By Jim Umhoefer
Winona County. About 8 miles north of St. Charles on Highway 74. Highway map index: M-20.
Whitewater is southern Minnesota's busiest state park and has a pair of semi-modern campgrounds with about 120 sites to handle the crowds. There are six walk-in sites off one of the loops in the main campground. Organizations can reserve a group camp that's primitive or one that has cabins and a dining hall. Contact the manager for details.
People are attracted to Whitewater because of the natural beauty of its deep ravines, limestone formations, and hilly hardwood forest (remnant stands of white pine are relics of the cooler glacial era).
Although camping is popular (the campground fills on many weekends and holidays), day use in the park can also be heavy. The two spacious picnic areas may be crowded, but you can usually find a vacant table. There is an open picnic shelter (with electricity) in one area and an adjacent game filed.
The park offers water sports for the whole family. The swimming pond, with a guarded beach, is usually the first destination for the kids. Parents like to relax in the sun on the big beach. The absence of much warm, standing water means that mosquitoes don't have a chance to breed. Trout fishing is good in stretches of the park's two streams. Brown trout are the dominant game fish here, but brookies and rainbows are caught in some sections. Channel catfish, northern and walleye inhabit the lower Whitewater River, below the park.
Before hiking the park's 10-mile trail system, stop at the Chimney Rock Geological Center and the new Whitewater Valley Visitor Center to gain some background on the area's human and natural history. The visitor center (also a trail center, interpretive center and park contact station) features engaging displays and hands-on activities. Naturalist programs, including nature games, guided hikes and slide shows, are held in the interpretive center and outdoor amphitheater.
The trails vary from easy river-valley walks to scenic ridge-top hikes that involve steep climbs. The Meadow is a self-guiding nature trail through an area of big bluestem grass that hikers of all abilities enjoy. Whitewater State Park features several trails that wind upward through dense woods and culminate in broad vistas. Chimney Rock, Ice Cave Point and Coyote Point are nearest the park's core. Sound carries uphill so well that from the Chimney Rock Trail you'll easily hear swimmers. As you hike toward Inspiration Point, however, the background roar of Trout Run Creek replaces the sound of human voices. Other trails overlook the Whitewater River Valley. Parents should realize that there are many steep cliffs in the park and should monitor their children closely at all overlooks.
Though Whitewater State Park has less than four miles of beginner cross-country ski trails, the entire 2,800-acre park is open for winter exploration. Visitors like to see the ice cave (an ice flow emerging from a small rock opening) and the large beaver pond. Open, spring-fed water in the park attracts deer, turkeys and bald eagles.
On many winter weekends, the park offers naturalist programs that focus on winter survival, animal-tracks identification and wildlife observation. Interpretive programs, ski rental and warming house are all in the Whitewater Valley Visitor Center. Contact the manager or naturalist for schedule information or to arrange special group programs.
Besides participating in the winter naturalist programs, visitors enjoy hiking and snowshoeing. Snowmobiling is not allowed in the park, but there are many nearby Grant-in-Aid trails.