For over 30 years, the fort was a center of government policy-making and a place of safety for those who sought shelter within its stone walls. Modern travelers are encouraged to participate in the fort's daily life.
Visit the blacksmith, shoulder a musket, or bargain with the sutler over the price of tobacco. With more than half of Minnesota's population living in the seven-county metropolitan area. Fort Snelling State Park and the historic site (operated by the Minnesota Historical Society) attract large day-use crowds, especially on weekends. The interpretive program includes films, outdoor hikes, and special events. Headquarters for the park's naturalist programs is in the year-round interpretive center on Pike Island. Picnic Island has shaded, pleasant riverside picnic areas with a shelter. Most visitors grab the table closest to their car, but it's worth the short walk to the tables along the river. A drive-in boat landing on Picnic Island provides access for anglers and sightseers to the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. The canoeing is easy on the rivers (both are designated canoe routes), but commercial barge traffic can be heavy. If you don't want to dodge boats and barges, try canoeing on Gun Club Lake (two bodies of water linked by a stream) or on Snelling Lake. Fishing and wildlife observation occupy canoeists who trace the shorelines of Gun Club Lake. Spring fed Snelling Lake is popular for it's fishing, swimming and canoeing. No motors are allowed on this lake. The bottomlands, wet meadows and small lakes of the park are best explored by foot. On the 18-mile trail systems you'll pass below lofty, thick-trunked hardwoods as well as the towering Mendota Bridge. One big loop trail swings through the park's undeveloped land across the Minnesota River. The main access for this loop is off Highway 13 near Lone Oak Road. The best river valley overlooks are from Highway 13 and from the trail that leads to the Fort Snelling Historic Site. Don't be alarmed if, while hiking on Pike Island or elsewhere, you suddenly hear a loud boom that echoes above the usual noise. It's just the firing of the fort cannon, which still startles unsuspecting bystanders. A paved bicycle trail starts at the park entrance and continues out of the park to Minnehaha Falls. This scenic route is also accessible to disabled visitors. Fort Snelling State Park offers a nine-hole golf course (privately owned). Polo, baseball and other field games are played on the grounds across the road from the golf course. To reach this area, take the Historic Site exit off Highway 55. The park does not have a campground, but Afton State Park, southeast of the Twin Cities, has 24 backpack sites. To see more waterfowl and wildlife in the Minnesota River Valley, drive downriver to the various units of the Minnesota Valley Trail State Park, extending from Fort Snelling to LeSueur. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge extends from Fort Snelling to Jordan, with a new visitor center and headquarters in Bloomington. Winter The 18 miles of cross-country ski trails in the 3,300-acre park (including 9 miles of skate-skiing track) are relatively level. Snowmobiling is not allowed, but snowshoers are free to wander throughout the park. Hikers and snowshoers will see many animal signs in the woods along the banks of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.