By Jim Umhoefer
Blue Earth, Le Sueur and Rive counties. 39 miles, from Mankato to Faribault.
Serious cyclists can easily breeze along the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail in half a day or less, but if you prefer a slower pace, there are enough distractions along the route for a relaxing weekend mini-vacation, among them the numerous lakes along the way and Sakatah Lake State Park.
The trail, developed along an old railroad bed, is on the edge of two bygone plant communities. The Big Woods to the north was once a great hardwood forest; the prairie to the south and west was an immense sea of rolling grassland. Today, through most of the land is cultivated; trail users can still see patches of the former vegetation.
Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail is split by a half-mile break in Waterville, just west of the state park. To connect with the other segment, follow the city streets in Waterville. Many cyclists start in town and head east toward Faribault for an easy afternoon ride. The whole trail is currently surfaced for bicyclists, hikers and snowmobilers; another treadway will be developed for horseback riders and cross-country skiers. There is a trailhead parking lot on lime Valley Road near Mankato on the west end of the trail.
SIBLEY STATE PARK
Kandiyohi County. 15 miles north of Willmar on Highway 71.
Highway map index: F-15.
From Mount Tom, in Sibley State Park, the view sweeps in a grand circle over miles of forest, farmland and lakes. Fragments of stone pipes found here suggest that, like most high places, Mount Tom held spiritual to the Dakota Indians.
French and Indian fur traders used Mount Tom as a lookout when they traveled the Red River Trail with fur-laden oxcarts. Each spring, they ventured into the prairie wilderness from Pembina, North Dakota, on their way to St. Paul to sell their furs.
The countryside around Mount Tom is more wooded now than when the Dakota scouted the horizon. Hardwood trees took over former grassland after the settlers came and prairie fires were brought under control. Within the park, you can see remnants of the once-vast grassy sea on the knolls that were never plowed. These knolls, like Mount Tom, were born of the boulders, sand and gravel deposited by the last glacier. As you explore the park, you'll see several lakes, like Lake Andrew, which were left behind as the glacier retreated.
Hikers and horseback riders will see (and climb) moraine hills made of "drift" (rock and soil debris) that was bulldozed into place by the massive glacier. Sibley features an extensive 23-mile trail system that includes nine miles of horseback trails. Whether riding or hiking, you'll come across many overlooks that offer vistas of the woods, ridges and wetlands.
For bicyclists, there is a designated trail that winds from the interpretive center parking lot down to Lake Andrew and along the lakeshore. The shoreline is a favorite spot for photographers. Visitors in wheelchairs are also welcome to enjoy this 5-mile paved trail.
During summer, Lake Andrew is where you'll find most of the park action. A large picnic area with a handsome granite shelter on the shoreline overlooks the lake. This shelter, and other granite park buildings, were built by the Conservation Crops in the late 1930s. The sandy swimming beach draws flocks of sunbathers and kids, while the nearby pier is a fishing hot spot.
Sibley offers a choice of 138 semi-modern campsites (52 electric) in two separate campgrounds. Reservations are a good idea since the campgrounds are usually busy during the summer. Some visitors prefer camping here in autumn when the campgrounds are less crowded and the hardwoods change color. Call the park office for information
about family campsites, the primitive group camp, the equestrian center or the modern group center.
The interpretive program at Sibley is tailor-made for the curious. Throughout the year, the park's resources come alive through guided hikes, films and discussions. Hiking with the naturalists is a good way to find out where the wildlife hangs out or to learn more about Sibley's unique mixture of hardwood forest, grassland and aquatic habitats. The modern interpretive center also features seasonal exhibits.
Sibley State Park is named after Minnesota's first governor, Henry H. Sibley, who used to hunt hear here. Mount Tom, Lake Andrew and the surrounding land became a state park with the help of Peter Broberg, who was the only member of the Daniel Broberg family to survive the U.S. Dakota Conflict of 1862.
The interpretive program is active all year and lures more folks outside each winter with imaginative activities. Sibley's cross-country ski trails are rated easy through most difficult and are long enough to give you a good workout. The snowmobile trails link up with county Grant-in-Aid trails. All of the park's winter trails are popular on weekends, so it pays to get an early start if you want to beat the rush. Just outside the interpretive center is an action-packed inner-tube hill for those who enjoy sliding downhill at considerable speeds.