Fossil Hills Trail (Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, NE)

Fossil Hills Trail, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, July 2022

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in northwest Nebraska was established a mere quarter century ago—in June 1997—but its famed mammal fossils date to the early Paleocene Epoch, just after the mass extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Dozens of fossil skeletons were discovered in this modest valley, fed by the Niobrara River, in the early 1900s, with some of the most impressive specimens—such as the giant pig Dinohyus and rhino-like Menoceras—displayed in the park visitor center. There is some limited hiking in the park—effectively two trails—and one climbs to the excavation sites at aptly-named Fossil Hills, a pair of high knobs overlooking the Niobrara valley. Although you should not expect to find any ancient skeletons on the hike, there are many interpretive signs—and expansive panoramic views—along the way.

Crude (and somewhat inaccurate) map of the hike

The hike

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument spans an austere valley in northwest Nebraska, south of the coniferous Pine Ridge and north of the Platte River Valley. Commercial amenities are dozens of miles distant in either direction; the nearest locality—known as Agate—is merely a single ranch set in an irrigated basin, at the junction of Route 29 and River Road, just west of the park. The remoteness of the national monument is part of its appeal, though a relatively large Visitor Center offers restrooms, exhibits, and, of course, the fossilized skeletons of several early Cenozoic era mammals.

Carnegie Hill and University Hill from near the Visitor Center

The Fossil Hills Trail, one of two official hikes, begins and ends just outside the Visitor Center. Look for a paved track heading eastward from the building, keeping the parking area and a picnic pavilion on the left and a pair of recreated teepees on the right. Come to the first trail wayside, which offers a map and information on the trail, with a second steps later on invasive plant species. Curiously, just beyond, the Fossil Hills Trail splits, but the two paved tracks come back together in a few dozen yards, forming an oval of sorts through the grassy plain.

Niobrara River from the Fossil Hills Trail

Head east, approaching a set of wetlands below the elevated hillsides to the south. At about 2/10 mile, hikers embark on a boardwalk section that traverses the marshy floodplain of the Niobrara River; this waterway, far wider and mightier downstream, is barely more than trickle at this point, well upstream from the river’s mouth.

Climbing the Fossil Hills Trail

Once across the stream, the Fossil Hills Trail winds southward and begins a mild but steady ascent, climbing up into the prairielands above the Niobrara Valley. The sun-soaked path skirts a minor uplift on the right and comes to a small shelter and bench at ½ mile. Stop here on a hot day for a drink and a breather. Here one can also read about Lieutenant Governeur K. Warren, who explored the area in 1857.

Views back toward Niobrara Valley

Up to the right (southwest), hikers can see the partly-exposed escarpments of University Hill and Carnegie Hill, the two “Fossil Hills” where paleontologists unearthed the specimens of various mammal species. Hikers will soon be atop a ridge between these two hills. But first, a steady climb is in order, with the still-paved track passing a sign for the “Bone Cabin” on the right and reaching a second sun shelter at 0.95 miles.

It is a short walk from here to a right-hand bend, which leads into another ascent, this time a straight shot up to the high saddle between University and Carnegie Hills. Stay right at the fork to take a short spur to the edge of University Hill, where there is an exposed section of agate but no fossils. Interpretive waysides explain how the rock layers reveal evidence of an ancient watering hole, frequented by species, long extinct today, like the Dinohyus, or “terrible pig.”

Exposed bluff at University Hill

Around the start of the 20th century, Professor Erwin Balbour of the University of Nebraska led the fossil excavation effort here at the University Quarry. Astute observers can locate where bones were removed from the striated wall on the right, but those expecting to see fossils are likely to be disappointed. Hikers can also look down at the Niobrara Valley and the ridge bearing “Quarry A,” site of a dig led by the Carnegie Museum’s Olaf Peterson in 1904.

Resting place and waysides at University Hill

From the end of the spur, turn around and head south at the junction, staying right (twice) and coming to a short connector before the start of a short, ¼-mile loop around Carnegie Hill. Heading clockwise, the trail continues south, climbing to another shade shelter and a high gap. Here there is a wayside on the “beardog,” a carnivorous, wolf-sized animal whose skeletal remains were found in dens along this ridgeline.

Once over the saddle, the trail bears westward, with nice views across the valley, and approaches the flank of Carnegie Hill. Here the exposed agate (wedged between layers of limestone and sandstone) is more extensive, with the walls rising to 20- to 30-feet high. Three more waysides offer additional details on the mammals found here, including the rhino relative Menoceras and tall omnivorous Chalicotheres. This hill was excavated between 1904 and 1923.

Exposed section of Carnegie Hill
Limestone, agate, and sandstone layers at Carnegie Quarry

Finally, past the main bonebed, the trail rounds to the north side of the hill and completes the loop portion. Now 1.6 miles into the hike, it’s time to retrace your steps back to the Visitor Center, shedding about 150 feet in elevation over the course of 1.2 miles. Passing patches of sunflowers and the initial wetlands, the Fossil Hills Trail ends back at the Visitor Center and parking area, finishing at 2.8 miles in total.

Rounding bend to the saddle between the two hills
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Fort Falls Trail (Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, NE)

Fort Falls Trail, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, July 2022

A pioneer of environmental conservation, President Theodore Roosevelt created, with the stroke of a pen in January 1912, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nebraska, protecting a “preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” The refuge also protects herds of bison and elk—rarities on the Great Plains today—and is intersected by the serene Niobrara River, a 500-mile-long tributary of the Missouri River. Aside from the wildlife, the primary attraction of Fort Niobrara NWR is the 0.8-mile Fort Falls Trail, a short and easy loop that includes an up-close look at a 45-foot waterfall and the striated cliffs that adorn the banks of the Niobrara in this scenic section of remote Nebraska. This easy and family-friendly hike is a popular stop along the Niobrara National Scenic River and a favorite of locals in the Valentine, Nebraska area.

The hike

There are two trailheads for accessing the Fort Falls Trail, although the more popular is the Upper Fort Falls Trailhead, situated at the end of a gravel track past the Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. Park at the lot along the wide circle, where hikers immediately get a nice, expansive view across the Niobrara River drainage to the crumbly sandstone cliffs of the Valentine Formation. The Niobrara River has already flowed more than half its distance by this point, and the water flow improves as it continues downstream, past Smith Falls, to its confluence with the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska.

Views from the near the upper trailhead

Hikers can head either way on the loop, but the simplest and easiest option is to bear counter-clockwise, dropping steeply to Fort Falls before meandering back via a milder return. To do this, follow the trail heading east from the parking area. The path begins as a paved sidewalk but soon rounds a bend and turns into a concrete—and then steel—staircase, comprising around 100 steps, leading into a shady and attractive glen fed by a small but flowing stream. Now just upstream from Fort Falls, the catwalk crosses over the creek and then proceeds down another 60 steps, finally reaching the base of the falls after shedding around 100 feet in elevation.

Staircase down to Fort Falls
Catwalk above the stream

The view of Fort Falls is partly obscured by the dense thicket, but the contours of the snaking waters are clear. The waterfall was formed by a weakness in the Valentine Formation that is capped by the harder siltstone of the Rosebud Formation.

Fort Falls

It’s perhaps a little anticlimactic to reach the showstopper of the hike in the first 1/10 mile, but the onward Fort Falls Trail remains pleasant and worth following to complete the 8/10-mile circuit. From the base of the falls, the narrow track—now dirt—continues to parallel the creek as it flows downstream. A little over 100 yards from the falls, the trail reaches the banks of the Niobrara River and a trail sign for Fort Falls; the onward path bends west (left) here, below the chalky sandstone cliffs.

Niobrara River with the Valentine cliffs beyond

The trail more or less follows the riverbank for the next 1/3 mile, bobbing up and down at points, with sporadic, unobstructed views through the foliage to the fast-flowing river. Beyond are the modest hills of the Wilderness Area and wild Winter Bison Range.

Niobrara River
Fort Falls Trail along the Niobrara River

At ½ mile, hikers reach another small parking area—this is the Lower Trailhead—where hikers should follow the sign marked “main trail to parking lot.” The return route, climbing in fits and starts back to the Upper Trailhead, is less exciting, marred in part by a fence on the right. But the wooded walk improves after clearing a tributary at around 6/10 mile and ascending two sets of staircases. A steep incline around a chunk of chalk on the right leads to a third, short staircase and a bench with an obscured vista point. Rise slightly further to reach a better overlook, then continue into a forest of small, immature ash trees.

Vista point along the return route

From here it is a short walk back to the start, culminating at a sidewalk paralleling the gravel circle. All told, this 0.8-mile hike has some ups and downs but is relatively easy walking, packing a good bang for its buck. Combine with a trip to nearby Smith Falls State Park for a nice half- to full-day of activities in the Valentine area.

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Smith Falls Trail (Smith Falls State Park, NE)

Smith Falls, Smith Falls State Park, July 2022

“Honestly, it’s not for everyone” – so goes the official tourism slogan for the state of Nebraska, a Great Plains state notable mostly for its fields of corn and the invention of the Reuben sandwich and Kool-Aid. The tourism campaign is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it may come as a surprise to many that Nebraska, especially its scenic north and west, boasts an impressive array of natural attractions. Near the top of the list are the hundreds of waterfalls found along the impressive Niobrara River—a 500-mile tributary of the mighty Missouri—the tallest of which is Smith Falls, a 63-foot cataract that is the highest waterfall in the state. A short walk through Smith Falls State Park leads to the base of the perennial falls, a popular spot for locals in the Valentine, Nebraska area. (Note: The walkway to Smith Falls is scheduled to be closed from September 2022 to May 2023 for renovations.)

The hike

Smith Falls State Park is a remote tract of land along the Niobrara River, about 19 miles east of Valentine, Nebraska and 4-5 hours from Sioux Falls or Omaha. The river around here—popular with canoers, kayakers, and tubers—is managed by the National Park Service, but the park surrounding the falls is state-owned and requires a small entry fee to access. From Route 12, bear south on a gravel road that cuts across fields and through rolling hills for 3.6 miles, ending at the Visitor Center, where one can pay the entrance fee and secure information on the park and area.

Verdigre Bridge at Smith Falls State Park

At the back of the Visitor Center, there is a long staircase that drops down a level to the floodplain along the Niobrara. Follow this to its base, coming out to the start of the West Campground, a riverside camp with nearly entirely sun-exposed walk-in sites. Bear right (west) and follow the wide track to the Verdigre Bridge, a 160-foot long span that has been moved from its original location many miles to the east.

Upstream view from the bridge
Downstream on the Niobrara River

The bridge offers passage over the calm waters of the Niobrara River, relatively wide at this point, and chock-full of watercraft on a nice summer day. Along the southern bank lies an open field bisected by the onward path, now bearing southwest toward Smith Falls Canyon.

Passing the vault toilets at the edge of the woods, follow the route as it turns to a boardwalk, passing a junction with the Jim McAllister Nature Trail, a short hiking loop. The Smith Falls Trail soon splits into a wheelchair-accessible and non-accessible route, with the latter featuring a short section of steps. Eventually the intersects with the stream fed by the falls, already cascading mildly here at the first look.

Cascading creek

Continue following the trail upstream (south), paralleling the stream on the right. Here the canyon has carved into the cliff-forming Valentine formation and more resistant Rosebud formation, the latter accounting for the creation of steep waterfalls.

Smith Falls

Few Nebraska waterfalls are more impressive than Smith Falls, encountered at the end of the ½-mile route. Here the falling water thunders year-round, dropping off a protruding knob and fanning out in several directions, making for a relatively wide base. The 63-foot chute ends in a brownish pool, which some daring visitors enter to feel the falls’ spray up-close. The mist of the falls is refreshing on a hot summer day.

Once ready, return the way you came and dip your toes in the Niobrara or simply continue back over the long footbridge, through the campground, and back up the initial staircase to return to your car.

Kayak along the Niobrara River
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Calumet Bluff Trail (Gavin’s Point Dam area, NE)

Calumet Bluff Trail, Gavin’s Point Dam area, July 2022

During the first summer of the famed Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1804, the travelling company camped for four nights at the base of a high bluff along the Missouri River, described by the party as “composed of a yellowish red, and brownish clay as hard as chalk.” Here the expedition met several times with local Sioux and Yankton tribes before moving on, heading further upriver en route to the Rocky Mountains. The cliffs here came to be known as Calumet Bluff, which is now part of protected parkland between a base for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Lakeview Golf Course in northeast Nebraska. A short hike—about 1.2 miles round-trip—leads to and from the bluff and offers scenic views of the Missouri River floodplain and Lewis & Clark Lake, a man-made reservoir on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota.

Map of Calumet Bluff Trail

The hike

Most visitors to the area will want to stop at the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and situated on a headland just downstream from Lewis & Clark Lake and the Gavin’s Point Dam, on the Nebraska side. Here visitors can explore the exhibits and take in the splendid views across the lake to South Dakota. The Calumet Bluff Trail begins at the end of a road about a half-mile drive south and west of the Visitor Center. (Note: Leaving the visitor center, follow the access road back to Route 121, then take the first right, past the base and playground.) Park at the end of the paved track, at the precipice of a bluff in itself. There is parking for a handful of cars.

Start of the Calumet Bluff Trail

From here, look for the Calumet Bluff Trail, heading west and south from the parking area. (Note: Though the sign claims the trail is 9/10 mile one-way, it is actually much closer to 6/10 mile.) Immediately, the singletrack trail drops down a set of stairs and weaves through thick brush cover, with oaks, ash, and red cedars lining the hillside.

Calumet Bluff Trail

The trail itself resembles a wavy horseshoe, weaving south and east before dropping to a drainage and rising back west and north to the bluff. After a brief open section with some cottonwoods at around 125 yards, the trail returns to thick forest cover and descends steadily. Come to a bench on the right at ¼ mile, after which the Calumet Bluff Trail begins a surprisingly steep downhill that requires careful footing to avoid loose rock and tree roots.

Soon the path cuts right and traverses the grassy drainage, just upstream from a boggy inlet fed by the floodwaters of Lewis & Clark Lake (currently out of view). What comes down must come back up, and the trail enters a steep but punctuated uphill stretch before settling into an up-and-down walk approaching Calumet Bluff. Follow the narrow path as the flood area below becomes more prominent, and the beginnings of the cliff structure of Niobrara chalk become visible off to the right. At about ½ mile, the trail briefly splits—but soon the two paths reunite and continue north and west.

Views of the bluffs and Gavin’s Point Dam off to the east

The Calumet Bluff Trail ends at a clearing and bench, overlooking Lewis & Clark Lake and, curiously, a nice lakeside par-3 on the Lakeview Golf Course. While the high point of the bluff is restricted and off-limits to hikers, it is possible to walk through the clearing to the precipice of the cliffs, with views back to Gavin’s Point Dam and the eastern end of the lake. One can also peer east and south across the lake to South Dakota and the popular Lewis & Clark Recreation Area.

Golf course and lake from Calumet Bluff

The likely site of the Lewis & Clark camp was just below the bluff, although today the floodplain is submerged by the reservoir. Lewis and Clark described the bluff as being of “a whitish color, and about 70 or 80 feet high” (although later they described the same cliffs as “composed of a yellowish-red and brownish clay”). At their camp below the bluff, the group experienced “a violent storm of wind and rain” the night of August 28, 1804, accompanied two days later by a fog “so thick that we could not see the Indian camp on the opposite side.” After meeting and exchanging gifts with the local Yankton tribe, the expedition continued upstream on September 1, 1804.

View toward Gavin’s Point Dam from Calumet Bluff

Having reached the terminus of the trail, hikers must now retrace their steps to return to the trailhead, this time involving a steady downhill to return to the drainage above the marshy inlet, in addition to the final uphill back to the start. All told, the 1.2-mile hike should take most hikers an hour or less.

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Gavin’s Point Nature Trail (Lewis & Clark Recreation Area, SD)

Gavin’s Point Nature Trail, Lewis & Clark Recreation Area, July 2022

Created by the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark Lake spans more than 31,000 on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota. While the massive reservoir conceals the original river embankments, it is paralleled on both sides by Niobrara chalk cliffs, sandy beaches, and flooded wetlands, making the lake one of the most popular destinations in the area. On the South Dakota side, the Gavin’s Point Nature Trail in Lewis and Clark Recreation Area traces a brief loop around a protruding headland above the reservoir, featuring expansive views and diverse terrain. This 1.1-mile hike is mostly easy and family-friendly, with occasional interpretive waysides and lots of benches and gazebos where hikers can rest.

Map of Gavin’s Point Nature Trail, Lewis & Clark Recreation Area

The hike

Lewis and Clark Recreation Area is notable mostly for its small lakeside resort and absolutely massive and overpriced campground: this state park site—a short drive west of Yankton, South Dakota—is mostly a zoo of campers, boaters, picknickers, and bikers. But the western flank of the park, farthest from the main entrance, includes the protected Chalk Bluffs area and a network of quiet and moderately scenic hiking trails. The shortest hike is the Gavin’s Point Nature Trail, beginning at a small, marked parking lot off Gavin’s Point Road, just before the drive bears northeast toward the archery range and Chalk Bluffs Multi-Use Trailhead.

Find the mulched path as it leaves the fenced parking lot, passing a clutch of conifers on the left. Within 50 yards, the wide track passes a water fountain and gazebo with partly-obscured views on the left; continue straight on the clearest onward path, ignoring a more faded tail ruts heading right, toward Gavin’s Point Road. Head downhill, into the spotty forest, dropping to a trail junction in view of a marshy basin below.

Approaching the marsh on the Gavin’s Point Nature Trail

This is the start of the loop portion of the Gavin’s Point Nature Trail, and hikers can head either way. Yours truly headed left first, cutting back eastward briefly before descending to a spot almost level with the lakeshore and marsh. Stay right at another unmarked junction, heading over a wooden bridge with metal railings, offering passage over a mucky inlet that supports the surrounding bog.

Crossing a bridge over the marshlands

From here the nature trail continues west, approaching the edge of a largely deciduous forest again. Come to a third fork and bear left again, with the onward tread sloping upward to climb the headland at Gavin’s Point. Views of Lewis and Clark Lake are still largely obscured by the foliage of oaks, hackberry, ash, and maples, with pines and cedars becoming more prevalent. The trail skirts the east-facing slope of what is fast becoming a relatively high bluff, well above the lakeshore. After a high crest, the path comes to a small bench and fenced vista point, overlooking the marsh and western fringes of the vast campground system at Lewis & Clark.

Now treading west, the onward path enters a sea of eastern red cedar—which is not, in fact, a cedar but a juniper—a coniferous tree native to the area. Off to the left (south), one can sense the presence of the lake, although it remains very hard to see through the thick woods. Soon a flurry of spur trails, however, allow hikers to approach the crest of the cream-colored bluffs, with views across Lewis & Clark Lake to the Nebraska side. The calm and vast reservoir is dammed a couple miles downstream, but imagine that this was once just a river valley where the famed Lewis & Clark Expedition passed in August-September 1804, staying for four nights at Calumet Bluff, an upland visible in the distance off to the southeast (on the Nebraska side).

Bluffs at Gavin’s Point

Continuing on, the trail is not yet done climbing, coming to a sharp right-hand bend at around 0.55 miles. Before heading right on the mulched right, briefly detour left on the spur path that culminates at a point with the most expansive views on the hike. This time hikers can see westward, almost to the end of the reservoir, with intermittent cliffs lining both shores.

Looking across the lake to Nebraska
Westward view up the Missouri

From this vista point, return to the main trail and continue uphill as the route bends north and east, climbing the steepest incline of the hike. Follow the cedar-lined track to a high point with another pavilion and several interpretive signs, these ones with much more information on the local history and Lewis & Clark Expedition. Enjoy the views again, this time looking east toward Calumet Bluff and the dam.

From this interpretive shelter, the onward route is slightly confusing. The main, wide route appears to double back west and continue climbing—although offering nice views, this is not the way. Instead, find a thinner but well-trodden track that descends into the thick woods from just behind the pavilion, dropping steadily, back toward the marsh.

Descent through the forest of Eastern red cedars

After a steady descent northwest, the trail comes within striking distance of Gavin’s Point Road on the left and reaches a junction at 9/10 mile. Stay right, returning to an open field with the bridge over the inlet visible off to the east. Come soon to another junction; this time, head left, descend a short staircase and traverse a boardwalk section. Thereafter, the mild trail winds east, passing another bench with marsh views on the right.

Back down in the marsh

Quickly the nature trail returns to the initial junction, with the loop portion now complete. From here it is a brisk 150 yards, partly uphill, back to the trailhead. All told, the Gavin’s Point Nature Trail clocks in at about 1.1 miles and, despite a few ups and down, is rated as easy. Allot perhaps an hour to this hike to fully appreciate the diversity of flora and wetland and bluff landscapes. More ambitious hikers can couple with a set of longer trails in the Chalk Bluffs area further west.

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Spirit Mound Trail (Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, SD)

Spirit Mound Trail, Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, July 2022

With a system of dams effectively flooding much of the Missouri River shoreline where Meriweather Lewis and William Clark once camped during their 1803-6 expedition, there are few places left where one can walk, with certainty, in the footsteps of the famed explorers. One such spot, however, is Spirit Mound, an elevated hillock just north of the Missouri near Vermillion, South Dakota. Here visitors can enjoy the same vista enjoyed by Lewis and Clark in August 1804, with a few key changes: the natural prairie, teeming with roaming bison, has been replaced by endless farmland, with small homesteads dotting the landscape. The 1.5-mile round-trip Spirit Mound Trail is a worthy destination for visitors to the Missouri National Recreational River and an intriguing stop on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

The hike

The Spirit Mound Trail is short and straightforward, beginning and ending at the only parking area at Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, a state park in South Dakota that is also affiliated with the Missouri National Recreational River. The 320-acre tract of land appears to be just another patch of treeless fields, except for one peculiarity: a suddenly high mount, a moderately imposing hillock that rises above the grassland. The summit is visible from the start.

Start of the Spirit Mound Trail

The entirely shade-free walk begins as a wide, graveled track, cutting through a partly-restored prairie, recovering from being former pasture land. The human history of Spirit Mound dates to before the founding of the United States, when Native Americans in the area described the place as the “mountain of evil spirits” or “hill of little people” who would shoot anyone who came near.

Wayside near the start

Despite these ominous warnings, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark set out to summit the mound on 25 August 1804, ascending in full heat. From the top, Clark later wrote, one could see the “most butifull landscape,” with bison herds seen in all directions. In addition, the members of expedition claimed to see elk, badgers (or possibly coyotes), bats, and a variety of bird species.

Heading out toward the mound

The wildlife today is much more subdued, although the prairie is slowly coming back to life, despite being surrounded on all sides by roads and farmland. The Spirit Mound Trail tracks northward, passing various interpretive waysides and a stone marker distinguishing this as a site visited on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Stay straight as the trail traverses reed-clogged Spirit Mound Creek (often dry or close to it) before approaching the northern fringe of the ovular mound. Soon the trail begins to ascend gently, wrapping around to the west side of the mound, which is composed of Niobrara chalk that escaped erosion from the continental ice sheet. Soon hikers will pass a glacial erratic, a large granite boulder used by geologists to help identify past ice flows.

The onward route—narrowed slightly but still quite wide—ascends steadily but at a relatively mild incline, but the views improve significantly. Eventually, on clear days, one can see as far west as the James River and as far south as the Missouri River Valley, with the bluffs of northern Nebraska beyond.

View north from the final bend before the summit

The finale of the hike is a hairpin bend east and then south, rising a set of steps to the summit of Spirit Mound. Here one will where there is a wooden bench and 360-panoramic views. It certainly ain’t Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but the vista from Spirit Mound is one of the best in the area. It certainly felt that way to the Lewis and Clark expedition, which enjoyed the views but “found none of the little people.”

View back north down the trail from Spirit Mound
Late afternoon vista

Once ready, return the way you came, walking back down the mound to the drainage and parking area. Allot around 45 minutes to an hour for this easy and family-friendly hike.

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Circle Trail (Pipestone National Monument, MN)

Circle Trail, Pipestone National Monument, July 2022

Pipestone National Monument in southwest Minnesota preserves the site of an active pipestone quarry used by the Sioux and other American Indian tribes to craft famed “peace pipes” popularized by groups in the northern plains of the United States. The Sioux Quartzite that predominates in the park dates to the Proterozoic eon, forming a line of bluffs rising to 20-30 feet above the tallgrass prairie, at one point forming a drainage that produces Winnewissa Falls, a pretty 20-foot plunge. The area thus mixes natural beauty with historic significance and is best experienced on the ¾-mile Circle Trail, the main walk in the park.

Map of Circle Trail, Pipestone National Monument; created using alltrails.com

The hike

At 301 acres, Pipestone National Monument is the smallest National Park Service unit in Minnesota and the only one in the southwest of the state, near the South Dakota border. Park at the Visitor Center, located about 1.5 miles from the town center in Pipestone, and enter the building for an orientation and chance to talk with active pipe makers. The Circle Trail actually begins by walking through a door out the Visitor Center heading north. (Note: If the center is closed, one can walk around the maintenance area to the north to reach the start.)

The neatly-asphalted path, running clockwise, first heads east, passing an initial, short protrusion of quartzite on the right. This speckled rock forms a thick layer dating to a sedimentation period occurring roughly 1.6 billion years ago; Minnesota contains much of the oldest exposed rock in the country.

Pipestone Creek from Circle Trail

Soon the path rounds a left-hand bend, entering a shady glen bisected by peaceful Pipestone Creek. Traverse two bridges, then continue to skirt a marshland until a short turnoff left, which offers views of the Spotted Quarry, where American Indians have mined the thin layer of pinkish pipestone, exposed in this area. The rubble pile you see ahead is composed primarily of the Sioux Quartzite, chipped away to access the desired pipestone. In winter and spring, much of this quarry is filled with water; quarriers tend to wait until late summer and fall to mine the outcrop.

After the quarry, the asphalted route bears right, reemerging into the open, and comes to a dam at the base of Lake Hiawatha, a reservoir on Pipestone Creek built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Off to the left is a field of smooth sumac, which turns a vibrant red in the fall. As an interpretive sign points out, a cottonwood tree in the distance was used in a religious ceremony called the Sun Dance.

Lake Hiawatha on Pipestone Creek

Parallel the creek as the trail approaches the quartzite cliffs, reentering a shaded section where the route splits. Head left on this minor diversion, which climbs around an outcrop called the Old Stone Face. The trail ascends to the rim of the cliffs, with a field off to the left, and soon comes to the Nicollet Marker, a stone inscription commemorating a 3-day visit by a U.S. government-sponsored exploration mission in 1838 that included famed explorer, military general, and failed presidential candidate John C. Fremont.

Nicollet Marker

Just beyond the marker is Leaping Rock, a high outcrop that was once site of a dangerous ritual: daring individuals jumped from the cliff to the rock top, 12 feet away; successful leapers would stick an arrow in the stone to celebrate their feat, but those missed sometimes paid with their lives.

Leaping Rock

Next the trail comes to the lip of Winnewissa Falls, a 20-foot waterfall visited by local residents for centuries. The moss-laden drop is easily one of the prettiest cascades in southern Minnesota.

The views are better from the bottom, so hikers should proceed down a narrow, stony path—at one point ducking below a chockstone wedged between the cliffs—and return to the main path. Proceed to the bridge below Winnewissa Falls for the best look at the waterfall.

Winnewissa Falls from below

Once ready, continue southward on the now-unpaved but pebbled trail, skirting the base of the rosy-colored cliffs. The pipestone layer is far below you at this point, concealed by the slope of the hillside. At around 0.55 miles, take a short spur left, climbing a staircase to the top of the cliffs; here is a viewpoint of a feature called The Oracle, a face-like protrusion that was traditionally significant to the tribal members who lived here.

View from The Oracle vista
Prairie from the quartzite cliffs

Return to the main trail at the base of the cliffs, proceed through a shady area, then follow the quartzite walls; this scenic stretch of around 1/10 mile is one of the best of the hike.

Pretty stretch of trail below the quartzite cliffs
Circle Trail below the quartzite cliffs

At about 6/10 mile, reach a bench on the left and set out across the tallgrass prairie, leaving the cliffs behind. The now fully paved track winds through open terrain, punctuated by one shade tree with a bench; the wild prairie is a remnant of an endangered ecosystem: the proliferation of agriculture and introduction of non-native species has made such sights relatively rare, even in the Great Plains of the Midwest.

Looking back across the prairie toward the cliffs

Come to a trail junction at about ¾ mile and stay left, coming within sight of the Visitor Center. The route quickly passes through a strip of exposed quartzite, coming to another fork, where hikers can head right to check out the Exhibit Quarry—an active quarry site where the pipestone layer is exposed—or bear left to check out additional dig sites.

Exhibit Quarry

From here it is a short walk back to the Visitor Center and parking area, completing the 8/10-mile circuit. Allow at least 45 minutes to an hour for this scenic loop, in addition to time spent in the Visitor Center.

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Mississippi National River & Recreation Area, MN

Minnehaha Falls, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, July 2022

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota are known—perhaps more so to locals than non-natives—for having one of the most extensive park systems in the country, centering largely around the mighty Mississippi River. The National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) covers a 72-mile stretch of the country’s most famous riverway, in addition to a small stretch of the Minnesota River, a prominent tributary. Places to visit along the river are abundant and varied, ranging from a 53-foot waterfall to a cold-water spring to a historic 19th century fort. The river is also dammed at several points, with floodwaters helping to sustain wetlands supporting a vibrant and recovering ecosystem. Running through the heart of a major U.S. metropolis, the MNRRA is not a place necessarily to find solitude, but the extensive biking and hiking trail network offers considerable opportunities for exploration.

See below for a photo gallery of sights within the MNRRA.

Mississippi River from Hidden Falls Regional Park
View of the Mississippi River from near Historic Fort Snelling
Rifle demonstration at Fort Snelling
Fort Snelling from the ramparts
Minnehaha Falls
St. Anthony Falls Dam – there used to be a natural waterfall here, the only on the Mississippi
The Mississippi from Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis
Coon Rapids Dam, upriver from Minneapolis
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Cascade Falls & Falls Bluff Trail Loop (City of Osceola, WI)

Cascade Falls, Osceola, July 2022

Osceola, Wisconsin, situated on the St. Croix River and border with Minnesota, is a charming small town that is a popular day trip for Twin Cities residents. It owes its destination status in part to the natural landscapes immediately surrounding it, from the high bluffs to the gentle riverside to the surprisingly robust Cascade Falls, a 25-foot waterfall visible from the town center. The best of these natural surroundings can be explored on the moderately-challenging Falls Bluff Trail Loop, actually a network of three paths—the Cascade Falls, Eagle Bluff, and Simenstad Trails—that be combined to make for a short but surprisingly rugged outing. (Note: As of summer 2022, the quickest route to Cascade Falls—a 135-step staircase—was closed for rehabilitation, but the falls are still accessible by way of a roundabout (and more scenic) jaunt that ascends and descends Eagle Bluff, on the west flank of town.)

Map of Falls Bluff Trail Loop

The hike

Wilke Glen and Cascade Falls are usually accessible by way of a short but steep staircase that drops from the corner of Route 35 and 1st Ave in Osceola. However, as of summer 2022, this section was closed, requiring that visitors to the falls re-route on a track that swings to the south of Osceola Road (Route 243) before entering the glen from its mouth. This is a bit frustrating, as one can see Cascade Falls from the sidewalk, through a break in the trees—but the reroute requires a diversion considerably out of the way to get to the base of the chute.

(Part of) Cascade Falls from the town above

While the closure makes the journey certainly more inconvenient, the advantage is that the crowds thin considerably, and the extra effort affords nice vistas in itself. (Note: Even on a busy weekday in summer, when the town was bustling with visitors, I had Cascade Falls to myself.) To start on the detour route, walk south along Route 35 (N. Cascade Road), passing the Watershed Café, and cross Osceola Road to the south side, where there are elaborate and hokey signs (and a map) indicating the start of the Falls Bluff Trail Loop, perhaps the natural crown jewel of Osceola. (Note: As a slight detour, one can also follow the paved path behind the Watershed Café, crossing a bridge over Osceola Creek and a minor drop called Geiger Falls.)

Follow the trail that begins here, ascending an initial staircase as it enters the dense woods and reaches a gravel road. Follow the gravel track as it ascends the upland above Osceola, then look for a marked singletrack trail heading right: this is the Eagle Bluff Trail, which eventually connects with the Cascade Falls Trail.

The Eagle Bluff Trail is a surprisingly rugged and challenging route, climbing a root-laden slope before flattening off for a brief period, in sight of a water tower on the left. Occasional window views through the trees offer a distant look at the brick facades of downtown Osceola, with the fairgrounds and baseball fields beyond. At 3/10 mile, take a right at the fork, beginning a sharp descent that includes a steep switchback requiring careful footing. As the route drops down a level, it skirts what appears to be a 3-foot-deep sinkhole (likely the remains of a root system) before continuing on, in the direction of Osceola Creek and the St. Croix River.

Eagle Bluff Trail

Soon the descent resumes, and the noisy car sounds of Route 243 grow louder and brasher. Once down in the floodplain, the slope finally eases, and hikers reach a signed junction; bear left at the next two junctions, following a short spur to check out a modest viewpoint, with obscured views of the St. Croix River.

Obscured vista

Return to the main trail and head straight, following the signs for the falls. Stay left at a subsequent fork, dropping to a point that is level with the river and directly under the Highway 243 Bridge. Even with the sound of traffic overhead, the river bank is peaceful, teeming with the sounds of insects, frogs, and birds. Edge your way eastward to the start of Wilke Glen and mouth of Osceola Creek, a perennial stream fed by Cascade Falls.

Under the bridge where Osceola Creek meets the St. Croix River

Here hikers will find another large trail map, and the Cascade Falls Trail begins, paralleling the Osceola Creek drainage upstream. Follow the pretty singletrack as it traverses two short bridges, then three more in quick succession, also skirting a rock slide on the right. The route culminates with a longer bridge and boardwalk, traversing the main creek and ending at a clearing just below the thundering falls.

Approaching Cascade Falls

Cascade Falls is an impressive sight, not least because of its considerable volume and multiple chutes. A picnic table offers a place to sit and take in the view, while brave visitors can walk up to the mist of the falls and the varnished alcove behind it. The St. Croix River area boasts a handful of waterfalls, mostly on the Wisconsin side, but there is arguably none better than this one. The roundabout route to get to the base of a waterfall that was visible from the city above is well worth the trip.

Close-up of Cascade Falls
Cascade Falls and picnic table

But the hike is not over yet; even though hikers have to retrace their steps, there is more to see in the area. Return to the mouth of the Osceola, bear left, and return to the Eagle Bluff Trail, climbing steeply back to the wooded upland. This time, however, after reaching the top, bear right on the Simenstad Trail, which forms a longer loop around the circumference of the bluffs.

Views of the St. Croix from the Simenstad Trail

About 200 feet above the valley floor, hikers are quickly rewarded with a series of excellent viewpoints overlooking the St. Croix Riverway. Vistas extend well upstream, past the 243 Bridge and Osceola Boat Landing to the islands and woody uplands beyond. One can also see a little bit downstream, although views are more obstructed by the heavy forest thicket.

Looking up the St. Croix River

After enjoying several viewpoints in quick succession, bear left on the Simenstad Trail, ignoring the red blazes continuing straight along the cliff’s edge. The onward path moves away from the river, winding slowly southward and eastward, replacing the old views with a less-than-exciting new look down to a depot, warehouses, and the Osceola railway station.

