Little Yellowstone in Minnesota

The max distance is four hours from our house. Theoretically, that means eight hours in the car, but it’s more than that because our plans are loose. A while back my husband and I decided that we wanted to see more of Minnesota. Through family inheritance, he and his siblings own a family cabin in northern Minnesota and we have traveled the North Shore from Duluth up to Grand Marais quite a few times with ski weekends at Lutsen and workshops at North House Folk School. We even made an Ely trip which you can read about here.

Minnesota is a long state from top to bottom and very diverse in geological features. For an easy visualization, the Pine Belt runs from northwest to southeast along the I-94 corridor. There are multiple continental divides in Minnesota; not every watershed drains into the mighty Mississippi and the ancient Sawtooth Mountains along Lake Superior paint a very different picture from the verdant big-sky prairie in southern Minnesota. We decided we must go see our home state.

Our perspective is that we prefer to seek out unique, local sites, eat lunch or dinner at the local saloon and sleep in our own bed at the end of the day. Enter the four-hour criteria. Sunday is reserved for house stuff, R&R and planning for the next week.

The junket I’m writing about here took place on a foggy Saturday in August. The weather turned sunny and warm as you’ll see by the photos, but being the intrepid day travelers, we left about 9:00 a.m. and arrived in Redwood Falls about 11:30 a.m. Here’s our route via Google Maps:

We don’t just hop into the car and flip a coin. There is a little bit of research done prior to the day, so we can set a primary destination and dig into some cool side trips. There are always places that pop up and decisions to turn left or right. We’ve noticed that we find ourselves on US Hwy 71 quite often. Because Hwy 71 goes through several towns that are a part of Midwest Fiber Arts Trails communities, I have dubbed it the cultural spine of western Minnesota. It traverses all the ‘W’ towns—Windom, Willmar and Wadena. Further up north, the road goes through Park Rapids and my favorite up north town of Bemidji, where it hooks a right and culminates in Ft. Francis on the Canadian border. So, it was no surprise that Redwood Falls is on Hwy 71 and we were there.

Our route from Minneapolis took us along the top of the prairie, so excitement took hold when we located Alexander Ramsey City Park (the largest city park in Minnesota) in Redwood Falls and immediately dropped into a river gorge.  The park is super nice with maps and paved trails (for easy accessibility). We started our hike at the bottom of the park and went to the top and back down again. I didn’t keep time, but it’s about an hour or more. The falls is along Ramsey Creek, not the Redwood River as we assumed. Although I haven’t looked up the weather data, there was a lot of washout and debris along the trail and river banks from recent rains and flooding.

We began our hike right by the zoo, which I have to say that animals in pens is not my favorite view, but then travelled across this amazing granite block bridge built by the Works Progress Administration back in 1938.  We went left on the trail and walked along the Redwood River to the confluence with Ramsey Creek. No falls. We located an excellent park sign with a map that directed us up and on to the fall’s trail. The trail was steep. Really steep and paved in new concrete. Honestly, if was with small children on bikes, I wouldn’t let them fly down that path.

The tagline to Ramsey Falls is “Little Yellowstone of Minnesota.” From the observation deck directly across from the falls, it’s totally believable! The pines that grow out of the yellow rock face and form a backdrop against the blue sky definitely gave off an ‘out west’ vibe. We continued the trail loop and found ourselves back at the bridge by the parking lot.

Next on the agenda was food! We were disappointed downtown Redwood Falls didn’t offer much in the way of dining, but also that so many of the storefronts were empty. We located Duffy’s Saloon down in the Redwood River valley. We were one of the few patrons in a car as most people cruised in via motorcycle.

My husband’s last name is Wilder and this is Laura Ingalls Wilder territory. He’s related in some several generations-back-twice-removed sort of way. Not anything that he’d lay claim to, but I read those books when I was a girl and thought it might be fun to see where Ingalls’ family dugout stood on the banks of Plum Creek. We headed south on Hwy 71 for about twenty miles to US Hwy 14.  As I’m musing about sod houses, oxen and long prairie dresses with schooner hats—behold—at the junction of two US highways in the middle of the country, stood a DQ. Not just a drive up, but a full-on Grill ‘n’ Chill with cars in the parking lot. Now we really did have to make a choice. Right to Walnut Grove and the museum or left to the Sod House Farm which boasted a restored prairie.

The restored prairie won out. It’s the back 20 acres or so behind the McCone family farmstead. Beginning in 1982, Stan built the sod houses, outhouse and buildings and they began to restore the prairie from a farm field. Notice, the paper describing the Laura Ingalls Wilder dugout. It’s not there anymore, only a marker along Plum Creek, so it proved a good decision to make a left back at the DQ.

The frontier homes were literally dug from the ground using a sod cutter. Prairie Soddy is the biggest of the two shelters and made with 350,000 pounds of sod. That metric is irrelevant to me except that 350,000 of anything is staggering. The walls are two feet thick and I can imagine the pioneer winters were snug but sooty. I really loved walking through the prairie. Some of the grasses grew as high as my shoulder and many varieties of flowers bloomed all over. By this time the sky was cloudless, and the air was warm.

Back at the farmhouse, we chatted with Mrs. McCone and saw a litter of Calicos and Tabbies tumbling and playing under her front porch. Comfortable being around humans, but not as comfortable as house cats, they reminded me of my own Henry. A Mother’s Day gift from my kids, Henry lived in a cat colony as a kitten. After a year of living with us, he’s thinking about jumping up on our laps. Oh, yes, we did cruise back to DQ for a treat!

Scoping the map, Rob pipes up and suggests we go through New Ulm and see Hermann the German. I gave him a sideways glance that conveyed two messages. How does he know about this and why don’t I know? The adventure continues! New Ulm, home of Schell Brewery, is a town focused on its German heritage and this huge rotunda and copper statue is evidence. The Hermann Monument, as it’s officially known, is the third largest copper statue in the US. The State of Liberty is the largest followed by Portlandia in Portland, OR. But that’s not all! This statue celebrates the victory of German tribes over the Romans in the famous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Yes, you read that correctly. 9 A.D. or C.E. Either way, it’s two millennia ago. Hermann is the man who got it all done. According to the pamphlet I picked up on site, Roman taxation and jurisdiction policies angered the freedom loving Germans. The Legend of Hermann, freedom fighter and enemy of Roman tyranny, continues to live on in German folklore and in New Ulm, Minnesota. Rob climbed all the way to the top and took this excellent pano of the Minnesota River valley.

Thinking it was time to head back, we made a brief stop at the brewery to pick up some local but were told that while we could have a freebie in the biergarten, we’d have to buy a six pack at Hy-Vee. Ready to call it a day, we decided to have a beer at home.

Top of Hermann Monument

Minnesota River Valley pano by Rob.

Links to all the places we visited: