Whitewater State Park
The large Whitewater River Valley, filled with spring-fed streams and tall limestone bluffs, cuts through the heart of southeast Minnesota before merging with the Mississippi near Weaver. The name, bestowed by the Dakota, speaks not of frothy rapids but rather its milky springtime color, caused by clay deposits accumulating during high water.
When European settlers moved into the valley to farm, they cleared the steep hills, and, by the turn of the 20th century, as a direct result of their actions, severe flooding began.
By the 1930s the floods had become epidemic—the village of Beaver flooded 28 times in 1938 alone—and frustrated people abandoned their homes. The DNR purchased the most erosion-prone lands and taught remaining farmers to change their land-use practices.
Today, the 28,000-acre Whitewater Wildlife Management Area covers nearly half the valley, and the restoration efforts have made this something of a natural paradise. The popular 2,700-acre Whitewater State Park lies adjacent to the wildlife area, but was established for its beauty decades before the state stepped in to stop the floods.
The valley is a great bird-watching destination, and the 237 recorded species include Cerulean warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, Acadian flycatcher, and other species at the far northwest extent of their ranges. Whitewater is also one of the best places in the state to enjoy spring wildflowers.
For more information about the natural and human history of the valley, stop by the park’s Whitewater Valley Visitor Center (507/932-3007, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. summer, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. rest of year), at the north end of the park near the entrance off Highway 74. The most popular of the many naturalist programs held here discusses rattlesnakes and includes a chance to see a live one.
There are two kinds of hiking trails at Whitewater: steep and flat. The best representative of the latter is the mile-long Trout Run Creek Trail, a self-guided interpretive path that cuts back and forth across its namesake creek.
The 2.7-mile Coyote Point Trail and 4.2-mile Dakota Trail climb the 250-foot bluffs on the west side of the park, leading to some wonderful vistas, particularly Eagle Point and Signal Point along the latter trail. The 0.75-mile Chimney Rock Trail is the easiest and, thus, most popular, bluff-top climb. Steps on the steepest parts of all three trails ease the climbs considerably.
In the winter the level trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, while snowshoe rentals let you explore the rest of the park. The most popular spot in the park on hot summer days is the wide, sandy beach.
The Whitewater River and some of its tributaries are some of Minnesota’s top trout runs, with ample browns, brooks, and rainbows, and there’s a winter catch-and-release season on a portion of the river. The river can be canoed down to the Mississippi River, though low water levels and frequent snags make it a tough journey. If you want to go anyway, start the 17-mile trip in the village of Elba, the last town in the valley. Despite the name the river has no natural rapids, though there are some riffles around bridges.
Whitewater has a pair of campgrounds and, in an exception to the general rule, the larger one is the better of the two (make reservations at www.stayatmnparks.com). The 75 sites (47 electric) in the Cedar Hill Campground are mostly shady and widely spaced, while most of the 31 sites across the river at Gooseberry Glen are crowded closely together. The park also has four walk-in sites and a camper cabin with electricity is available April–October.
Elsewhere in the Valley
Several unique natural and historic attractions are found near Whitewater State Park. A map, available at the park office, details these and many others, and park naturalists often lead tours to these satellite sites. The Elba Fire Tower is perched atop a bluff three miles northeast of the park. Some 600 steps lead up to the tower, which you can climb (during daylight hours between Apr. and Oct.) for spectacular views of the valley’s farms and forests.
You can hunt for (and almost certainly find) fossils to the west of the park along County Highway 9, about seven miles from Highway 74; the site is between the river and the church. Scan the sedimentary rock that was cut away for the road, and you’ll find the calcified remains of ancient plants and animals that lived here hundreds of millions of years ago, back when this land was buried under the ocean. Most common are clam-like brachiopods, snails, moss animals (bryozoans), and sea lilies.
The Crystal Springs Hatchery (14674 County Rd. 112, Altura, 507/796-6691, 7 a.m.–3:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free admission) rears about 400,000 brook, rainbow, lake, and splake trout annually.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition