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

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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2 Responses to Circle Trail (Pipestone National Monument, MN)

  1. hannahgcrocker54 says:

    I live on the west coast..You used to post more hiking trails for out here.Now you are posting trails only in theMidwest, which is great but not so relevant to me.Is there any way I could get trails for the West?Sincerely,Hannah CrockerSent via the Samsung Galaxy S22 5G, an AT&T 5G smartphone

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