Banning State Park
Banning State Park’s (61101 Banning Park Rd., 320/245-2668) 6,126 acres straddle the raging Kettle River, the first waterway officially designated Wild and Scenic by the state of Minnesota. White-water fanatics with sufficient skill and nerve shoot the mile-long gorge containing spectacular rapids like Dragon’s Tooth and Hell’s Gate, several of which can hit Class IV.
The eight miles from the village of Rutledge to the take-out just before the Banning Rapids has nothing above Class I rapids and is an ideal canoe trip for beginners, though it gets pretty shallow after June.
Banning also contains several of the most rewarding hiking trails in the state. The trails of principal interest are those along the edge of the gorge, since they offer superb viewing of the river and the paddlers who brave it. The easiest is the two-mile Quarry Loop Trail. It follows an old railroad bed that was used, in part, to ship the stone from the quarry that operated here between 1892 and 1912.
Today, most areas look quite natural, and even the ruins of the two remaining buildings are a scenic addition. Much more interesting than the man-made cuttings are the potholes carved into the rocks alongside the Kettle River during the last Ice Age. They can be found all along the river if you look carefully. The return half of the trail is scenic but not nearly as much so as the stretch along the river, so you may just want to backtrack instead of completing the loop.
Continuing along the river south of the Quarry Loop are the High Bluff Trail and Wolf Creek Trail, which together lead for a little over a mile to Wolf Creek Falls. Beyond the falls the trail continues on to Robinson Park in the city of Sandstone. The Hell’s Gate Trail and Lower Hell’s Gate Trail, two short, scenic spurs right along the river, lead toward, but not actually to, Hell’s Gate Canyon.
Few people bother with the rest of the 17-mile trail system, though the riverside half of the Skunk Cabbage Trail, blanketed by this large and somewhat foul-smelling flower in the spring (it generates enough heat to melt the snow and is the first plant to bloom in the spring), is very scenic. The upper half features more typical spring wildflowers. Branching off it is the three-quarter-mile Trillium Trail, another good spring wildflower walk. Both trails are level and easy, though the riverside half of the former can get wet in spots, and there is one long climb halfway through.
Big Spring Falls at the far south end of the park is a lovely sight and a fun spot to explore. To get there, head to the village of Sandstone and take 3rd Street to Pine Street (the last turn before the bridge) and follow it to the small unmarked pull off.
To get way off the beaten path, head up to the Log Creek Arches, large potholes worn away at the bottom, in the undeveloped northern half of the park. Come winter, 12 miles of trail, including the Quarry Loop and High Bluff trails along the gorge, are groomed for cross-country skiing.
The campground has 33 widely spaced drive-in sites (11 electric) and a camper cabin. Additionally, there are four first-come, first-served canoe-in sites along the river.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition