Adventure Report: Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Another last-minute trip
After our successful last-minute trip to Lake Shetek State Park in January, we knew it was possible to get a camper cabin on short notice. This encouraged us to spin the roulette wheel once again, this time for Valentine’s Day. Since our last trip, the reservation system had been streamlined a little and now we were able to see online where cabins were available and make the reservation over the phone.
After a few minutes of research, we landed on Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park near Preston. On what might turn out to be the coldest weekend of 2021.
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park is neatly tucked into the Root River Valley in Minnesota’s Bluff Country in the southeastern part of the state. Here, hikers and horseback riders have miles of trails to explore, anglers come to fish for trout, the history buff can get a close look at old Forestville and the adventurous go caving.
More about the park
The Camper Cabin
After checking in at the office to get the key, we moved into our home fo the next three days. The cluster of five cabins is laid out very nicely, far enough apart and shielded by conifers and occasional oak trees. I imagine with leaves on the trees and all the grasses surrounding the cabins fully grown, there’s even more privacy. We parked and hauled our stuff the last couple of hundred yards to the Lily cabin with the carts provided by the park. It ended up being three trips with two carts-we were really roughing it. (You don’t bring a coffee grinder?) The heat in the cabin was on, thanks to the thoughtful park staff, and we began to settle in.
The idea was to get a walk in, have a fire and make dinner, in that order. When we gathered around the table to have a look at the map, the long week and the long drive caught up with us. We ended up just staring out the window at the frozen grasses, the snow-capped trees, the warm sun bouncing off the fresh snow and enjoyed the silence that was interrupted only by the occasional tick of the heater and the call of the one chickadee out there, working hard to get some thistle seed in sub-zero temperatures. Later, a few deer cautioulsy poked their heads out of the nearby woods.
The walk was doomed, but it didn’t matter. The purpose of this trip was to get outside, as much as it was to leave our COVID-cocoon and return home as mentally stable butterflies, ready to take on the world once again. So we played Yahtzee and enjoyed each other’s company until it was time to light the bonfire. We each wore a base layer, a mid layer, insulated jeans, three coats, two pairs of gloves, a neck gaiter, a wool hat, two hoods, wool socks, boots rated to minus 40 degrees, a blanket and sat by a ripping hot fire, large enough to be visible from space-but it worked.
Day Two: Hiking Club Trail
The next day we got serious about getting a walk in, bundled up and snowshoed the Hiking Club Trail, which starts near the cabins and makes an irregular loop in the center of the park. We went counter-clockwise past the amphiteatre and dropped down to the Root River near the tent camping sites. We were surprised to see some open water on the river, which was bubbling along nicely under its icy crust. Just across the from the tent sites, tall, naked limestone bluffs rose up, topped with conifers. The whole scene was wonderful, but at an estimated minus 15 degrees, stopping too long meant getting cold, so we kept moving.
Soon, we passed by the ranger station and began to climb the hills of the Maple Ridge Trail Loop. The trunks were naked, but the wintery forest made for some great photo ops. I didn’t take a lot of pictures, because it meant taking off the mitts, unzipping the coat, taking out the camera, fiddling with the controls, taking the shot and doing the whole thing in reverse.
After huffing up a steep hill, we walked along the ridge this trail was named for, but it soon dropped straight down again, very drastically. 16-year-old me would not have hesitated to schuss down this perfect sledding hill at Mach 8. But almost-50-year-old, brittle-boned me, who is responsible for his own medical bills, was content to just imagine it.
This roughly three-mile hike took us about an hour and 45 minutes. Back at the cabin, we peeled off our layers, happy to have a warm place to return to. Because it was Valentine’s Day, I cooked steak and baked potatos over the fire for my sweetheart-per request.
Day Three: Palisade Trail
Monday morning wasn’t quite as cold, only about minus 10 degrees. Temperatures soon soared to two degrees above zero and we decided to check out the short Palisade Trail Loop, which is not connected to the rest of the trail system. To get there we needed to leave the park by car, go west and then south again to reach a small parking lot off a gravel road. The Palisade Trail is not even a mile long, but it packs a lot of scenery. Nobody had been there in a while, so we were breaking trail through fresh snow bathed in bright sunshine. A short, steep drop took us to the flat river bottom and the trail soon followed the banks of the Root River’s southern branch.
The water wasn’t much more than a foot deep and we were able to see the rocky riverbed through breaks in the ice. Tall limestone bluffs rose up on the other side of the river and made for a very impressive backdrop. Down in this valley there was no wind and despite the freezing temperatures it was warm enough to unzip the coat and drop the hood. We stopped and took in the scenery for a while and regretted the fact that we didn’t bring a picnic lunch, it was that wonderful to feel the warm sun and listen to the gurgling river. We did, however, make plans to return later this year and bring the fishing rods, because this spot is also a great place to catch trout.
From a plaque in the parking lot we had learned that this parcel had been added to the park in 2012. Joseph and Roene Vreeman had farmed nearby and passed the property on to their children who decided to donate it so others could enjoy this unique piece of land as much as their parents did. I always feel encouraged when I learn that there are people out there who can appreciate special places not for their Dollar value, but for what it means for all of us to have access to them. We’ll be back with the fly rods soon.