BLUE MOUNDS STATE PARK — Amid a seemingly endless sea of corn and soybeans and wind generators, there’s a tiny island here of native, unplowed land — and a wild bison herd — Minnesota’s last little remnants on the prairie.
It is not big or awe-inspiring or very high on the list of the state’s most popular state parks. But if you’re searching for something completely different than the Northland has to offer, if you are sometimes hungry for wide-open spaces and far-away sunsets, Blue Mounds might be a place to visit.
To be honest, southwestern Minnesota’s Rock County did not top the Myers’ family vacation list. But by the time we knew for sure we couldn’t take our annual week-long trek into Canada, it seemed all of the Northland had hung “No Vacancy” signs. Voyageurs National Park? All 250 boat-to sites booked for our week. Superior, Chippewa and Chequamegon National Forest campgrounds? Full. Northern Minnesota state park campgrounds? Fuhgettaboutit.
We had a few days off and an urge to go somewhere with our newly acquired, second-hand pop-up tent camper. Blue Mounds had some openings. We had never been there before. So we set our sights south and west, about as far from Duluth as you can go and still be in Minnesota.
Hiking at Blue Mounds
An extension of the Buffalo Ridge high plateau that runs north to south along western Minnesota, Blue Mounds rises another 100 feet or so above the surrounding landscape, with hardscrabble Sioux quartzite cliffs jutting up from the prairie. These outcroppings of rock are 1.5 billion years old and appear pinkish in color in many areas.
Over two days we hiked about 10 of the 13 miles of hiking trails in the 1,579-acre park. It’s all easy walking, either on hard-surfaced trail or mowed prairie grass paths. It was on one of these hikes when we caught a distant view of the state’s oldest wild bison (buffalo) herd. Unfortunately for us, the bison were hanging out a good half-mile away. And, because of COVID-19 restrictions, the park’s popular close-up wagon tours of the bison range have been canceled.
Still, the park’s trails offered incredible views of the surrounding countryside; you can see into Iowa and South Dakota from here. On the first days of August there were wildflowers blooming everywhere. And the park is an amateur geologist’s dream, with fascinating rock protrusions.
Birdwatchers looking to add some prairie and farmland species to their life lists will enjoy the park. Mound Creek runs through the park and, thanks to a 1930s Great Depression-era public works project, is dammed to form a small wetland that makes for great early-morning birdwatching. Other wildlife includes coyotes (we heard them yipping one night) and deer.
Bring your bike, too. A paved, 2.2 mile trail in the park connects to an additional 3 miles of trail that lead into nearby Luverne.
While the bison are the main attraction for many visitors, Chris Ingebretsen, the park’s manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the park’s prairie landscape also draws people from afar.
It's a rare chance to see how millions of acres of Minnesota, and much of the prairie, once looked before settlers arrived.
Ingebretsen said the park has three peak periods for wildflowers — one in late May-early June when the first native flowers bloom; a second from mid-June to early July when the prickly pear cactus (yes they grow in Minnesota) bloom; and a third early fall color peak when the late-season wildflowers bloom.
“The tall grass prairie is absolutely unique in the state. And when you add in the big formations of Sioux quartzite rock, it adds up to a landscape that just isn’t found anywhere else in Minnesota,’’ Ingebretsen noted.
Camping at Blue Mounds
The park campground has 73 drive-in sites, of which 52 have electrical hookups. Most are shaded sites along paved roads. Three campground loops are located near the wildlife viewing pond. RVs up to 50 feet can fit. The sites are served by a bathroom building with flush toilets and hot showers, and it is open even amid COVID-19 restrictions. There’s also an RV sewage dump station.
Fourteen tent sites are walk-in (short distance from the parking lot) and carts are provided. One group camp accommodates up to 50 people.
If you are looking for something different, try renting an 18-foot diameter canvas tipi located near the tent sites (tipis are walk-in only, again just a short distance from the parking lot.) The tipis are securely anchored to the ground by three main poles, and have a wooden deck inside. Visitors should bring cots or sleeping mats. No fires are allowed inside the tipi but a picnic table and fire ring are located on site. Tipis accommodate up to six people.
Book your camping reservation early. Like most other state parks, Blue Mounds has been inundated with visitors this summer.
“We are on track for our record year, even after losing April, May and part of June,” to COVID-19 restrictions, Ingebretsen said.
History of Blue Mounds
Plains Indians used the area for centuries and someone — archaeologists, geologists and anthropologists can’t agree who, why or when — moved very large boulders to form a perfectly straight line that runs east and west, in line with the sunrise and sunset on the spring and autumn equinox. The 1,250-foot long rock alignment may not be as big as Stonehenge but it’s still interesting to know we can’t solve all the old mysteries.
The park’s largest rock outcrop cliff generally faces east, and apparently appeared blue to settlers heading west in the 1860s and 1870s, so they named it the Blue Mound. (Even earlier explorers wrote about how native grasses appeared blue from a distance but then green up close.)
The 1930’s dam project was intended to provide recreation for the new park that opened in 1937, then called Mound Springs Recreational Reserve. (Most of the impoundment blew out in a 2014 flood.) In the 1950s, thousands of trees were planted around the pond and in the campground. In 1961, the name was changed to Blue Mounds State Park and the first three bison were brought in from Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge near Valentine, Nebraska to start the present bison herd. Today, the Blue Mounds herd is maintained at more than 100 bison, and some animals have been relocated to Minneopa State Park to start a second herd.
Blue Mounds contains a small remaining fragment of the once vast tallgrass prairie which covered much of North America. The abundant rock outcrops and shallow soil made it bad for farming and prevented much of the land within the park from being plowed. Still, heavy grazing by domestic livestock diminished the native grasses and wildflowers and introduced foreign and exotic, weedy plants. Special management programs are now underway to restore the native grasses and wildflowers.
Late summer offers visitors a panorama of prairie colors when hundreds of different wildflowers bloom and grasses grow. Big bluestem grasses grow to seven feet tall, at a rate of almost an inch a day. Blue Mounds is one of just a few places in Minnesota where cactus grows. Patches of prickly pear cactus can be found growing in shallow soils atop the quartzite outcrops. The cactus blooms in mid-June to early July, Ingebretsen said.
The bison at Blue Mounds
Based on grass quality and quantity that grows here, the DNR estimates about 100 bison can live in the bison range. About 65 adult bison live here, Ingebretsen said, and about 20-30 calves are born each year. A round-up and auction is held each October to cull the herd and keep the population sustainable. Every few years, a new bull bison is selected from a national park or refuge (the current bull at Blue Mounds comes from Yellowstone National Park.)
Most bison now in the U.S. have cows somewhere in their lineage. Efforts to save the species in the early 1900s included using cattle to expand breeding options. But genetic testing of the Blue Mounds herd from 2011-2014 found them largely free of any genetic material that would have come from cross-breeding with cattle. This makes them rare among all modern bison. The DNR is working to preserve that bloodline and plans to spread the animals over several prairie-region state parks, eventually reaching a total population of 500.
Did you know?
Rock County, home of Blue Mounds State Park, is one of only four of Minnesota’s 87 counties that have no natural lakes. The others are Mower, Olmsted and Pipestone.
For more information on Blue Mounds
The park is four miles north of Luverne on U.S. Highway 75. Turn east on County Road 20 and go one mile to the park entrance. For more information go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/blue_mounds/ or call the park at 507-283-1307. All state park campsites must be reserved at reservemn.usedirect.com/MinnesotaWeb/ or by calling 866-857-2757. For more information on Minnesota bison, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/bison.html.