The Simenstad Trail soon turns from a singletrack to a wide gravel road, the same encountered earlier in the hike. Head downhill on this path, with the incline picking up toward the end. After passing the start of the Eagle Bluff Trail on the left, retrace your steps from an hour previously, dropping down to the trailhead and garden area behind the BP station. From here one can cross Osceola Road and pass the Watershed Café to return to the start.

When the wooden staircase down to the falls is reopened, one can truncate this extended loop, making for a considerably shorter hike. But for now, the alternative route is still worthy of one’s time, featuring bluff views, riverside walks, and a beautiful waterfall all in less than a 2-mile span.

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Summit Rock, Echo Canyon, & River Bluff Trail Loop (Interstate Park, WI)

Summit Rock Trail, Interstate Park, July 2022

Centuries upon centuries of freezing, thawing, and riverine erosion have carved the Dalles of the St. Croix, a basalt gorge that is one of the main natural attractions on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border and a popular destination for visitors from the Twin Cities and beyond. The St. Croix River separates the two states—and two “interstate” parks—with the east side including more acreage and arguably better trail network. Wisconsin’s Interstate Park boasts glacial potholes, waterfalls, high cliffs, and pretty Lake O’ the Dalles—much of which can be seen on this 1.25-mile hike, combining the Summit Rock, Echo Canyon, and River Bluff Trails. Lace up your boots for this surprisingly challenging and very rocky jaunt, one of the best in the park.

Map of Summit Rock, Echo Canyon, and River Bluff Trail Loop, Interstate Park, created using alltrails.com

The hike

Head south from St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin and bear west on Park Road, the main thoroughfare in Interstate Park. Plan to stay on the winding road for about 2.5 miles; just before the beach at Lake O’ the Dalles, bear right and park at the small roadside parking lot for the Summit Rock Trail. South of the narrowest point in the gorge, the Summit Rock Trail explores a perched bluff area above the Dalles, offering the best views of the St. Croix River on the hike.

The trail begins by climbing a stone staircase, entering the Dalles of the St. Croix River State Natural Area. The first junction comes at around 100 yards into the hike, and visitors should bear right to see the best views. Make your way through a passage with a mossy basalt outcrop on the left, then climb another narrow staircase as the singletrack comes to a flattop overlooking the Dalles of the St. Croix. This is the most impressive gorge along the St. Croix drainage, though it is visibly dammed upstream. The uplands beyond are part of the quaint towns of Taylors Falls, Minnesota and St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, largely hidden by the dense deciduous tree cover.

View down to the Dalles from Summit Rock

After this initial overlook, head west as the Summit Rock Trail crests its namesake, following a creaky wooden staircase with railings. Additional views can be had from the trail’s high point, although tall pines partly obscure the vista.

After dropping down another wooden stairway, a variety of trails—laden with pine needles—seem to head off in all directions except right, where the basalt cliffs drop more than 60 feet to the river below. Generally stay on the most evident path, which parallels the bluff, with views largely obscured by the dense pine thicket.

Soon the Summit Rock Trail turns away from the river, finding a break in the cliffs and descending steeply to a junction at 3/10 mile. Head right, then descend additional stairs and bear right again at the next, unmarked fork. By now, hikers are on the graveled Echo Canyon Trail, a confusing track with few views of the river but surprises around every corner amid the labyrinth of basalt notches and outcrops. At around 4/10 mile, look for an arrow pointing left and follow it, avoiding the temptation to drop down what seems like the main trail heading for the riverbank. (Note: If you are approaching the St. Croix by way of a steep descent, this is the wrong way!)

Continue to the base of a massive basalt sentinel and rock pile, then move further away from the river and up a canyon with high walls on the right. One can begin to spot the lake ahead through the trees. Descend to the north shores of Lake O’ the Dalles, where the Echo Canyon Trail ends. Bear right on the Lake O’ the Dalles Trail, which encircles the still 25-acre lake popular with anglers.

Lake O’ the Dalles

In less than a half a minute, however, another trail heads off back into the woods—this is the River Bluff Trail, the final of the trio of intersecting trails on the hike. Follow the narrow path as it heads up steps again, then comes to a flat and marshy area on the left and approaches the confluence of two canyons. Follow the hiker signs, going up the left drainage, returning to the bluffs high above the St. Croix River. The views here are also obscured, but the tall cliffs of the Minnesota side remain visible (and occasionally dotted with hikers and climbers).

Follow the river westward, with gravel returning to mark the onward trail, and then bear south as the track leaves the St. Croix behind. Descend to an opening, where the River Bluff Trail ends and intersects with Park Road, a stone’s throw from the River Bottoms Picnic Area and Boat Launch. As the trail disappears, simply head left along the road, returning to the shores of the lake, where the Lake O’ the Dalles Trail can be found again.

Views from the River Bluff Trail

Heading left on this trail, the route passes a small fishing pier and returns to the start of the River Bluff and Echo Canyon Trails in quick succession. This time stay straight on the Lake O’ the Dalles Trail, a level and easy track. Enjoy views of the lake as you approach the beach area. Just before the beach house, bear left and find a staircase that leads up to a small picnic area with grills. From here, take a right to return to the parking area and Summit Rock Trailhead, completing the 1.25-mile walk.

Lake O’ the Dalles
Fishing pier at Lake O’ the Dalles
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